Friday, April 11, 2014


I once saw a map in Winterthur, Switzerland, that made a big impression on me. It was in my late sister-in-law’s apartment, a few short blocks from the Hauptbahnhoff, and it covered an entire wall in her sitting room. This was more than just a single map, however. It was several maps, collected together into one over-sized topographical collage of the western Soviet Union.

My sister-in-law’s Swiss husband, Moritz, is a linguist, specializing at the time in Finno-Ugric languages. These include some tongues spoken by small groups of people scattered all over the northern tier of Eurasia – in other words, somewhere in Russia. I suppose that’s why Moritz had assembled this full-wall geographic display of what encompassed the homelands of the Komi, Mari, Mansi, and other isolated groups of people speaking something distantly related to Finnish.

Seeing it scaled up that way, I was amazed how huge and apparently endless the territory of Russia really is, in fact the biggest country on Earth. And I recall thinking, as I studied the map up close, how cool it would be to venture out across that vast country someday, exploring it by car. Of course, such a road trip was impossible then, in Soviet times, and maybe only marginally more feasible now.

My interest in visiting Russia probably peaked not long after that trip to Switzerland, and in some ways, I feel bad about that.

Lately, with Russia again front and center in world affairs, with Vladimir Putin putting on polar-opposite displays of Russian pride in Sochi and Crimea, I find myself thinking it’s too bad I haven’t gotten better acquainted with the big country next door. 

I’m sorry to say that, in all the years of living here, only a couple hours from the Russian border, I’ve traveled across it only once, in 1984, on a weekend bus trip to Leningrad (when it was still called Leningrad). At the time, it felt like quite an adventure – a completely different world behind the Iron Curtain. I somehow even recall selling an old pair of Levis on a street corner, but that is surely a false memory. I did later sell a travel article about the trip. Of that I’m sure.

The Winter Palace, home of the Hermitage Museum. Photo: Dezidor

Since that trip, I haven’t been back. That’s despite the fact that modern St. Petersburg, a city of nearly five million people and monumental cultural landmarks, lays only 385 kilometers (240 miles) away by car.

I did make a quick visit to Estonia soon after it was no longer a Soviet republic. I spent a day in Tallinn in late October 1991, some five months after Estonian citizens had held a referendum on independence from the USSR and just eight weeks after they had faced a possible showdown with Soviet troops during Moscow’s “August Coup”.

(That was the putsch during which Soviet Communist Party hardliners placed Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest in Crimea and tried to take over the government. It was the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which apparently haunts some people in Russia, Vladimir Putin not the least among them, to this day.)

From my "archives" of old newspapers.

On that visit to independent Estonia, the recent past still lingered. Soviet authorities still manned passport control in Tallinn’s harbor, and the local currency was still the Soviet ruble. It wasn’t easy to find an open restaurant, and the one I did find was practically deserted. (To be fair, October is way outside the tourist season anywhere this far north, let alone in a country just recently opening up to the free world.)

Still, when it comes to possible travel destinations, I’ve always ignored the giant country that Estonia left behind, Mother Russia. I’m not quite sure why.

It’s not as if I haven’t had the opportunity. Last autumn, a friend of mine on his way to Shanghai tinkered with the idea of a more adventurous alternative to flying to China – taking the Trans-Siberian railway. He asked if I wanted to join him. It sounded exotic, and I was a bit tempted. But, with the prospect of sitting on a train non-stop for the week or so it would take to reach Beijing, I never seriously considered it.

In recent years, my wife – perhaps trying to break us out of our rut of traveling only to the US or central Europe – has been suggesting that for our summer holidays we should think about visiting Russia, especially the more remote areas where those various linguistic kinfolk of the Finns live, somewhere close to the Ural Mountains.

The Komi, distant linguistic cousins to Finns. Photo: Irina Kazanskaya

Maybe I’m not open-minded enough, but I haven’t been keen on the idea. Partly, it’s the thought of visiting a part of the world that looks essentially like Finland, but is even more remote and with even fewer amenities. And, the ethno-folkloric nature of such a destination doesn’t much appeal to me, either. Don’t get me wrong. I like watching folk dancing and shamanistic drumming as much as the next guy. I just haven’t been interested enough to spend precious holiday time seeking it out.

I’m no Ville Haapasalo, you might say. Haapasalo is a burly Finnish actor who is something of a celebrity in Russia due to his appearances in numerous Russian films, in which he apparently often plays the role of “the foreigner”.

Fluent in Russian and obviously a great admirer of the Russian people, Haapasalo has hosted several popular travelogue series for Finnish television, all premised on the idea on spending 30 days in this or that part of Russia.

