Friday, June 27, 2014

Stories on Stage

Tonight Dave and I are heading out to Sacramento, where Stories on Stage is producing one of my stories together with a story by Tom Barbash. Here's their blurb for the program:

He’s a playwright who can’t stay awake.
She’s a Russian immigrant too easily fooled.
Two characters. Two stories you won’t be able to forget.
This month at Stories on Stage Sacramento
Tom Barbash
and a reading of the title story from his collection, Stay Up With Me, by actor Dougie Pieper
with emerging writer Olga Zilberbourg
whose story,  What Goes Around, will be read by actor and playwright Elise Marie Hodge

7 pm, Sacramento Poetry Center
1719 25th street

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Living like the locals in Helsinki

Summers on the Baltic are unpredictable, probably more so these days than ever before. A popular joke that we heard both in Helsinki and Tallinn goes, "We have a beautiful summer here. Too bad I was working that day." This year, the heat wave came through the area in May, and by the time Dave and I got here, the rains set in and the temperature hovered around mid- to low- fifties. For us, this was not too unlike San Francisco winter, so we "dressed like cabbages" (as they say in Russian) in layers and borrowed an umbrella from the hotel. We also made use of the hotel's swimming pool and sauna. They say that saunas in Finland outnumber the local population; nearly every Finnish dwelling, from a flat in a highrise to a country house, includes a sauna.

Panorama of a small part of Helsinki archipelago
For the second part of our stay in Helsinki, after my family left, our friends Olga and Ron kindly hosted us at their home, and Dave and I got a chance to live like the locals. We shopped for funky European-style clothing, rode bicycles through several small islands connected to the center city by bridges, tasted the local brews, took long midnight walks under the never-setting sun, and eventually ended up in Tallinn, Estonia, where many Finns go for cheap entertainment. Our new friend Leo, a transplant to Helsinki from Venezuela, invited Dave to go paddle boarding in the Baltic, apparently a fairly popular activity. I was nearly seduced by the idea on Dave's behalf, but for some reason Dave decided to abstain.

Dave at Cafe Regatta (a popular paddle boarding location)
Cool bicycle stand
One night, Ron showed us around the Katajanokka neighborhood that boasts an unusually high concentration of Jugendstil houses with intricate facade inlays and small details on doors and windows. One of the main attractions of the area is a historical prison, recently converted into a hotel, Best Western Katajanokka. We walked the hallways for the experience, not unlike if Alcatraz were converted into a hotel--spooky enough, but nevertheless doing great business.

Dave and I noticed that most of the historical buildings downtown Helsinki were in a very good state of repair, and Ron explained that each building is mandated to take care of its facades. Each tenant contributes to the building's accounts (similar to a condo fee), and tenant boards run the overall finances. Certain buildings own the storefronts on the ground floor, and the income from the lease helps to assuage the cost of building maintenance.
Lenin stayed here

On our first day in Finland, Dave spotted that the local department store Sokos used font styling identical to the Gap. This discovery prompted investigation on our part (including buying shirts on the premises), and though we found no relationship to the Gap, we did learn that much of the retail business in the country is controlled by two competing conglomerates, the S Group (to which Sokos belongs) and Kesko Corporation. Until recently, the supermarkets of the Kesko Corporation were identified as K, KK, KKK, and KKKK based on the size of the stores, but it seems that recently Kesko rebranded and K-sized stores became K-citymarkets, and KKKs turned into K-markets. Ron, disturbed by the standardization this arrangement brings to the lifestyle, commented that the loyalty cards of each of these groups could take care of anyone's everyday needs, from grocery shopping to gas stations and household and gardening supplies. Of the two, he seemed to prefer the K shops, as their franchising agreements with the store owners are looser and allow for more initiative and differentiation between the stores.
At Olga and Ron's apartment, cool Finnish design

Like Swedes and other Nordics, Finns celebrate Midsummer. The public holiday always falls on a Friday, between the 19th and 25th of June. Most residents of Helsinki go to the islands, stocking up on food and alcohol ahead of time. Come Thursday night some shops and restaurants started closing early and others were completely booked as people gathered together to party. We chose that night to board the ferry and take a short two-hour ride across the Baltic to Tallinn. Kostya's girlfriend Danya joined us on that trip.

