Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Far North I: Solstice Suomi Style

Friday evening June 23rd was celebrated as midsummers solstice in Rovaniemi, the provincial capital of Finnish Lapland. It is a town of around 60,000 people, with two universities, located 6 km south of the Arctic Circle. The photo here shows the ritual bonfire that was lit in the Kemijoki River at midnight; below are photos of the display of music and folk dancing that took place on the riverbank, before a crowd of about 1,000 people who gathered to participate in the solstice ceremony, and the dancing that was taking place in the big tent set up for the Jutajaiset Folklore Festival.

The main attraction of the festival's opening night was the performer "Eini" of the group Eini and Boogie. They performed what appears to be a very convetional musical mixture for Finnish dance halls of the last 30 to 40 years or so. This includes Finnish "folk" dances, or Finnish versions of other European folk or popular dances, including the yenkka and humppa (both a bit like the polka), the polkka, the waltz, and the mazurkka (this last was not performed on this particular night); the distinctive Finnish tango, a local adaptation of the Argentine tango, idiosyncratic in both music and dance style; and a variety of North American and Latin American popular dances: fox trot, rock, swing, rumba, chachacha, salsa, and samba. Following are scenes from the dance, and finally, an image of the low-sitting, never-setting, midnight sun.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Northern countries VI: Camp Kuopio

It is summer, and summer 2006 seems to be a perfect one in Finland. A very fortunate set of circumstances led me to this adventure-in-progress toward the north of Finland. It begins here in Kuopio, a small but vibrant city which sees itself as the capital of the lake region of central Finland. Kuopio has a university, a music and dance conservatory, plenty of lakes and boats, a wine festival, a dance festival, and around 80,000 people who enjoy living close to nature, whether it be in the winters where it gets as cold as minus 30 Celsius (cross country and downhill skiing, skating, and saunas help keep energy high during the season of short days), the rainy transitional seasons, and the summer, which seems to bring everyone out on their bicycles and in-line skates. Here, it is common to see skaters using long sticks (like skiing sticks), which add to efficiency, and help in uphill skating. I opted for a bicycle, which with helmet could be rented for 15 euros for a 24-hour period (visitors should really buy the 12 euro "Kuopio card" which includes a free day's bike rental!). On my first afternoon, I began by riding...and then very quickly walking the bike up the steep incline that leads to Pujo hill, the highest point in the area (only 200 meters, but still a challenging hike). The following morning I biked through a nature preserve and then a further several kilometers to the town centre.

Northern countries V: Touristic Tallinn

Tallinn is an 80 kilometer journey south across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki. The trip takes less than two hours by hydrofoil. This is a popular side trip, and is well worth it. Tallinn is famous for its well-preserved and picturesque old town, where medieval buildings are preserved from the time it was a prosperous Baltic trading center, part of the Germanic Hanseatic League. The Estonian people are related in their language to the Finns, and this makes them distinctive from their neighbors the Lithuanians and Latvians, as well as the Russians. About 30% of the population of Estonia is Russian, a legacy of more than a half century of Soviet rule that only ended in 1991. I spoke to two young men at the outdoor dining area at McDonalds (the McFish sandwich is a bargain in Tallinn at 24 kroon (about 2 US dollars). They were blond and blue-eyed computer designers for an advertising firm. One of them was ethnically Russian, and affirmed his loyalty to Estonia. Estonian, in fact, was his first language. Both of the young men, Kuril and Lennart, expressed their enthusiasm for American culture, such as music and television programs like the Simpsons. Lennart quoted the German metal band Rammstein's song, "We're all living in Amerika." Sitting there at McDonald's at the entrance to the old town of Tallinn, I could hardly disagree.

Summer in Tallinn is warm and blue, at least this summer, and a highlight for tourists is to sit outside at one of the many dining establishments and enjoy whatever cuisine they choose--local, medieval, Indian, Russian, Texan. This is a sign at a restaurant where I had a delicious fish dish and a local beer. I sat with a young American who was reading Lermontov in Russian; he was working for Bloomberg News Services in Moscow.

Following are a sampling of some of the music posters, whose typical vocabulary reflects, like in so many European countries, the strong influence of modern music from the Americas (the US and the Latin/Caribbean world): jazz, blues, bossa nova, reggae, hip hop, funk, etc. In Estonia as in Finland and in Sweden, the American influence is reflected in local pop and rock groups who perform their music in English. One of the aspiring popular groups in Estonia is the young female trio "Vanilla Ninja."

At the shopping mall near the harbor (where I bought the Tallinn Chocolate at the head of this report), many vendors sold T-shirts with musical and other pop icons,
such as Kiss, Che Guevara, and the Finnish hard rock / metal group "Lordi", who have gained recent fame as the surprise winners of the 2006 Eurovision song contest, with their "Hard rock Hallelujah."

Finally, here are two more photos, one of a nude in front of the modern Culture Keskus (Culture Center)and a panorama of Tallinn from the Harbor; one can see the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox church, from the late 19th century, on the horizon at the center right.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Northern countries IV: Helsinki Karnavalesco

Back in Helsinki on Saturday, June 17th, I was in time for the 16th annual Helsinki Samba Carnaval, which advertises itself as "the only Finnish festival listed in the Top 50 European Local Festivals in 2006." Carnaval fever could already be perceived on the Viking Line cruise ship, on which at least one of the samba crews was traveling. In the first photo, you can see a cavaquinho player, a Brazilian, just arrived from Stockholm; the Helsinki Cathedral is in the distance.
And it was in front of the Cathedral, in Senate Square, beneath the watchful eyes of the statue of Tsar Alendander II (modern Helsinki was built during the Tsarist 19th century), that the blond--the very, very blond--samba schools prepared for the big afternoon carnaval parade (for all the authentic and repetitive sambas de enredo that were sung--in Finnish--and for all the surdos and reco-recos, this still was not Rio de Janeiro). Enjoy the photos as must as the sambistas enjoyed shaking the foundations of the universe!