HELSINKI

Oh, man, brrr. Woke after seven hours because I couldn’t breathe; went back to the Lido Deck, and the world was gone:

 

 

Back inside to the Lido buffet to nurse a cup of coffee and wonder how long the day was going to feel. I like the ship in the early morning.

 

 

Completely stuffed up; chilly dank fog; Finland for the morning and early afternoon. After we’d assembled we got on the bus - again! - and went past old industrial sites and preposterously expensive apartments, into Helsinki. Nothing was particularly interesting until the bus drew up next to a Lutheran church of unbelievable dimensions.

 


 

We didn’t get to go in. The guide started us towards our next destination, moving at a brisk clip that left some stragglers wheezing and waving. Down a shopping street, with some fine old buildings. Two statues demonstrating something allegorical about string:

 

 

Across the street was something the guide wanted us to note. An old insurance company:

 

 

 

Look at the carvings: there are some grotesques at the bottom, but I love the bears. The bear with the torch, the lower bears - to use the technical term; sorry, but the cold medication is kicking in. (It’s fargin’ DRISTAN. That’s what they have on this ship: FIFTEEN DOLLAR DRISTAN.) And then the organic capitols with the branches. Very cool and very Finnish. But here’s the thing: the tour guide said the architect was Eliel Saarinen.

 

What? Really? Mr. Modern? Eero's Dad? Extraordinary. Well, we moved on, turned a corner, and headed to the train station. I love old train stations. Noble civic structures. Romance and drama. When I saw the spire, I had a jolt:

I jogged ahead to the guide, and good little apple-polisher that some people are when they’re on these things, I said “That’s Saarinen, isn’t it.” She smiled and nodded. I recognized the man’s style from the Chicago Tribune competitio - then I saw the rest of the structure, and fell completely in love. It’s straight out of Gotham City.

 

 

 

The four figures are completely oversized, massive and startling, and serve no functional purpose. No specific allegorical purpose, either - unless the globes symbolize the Earth, and the travel across its surface one can begin from within these walls. They simply command your attention and anchor the structure deep in the earth from which these Titans sprang. It’s been a long time since I fell in love with a building instantly. Swooned. Imagine whole blocks of the city built in this style, alternating with the plain buildings with their plastered facades; imagine something this abrupt anchoring your view every six or ten blocks. It fits, that’s the thing; it’s connected. It’s modern, but it belongs to the city it inhabits.

One more thing: that was designed in 1909.

Saarinen's son, of course, gave America a few landmarks - and together, they designed a church about 30 blocks from my house.

We went in a side door, so I didn’t have a chance to get close - until the group paused in the main room, and I ran outside. As long as I still heard crackles in my earpiece from the tour guide, they hadn’t shot off in another direction.

Then we went - and I realize that the entirety of this sequences of entries can be summed up in “then we went” - past a piece of post-war neon that just says EUROPE to me, probably because it reminds me of something in a Tintin comic:

 

 

. . . and then to a barren plaza, where the real instruction began. Look at this:

 

 

It’s Anywhere. There’s a stylistic similarity to the other grand structures - they belong to Europe, the 18th and 19th and early 20th centuries; they speak of the old orders, the sustaining culture, the organizing principles and assumptions. This place above is the modern world, anywhere, rootless, vague, inert, remote. Oh, it’s interesting. But the heart doesn’t sing upon seeing it. The building on the right is the modern museum, and the tour guide said that when it opened most people were disinclined to like its contents, but Finns, being curious and interested in what’s new and wanting to talk about what everyone else is talking about, went there regularly. Not because they want to, but because there’s an assumption that this is what thinking people do. They go to art museums to see abstract things, “and if it makes you have a reaction,” she said, “Then that is what art does.”

Really? A bird flew into our veranda today, tried to get out, hit its head on the glass, defecated, and threw up a minnow. That was a reaction.

But they’re proud of it, and proud of the new music building as well. On we slagged. You can too:

 

 

That's the street that goes past the new Music Academy, the Parliament, and past the park.

Google Street View will not show this modern memorial to Urho Kekkonen, big-time Finnish president. Behold:

 

 

It’s a pond, with agitators keeping the water busy. The idea: the president was often described as a fellow whose mind was always working, hence the bubbling water. Above:

 

 

Four hands. No one quite knows what they mean, except that they are big hands, and he was a big man. Who had four arms. Close by, a moldering piece of 60s modernism completed in the 70s:

 

 

It’s by the famous Finnish architect and designer, Alvar Aalto. (That’s what suicidal-designers shout just before they push the button.) The guide said he wanted to build many more like this, in the same material, with the same low profile, and he wanted - here we go with the 60s guys - to fill in the adjacent lake and build lots and lots and LOTS of them! for that marvelous Brasila feel. This did not happen. Just as well - the building looks tired and old, and while it has the look of the master’s work, it’s not his best, and changing fashions have undone whatever appeal it has. We move on, and across the street: the new Opera building.

