A few of you asked me to send updates of my travels, and I decided that perhaps the rest of you just have the right to know and were perhaps too shy to ask, so here goes my draft of the Erin’s Travelogue.
After spending a week relaxing in Florida I left for Helsinki in a pleasant fog of calm. My mother had set it up so that I would arrive at the airport six hours early so there wasn’t much to worry about except going crazy with boredom. I arrived in Manchester (my stop-over) and had the brief culture shock of watching men and women drinking beer and smoking at 7:30 in the morning, as if the airport lounge was the break room of a factory and all of these people had just done the night shift. I wandered around for a while and luckily had my stash of English pounds left over from a previous journey (I also took what was left of my Russian rubles, more for dramatic color than any real necessity).
I flew into Helsinki and had to assure the customs officials that there would be someone to pick me up at the airport. The seriousness of situations like these are totally lost on me, and I tend to giggle like I am in a scene from Monty Python, where the solid faces of the customs of officials seem ridiculous and any moment we might all break into a Producers’ style song and dance number.
My friend, the artist Erno Enkenberg picked me up at the airport and we ran some errands for his work, dropping off design objects to some photographers. Back at his apartment I was quickly introduced to the drama that was unfolding at his flat. It appears that his roommate is a womanizer and brings a different lady friend home every evening to the sound of giggles and hard-heeled steps. His other roommate is a silent hipster. His third roommate is a nice woman who is on Skype most of the time with her boyfriend in Italy. The flat is on the second floor in downtown Helsinki and is rather rickety and pieced together, cracks in the ceilings, strange machine noises, a bathroom shower that is cobbled together and more than once I was worried I would knock it over while I was in it. But it is also sort of grand with high ceilings and nice molding. The building also houses the Flemish Walloon Embassy, which must be small, since they work out of an apartment.
While in Finland I visited markets, the cinema (I saw TransAmerica!), restaurants and my friend Erno’s studio. All of these things were pleasant and nice, but I was rather jet lagged the first few days (eleven hour time difference from California) so it was all in a haze. I also had the chance to travel to Erno’s father’s cabin in the countryside, which was fun despite no running water and toilets “au naturelle.” Erno got the flu while I was there so I was on my own for three days while he ran a high fever—playing Caddie Woodlawn or Laura Ingalls Wilder much like I was as a kid. I ran around and took photographs, investigating all the areas of my surroundings: the white mesmerizing patterns of the birch trees, ice crystals clinging to the trees and reeds, snow angels and tracks to be traced.
While in Helsinki it was cold but not unbearable and I learned to love the vast whiteness that painted the city. Erno and I took a walk on the frozen bay and the snow was so white and clean it was like scoops of coconut sorbet (and it was very easy to imagine the snow as sweet). The reflection off the whiteness feels like an antiseptic, cleaning out the corners of your mind. I felt like all of the ice walking I did in Helsinki and in the woods cleared out a lot of the color noise in my head—the blizzards of advertisements, overheard speech, culture, music, cell phone rings, and phone calls. It was sort of like walking in a heavenly meditative space of clear white consciousness.
Another aspect of clearing out my consciousness was that the Finnish language is completely impenetrable to me. It is a Finno-Ugric language related to Hungarian. Because Finnish does not have a Latin basis all of the general markers I would use to place myself in the language are gone. It is a pretty language and at times it sounded like a chime out of a wind-up music box, sort of tinny, creaky, yet still sweet and melodic. Sitting in cafes, with the tables close together, I was in an ignorant bliss of what people could be talking about and was not able to place myself in the self-referential dialogue of overheard talk. But I still noticed that my mind made up what people were saying, so that in a long sentence I heard a word that sounded like “kangaroos” I just imagined from there. Oh, they are talking about Australia, or the zoo. Sadly, it was a good effort on my part but I wasn’t ever right, even once.