In the first one, Venäjän halki 30 päivässä (“Across Russia in 30 Days”), Haapasalo travels by train through Siberia from Moscow to Vladivostok (like I might have done last autumn if I were made of stronger stuff).

This was followed by three similar month-long journeys:  Silkkitie 30 päivässä (“The Silk Road in 30 Days”), Suomensukuiset 30 päivässä (“Finnish Kinfolk in 30 Days”), and Jäämeri 30 päivässä (“The Arctic Sea in 30 Days”). In the last two, Haapasalo passes through the forest and tundra homelands of Finland’s various linguistic cousins – just the kind of secluded corners of Russia my wife is pressuring encouraging me to visit. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll follow in Haapasalo’s footsteps. I’ve noticed that the Komi Republic is a jumping off spot for guided packages to the Ural Mountains, so there might be some potential there after all.

One of the drawbacks of traveling to Russia is that they don’t make it easy. Unlike Sweden or Estonia, which Finns can visit on a whim by just hopping on a boat, a plane, or (previously in the case of Tallinn) a helicopter, Russia requires prior notice. And a visa.

The application process can take a couple of weeks and requires a letter of invitation of some sort, even for tourists. In practice, this is provided by the Russian tourist agency arranging your trip (so I understand). Apparently, you must also inform your complete itinerary beforehand. There’s no following your nose.

You also have to shell out some cash. For Finns, the non-refundable application fee is €35 (about $50) for the normal single-entry visa, double that for expediting the process (which means a visa in one to three working days). For Americans, it’s pricier, €106 (€145) for the normal processing time, €190 ($260) for the fast track. And that’s just to enter the country.

It doesn’t exactly lower the barriers to would-be tourists. I have heard, however, that in summer the St. Peter Line offers cruises for one- or three-day visa-free visits to St. Petersburg. I should check it out.

In any case, I should give up on my cartographically inspired daydream of ever being able to make a road trip across the back of Mother Russia as easily as driving from Boston to LA. Not that I didn't also have an opportunity (theoretically) at least to try it.

My friend trying to make his way to Shanghai also invited me to join him on an even more adventurous scheme he briefly considered, that is, going across Russia by car. Again, I was tempted. Well, not really, since I have some idea – from watching “Long Way Around”, the account of actor Ewan McGregor’s motorcycle ride around the world – of how rough Siberian roads can be, where they even exist.

If Russia’s primitive road system almost defeated a young Obi-Wan Kenobi on a BMW all-terrain bike (with a support team), then it’s certainly not something that should be attempted by two "middle-aged" men on their own who don’t speak a word of Russian. Again, that's just too bad. 

More historic headlines from my "archives"

"Congratulations, Dear Comrades!" 
"Under the Banner of Lenin" 
Pravda, November 7, 1982 
(65th anniversary of the October Revolution)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Musical Connections – On the Road

No doubt like most people, I have vivid associations between certain pieces of music and some particular place, associations that sometimes go way back. It’s often a totally random thing. For some reason, a tune that I might have heard hundreds of times before simply resonates with the place or situation when I happen to hear again, often when traveling somewhere.

One such connection that sticks in my mind is from my high-school days when I had gone out to see a movie with some buddies. Where I grew up, that meant leaving the county, since my hometown had no cinema of its own. The closest place to watch a film was the drive-in theater in a neighboring town, 16 miles (26 kilometers) away. The closest indoor theater, where you didn’t have to hang a clunky speaker inside your car’s window, lay in another town just a bit further in the opposite direction.

It was from that theater that four or five of us were returning late one night in my friend’s Chevrolet or Buick or whatever it was. In any case, it was one of those big pre-Oil Shock creations of Detroit. Like lot of roomy automobiles of the day, my friend’s car had a long, sloping back window, almost like a skylight for those passengers in the backseat, where I was sitting.

As we sped up the road, probably feeling pretty good, being young and free of our parents, I remember laying my head back, under the rear window, looking straight up at a sky full of stars. That’s when this song came on the radio – seemingly perfect for the combination of teenage freedom and spectacular sky.

Myself, I would have never associated Nights in White Satin with Paris in broad daylight, but we all have our different experiences with music.

Another night drive is linked, in my mind, to an equally evocative and classic piece of rock music (maybe the best) by my hands-down favorite singer-songwriter.

