Nearly everywhere we travel, be it Paris or Yellowstone, there are bus loads of Japanese tourists taking pictures of each other in front of things. I first saw this in 1979 at the Louvre, watching Japanese tourists take happy snaps of each other in front of the Mona Lisa who was behind bullet proof glass.
I did not expect to see the same in Finland. I expected most tourists would be other Europeans or North Americans whose cruise ships stopped by for a few hours, and that was the case, but there were loads of Japanese people there and I learned that FInnair has non-stops between Tokyo and Helsinki. I asked several people "why so many Japanese" and got several answers.
1. There is an obvious esthetic shared - they like clean lined design and for years, the iconic Finnish fabric and clothing company, Marimeikko, has had a big market in Japan as well as employing Japanese designers.
2. Moomims. They are characters who came to life 77 years ago, the creation of a Swedish speaking Finn, that went on to fame in 60 countries, especially Japan. Moomins are to Finland what Disney characters are to the US.
3. Japanese people are nature lovers. They come from a very crowded island and are amazed by Finland's huge forests, hundreds of islands and vast amounts of untamed wilderness.
4. Fascination with Santa and reindeer.
And years ago, I read that there were large numbers of Japanese traveling to Lapland in the winter to see and, hopefully conceive a baby under the northern lights.
And I think they feel comfortable with each other, their reticence to be forward, their nature to be very polite.
We were at a folk dance performance, seated on benches on flat ground, and a man was standing in the aisle, blocking the view for many people, especially the woman near me in the wheelchair, and no one yelled "down in front" or made a move. After about 5 minutes, it took yours truly, the pushy American, to tap him on the shoulder and point to the people behind him. He looked horrified at what he had done and quickly left, out of sight.
But while they have so much in common the language the Finns and the Japanese most share is English. Of course.
The apartment we rented in Helsinki appeared to be next to a huge park that led to the water. When we walked over to see it, we discover it was a cemetery, an enormous cemetery. It was well cared for, with beautiful huge trees and some unique tombstones, thus most of this post will be photos.
There is a much copper in Finland. One sees it in roofs and decorative objects, but this is my first copper grave marker. Or polished stainless steel.
Many were somewhat more conventional, but works of art all the same.
A musician lies here.
There were a fair number of rocks.
And sometime in the late 1800s, stones like these began to become popular and then common; chunks of granite with only one polished surface. Whether it was done out of frugality or fashion I cannot say.
Seventeen years ago, we remodeled our kitchen and chose for the counter tops a common granite called Baltic Brown. I was in Helsinki for days before I realized my countertops were everywhere. That granite was used for cobblestone streets, curbs and sidewalks. And the granite used in St. Petersburg, Russia was all imported from Finland. As you can imagine, there were tons and tons of it here, though not that same color. Who wants a tombstone that looks like a curb?
By the 20th century, engraving the deceased' signature became quite popular and it remains so.
Three colors of granite. Saw no plastic flowers but did see lanterns. In most of the cemetery, the trees were dense and large, as were the lilac bushes and other shrubs.
Tools were simply left out for anyone to use.
Remember, the Finns are an honest bunch. When Readers Digest did the "lost wallet" experiement in 16 cities, 11 out 12 wallets were returned in Helsinki, thus it was declared the most honest city in the world. (In Lisbon, where Mark had his phone stolen, just one was returned, and that was by a tourist.)
It was so nice being in a place where people were polite because that it who they are and not because they fear you'll pull a gun on them. Parents go into shops and leave the baby prams on the sidewalk. It was a clean and courteous city and never felt dangerous.
But, back to death, this woman was life size,
As were these folks
I have never wanted to be buried and never thought I'd have a plot, but the variety and artistry of this place made me think I just might like a marker of some kind.
Juhannes - midsummer night, a celebration of the shortest night (which got Christianized as an event honoring John the Baptist, thus the name) was celebrated here in Helsinki on the evening of the 24th and the 25th. As the young woman at the tourist office said, this holiday is as important as Christmas. Flower crowns are worn and most are delightfully wild.
