Санкт-Петербург

•May 1, 2013 • 5 Comments

I have never appreciated Helsinki more than when I arrived back here on Sunday afternoon after two and a half days in St. Petersburg, Russia. St. Petersburg is known as the cultural capital of Russia. Many of the American exchange students say it reminds them of Detroit. A ghetto, that is. I haven’t been to Detroit, but I find myself agreeing with them.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I had a wonderful time in St. Petersburg. I would even like to go back there; to spend some time living in such a different environment. The city is full of beautiful old buildings. However, unlike Helsinki – parts of which were built to look like St. Petersburg in it’s prime – St. Petersburg has not been taken care of, and the buildings look like sad, broken reminders of a better time. Anyhow, I’m having difficulty putting my feelings towards this city, and Russia in general, into words. So I think I will tell you more about what we got up to there instead, and maybe it will help me become more eloquent.

Imagine a bus full of exchange students, it’s not a pretty sight. Although we are all beautiful, me especially. Now imagine three buses of exchange students, all headed to Russia. Now stop using your imagination. That’s not allowed in Russia. Having crossed the border, a surprisingly painless procedure, I expect it’s more difficult to get to the States from Canada (As someone who has actually crossed the American border just let me know, it’s less of a hassle than the Russian one). Having crossed the border, the roads suddenly decreased drastically in quality and we found ourselves bumping along a skinny highway with no shoulders and trash in the ditch all the way from the Russian border to St. Petersburg.

You can’t drink the tap water in Russia. So we stopped at a gas station so everyone could buy some bottled water for the trip. Prices in Russia are only a fraction of that in Finland, I think I’ll drive there for my shopping from now on. (One Euro is approximately 40 Russian Rubles, I had a lot of Rubles). After bumping along this road for some hours we came to St. Petersburg.

The Hermitage museum is one of the largest and most famous art museums in the world. It is housed within the Winter Palace along with additional buildings made specifically for the museum. Unfortunately we were unceremoniously rushed through by our tour guide, stopping to see only the most famous sights. It is said that if you took one minute to appreciate each piece of art in the museum, you would spend eleven years before you’d seen them all. Frankly, I’m not sure I would like to spend eleven years there, or even go back again at all. Art museums can be very nice, Paris has some delightful ones which I could go back to again and again. The Hermitage is not one of these. Of course it has very nice art in it, a magnificent collection in fact. However, the Winter Palace in which it is collected is the most disgustingly gaudy flaunting of extreme wealth I have ever seen. Gold leaf is tastelessly applied to pretty much everything, one room alone has forty kilos of the stuff, covering pillars, chandeliers, double headed eagles, and the roof. I personally wouldn’t recommend The Hermitage, you could save yourself the expense of a trip to Russia and just pour molten gold over your head. (Don’t try that at home, I hear it kills you and allows your sister to usurp your plans and run off to dilly-dally around fighting some silly war with slave traders.)

We also visited the Kunstkamera, also know as Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. This was a much nicer building than The Hermitage, and also a very interesting museum. It seems that Peter the Great (who also founded St. Petersburg, although it’s named after the Saint, not the Emperor) had an interest in very odd things. The museum has a massive collection of deformed and mutated babies which he collected from all over Russia and put in jars. This was probably the strangest, most disturbing thing I have ever seen in my life. Absolutely fascinating, yes. And also absolutely disgusting. We weren’t able to take pictures of that exhibition, but I’m sure if you google Kunstkamera you can see these pickled babies in all your glory. If you’re into that kind of thing. Much less disturbing, although equally interesting was the collection of astronomy equipment, including a massive globe with a globe of the stars painted on the inside. Ten people can sit in it, and then the globe rotates, mimicking the actual movement of the stars. Unfortunately it was not available for public use, and we could only observe it and imagine how incredible it would be to experience.

One night there we saw Russian folk dancing, which was incredible. The other night we saw a ballet, which was not. The folk dancing, with accompanying folk music, immediately made me think of this scene from Fiddler on the Roof. The best way to describe it is as ‘very Russian’ and hopefully you will get the picture. It was an energetic and extremely impressive performance. The ballet we saw, well I can’t even remember it’s name. It is the first ballet I’ve ever seen, and I went in with high hopes. However, I think we got the short end of the stick when it came to quality. It was entirely uninteresting. There was none of the incredible feats of human ability which are so often associated with ballet, it was merely an hour of people spinning in circles. I was unimpressed. I still hope one day to see a true, high-quality ballet production, and I will endeavour not to let this one flop mar my opinion of the art form as a whole.