View of Tallinn port from Fat Margareta, tower on the city wall
First mentions of Tallinn date to the 12th Century, and for much of its history, it has been associated with the Hanseatic League. Though bombed during WWII, the old town, including parts of the town wall, has been well preserved and qualified as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The old town is fairly small and well-suited to day trips; many cruises stop here and by day the town seemed overrun by tour groups speaking Russian, English, Finnish, German, Spanish, etc. By night, the tour groups left, and the locals flooded in to the Estonian and Russian-speaking bars and clubs. Midsummer celebrations caught up with us here on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning, as we were leaving for the airport, we spotted some of the same characters milling in front of the closing clubs.

Dave blogs here about the last few days of our travels.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Good times Helsinki

With Maya at Maya Latin American Bar & Grill
Due to the tense political situation in and around Russia, Dave and I decided to meet my parents in Helsinki, Finland this year. A brisk two-hour ride on the high speed rail conveniently connects Helsinki to St. Petersburg. Alternatively, it takes about five to six hours to traverse the distance by car. Dave and I flew to Helsinki from Marburg (via Frankfurt airport), while my parents with my aunt Maya rode the train.

The geographical proximity makes Finland the number one tourist and transit destination for St. Petersburgians. Finnish visas are fairly easy to get, and many Russians come here to shop, to ski and vacation on various nature resorts, to take budget flights to destinations elsewhere in Europe and around the world. Once Dave and I announced our travel plans to friends and family members in Russia, several found they could join us here for anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days. Another considerable attraction of Helsinki as a meeting point was that our friends Olga and Ron live here, and having passed an unforgettable New Year's Eve together, we looked forward to spending more time with them this summer. They helped us a great deal with making complex hotel arrangements and restaurant reservations for groups of fifteen to eighteen people.

Olga, Ron, Vadik, Lena, Tanya, and Vanya at Elite Restaurant
Family selfie :)
For nearly seven centuries Finland belonged to the Swedish Empire, from the 12th Century until 1809, when the Russian Empire won the war against the Swedes and took it over. After the Bolshevik revolution, Finland proclaimed its independence and managed to defend itself in the ensuing civil war. A considerable part of Finland's population is Swedish, and Swedish is considered a national language on par with Finnish. All the signs at museums and on maps are labeled in the two languages, and sometimes also in English and Russian. According to Ron, a Swedish-speaking Finn himself, the presence of Swedish is most felt in Helsinki: traditionally, Finns were an agrarian people who preferred to live off the land and the sea, and the Swedes and the Russians built forts and cities. In the past fifty or so years, the dynamic has changed, and today Helsinki's predominant population is Finnish.

Aunt Anya with tablet and lily pads

Dave blogs here about our experiences in Finland through its food culture.

With Lena, toasting Olga's birthday
Helsinki (Helsingfors in Swedish) itself is by far the largest city in Finland, with over 600,000 residents--similar to Frankfurt and a little smaller than San Francisco. It's located directly on the coast of the Baltic sea, though sheltered from the open waters by the massive archipelago of more than three hundred islands. Large cruise ships, ferry boats, pleasure and fishing craft, ice breakers come in directly to the city harbor. One of these days, if it stops raining for long enough, Dave and I are hoping to rent bicycles and ride along the coast--a journey that could last from a couple of hours to a few days and maybe weeks. On Sunday, in honor of Olga's birthday, we did have an opportunity to take a ferry ride to one of the islands for brunch at a newly opened restaurant. The Baltic is a famously moody sea. On the way back, a strong wave pushed our boat against the landing, and a low-hanging log cracked a window of the lower deck. Luckily, the window was made of safety glass and as it broke down into shards, the two women sitting beside it escaped unscathed, rescuing their bags and sodas (protected by lids) from under the glass. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Visiting Marburg University

