Sunday 5 April 2020

1996 Helsinki, Tallinn

3.12.96 Helsinki

Nice airport – shame about the wait for luggage. Up early, 3.30am to Linate, touchdown in Stockholm, to here.  The land of the mobile telephone and the trilingual society – Finnish, Swedish and English.  The women blonde-ish, the men mousey – but often tall and thin, very Lutheran-looking.  I seem to have a problem with Finno-Ugric peoples: as in Turkey, they have lost my luggage… (which is not fatal, since I have everything important in the black bag, including basic clothes…)  Some snow on the ground, grey day.  There are trams – a civilised place. Lots of outcrops of rocks and green – nature is close.  Lots of shops for mobile phones, as if the whole Finnish economy is kept going artificially.

Her waters broke about the time I set foot in Finland… Looks dodgy…  The Man will try to call back Thursday (anyone know any good saints to pray to?)  I go out in the 4 o'clock gloom.  His house is ten minutes from hotel – very near the centre of the city.  Interesting street full of restaurants.  I think that we just passed each other – him with suitcase and father (?) on their way to the hospital…

Typical gaunt nineteenth-century Nordic – a bit like a college quad.  Simple black-framed windows.  Even has bikes in the stair wells.  Tram line passes outside the window (#6 tram).  At the end of the road, "Seaside Hotel" – seems unlikely, but true: Helsinki is surrounded by water [and everyone stands around with a mobile phone to their head].  He lives over a ladies' hairdresser, two empty corner shops, household appliances.  Nice brass nameplate on his door – looking just like college digs.  

To the Cafe Aalto in the Akademiska Bokhandeln.  Well, what a day.  Not content with spiriting away my luggage, the gods (Finnish) also feed me poisonous  food – fried meat/potatoes – so I'll probably have food poisoning too…  One thing though: Linus Torvalds lives in Kalevagatan – Kaleva; Kalevala = Kaleva land.  The centre of Helsinki very attractive. - and very Xmassy.   But one thing that is strange: there are no public clocks.  And so now it feels like 9pm (I think it's about 5.15pm), so dark is it.

4.12.96 Helsinki

The tourist office has never heard of Linus Torvalds.

People stop at pedestrian crossings until green – even if the road is empty.  Finland one of the most connected countries – Net Wizards.  Need mobile phones to keep ears warm from the wind.  Spareness in architecture – be it Lutheran cathedral, or Alvar Aalto's modernism – plain lines.  (Kalevala is old, primitive.)

Saw Hannu Savolainen this morning (the smorning).  Mumbling somewhat, but the tape seems to have caught it.  Increasingly I get the feeling that Linux hackers prefer Usenet/email rather than meeting physically.  (Finns hack code because it's so dark and there's nothing else to do?)

The most famous living Finn? (Well, you name one…)

To Zetor's.  Full of tractors and a witty menu.  Surprisingly nice ambience – all little wood enclaves.  My interview with Lars Wirzenius was good – he was there before even Linux was – good angles on the future – and the first period over, Linux hack finished.  The waitresses typical Finn pixies, short, dumpy, blonde hair short, and the obligatory wire-frame glasses.

Linux is interesting as a new kind of life-form.  It is designed to evolve, picking up enhancements.  "First software organism".  Copyleft ensures that the source code – the DNA – is always present.  True it needs a complex environment – computers, the Internet, human minds – but then animal life's preconditions are extreme (try changing key physical constants like G (gravity) or e, the charge on an electron – no life.  This is Linus' gift to the world: setting up Linux as an extensible system that is independent of him.  Like Berners-Lee – created right mix of design to be self-supporting.  Interesting that both are Europeans, creating open extensible systems.

Main course (salmon pie) OK – but fried (as is so much here: life's tough if you are off fats).  But the star was the bread: black, sweet/sour and delicious (also same bread at breakfast [which was quite acceptable, more salmon than you could shake a stick at, pickled herring]).  Lunch at Stockmann's – nice airy restaurant on the sixth floor, reasonable salad.  By night (that is, most of the time), Stockmann is lit like the proverbial – and damn fine it looks too…

5.12.96 Helsinki

Still waiting for that interrupt…

Slept ten hours last night – must be the lack of light here.  Grey, wettish morning.  Along to the cathedral.  As I recall: so stark – barely a picture or statue to break its neo-classical purity.  Box pews, all neatly numbered by row.  Only ornament a fine organ and circular pulpit.  Four chandeliers, ornate and gilded – the rest just pure semi-circles and a few Ionic columns (the simplest apart from basic Doric).  This is the heart of old Helsinki.  Senate Square – looks very like St. Petersburg (same architect).  Cathedral started in 1830, designed by Carl Ludwig Engel.  Grey-pink granite cobbles (rectangular, 8" by 3"), cut through by tram lines.  Pale yellow wash reminds you of St. Petersburg.  