If you’ve ever been on a bus tour, you know that it is an awful way to see a city. Shuttled from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, photo-op to photo-op with a couple minutes at each to grab your snapshots before you’re back on the bus, rushing to the next one. This is how we spent half of our second day there. Of course, the bus was full of amazing exchange students, so it was still a wonderful time. We saw all the sights of St. Petersburg, and I’ll tell you more about them later alongside my photographs. (If I can remember what any of the things are!)

In our free time to roam the city as we pleased, I managed to not get pick-pocketed or hit by a car. So that was a plus. Did I mention the traffic is just awful. There are no lines on the roads, people drive where they wish, and some of my comrades witnessed, the probably typical, sight of a couple getting hit by a car. So that was nice. Luckily I was elsewhere eating kebab from the worst looking restaraunt possible. Naturally, the food was amazing, and my goal of getting food-poisoning was thankfully unfulfilled (maybe I should have drank the water).

Now, it probably sounds like I’m being very negative about this whole experience. So I want to make it clear that, although St. Petersburg is a poor excuse for a modern, cultural city, and Russia is a poor excuse for a country. I absolutely loved my time there, and I would go back in an instant. Especially if I had the opportunity to live there and try to experience and understand what it is actually like to live in such a place.

Click on the first photo to view. You can then go through them with the arrows, and scroll down for a description of each. Enjoy!

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Stockholm Syndrome

•February 6, 2013 • 1 Comment

Don’t worry, I haven’t been kidnapped. In this case I’m redefining Stockholm Syndrome to mean: Using only the second-hand film camera you recently bought to take pictures whilst in Stockholm. Then accidentally ruining the entire roll of film and losing all your pictures from the trip. I love my new camera, and I’m sure it takes wonderful photos, but I’ll need to learn how to use the film rewind without breaking things if I ever want to see the fruits of my labours.

Camera problems aside, my recent trip to Sweden’s capital was a great success. I took the ferry there with my host family. Admittedly I don’t know much about ferries, but I’d say this one which goes overnight between Helsinki and Stockholm is quite nice. To my inexperienced eye it seems absolutely massive, like a cruise ship. Inside there are restaurants, nightclubs, a casino, and most importantly for many people, tax-free shopping. We spent both voyages, there and back, taking advantage of the ships various amenities. There was live music to watch, a dance troupe, and karaoke (which was very interesting as most people were singing classic Finnish songs which I did not know).

The ferry arrived in Stockholm on Saturday morning, and left in the late afternoon, so we didn’t have a huge amount of time to explore the capital. We started in the Old City, full of small cobblestone streets and old, beautiful buildings. An old, historic area like that is the one thing that I think Helsinki is lacking, so it was very nice to see. The Stockholm Cathedral was a very lavish, beautiful church, which set it very much apart from Finland’s very basic, unadorned churches.

We spent much of our time shopping at the many stores all conveniently located along one massive pedestrian street. Being there with both my host mother and host sister meant that we went into every single shoe store we passed. I didn’t mind, I was busy taking pictures that would never see the light of day (actually, they saw too much of the light of day).

Only part of a day was far too short a time to spend in such an interesting, cultural city, but it was a start. On the flip-side, part of a day was far too short a time for Stockholm to have been graced by my presence.

Thanks for reading! I’m always happy (and surprised, admittedly) by how many people are reading this, and how many people are actually enjoying it and think I’m a good writer. I don’t want to insult your taste, but seriously? Thank you and whatnot!

 

Your Saviour Has Returned

•January 17, 2013 • 1 Comment

“You’re late,” you may be thinking.

“A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.”

However, I must admit that I am no wizard, and I appear to be a couple of months late in updating this blog thingy of mine. So much stuff has been happening that I could be posting something new and interesting several times a week, but for some reason I lost the inclination to write about things for a while there. Now, however, I am seized with the desire to bring y’all up to date with my situation.