 

 

This looks to be from the 80s, and hence it’s a bit more connected; a few post-modern historical touches connect it with the common vocabulary, but it looks even more faddish than the Alvar Aalto piece, and the public spaces are vacant and uninviting. You could shoot a good nighttime scene of Miami Vice here, but that’s about it. It seems to be turning away from you at every turn; you never grasp the entire thing the way you’d read the facade of the Paris Opera House.

But those new buildings, the art museum and the music building, those are timeless! Last forever, they will, ever new. Uh huh. The best parts of the modern architecture, aside from the Eero buildings? The ones that don’t try at all. The ones that sit comfortably next to a 1920s apartment house. Good neighbors. “The design capital of the world,” the guide kept reminding us.

They do have competition, if you look closely.

 

 

Note: the stools in Apple stores are based on an Aalto design.

“I don’t see many children,” said one member of the party, and the guide said “no, not so many. People instead have pets.” A woman jogged past, on cue, with a dog. The guide explained that the population is not growing quickly, despite all the measures the state has put into place to make it easy to afford children. “But women, they are ambitious for their career, and do not want to take too much time off, even though they can be on pension for three years. So they do not have babies or as many.”

Thus the Finns wind down. We stepped over a decal on the walkway. Summed it up.

 

 

About the lingo. As I mentioned before I have no aptitude for non-Romance tongues, and a limited skill with those that spring from the Latin roots, but for GOD’S SAKE.

 

 

Okay, there are pictures. That’s helpful. But for criminey joseph’s sake:

 

 

We ended at the Church of the Rock, a church built into an outcropping. Quite a feat. The original 1930s plan would have leveled the rock and built a stark tall structure with a spire poking heaven. This one huddles beneath the rock, the congregants snug as bunnies in a warren. Bare concrete everywhere.

“It may look unfinished,” said the guide, “But that was the style at the time.”

Rough surfaces, the lowliest material, the finishing touches forbidden, the painter and the sculptor turned away from the jobsite office. That was the style, indeed.

 


 

If this sounds like I was underwhelmed by Helsinki, it's not the case; I enjoyed my time there. Felt more private and unapproachable, somehow. Or it was the Dristan.

 

Back to the ship. I didn’t want to go to dinner with a red nose and sniffles. Ate in the Lido buffet, then we went to the Song Trivia Sing Along, which pretty much defines cruise entertainment: glib Brit MC (JC, of course) playing tunes off his iPod, first eight bars, name the song and the singer - but the fun starts after everyone’s well into his / her cups, and we sing along when the answers are given. Songs from the 40s, 50s, and 60s! Except no songs from the 40s and two songs from the 70s and one from the 90s, but never mind. Lots of Boomer Tunes. Lots of japery about the lousy prizes. High-fives among the greyhairs and lanky bald guys. We got 35 out of 40, which wasn’t bad for a team of two, but the winners got 38.

By “pretty much defines cruise entertainment” I mean, fun: if you can’t find the pleasure in singing “Shake, Rattle and Roll” at the top of your lungs, there’s no hope for you. It was in the Queen’s Lounge, which is right off the Northern Lights, up the hallway from the Casino Bar where I recall getting a drink at 2 AM or so last voyage, one of those long nights where you look over at the card table and see a great novelist and the author of some controversial presidential advisory position-papers playing poker with grim resolve. It’s a haunted ship, I tell you. This morning at the Lido Deck, looking out into the fog, I thought: three tables over I was arguing with Ed Driscoll about the typeface used for the PJ Media lifestyle section. (Mistral.)

What I can’t imagine is living here all the time. But I was young enough with a bright talent for keeping a room going, a sackful of quips, a love of the mike and the spot, what a grand life it would be. For a while. It’s a living, and the grub’s good. And there’s a uniform to wear for the posh trade reception.

It’s a quarter to eleven now. The sky is all bright gauze - no dark, no stars. Full fog. The horn sounds every 30 seconds, and I imagine the bridge is alert with the sensors sweeping far and close. Rumor says Sweden will be cold and damp, which fits. One of the great civilizations, its wars of aggression and consolidation now forgotten and forgiven. Wonder what I'll see?

I've no idea. So let's go.

NEXT: HOP ON! HOP OFF!