In the Ateneum (still no news), eating too much food and drinking (again) some of the worst coffee in Europe (kahvi).  The huge building site opposite the parliament (and near my hotel) turns out to be the Museum of Contemporary Art, being finished December 1997.  Designed by Steven Holl, takes form of chiasma – winning design, simplicity and spareness again.  Open to the public 1998, "walls and ceiling are white plaster, with the aim of creating tranquillity and simplicity".  Has small waterfall running through building.  [Online info system.]  Just my luck: only 3 Akselli here (all depicting Kullervo); the others on tour in Oslo (?).

Back in hotel: strange to find Torvalds, Linus, in the phone book – like finding…?  Tore it out – so if you find this page missing in a Helsinki hotel, you know who did it. Wandering around for an hour, looking for a restaurant – so bloody expensive.  End up in Kosmos, Kalevagatan (of course).  Bit smoky, and they showed me to a lousy table, but very full and good buzz.

Although frustrating in many ways, at least today I bought some items: three Finnish CDs and two books on Akseli Gallen-Kallela (I also had to break open my case, since the lock has gone on it – dancing around in the nude this morning, trying to get clean clothes…)  I read one Gallen book – rather depressing, as these things often are.  The gradual waning and decay.  Food not bad: smoked eel and celery soup, pike perch (poached) plus blueberries – and the odd Finlandia vodka to wash it all down.

6.12.96 Helsinki

Well, this is droll. After bogging over to the West Terminal at 6.45am to go to Tallinn, what do I find but both boats are full: it appears that Finns pop over to Tallinn as Brits do to Calais – everyone here carrying empty suitcases.  I wonder what they buy.  I'm on the waiting list, but they don't seem very hopeful.  Torvalds: rings at 18.30 yesterday to tell that his wife has podded – a couple of hours earlier wouldn't have hurt, eh?  Ah, perhaps I know why: today is Independence Day.  So probably everyone has the day off.  Damn.  And all the museums are shut.  What a bummer.  

Well, here I am, on board… waiting around for returns is unusually effective.  Mind you, I am deeply ambivalent about doing this.  In the hotel (Ramada Presidentti), I was very reluctant to go out.  Must be old age.  Once in the bus I felt happier: clearly there is a kind of travel inertia and travel momentum.  Now on the boat, I wonder.  Packed to the gunwales, a Russian ship, you can't move for people.  Moreover, the safety instructions are few and far between.  I am now sitting very near the lifeboats (inside – but if necessary, I'll stay outside too).  Travelling out in the darkness (at 8 am) is also unsettling.  At least the sea seems reasonably calm, and no mist obvious.  Perhaps the darkness helps explain why people here are drinking beer (for breakfast?).  Clearly these are just binges – another factor that does not engender confidence (though perhaps the competition will be less…).

[Another cheering aspect: passing one of the cabins used by the crew, I saw a photocopy of an article: "The last voyage of the Estonia: A new theory for its sinking" – or something.]

Sitting in bus 92 – included in the price, which is civilised.  Changed pounds into Kroon – to add to my collection.  A cold grey day – but hey, I'm in Estonia.  Very nice terminal this side – looks just like an airport.  Helpful info desk.

What can one say, but wow?  In the Toomkirik on the hill.  Here is like Vilnius, Prague, only more so: beautiful eighteenth-century houses and palaces, falling to pieces (but some being restored: not long before it becomes prettified – and saved, of course).  Organ music (live – with wrong notes) playing in this tranquil place.  Interesting to see signs in Russian, and to hear it spoken.  All these places in the world, waiting for me to visit them…  Fine box pews here too, painted lime-green, and green-blue.  The basic wall colour white, with coats of arms (guilds).  At the back of the church, huge triple deck radiators, clanking away.  Monuments in German.  Also the coats of arms – maybe not guilds?  The tomb of Samuel Greig – Scot/Russian.  

To the Sub Marte restaurant – fairly smart, in a cellar. At Rüütli, 4.  Warm (especially with a vodka). Taking herring (and apple boiled in wine) and roe deer.  I have the place to myself, despite the hordes on the boat – they obviously have other priorities – as is evidenced by the fact they stayed on bus 92 after it went past the old town.  This restaurant reminds of a similar cellar in Prague – but this has rather more pretensions – nice linen, cutlery, hyper-clean toilets (not to be taken for granted according to Lonely Planet….)  Pity about the music – New York 1950s – nice, but inappropriate.