The city begins to shut down on the Thursday before. Buses run weekend schedules, stores close by no later than 2 on Friday and most people leave town to a cottage up north, to cook out, sauna, drink and have a bonfire.
Here in the city, the "outdoor museum" on Seurasaari Island, presents a celebration that is steeped in history and is very family friendly.
Costumed musicians, singers and dancers perform. The woman to the right of the accordion is playing the bird call.
There is plenty of opportunity for the visitors to get involved, as in the "may pole" dance. And it wouldn't be Finland without some metal representation.
Each year since 1954, a couple has wed at the historic church among family and friends, dined at the historic vicarage, then joined the crowd to dance their first waltz.
Yes, they wear period clothing.
Meanwhile a number of bonfires are lit near the shore as a flotilla of observers view the flames from their boats and paddle boards.
The biggest fire is set ablaze by the happy couple, who are rowed to the place on a rocky outcropping in an 18th century style boat.
You can see that, while this island feels a million miles away, it's really right in the city. Bus 24.
(Photo taken about 10:15. It never gets truly dark this time of year.)
And so the days get shorter and we head back to pack for our return home.
Three days in St. Petersburg is hardly getting to know Russia, but here are some observations --
The Russians we talked to (and English is not commonly spoken, even in the heart of the tourist area) want Americans to know that we have nothing to fear from Putin. They say he's a good man, a sincere man. I'm not sure if they love Putin or they simply dont want to go back to a Cold War.
There were lots of souvenir stands around, but the ones in The Hermitage plaza did not carry Putin T shirts. I feel sure they were not allowed, as their meaning could be misinterpreted as making fun instead of deeply respecting.
Of course, some people love Putin and think the western leaders are idiots. We also saw a shirt with Obama as a turd which said "Don't forget to flush."
I read often that Russians aren't friendly and seem dour (which I also read about Finns) and we saw no evidence of that. It may be that people in the hospitality industry are just very hospitable.
This is Alexi. He bent our ears for about 20 minutes about Putin, communism, propaganda and cars. He's a Chevy man, all the way. When I asked to take his picture, he insisted on putting on his sunglasses. He said he wanted to look cooler. I wonder if he wanted to be less recognizable.
The hotel, a boutique place in a good neighborhood across from the Japanese embassy, was wonderful and the food everywhere we went was excellent. I had low expectations for food, but there was much deliciousness without meat. This whole trip has been easy for me because fish is everywhere, all the time. Salmon and herring for breakfast? Yes, please, and excellent bread, rye breads everywhere. The Baltic Diet works for me, and Mark is a total omnivore, so we have eaten very well.
The restaurant of our hotel, the Pushka Inn, was where we ate breakfast each day. It was also where, about 5 years ago, a certain American did as well.
Our last meal in Russia was in a charming basement place that kept bunnies as pets. When I asked why, our waitress said they just like them and children love them. They also had a roomy alcove filled with pillows and children's books, so kids could hang out while parents lingered. How civilized.
We all enjoyed our brief visit to Russia. People were very friendly, the food was excellent, the hotel lovely. Since Russia has figured so large in my life, from the Cuban Missle crisis, the space race, the Berlin Airlift, the end of the USSR, Mark's US born Russian boss for more than 20 years, to my Dad's fascination with the place and my love of Dr. Zhivago, I wasn't quite sure of what to expect, even in a very tourist place like SPb, but I liked it a lot and wished I'd had more opportunity to talk with people.
I cannot recall a time when I was not fascinated with Russia, with the Czars and the story of the Anastasia, the daughter of Nicholas the Second who was executed with her entire family by the Bolsheviks. Or did she survive? I remember seeing a Hallamrk Hall of Fame teleplay starring Julie Harris as the maybe heiress and being so moved by it I got out a library book about the Romanovs and learned all I could.
