Friday, August 1, 2008

A Market, Finnish Design, and a Sea Fortress

The weather report called for showers today, so I planned to make it an all-museum day. After browsing the Old Market Hall and eating a delicious rye-bread-and-smoked-salmon sandwich for breakfast, I headed to the Design Museum. This month they featured a brilliantly humorous and thought-provoking collection of young Finnish artists who use a variety of mediums. The displays included clothing, oil paintings of traditionally-garbed Finns skiing with Elvis, videos of ravers (including a DJ dressed as a starfish), sculptures made of piles of pillows, and samples of gorgeous glassware. After that, I realized it wasn't going to rain, so I went back to my hotel to pick up my camera, and headed to Suomenlinna, a "Sea Fort" (Naval Base) on a large island a couple of miles from Helsinki.

Walking around on the island on a gorgeous summer day makes it tough to picture what that place was really like when it was in use. The Swedes built starting in the 1700's to keep the Russians at bay, but the Russians captured it (along with the rest of Finland) not long after it was completed. Over the years, it degenerated into a sort of garrison to park young men while serving out their compulsory military service. At one point doing the Crimean War the British sailed up to the island, ready to bombard it with their newer and more superior artillery. The people of Helsinki spent a few days taking all their valuables out of the city, thinking at least if their homes were flattened their belongings would be spared. When the fighting started, the people shortly realized that the conflict was confined to the British fleet and the Russian garrison, so they dragged out sofas and tables and chairs and sat on hilltops watching the fireworks.

Although the Russians didn't have very advanced weaponry in the fort, they were still able to put up a fight by sending ships out toward the British to launch fireballs in an attempt to burn the fleet. After a couple of days of this, the British turned around and left. The Russians later installed better cannon, just in case they came back. I'm sure I've forgotten major points in this history, but it was quite interesting to realize that Western Europe has been trying to contain the Russians for centuries, that fear of Russian military might and presence wasn't just a Cold War thing.

The island itself is lovely in the summertime, and many people were out there having picnics and swimming because the afternoon was warm and sunny. Despite the extreme pleasantness of it all, I could not stop thinking about what it must be like in the winter time. They say it doesn't snow that much in Helsinki because of the moderating effect of the Baltic Sea, but still what with stiff onshore winds, many hours of darkness, and temperatures commonly below zero, I just cannot imagine living there. There are a decent number of people living on the island year-round, it's so popular that when last winter eight accommodations opened up, nearly 200 applications were file for each place. I walked around a good portion of the island until dark clouds piled up and it started to thunder and lightening. By the time I got back to the ferry I was quite wet, but it was kind of nice to be walking in the rain since warm summer rain is rarer than rare in San Francisco.

I dried out by riding the clean and comfortable 3T Tram on its figure-eight route around the main part of the city. Helsinki strikes me as being very pleasant and comfortable and livable. The public transportation is so good that many people don't own cars.

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