Big things have happened since November, so I suppose I’ll start at the beginning: Lapland

Lapland is the Northern area of the Nordic countries, way up in the cold dark North, and they decided to send all the Rotary exchange students in Finland up there for a week. We stayed near the town of Muonio, deep within the Arctic Circle, and too close for comfort to the Swedish border. ~150 exchange students were packed into 4 buses for the long drive there (16 hours in my case), luckily when you’re surrounded by such amazing people, even that length of journey is an amazing time.Our time in Lapland was simply terrific. The first couple days were spent skiing, some downhill and some cross-country (I choose cross country as it was less expensive and the ski hills here are a bit smaller then I’m used too). As well as skiing we spent our time at the ski hill sledding and just generally frolicking in the snow. Despite the temperature being -15 to -20 (not really that cold actually) I never wanted to go inside. Even though I’ve lived with snow and cold all my life, it wasn’t until now that I realized how much I love the winter. I think I might become one of those people who travels so that I’m always where there is snow.
We also got to go dog sledding, rode in a reindeer sleigh and learned about the Sami (natives to Lapland). The only thing missing from the trip was the Northern Lights. Despite being very, very far North, and the lack of light pollution, the Aurora Borealis decided not to show itself.

I made a little video of the various animal pulled modes of transportation.

I’ve been taking fewer, and worse, photos lately, but here are a few from Lapland. The ski hill at 10 in the morning or so, some snow and the Swedish border, which was just minutes from where we were staying.

 

Here you can see the sun setting in Lapland. At two in the afternoon.

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New Host Family

Almost immediately after Lapland, I moved to my second host family, Mikko and Pirjo Torala. They are amazing, which is good since I’ll be staying with them for the rest of my exchange. The best part is that they are very dedicated to helping me learn Finnish. Whilst many exchange students families are mainly speaking English, because it makes things easier, Mikko and Pirjo have the incredible patience to speak mainly Finnish, and put up with my slow understanding and awkward speaking.

Christmas

Christmas was delightfully white here in Helsinki, a foot and a half of snow or so. The Christmas traditions here are very nice. Finns celebrate on Christmas Eve, which I’m already used too ’cause my family in Canada are crazy or something. The main Christmas food is a big salty ham. It’s delicious, but I ate it at every meal for three or four days by which point I’d had enough. My host sister Eini who lives in Turku (another Finnish city, which is often joked about, poor thing) was in Helsinki for the holidays, which was nice because she has perfect English. On Christmas Eve we went first to the graveyard to light candles on relatives graves, and then to my host Grandparents house for Christmas dinner. The dinner was amazing, as well as the ham there were various mashed vegetables and delicious raw salmon which is cured with salt and things. The best part was going to sauna, ’cause who doesn’t love a Christmas sauna? Right?

I didn’t take any photos during Christmas, but here’s one of my new haircut to make up for it.

Well, that’s more or less it since last I wrote. It’s a new year now and all continues splendidly. Rock on y’all!

A Story

•November 8, 2012 • 1 Comment

Last night I was sitting in the Helsinki Central Railway Station with my fellow Canadian Rae. As we sat there enjoying coffee and mini donuts we watched as all sorts of interesting people walked past going about their bussiness. However, not everyone subscribed to the Finnish stereotype of not talking to strangers.

A young black man can up to me and extended his hand as though for a handshake. “He must have mistaken me for someone”, I thought, and ignored him. The hand remained extended however. I shook my head at him.

“Puhutko suomea? (Do you speak Finnish?)” he asked. I shook my hand to indicated that I could kind of speak the language, so he continued in English. “When someone does this (indicating his hand), you shake it. Maybe I put something gross on it, but no, all clean. Maybe they think you’re a racist if you don’t shake, but you’re not right? I mean, maybe I smear dog shit, koira kaka, on it.” (he imitated picking up said thing and rubbing it on his hand).

Throughout this speech he kept his hand extended, except to wave it as he illustrated points. Having said what he wanted to say, his hand remained extended for a second. But when I still choose not to shake it, despite the clear lack of ‘koira kaka’ besmudging its surface, he walked off. Where he went, I’ll never know. Whose hands he tried to shake next is a mystery. What would have happened if I shook his hand rather than refusing it? No one will ever know, but he will always be remembered.

