Sunday, October 28, 2012

Jean Sibelius: Finland's Greatest Composer

After you start the video you can scroll down while listening. 
Jean Sibelius was born in 1865 and died in 1957.   He lived for over fifty years with his wife Aino in a lovely home some 30 miles north of Helsinki.  It is named Ainola after her and today is a pilgrimadge destination for music lovers from all over the world.  The grounds seem to evoke an almost cathedral like reverence.  Wildflowers carpet the paths. The predominant sounds come from the wind blowing through the trees and the calls of birds. It seems a fitting home space and resting place for a composer who spent a full life turning the sights and sounds of his native land into music.  

You reach his home from the modern visitor center on a winding path through the woods

Wildflowers line your way as you approach the house


Ainola is nestled on the brow of a hill among the trees. There is a nice open view from the living room window. 

Personal photography is not allowed inside the home, but I was able to reproduce a shot of the living room from a postcard I purchased. You can see the front window on the left of the frame. Sibelius' piano is in the rear center.

Nearby in the grounds there is an outbuilding

 that contains a bathroom,                                                         a laundry

                                                                         and a sauna.

There's a large woodshed that is still filled to the brim.  It is easy to forget how much wood would have been needed to heat a home through the long Finnish winters.  

A little further on is the shaded gravesite of Sibelius and his wife

Jean Sibelius and his wife Ainola around the time of their marriage


The gravestone

When you arrive here you can scroll back up and listen to the rest of the piece or just go on your way.
I'll be back to take you to Porvoo  in a few days.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Vimpeli Here We Come

Vimpeli is truly rural Finland.  The town's population is around 3000 and it is surrounded by agriculture. Our new in-law's farm has been in the family for generations. It is a beautiful spot with lush fields of rafe seed (used to make canola oil) and rimmed by orderly spruce woods.

What remains uppermost in my mind in addition to the warmth and hospitality of our new family is  the magnificent food,  going to a Finnish baseball game,  Saturday Market Day in Vimpeli,  and the experience of a Finnish Smoke (wood fired) Sauna.

The food was often exotic to us, but it was always scrumptious.  We had reindeer meat with bacon, raw fish with dill,  several kinds of herring,  sausages with mustard,  little whole fried fish from the local lake, fresh strawberry cake, new potatos freshly dug that morning, salmon soup, and much more.

You eat these little fellows whole just like french fries.
The sausage lady deals them out hot and fresh

and we scarf them down with plenty of tangy mustard

Attending a Finnish baseball game looked at first as if it were going to be a perfectly familiar experience.

The park entrance looks quite normal and the stands are filled with cheering fans. 

But when the game starts things get a little dodgy.

You will note that the pitcher is standing right next to the home plate and just tosses the ball straight up into the air.  The batter strides forward and gives it a wack as the ball comes down.  His teamates are not in a dugout; they are right out there behind the batter with their arms in the air.  The bases are  arranged differently from American baseball and are also more like an area then a base. See map and picture below.

Runners love to slide into the bases in a marvelously graceful manner.

Another difference was that the players were all decked out in uniforms covered with advertisements. They reminded me more of race car drivers.

I never did quite figure out how runs were scored.   Long hits that landed beyond the dirt area of the field were outs and not home-runs.  Balls that landed inside the dirt area and skidded thruough an outfielder and into the grassy perimeter were fair and objects of great cheering.  The field had a river running at the tree line in what we would call left and center field.  I was told that if a fair hit rolled into the river it was still in play and an outfielder had to go in and get it. Quite an interesting little watery twist. 

Scoring was made even more of a mystery because the scoreboard had been hit by lightening the week before and was not operable. 

No matter it was still fun and the crowd was just as boisterous and partisan as in any American park. 

On Saturday we headed into Vimpeli to take a look at Market Day.

It looked and felt like any small town celebration anywhere in the world.  Lots of tent like booths and tables staffed by people selling their wares.

There were bouncy things for the kids.

and helium balloons were handed out for free by a political party. 
A local businessman mixes up salmon chowder and serves it free to all comers. 
 It was a young people's favorite.
Many of the older folks just find a seat and have a chat
We also had the time to tour a church near the town center.  It is round with a detached belfry and is  a jewel inside and out.



According to the Rough Guide to Finland Finns say that "First you build a sauna, then you build a house."  No matter what the order a sauna is literally a necessity for a Finnish home.  There are some two million saunas in Finland, which means that there is one for every 2.65 inhabitants.  Most of them are electric these days, but we were treated to a Smoke (wood fired) Sauna on our in-law's farm.   
 The old wood sauna is located down a path through the rafe seed field and about 100 yards from the house.  It take several hours to feed the fire that heats up the interior stones.
There's no chimney so you kind of watch the smoke percolate out from the eaves.

It looks about ready.  First you disrobe and take a shower or pour some water over yourself from the large vessel outside of the sauna proper. Don't forget a towel as the seats inside can get toasty.  That is an understatement. Sitting on them without a towel could be compared to plopping down on the surface of a hot BBQ grill.   Now just step in, close the door, sit down, relax, and sweat out all those impurities.  To kick in the overdrive you take a dipper of water from the blue tank just inside the door and pour it on the heated stones. The steamy blast perks the temperature up several more degrees.  Locals last fifteen to thirty minutes inside these chambers; we didn't even make ten before we headed for the exit. There was no snow bank or lake to jump into for cool down, but dippers of water from the tub outside did the trick.  Then we donned snuggly bathrobes and took a quiet sit in a nearby outbuilding that was equipped with cool drinks and comfortable chairs. 
Pleasure was added by a brief evening rain shower and a rainbow arching over the woods.
And finally a sunset around 11:30 PM
 All I can say is the Finns have got something here and we love it. 
Next up is a visit to Porvoo and the house that the great Finnish composer Sibelius lived in.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

North out of Helsinki to Seinioki

"'The unexamined life', said Socrates, 'is not worth living.'  The converse is also true. The unlived life is not worth examining."  Robert Hughes, art critic and author in 1987. 
So on we go in our summer's travel to Finland.  Let's travel now about three and a half hour's north of Helsinki to the small city of Seinajoki.  .  We were pleased in Seinajoki to be able to see a bit of the marvelous summer celebration of Tango, have some great food, and to marvel at the signature church of one of Finland's greatest architects, Alvar Aalto.

Travel north out of Helsinki is via fast, smooth, comfy electrified passenger service

Soon you are passing castles

and archytypal Finnish countryside with neat red farm buildings, lush fields, and green forests.
Seinioki is a spic and span modern city about the size of Galesburg, IL
 The Tango Festival was in full swing.  Strangely this is not just a dance competition but instead a kind of  all purpose  drinking, singing, dancing, music, summerfest that draws thousands of people from all over Europe. It has been going on in Seinioki for twenty years.

The town center is literally closed off to make room in the streets for various booths, open air bars, rock music venues, and semi-carnival attractions.  The main singing contest is sort of like American Idol for the geriatric set and is nationally televised.

Some Tangoers dress in national costume; others prefer spikey colored hair and jeans.

The streets are lined with craft booths and food stalls
For the truly daring there was even a hoist into the sky and a bungi jump.
This may be the countryside, but Seinioki is blessed with plenty of fine food.
Their Prisma supermaket puts a Super Target to shame

Aisles are wide and they sell everything from candy to stoves and refrigerators.


Restaurants can serve local gourmet fare

or the best of Americana. 

The most impressive sight in town is the slim and striking  bell tower designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. 

 Off to the real rural  Finland in our next episode where we will attend Saturday Market Day, tour the local church, and experience a Finnish Baseball game.