Posted on May 13, 2015
Tonight I joined a local couple, Deepa Panchamia and Ivan Kulvik, for a beer at their local pub in Fiskar Finland. Over dinner we had discussed many of the topics that always interest me when I travel. I love the contrasts between people’s lives around the world, as well as the things that seem to always remain the same. We began talking about how much things cost here vs in the USA.
I asked the couple, who are in the early 30s and have no kids, what things in Finland are cheap. They had easily been able to cite the cost of things that were expensive, and had recoiled when they heard how much my friend Paul Shoul pays for his health insurance in the US. But it took longer to think of what was cheaper. “Health insurance, college tuition, daycare, all free,” they finally answered. “Oh, and rent, that’s pretty cheap here too.” It struck me that these very essential things cause Finns no problems at all, and despite the high tax rates, it seems they are getting a better deal than those of us in the US who pay such exorbitant rents, health insurance bills, and for the highest military budget by far in the world.
Deepa was born in London, of Indian descent, and Ivan was born in Rome and raised near Fiskar where today they both live in Fiskars Village, a group of about 120 artists who collaborate and support each other in a residential community in this village of about 600. There are fellowships, group shows, and most of all, a devoted group of artists pursuing all manner of design/art and craft related fields, from potters to woodworkers, textile and dance choreographers. Also at the pub with us were Jukka Havtaviita and Camilla Moberg, Camilla is one of the community’s leaders and Jukka works in a nearby school.
Deepa is a textile artist and Ivan’s a woodworker, and they both revel in the nature and beauty around this rural village…but mostly, they love the community that shares tools, artistic inspiration, and beers at their local pub. It’s been far more of a success for this young couple moving here from Brixton, London than they ever imagined. Both say they have plenty of work and now, plenty of friends to share their lives with.
The personality of the Finns seems pretty well agreed upon…”To a Finn, bragging means looking down at your shoes and complimenting them,” joked Jukka. Few Finns protest or have a problem with the many laws and regulations here, and they obey things like speed limits and paying high taxes dutifully. It’s rare that anyone here would not obey a police officer or cheat on their taxes.
When I brought up the anxiety that other Finns told me they had about Putin and Russia, Jukka called me out–‘What about your country, you have invaded more places than Russia has,” he exclaimed. “You Americans like to point the finger at Russia, but look at the wars you started!” He wasn’t saying it harshly, and I appreciated his candor, because he was right.
Life in Finland, despite an economy that’s been hurt by the EU trade embargo with Russia, is still good for most people. Few people here care about becoming rich, and most people have small rustic vacation homes to retreat to in the summer. Long vacations, ample benefits like the health care and education, and a very low crime rate make it a harmonious and very civilized place to live.
The road to Fiskars winds though dense forests, everywhere there are trees, and the biggest export is wood products. One thing that Ivan laments as a woodworker is that at this latitude, trees grow very slowly, so you’ll see very small looking trees being cut down, and these are already mature. “I envy your fast growing trees, with those wide trunks,” Ivan said.
We talked for a long time, sharing details about places in the US that I think are best to visit, and the sad state of world affairs, with so many looming problems and politicians both here and in the US who just don’t get it. In that way, we remain very similar, as sad as that might sound.
Posted on May 12, 2015
Today we met a host of very interesting local people in Turku who are pursuing great ideas and blazing new trails. First we visited Logomo, which is a large event arena and workplace just outside the city center. Janne Auvinen, the events director, took us on a tour of this former train repair facility located next to rail lines full of Russian chemical transport and wood-laden rail cars.
This huge building is home to dozens of design/marketing and high tech start-ups, as well as a place where freelancers can work among their peers. It’s the kind of co-working space that’s becoming so popular around the world as offices contract and ‘solo-preneurs’ invent their careers.
With a large restaurant on the first floor, and a cozy cafe up on the second floor, you can imagine that a great deal of creative schmoozing takes place here. We were taken to a series of event and theater spaces, from small, to medium to wow… HUGE! The biggest arena has the ability to switch into nine different layouts–from small with lots of floor space for a convention to extra large, by moving the entire set of seats backwards on air cushions to seat up to 3500. Big name artists like Buena Vista Social Club and Kris Kristofferson have played here, it’s even large enough to allow the artist’s tour buses to park inside away from the elements!