And I have thought that this might be that makes (in my perception) Finnish people such strict literalists. Marimekko’s most famous designer, Maije Isola basically did blown-up interpretations of natural objects: Poppies, tress, and grass. Large, natural reflections of patterns that exist in nature where all of the beauty is clean, stark, and exposed. Finnish people seem to be more literalists than dreamers—they fix what is already there and improve upon it rather than build fantastical things. It is the glorification of the common place, utility, of what already exists outside one’s window, interpreted, but still recognizable. Speech also follows within this paradigm—things are exactly as you say them. Speech carries a stronger sense of reality–a steely bent that is more of a one to one correlation between how someone feels and what is. Coming from California where everything is at times over spoken, and people referred to as flaky, I felt that that this is one way of reading things and that while I may not have the skills to understand exactly what that is, it is a different way of doing things that I took some comfort in.
I was trying to explain to my friend Heidi how I felt about the Finnish people in comparison to my American cultural experiences. I mentioned that in all of their seriousness and stoic qualities I sensed an old fashioned (or what I perceive as being as old fashioned as a black and white movie, but is, in actuality a beautiful thing I wish I saw more in modern society) that a Finn’s word is their bond. If they say it, that is the way that it is. Heidi said that she recognized that quality and compared it to the Finnish word, “sisu.” Sisu is a word that means perseverance, and is part of the Finnish spirit. Heidi told me there is also candy called sisu, which is a brand of salt licorice that can be quite addictive. I looked it up on the web and this is what I found in terms of a definition:
“Sisu is a unique Finnish concept. It stands for the philosophy that what must be done will be done, regardless of what it takes. Sisu is a special strength and persistent determination and resolve to continue and overcome in the moment of adversity…an almost magical quality, a combination of stamina, perseverance, courage, and determination held in reserve for hard times. In the past Finns were obliged to struggle against nature and against foreign intruders. Despite all of the drawbacks along the way, the struggle gave a lot of strength. The early settlers found inspiration in the Finnish landscape, sky and in mythological heroes who taught them that it was possible to overcome obstacles. In more recent times the same sources have been the basic source of inspiration for athletes, artists, designers and architects who have made Finland known to the world.”
And if you think things are not that different, I was shocked by this scene. I am walking on an icy Helsinki street and a woman, maybe twenty to thirty yards away from me up the street fell over on the slick sidewalk. The man who was behind her kept on walking although he had seen it, as if nothing had happened, not offering her a hand or even asking if she was all right. I can imagine this happening on Fillmore and California, and my outgoing fellow Californians coming out of coffeeshops to help out, maybe even cars stopping on the street. Sisu, is the will to do it alone, I suppose. The stoic toughness to fall and pick yourself back up.
As a Californian of five years, I had forgot what it was like to be cold, and had grown almost afraid of it. Let me tell you that on a sunny cold day there is every bit as much beauty as the San Francisco bay. Your own breath wafts over you almost like stepping on your own shadow, or spirit. I wrote a few poems which are pretty embarrassingly bad, but I share one here as a first draft. I had wanted to do a poem a day type thing and send out this letter as a series of linked prose poems about my travels. But after reading Diane Ackerman’s A Brief History of the Senses (which is a broadening, delicious book) I thought a multiform essay might be just as good, but less ambitious.
Your two unmarked bottles: one sugar, one salt. Discern each by studying the shape of the crystals and how they rest. At the lake I write on blank pages of snow, on my knees, my finger digging deep in the drifts, a north to south message for the birds, “when we were teenagers we wanted to be the sky.” Leaving, I’d bottle these epiphanies for a summer day, the flight patterns of lonely birds in the sky, words made of snow, the curve of ice, the perfume of chaff, the space of a country cupboard, closed.
In many ways I think Ackerman’s book became a meditative text for me, a guidebook for feeling the new sensations that are in sharp relief when you travel. Upon leaving Helsinki I was a bit saddened, and it was her words that gave me the urge to move on, to remember to not fear in the face of my own displacement and confusion, and that to live with all of my passions is the only way to live, I quote her here, ” When you consider something like death, after which we may very well go out like a candle flame, then it probably doesn’t matter if we try to hard, are awkward sometimes, care for each other to deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly.”