(This post may have more than a usual amount of spelling errors. This is due to it being typed on a Finnish computer which does not have English spell check. Whithout spellcheck, I am nothing)

Happenings

•October 26, 2012 • 1 Comment

It’s been almost a month since I graced the pages of this blog with my beautiful prose and exquisite photography. Fret not though, for I am returned! Today was a particularly exciting day because the weather here finally got it together and dumped some snow on Helsinki instead of all that pesky rain. I imagine some of the exchange students from more tropical areas of the world are having a surreal time seeing and touching snow for the first time in their lives, I’m just happy that Canada wasn’t hogging all the snow.

I’ve been to two concerts this month, both of which were absolutely fantastic, but probably of no interest to any of you because you have poor taste in music (I’m kidding. They ought to have a font that denotes sarcasm). I will tell you about them anyway. Firstly I saw the Swedish band Entombed. I’d never actually listened to their music before, but I was sure they would put on a great show. It turns out I was right. That was the finest concert I have ever attended. The other concert I saw was much different, it was Merzbow, a musician from Japan who makes what is known as ‘noise music’. To plebeians such as yourselves this means that his music is literally just noise, static, feedback, etc. To me, that’s also what it is, I just happen to enjoy it. Anyhoo, I should probably stop insulting everyone’s taste in music and talk about something different before you decide the abuse isn’t worth it and stop reading.

Currently there are some sort of elections going on here. Just low level stuff. However, it has actually been quite nice because the political parties are all out around Helsinki with free coffee and sometimes free food. Whichever party gave me pea soup the other day is getting my vote. Political parties aren’t the only people giving out free stuff in Helsinki though. Ever since I’ve arrived there have been very few days without companies giving out free samples in the city. I have received shampoo, gum, dip and countless mini cans of Coke.

I have nothing else to say at the moment. Except that the escalators in the Metro are very annoying because the railing/handrest thingy moves slightly faster than the stairs, so you have to move your hand back towards your body every once in a while to avoid it running away and joining the circus or something (my hand dreams of becoming a trapeze artist).

Well, if you stuck with me through all that then you can claim your reward be clicking here to see some photos I’ve taken. Peace!

 

Climbing

•September 30, 2012 • 3 Comments

Good day minions. I have recently taken up the noble sport of climbing. My friend Kristian from Germany and I muddled our way through a belaying test, so we more or less have no idea what we’re doing when it comes to safety. I kid, when you are climbing on Europe’s highest wall, you’ve gotta’ have some faint idea what you’re doing, and we have just that, a very faint idea.

You did hear (or read, I suppose) me right. Helsinki is home of Europe’s tallest climbing wall, at a whopping 30 metres high it is nothing compared to the majestic mountains that some climb. True men however, remain inside whilst getting their adrenaline rush. As well as having the tallest wall, this climbing hall features many smaller walls to climb, so we have no shortage of terrain to explore. Unfortunately we do not yet have the skill required to climb the wall’s full 30 metres, there are top ropes going 15-20m up the wall, but to reach the very top one must lead climb, which is a tad more risky and requires a more skilled belayer than either of us.

That’s me in the blue, part way up the 30m wall. The top of the rope I’m climbing is about where the other person is.

 

 

It’s About Bloody Time!

•September 29, 2012 • 1 Comment

I have just received what may be the most important piece of mail in my whole life. No, it is not 10 million dollars. What I received is in fact rather more important than that, it is my Finnish residence permit! I was unable to apply for it way back when I was in Canada because frankly, Ottawa is too far away and is hardly worth the time of a proud Albertian like me (hardy-har-har). So I applied for my residence permit upon arrival in Finland. I was fine without one until October 30th, at which point I would be deported to Canada. I applied for this silly piece of plastic over a month ago and have been waiting anxiously for it ever since (I actually completely forgot about it most of the time). It certainly is a relief to know that I am not an illegal alien anymore.

So to those of you wishing that I would be arrested by the Finnish police and deported to Canada for daring to live in Finland without a permit: Too bad! I’m here to stay. (Also, you are evil, heartless people. I hope you live in a suitably awful place.)