Many towns have universities, Marburg is a university—or so according to one town slogan. Of 72,000 residents, 25,000 are students and additional 8,000 teach and work at the university. Philipps-Universität began as the first Protestant University in 1527, and over the centuries graduated a number of illustrious students. The most notable, perhaps, are brothers Grimm who studied philology here and collected tales from the local society women. In the 19th Century, the University boasted one of the most prestigious philosophy departments in Europe; T.S. Eliott, Ortega y Gasset, Boris Pasternak, and Hannah Arendt studied there. This particular bit of history brought Dave and me to Marburg for a few days. My novel-in-progress is set during the summer semester of 1912, just before Professor Hermann Cohen, the head of the philosophy department, retired.

The door of the Marburg's medieval
Rathaus opens automatically

If you thought you could simply waltz into this ancient university and be directed to its archives, you’re more or less right. Within an hour of arrival on campus, I held in my hands the microfilm of the local newspaper for the year 1912 and was able to scan in the pages I needed and save them to my USB card, all free of charge. No one had asked for any form of ID or even as much as my name. The miracle repeated later when I wished to browse the stacks of the Philosophy department library. The young man working there asked me to leave my backpack on the bench by the door and led me to the stacks, explaining their organization system: books were shelved according to the author’s date of birth and then alphabetized by the last name. Instantly I had access to the most obscure tomes that seemed impossible to locate from the US. As a reader who for years had been intimidated by Stanford’s and Berkeley’s library access policies, I nearly cried from happiness.

With equal ease I made appointments to speak with two university professors, a third was out of town but promised to answer my questions via email. One of the professors met me at a charming riverside café, Am Grün (On the Green), connected to a bookstore, Rote Stern (The Red Star). Unlike most cafés in Germany where it’s customary to pay for food and drink at the table, "kollektiv" Am Grün requested that customers paid for their purchases at the counter and stayed for as long as they liked: the cooperative disapproved of consumerism and didn’t want to force it on their guests. The professor led me to a terrace on the riverside, and as we talked, he drank black coffee and rolled cigarettes. A philosopher and a musician (he plays classical guitar), he combined the two in his work, writing extensively on the philosophy of music. He named a few people in the history of philosophy who played instruments and composed music, among them professor Hermann Cohen, who wrote pieces for piano and violin.
Beach bar
Students taking lunch break

The university blended with the town, and on nearly every block we encountered yet another administrative or academic building. The medieval castle, once the seat of the local princes, now housed the university’s ethnographic collection. Nearby a boxy building from the 1970s housed the physics department. The Old University, a 19th Century neo-Gothic building where Professor Cohen taught, now housed the theology department, and the adjacent 16th Century Dominican church, now Protestant, is still used for services and exhibit space. The main library and the humanities department stood across the river, in the buildings known colloquially as “the elephants’ legs” for their characteristic 1970s and 1980s plain functional architecture, odd-looking next to the medieval old town. The lower floors of these contemporary buildings, minimalistic in their design and smeared by angry and humorous graffiti, provided ample study benches and some plugs for the students’ laptops and phones; at lunchtime, a cafeteria truck stopped in front of the doors to offer coffee, sandwiches, and sweets. The upper floors were orderly and clean, the entrances to the hallways enclosed by doors, presumably locked in the evening.

Ice cream line

The students dominated the town’s social life. They boated on the river, studied by the riverside,picnicked and played badminton and Frisbee in the parks, practiced juggling and some kind of variation of skittles, relaxed at the beach-style bars on the river, ate at the cafés and ice cream shops (a couple on every block!), rode bicycles down every conceivable alley, shopped at the bookstores and at the grocery stores. Dave and I mixed in as much as we could (though we didn't eat at the Mensa, the student cafeteria, or sought out to the late night discos) and enjoyed a few days of perfect tranquility and intellectual and epicurean pursuits.