Thursday, July 31, 2008

Helsinki Basics

Helsinki is a city of about half a million people. It's extremely clean, quiet, uncrowded, and gorgeous in the Summer. For some reason I thought it would have a lot of modern architecture, but most of what I've seen so far is in that kind of "Imperial" style that I know from Vienna and from pictures of St. Petersburg. I started out this morning by walking down to the Market Square and browsing the good-sized Farmer's Market there. The berries were plentiful and gorgeous, and there were stalls selling all kinds of grilled and fried fish. There were some typical totchke vendors (shot glasses, magnets, t-shirts) and also a number of arts and crafts people. One artisan makes trays and serving utensils out of steel, sandblasted with modern designs, another had bowls made of birch, others had fur hats and winter accessories like mittens and woolen socks.

I've never been in a Russian Orthodox church, so I climbed the hill above the market
to visit Uspenski Kathedralen. I believe that this is the largest Russian Orthodox church outside of Russia. The inside was full of very colorful paintings and ornate icons trimmed with gold and silver. I found out that the "onion" domes on top of these churches represent flames.

There were a lot of people inside lighting candles placed near the various icons. My favorite feature of the inside of the church is that the interior of the main dome is painted with stars. I like that you can look up at the highest point of the church and see "heaven." It was very lovely and even peaceful, considering how many people were milling about taking photos.

When I boarded the bus for my afternoon tour of the city, I noticed something extremely interesting:

As you can see, the bus tour is even offered in Latin. And you thought that was a dead language. I should have tuned in to hear what it sounded like....

The most interesting stop on tour was Temppeliaukio Kirkko, also known as the "Church of the Rock." The architect brothers who designed it decided to quarry into the hill of rock at the site rather than blast it all away, and the result is a very beautiful, very modern yet very "organic" church. The interior dome is made of a sort of woven copper wire, and seems to float above the ground.

After following a self-guided walking tour for a couple of hours, I stopped at the Ateneum Art Museum. The main draw there was the exhibition of paintings by Finland's foremost artist, Pekka Halonen. My favorite works of his are his paintings of the Finnish forests in winter. They're sort of impressionistic, and sort of like Japanese woodblock prints, and evoke my own memories of the woods in New Hampshire. Trees are covered with soft mounds of snow, branches bending down to the ground, everything is very still and quiet and calm. The Ateneum is not a huge museum, it took me about an hour and a half to survey it all. By this time my feet were killing me and my jet lag was in full swing so I stopped by a supermarket to pick up something for dinner and headed back to my comfy hotel room for a long soak in the very deep bathtub.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Le Fin des Landes

Supposedly "Finland" got its name from Medieval French sailors, who called it "the end of the lands." I don't know if they meant it based on land features, or based on distance, but to me it's more like "the end of the Earth." In other words, it was a long trip. Despite a strike at Lufthansa, my flights ran reasonably on time and completely without anything remarkable happening, unless you count seeing the sun set twice in the same day. We left Munich at dusk, with the sun slipping below the horizon. There was a good bit of cloud cover over central Germany, but as we got clear of it over the Baltic Sea I noticed the sun was back in the sky again, and witnessed a very long slow second sunset. We landed in Helsinki at about 11:30pm, and the last rays of daylight were fading -- but not enough to notice any stars.

I started wondering if there were any great Scandinavian astronomers from back before people could and did travel everywhere: what kind of observations could they make in a land where it doesn't get dark enough to see the stars for several months out of the year? But then, what kind of observations could they make in a land where it's very dark indeed for several months of the year? I can't imagine what it would be like to live this far north. Sure, Summer is warm and glorious right now (high 70's), but in the winter it can get down to the negative teens!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

For the Want of $1.50....

I'm heading off to another "-land" right now: Finland. I have this goal to go to every country that ends in "-land" in English. However, for the want of $1.50 I might have missed my flight. I was all packed up and ready to go and I realized that all I had in my wallet was a bunch of $20's. I needed change to take the bus to BART so I could take BART to the airport...thank goodness my synchronized-swimming neighbor Bob came through, I made it to the airport right on time and am now enjoying a drink in the Red Carpet Club before boarding my flight to Munich. Today San Francisco, tomorrow Helsinki!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

It's a Nice Day for a White Wedding Cake

Taking advantage of California's all-inclusive marriage laws, last week my ex-dance-partner Kyle married Michael, his boyfriend of nine years. I decided to throw them a dinner party to celebrate, and inquired as to what type of cake they wanted. It came down to a white cake, with lemon filling, and buttercream frosting. I cracked open my Betty Crocker Cookbook and followed the directions for the "Silver White Cake."

Much to my dismay, it came out flat and rubbery, like an overgrown sugar cookie. It was then I realized that not only had my baking powder expired two years ago, but also that I had used jumbo eggs rather than large, which resulted in there just being too much egg white in the batter.