Then we drove out to the town of Pargas, about 30 minutes from Turku, right on the Baltic sea. Here we met Ted Wallin, who has a personal fascination with Salvador Dali, and an art collection to back up his love of the eccentric artist. He has a dozen or so works of furniture/art that are for sale, among many other paintings, sculptures and photos in his Art Bank. He is full of witticisms and you are never sure if he’s kidding or serious, but his collection has inspired a film crew to propose a documentary about him.
Then we met another artist Jan-Erik Andersson, but this time he was on a large screen monitor as we interviewed him in his famous Leaf House, as he was in Helsinki on business.
With his friendly partner, Marjo Malin taking us on the house tour, we spoke to his large image and he described what this house was all about. It’s certainly unlike any other house I’ve ever seen.
The Leaf House was built as a collaboration of 50 artists and an architect. Nothing in the house is square, and every window is custom-shaped. The walls are round and when you go upstairs you have a view through the whole house to the beautiful scene of the Turku waterfront and skyline.
Details include 26 different funky overhead light fixtures on the living room ceiling, a countertop with a photo image of chefs embedded in it, and soaring wood supports to the high ceiling. Hopefully the photos will do this art project-as-dwelling justice, the house footprint is shaped like a birch leaf. “It’s like being in nature,” said Jan-Erik. “It was built as an ongoing project but when we change something, we always change it back.”
Posted on May 12, 2015
We flew into Turku to face what we left behind in Mass–the chilly breezes and cold temps of early spring. Turku is Finland’s oldest city with about 189,000 inhabitants on the Baltic sea. Here, the biggest industry is a German-owned shipyard builds the largest cruises ships in the world.
Carnival Cruise Lines’s, Oasis of the Seas, which accommodates 9000 people was built here, and new megaliners are in the drydock for German cruise lines. We learned that this yard has won worldwide respect because the Finns are some of the world’s most advancd nvironmental engineers, and that appeals to Carnival as they face headwinds over pollution and accidents.
The city is built around the river Aura, with many docked barges that serve as nightclubs and restaurants and a thriving ferry business with daily departures for Stockholm, a 10-hour passage, and many smaller ferries that ply the archipelago of more than 30,000 islands. We crossed the river on a small ferry pulled by a cable from one side to the other, blown by gusty winds, and glad we had dressed warmly after our spell of spring warmth at home.
People here speak Swedish and Finnish and of course, perfect English. At lunch in a restaurant called Target, we were told about the recent election that brought conservatives to power. A party called “True Finns” is gaining steam, famous for their anti-immigration and for policies like ceasing teaching Swedish in schools.
One topic that came up frequently was a general Finnish unease about their biggest trading partner, Russia, right next door. With the EU ban on exporting meat and dairy products with Russia hurting the local economy, the Finns are in a tough spot. We heard many stories about encounters with Russians here. Truck drivers cross the border and inevitably don’t speak any language except Russian. “When we take our Russian visitors into a store, they love picking out the most expensive things in the store to buy,” said a tourist guide.
Nearly every family here has their own little rustic summer cottage, the equivalent of the Russian Dacha, where they retreat to during their long summer vacations. The thousands of islands here allow for privacy and the houses are bare-bones basic, nothing we’ve seen in Finland is ostentatious or showy.
Janne Juvonen, a restauranteur who owns three restaurants in Turku told us over dinner in his wonderful place, Smor, Finland was a poor country until the ’70s, and people did not eat at restaurants in small towns. Where once every menu had to include pepper steak, Finish cuisine has evolved in recent years and today at Smor it’s all about eating what’s local and what’s in season. So in the winter months it’s local venison, moose and reindeer, and last night it was salmon, pork and a variety of beautiful vegetable garnishes. www.visitturku.fi
Posted on May 7, 2015
I told a friend who I play music with that I was going to Helsinki over the weekend. “Oh the music club in Hudson, NY?” he asked. “No, actually, Helsinki, Finland,” I replied. It’s a new city and a new country for me, and Paul Shoul and I can’t wait to get to Turku, our first stop next week on a tour of the country. We will be tweeting in this very-internet-connected country @gonomad and on Instagram.
We will be meeting some chefs and touring around the southern coast of the country, heading down a peninsula to the town of Hanko. One of the scenes we will check out is a gathering of Vespa Scooter owners who meet regularly in the town, and of course, a very hot sauna. I think we will
be experiencing many very hot saunas on our journey.