The Winter Palace, which was already becoming a museum by the time we were fighting the Civil War, is now The Hermitage, another thing I don't recall not knowing about. It is one of the top museums in the world and in truth, I never really thought I'd see it. It is enormous and its collection is amazing.
Now, I've been to The Louvre, The Rijksmuseum, The Met, The Prado and I can say that I've never been so close to being trampled at any museum in my life.
Crowds? I've done them, but what makes The Hermitage different is that it seems nearly 90% of visitors come as part of a tour group. Flocks of people with earbuds, oblivious to other humans, dash from Famous Painting to Famous Sculpture like ice cutters in the Arctic, smashing through any humans who stands in their way.
And if there was any air conditioning, it was not obvious, so it's was about 80 degrees and humid inside, a babble of languages being shouted by non-amplified tour guides and what should have been a transcendent experience became Penn Station on Friday of Labor Day Weeknd.
And, as we said about Versailles, looking at that incredible opulence, it's easy to see why the peasants revolted. I'm sure there is a lesson there for America, but it will go unheed.
On June 22 1941, 3.5 million German troops began their invasion of Russia, a nation unprepared for Hitler's advance because Stalin refused to believe the intelligence he received.
We were in St. Petersburg on that day this year and watched troops parade in the square in front of The Hermitage.
There was also a display of WW ll vehicles and men in uniforms from that era posing with the many who wanted pictures.
Two things struck us.
First, that the Russian, our allies, recall when they were caught unaware with far more pageantry than we remember Pearl Harbor. Second, that WW ll is being recalled in a most official manner, where we in the states have rather relegated it to Turner Classic Movies on Memorial Day weekend.
On a side note, there were also opportunities for kids to hold old time weapons which many seemed eager to do. I watched a cluster of kiddos holding rifles and other long guns and thought - where do you think you are? Texas?
This must be the most photographed thing in St. Petersburg.
It is the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. It was built on the site where Czar Alexander ll was assassinated in 1881 when his carriage was blown up. It was not the first attempt on his life.
The interesting thing to me was the interior, which is all mosaics.
Like everything else in this tourist town, there was a line to get in and it was packed inside. Outside, buskers and venders and snack sellers plied their trades. We tossed 100 ruble notes (75 to the dollar) Into backpacks and guitar cases and strolled down along the canal back to our hotel.
And the two young musicians whose picture I posted on FB? They were playing La Cucaracha.
This is a view from the deck of the Princess Maria, a ferry that hold about 1500 people and attempts to show them a good time as they cruise from Helsinki to St. Petersburg.
It is not a Carnival cruise. There is a small casino and some musicians, but passengers on this ship are aboard for only about 15 hours. The upholstery is blue velveteen and has seen better days, but it was not disappointing, as my expectations were realistic.
We arrive in Russia at 9:30am and grabbed a cab to our hotel. I regret that we have no picture of our cabbie, a man of firm opinions with a thick accents and at high volume, but with many hand gestures and a rather jolly attitude.
"Mr. Putin" is good. Obama doesn't listen. China is our friend. Don't like Clintons. Life was much better under communism, when he had a good salary as a cab driver. Now, he is his boss and he works much more for less money. He say "Taxi drivers are the niggers of Russia." He used the same descriptive word for Obama.
After man wrong turns, we arrived at our very nice hotel and set off to see some St. Pete.
These shoes are made of chocolate. Louboutins.
Dined at a great restaurant, sort of nouveau Russian/world food. Best meal so far. But this place could have been in Barcelona or San Fransisco or anywhere - vintage wood, cool lighting, visible kitchen, old brick walls. In the west, at least, ther are no differences in what is popular or hip. We've seen plenty of man buns in Russia and tattoos in Finland.
Again, is a tad disappointing that foreign is not very foreign any more. To the good, people do not seen to have any prejudices about Americans, like many did back in the 70s when we were truly foreigners. I guess they get that we are not our politicians and we know that they are not theirs.