No problem, I thought, I'll just buy more baking powder and start again. Sadly, once again, it came out flat and sort of rubbery. At this point I kind of panicked, and decided to use a store-bought white cake mix. I was feeling kind of angry at Betty for her cookbook failing me twice, so I chose Duncan Hines mix over Better Crocker and Pillsbury. I followed the directions exactly, and when it came out of the oven . . . it was still kind of flat, but at least it had good texture and wasn't rubbery. I wonder if there's something goofy with my baking pans: they are non-stick stainless steel, which does not seem to appear on any list of good baking pans that I've seen.

When all was said and done, the came was yummy, with homemade lemon curd and buttercream frosting. I wished the layers would have baked up higher, though.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Down to Brass Tacks

Okay, so the purpose of this blog wasn't to chronicle my dancing successes (or lack thereof), but rather to just freakin' write. It's time I just sat down and blathered for a while.

Tonight I'm watching the premiere of "The Gong Show with Dave Attell." I'm old enough to recall the original "Gong Show," hosted by purported CIA-undercover-operative Chuck Barris (see "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"). I loved that show when I was a kid, because it was completely wacky, had adult humor that I didn't get but still knew was funny, and most of all because of the big brass gong.

So far the reincarnation doesn't disappoint. It's even campier than the first, with an even snarkier host. Dave Attell is a kind of regular guy who drinks too much, smokes too much, stays up too late, and has too much fun all while having a slightly misanthropic view of the Universe. His judges are the insanely hot rocker Dave Navarro, the insanely annoying Andy Dick, and the just plain insane JB Smoove.

Acts included a magician who pulled a rabbit (bloody) out of his stomach, a burlesque girl named Trixie who popped out of a volcano, and a guy looking like Thomas Dolby crossed with a homeless person playing my favorite quickstep, "Istanbul Not Constantinople" on glasses partially filled with water. (So far he appears to be winning, but then I wasn't paying attention to Trixie's scores because I was still getting over Dave smoking on camera after the midget wrestling.)

God this show is AWESOME. Comedy Central, Wednesdays at 10pm.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Video Ga Ga

More video from Desert Classic, this time the Open Pro/Am Standard Scholarship "B":

I have to say, I'm kind of boring myself here. The dancing is nice and all, but that's all it is. I show no particular spark or fire, and I'm wondering what to do with myself between now and the next competition to improve it. Maybe it was just comp burn-out, maybe I'm such a dance nerd that I can't get past the technical aspects, maybe I was just off because the event ran early and I panicked because my teacher wasn't in the ballroom when they started calling our event to the floor.

Anyway, something has to change because I'm feeling a little pointless as a dancer. Also, as lovely as my dress is, I'm kind of getting sick of it. Yeah yeah, whine whine whine....

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dancing in the Desert

I'm now at the end of my dance competition mini-marathon: three competitions in four weeks. Compared to professionals chasing a title, and the big Pro/Am heavy hitters, this is nothing, but for me it was a big deal. My third comp in this cycle was the Desert Classic, in Palm Desert (next to Palm Springs). My best dancing was in a somewhat odd multi-dance event. What made it odd was that we only had to dance Waltz, Tango, and Foxtrot, and that they played the music for a very short amount of time.

We finished third out of six couples, our best result of the day. I'm not sure if this looks any better or worse than the other competitions we danced in this month-long competition binge -- I really feel like I want to take a day or two off, then get back and have several weeks in the studio to work on my dancing and several weeks at home to work on my fitness level.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Uh oh!

Ooops, I haven't posted in a while. I guess talking about myself is boring even me. Or that I've been busy. Or both.

In late June I went to Denver, Colorado, to dance in the Colorado Star Ball. It went wonderfully well, we came in second in the Open Pro/Am "A" Scholarship (warning -- something is wrong with how I edited the video, and the audio got out of synch...I'll try to fix it at some point but in the meantime believe me when I say that we were dancing on time!):

Two weeks later I went to New York City to work the Fancy Foods Show for Charles Chocolates, and then to dance in the Manhattan DanceSport Championships. The field was much larger and stronger there, 22 couples entered, and we came in 10th (also audio synch issues here):

Working the Fancy Foods show was a ton of fun. Imagine a gourmet grocery like Balducci's or Dean and De Luca as large as the Javits Center. There were all kinds of makers of fancy sauces, baking mixes, drinks, just went on and on...and there were so many chocolatiers. My job was to hang out around the booth all day, entice people to try the chocolates, and answer their questions. Unlike some booths, ours was large and roomy. The product was set up on self-serve trays on a very large table that people could walk around. Everything was labeled with a description card, plus we were there to describe and explain things. I felt like I was at the show with the "in" crowd, because our booth always had a lot of traffic and people were raving about how beautiful everything looked and how wonderful the chocolates tasted. I would so love to do something like this again!