Later in the week we will drive back up to Helsinki and we will enjoy Restaurant Day, when up to 3000 Finns will get the once-in-a-year chance to open their own pop-up restaurant on the street in front of their homes. It will be fun to see what people are serving and what a tent city made up of impromptu restaurants looks like.
I hope you’ll follow my blogs and posts as we tour Finland, starting on Monday May 11.
Posted on May 3, 2015
Pink Talking Fish blew me away last night at the wonderful 2-story Hinge, with me looking up at the band as they torched the place with 1980s hits from Talking Heads and famous jams from Phish like Bathtub Gin, Possum, and Down with Disease.
They segued seamlessly to through their three inspirations: Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine, Talking Head’s “Cities”, Big Business and “This must be the place”and many more pounding, classic tunes, then sometimes switching back to a previously-played song. At one point they melded the ending of a song with that of another, it all worked well musically and the crowd never stopped moving in appreciation.
Clearly though the band is named for three great aforementioned bands, it’s the Phish connection that rings the strongest for all of the band members. Keyboardist Richard James has been to 72 shows, guitarist Dave Brunyak, 54. Drummer Zack Berwick plays with a ferocious energy I haven’t seen in very many bands. Fill-in bassist Ben Hoadley deftly played a five-string bass. He said that the extra string gives him a whole extra deep octave to plumb.
Pink Talking Fish’s musicians know the nuances and solos in the songs, and like the audience, revere the ceremonies of Phish fandom, like filling in the lyric hole in Bathtub Gin, the jam groove of , and in the second set, the powerful and one-of-a-kind guitar super riff from Pink Floyd’s Have a Cigar.
The tribal deep house funk of the old Talking Heads songs was done with no subtlety, pounding drums and the rhythm driven by Hoadley’s driving hard bass. Each song, chosen from such iconic bands as the ‘Heads or Floyd, were can’t miss hits. And their affinity for the Grateful Dead’s touring successors, Phish, brought out many of the faithful.
The Hinge’s two-level performance space allows a lot of mobility, nobody is pinned down. Unlike at the Iron Horse, where you sometimes feel like forced to stay in your seat, this more fluid up and down seating made for a more relaxing and comfortable show.
Find out more about Pink Talking Fish and their East coast tour this spring and summer.
Posted on May 2, 2015
The title of this movie starring Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts is a riddle. When We’re Young, as in, they still are young. But the whole point of this funny and poignant movie is that nobody stays young, and no amount of young hip friends will ever make you young again.
We watch a childless Brooklyn couple Josh and Cornelia, navigating the world with their friends who are parents, and notice that they continually wrestle with whether they’ve made the right decision to remain childless. They throw it back and forth, ‘we’re happy right? I mean, we could right now get on a plane for Rome, right?’ But Rome was many years ago, and Ben’s knee is hurting from arthritis. Not like arthritis, but simply, as his doc says, arthritis itself. Face it, he’s getting old. Cornelia has been through fertility treatments and has given up on having a child.
But then they meet Jamie and Darby, who are 20-somethings who live joyful lives and use typewriters, watch movies on VCRs and refuse to Google things they don’t understand. They have a quaint throwback vibe, they don’t need the iphone/ipad/laptops that seem to tie Josh and Cornelia down to their boring middle age lives. No, these young people make things, and wear hipster hats, and go to shaman ceremonies where people do drugs and learn their truths. They find them enchanting, and Josh begins to wear the same fedora and ride a bike like his new buddy Jamie. Their attraction to both as a couple costs them their same-age friends.
Cornelia’s dad is a producer, a bigshot, and Jamie like Josh, is an aspiring filmmaker, or as they describe him, a ‘documentarian.’ Josh has been stuck for ten years making his magnum opus, a boring film about an intellectual played by Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary. It’s dry, dry stuff, and clearly Jamie has some more appealing ideas that a producer might actually want to put money into.
Jamie manages to catch the attention and respect of Josh’s father in law, who he has never gotten along with, creating tension. When Josh reveals that Jamie has not been honest about the subject of his movie, an Afghanistan war vet with a terrible secret, nobody really cares. It becomes almost a generation gap, it seems that a good story trumps being totally truthful, and it makes Josh crazy.
The movie handles so many of the issues of our time deftly, and realistically. It is indeed frustrating to see a young cat soar while you’re mired in muck, and in the end, well, maybe it IS a good idea to raise a family, however you end up doing it. Go see this film, I highly recommend it, both Mary and I enjoyed it a lot.