This time, it was after my junior year of college, and my parents were along for the ride. Our family had made a long-anticipated trip to the American West, my first time beyond the Mississippi, in a marathon drive to the Yellowstone country of Wyoming (almost 2000 miles in just over two days). After a couple of days in Yellowstone itself, we were staying in the Great Tetons National Park, and had driven down to the cowboy town of Jackson for a steak dinner.

On the way back up the two-lane highway to the Tetons, our headlights slicing through the darkened sagebrush prairie of the sprawling Jackson Hole valley, I remember we were listening to this song on the eight-track player.

To me, the song released a powerful nocturnal energy that perfectly matched the feeling of cruising through the vast emptiness of Jackson Hole at night. Hearing it still takes me back to Wyoming, even today.

(On that long drive we also listened repeatedly to Jackson Browne’s album, “Running on Empty”, which is almost custom-made for endless road trips.)

Another Neil Young song evokes for me a general feeling of “western” nights spent under the stars and among the sagebrush, especially the steel guitar solo.

I seem to associate this with a chilly summer night in a KOA campground, probably in Panguitch, Utah, where a friend and I stayed on our way back from Las Vegas in 1980. I can’t hear this without thinking of nights in the high desert.

One very different song makes me think of a high bridge. I was 19, and we were again traveling with my parents, this time to the more familiar environs of Jekyll, one of Georgia’s barrier islands on the Atlantic Coast. We were returning from the nearest bigger town, Brunswick, where we’d gone for a seafood dinner (there seems to be a pattern here). As we were crossing the main bridge heading south out of town, this song came on the radio.

Again, the song seemed to resonate with the beach-holiday mood and the inky blackness of the night, and forever planted that bridge crossing in my memory. Why I remember the bridge as soaring high above the tidewater of the Brunswick River, I can’t say, since after checking photos of it on the Internet, I realize the bridge barely rose above the level of the water.

Maybe I’ve conflated it with actual tall bridge I crossed with friends one night coming out of Jacksonville, Florida, where we’d eaten at a Polynesian restaurant. (Again with the dining out, but no song associated with that crossing.)

Or maybe I just got carried away with Heart’s newly release hit – after all, at the time I probably had a major crush on one or both of the Wilson sisters, temporarily eclipsing my long-standing infatuation with Linda Ronstadt.

I guess making those kinds of overblown musical connections is easier when you’re young, romantically minded, and maybe a tad bit impressionable.  

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Winter That Wasn't

This past weekend, the last inconspicuous bits of snow vanished from our yard, a full month earlier than last year. In fact, this milestone would have occurred even earlier, had it not been for one little last gasp of winter. Our yard was already snow-free on March 12th, before we got a sudden 10 cm (4 in) snowfall three days later. It didn’t last long.

In the thirty-odd years I’ve lived here, the snow season has never ended this early. By now that’s not much of a surprise, considering how this year, we really didn’t have much of a winter. Back in the dark, cloudy days of December, when the snow should have started piling up, it was always just a couple of degrees north of freezing and all the water falling from the sky came down in its liquid form. Not as pretty and persistent as the white crystals we usually get.

While we had a maximum of something like 80 cm (2.5 feet) of snow in our yard last year, this winter we barely made it to 14 (half a foot). And I had to clean snow from the sidewalk only once all winter, for Christ’s sake, not three times a week or so like in a normal winter. Even worse, I went skiing only once, for a mere seven kilometers (4.5 miles). The previous winter it was more like 180 (in miles, 110), and I'm not the world's most ardent skier.

The first "last" patch of snow, March 12th.

Maybe I could have gone skiing a few more times, if had bothered to travel further afield. But the normal skiing possibilities near our house, where we often can step into our skis right in front of the driveway, were dramatically reduced. With the help of man-made snow, the ski center at Paloheinä kept at least one short loop open most of the winter – a really sad substitute when you’re used to skiing for kilometers and kilometers over open fields and through dense forests.

I certainly hope this winter doesn’t point to a disturbing trend. When I first moved from sunny Georgia to Finland, I suffered greatly from the long, dark winter days. That is, until I decided to embrace the winter and enjoy the snow. After all, that sea of white stuff just outside the door isn’t going anywhere for a few months (normally), so you might as well make the most of it. And I’m happier for having it around, since winter days are short anyway and the somber, gray alternative to snow can be downright depressing.

I’ve always joked that if, for some reason, Helsinki no longer had snowy winters, I’d have to move either further north (closer to the Arctic Circle) or further south (where at least you can see the sun more than once a month).

Even though the unusually warm winter this year might well be a jarring reminder of climate change, I’m still hoping things return to normal for the next few winters at least and I never have to make good on my promise to move. I'm kind of settled here. 

Nothing left to measure.