One thing, in the heart of this crumbling history, you hear the seagull's cry – and remember this is a sea-port.  It's a question of taking the right approach.  Vilnius/Lithuania needs to be reached through its history – Poland and Byelorussia.  Estonia, by contrast, is linked to Finland rather than the rest of the Indo-European world, and should be approached by sea from Helsinki.  So good to see such a small language group revelling in their own.

3.30pm – raining slightly now, but that's all right. As dusk descends, the amber lights in the shops look all the warmer.  Now in a cafe bar just off the main square with the back of the town hall facing me – drinking the splendidly-named glögi – Glühwein – just what you need on a day like this.  Also good for a slightly sore throat I seem to be developing…  This place really is magic.  One thing: the smell of woodsmoke makes me think of India, inevitably, but jarringly.  Mind you, there's a church here that's dedicated to St Nicholas of Bari – nice contrast with a few thousand kilometres betwixt the two.

On board (at 5pm, better early than late, and I've reserved a place in the buffet).  Everyone showing their acquisitions to admiring friends.  In fact Tallinn did have a glow of prosperity – due to these tourists – that Vilnius lacked.  More flash cars – and even mobile phones.  I feel grateful (as ever) to have seen it before it becomes just another attractive European capital.  Surely now is the best time: after the great Soviet sleep has been shrugged off, but before capitalism has its fangs completely in the living flesh.

I sit rather close to the prow in the dining room (I prefer being near the exits, myself), feeling rather too full after eating an extremely fine buffet (or two courses of it at least).  A young lady pianist serenades us.  Ahead of us – a long way, I hope – there are lights of other liners/tankers.  I think of Ιθάκη, and those unbelievable evenings, so far away – in distance, indeed, though not really time (almost exactly six months).

7.12.96 Helsinki

On the way to Linus.

His street an interesting mix: nineteen-century houses, modern blocks, a couple of Chinese restaurants, a Japanese restaurant, Pub Angleterre (sic), a few galleries, cafes, a computer shop "Data Club" (with a row of books on Linux in the window).  Also the ubiquitous Mr Pickwick Pub.  A tattooist, a supermarket, hair salon, and corner shop.  Tram #6 to the Seaside Hotel, the Western Terminal for going to Tallinn.  His building an indescribable orangey-red. Four storeys.  

I feel that the three-odd hours were not very successful.  Too rushed, him pre-occupied, me forgetting to ask things.  This was not as I'd imagined things – but then one has to be "pragmatic" (like Linus).  Along to Konstan Möljä (ironically about 100 metres from L.T.), Hietalahdenkatu 14, for some old Karelian culture.  Wonderful cheese soup, with avocado spread on the rich brown bread, plus vodka to drown my soul (reminds me that L. wants to go to Ireland – "to drink Guinness" there). 

One of the problems – perhaps – is that L.T. is rather focussed.  I rarely managed to strike a spark from him.  And he failed to respond to any gambit.  Place is done out with lots of wood, blocks and tackle, and those elegiac black and white photos from 100 years ago showing ports and ships and long-dead sailors.  Still, all-in-all, things have been quite successful here.  Given the big bummer of Mrs T. sprogging early, I can't complain (but I do).  Daftly, perversely, the thing that makes me happiest from this trip is not even Tallinn (lovely though it was), but the fact that I can understand RTL almost to the point of second-guessing the deeply predictable dialogues.

8.12.96 Helsinki

A very bad night.  Out now by the parliament building – pink granite with Egyptian pillars and heads of Sakhmet (!).  Kiasma stands opposite, a statute of Mannerheim on his horse that travelled 2000 miles.  To Finlandia – concert halls.  Very severe – manages to make Italian marble look as friendly as concrete.  No ornament – just hard lines.  In my beginning is my end and all that: back to the Academic Bookshop for lunch – open and not too busy.  

Last night, my mind was just so full of Linux – and conscious that as ever things had not gone as I'd hoped.  Looking through my questions this morning, I see that relatively few are unanswered, and yet I feel that something essential is missing.  Mr T. for example: I cannot hope to grasp him in three hours.  And the fact that he was preoccupied with his baby – his other baby – meant that persisting was useless.  I was tempted to try to see him today, but will instead use email (appropriate in some ways).  So I leave here dissatisfied, a terrible contrast to the optimism I brought here.

In the airport.  Dead time, waiting.  L.T. quite atypical: light brown hair, thin face, blue (?) eyes – obviously Swedish stock.  Many Finns have oriental features, square-ish heads, blonde hair.  L.T.'s impish grin born perhaps of someone who knows that he knows more than you do in the one area that matters to him: hacking.  Not so much arrogant as supremely self-confident in this sphere.

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