Two weeks later, when I left Europe, I had an odd experience. In the ladies bathroom in Dublin, Ireland was an advertisement in the stall. Finland has the most lakes of any country with 187,888. I left only having walked on one.
Leaving Helsinki on a very snowy afternoon was like leaving in a time of bad reception, and I was glad to meet my friend Heidi in Amsterdam where things would be easier for me. Flying in, I felt a lot more at home in the vast, intricate cultural melting pot of Amsterdam.
The two places I have lived as an adult person, New York and San Francisco have always left me wanting a thirdcity that is a mixture of the two. I used to joke around that New York in the antidote to San Francisco and vice versa. While New York may be too fast, San Francisco was too slow. New York could be overwhelming and I sometimes felt disconnected from nature and a local community whereas in San Francisco at times I felt a bit under-whelmed, not as stimulated or as focused as I did in New York. I imagined a fusion city that was halfway between these two poles that brought what was best together.
I think Amsterdam is the place that lies in between New York and San Francisco. With architecture that reminds me of New Amsterdam (as New York was originally called) I could close my eyes at times and imagine that I was back in the West Village since the architecture is so familiar. It is eerie. Then the culture has the freedom of San Francisco—the pot selling coffeeshops and loose sexual morays. A sort of leftover or extension of hippy culture that says, “if it feels good, do it.”
And the first thing I did on my arrival, after meeting up with Heidi is head over to her friends’ Nick and Wendy’s place. Living in student housing by a huge windmill that doubled as a bar down a street enclosed with construction in a middling high rise striped with Technicolor paint. The first thing I got when we went to their place was a Stroopwaffel to eat. A truly wonderful surprise—two thin yet crunchy waffles pressed together and held with an inner layer of caramel that has a faint taste of coconut. It was a really wonderful entrée to Nick and Wendy’s generous hospitality. Waking up the next morning, Heidi and I headed out to the historical museum, which traced Amsterdam’s development from 1200 to present day. Needless to say, it took up about four hours to make it through 806 years of history. Afterwards we met up with Wendy, and had some coffee at a funky little café, walked around the canals, and practiced our “dinking” skills. We are not sure what Dutch people call doubling on a bike, but Nick, who is Australian, has deemed it to be dinking. With bike lanes on every single street and bikes with a large back fender for sitting (or for boxes, baskets, u-hauls, baby seats et cetera) it was fantastic. I am in love with riding bikes in Amsterdam—the rush of wind, images and giddy nervousness. Whoosh! The bike Heidi and I had didn’t have a functioning bell so we would pass people by singing, “ring ring ring!”
Time in Amsterdam was spent exploring all of the little streets, buying groceries for dinner parties, eating French fries out of a stiff paper triangle with a tiny plastic fork, going to the Rijksmuseum, trying to avoid the sad red light district, and sampling the head-spinning beers of the region, where some bars had a thousand beers (but most more like 200). I really enjoyed the paintings of Rembrandt; he truly is the King of Light and had an “eye” for the most dramatic moment to paint, and how to draw even more drama out of that moment by highlighting an action–such as a woman’s veined hand lying across a prayer book.
Heidi and I took the train to Belgium and spent two days there—mostly on foot doing a walking tour of the art nouveau buildings. Long days appreciating the cool mix of old and new architecture, where the two meet and riff off of each other. We bravely got 20 Euro haircuts at a salon where I tried to get by in my poor French. Both ended up cute, and I still sport my Brussels cut with pride. Brussels seems very cool, and host to many American bands. I was proud to see that Oakland based Deerhoof was playing there soon. Downtown, it was overwhelming to be in the Grand Place, insane architecture that scratched the sky with intricate patterns. It is mind-boggling, the amount of detail on each of these buildings, they almost seem like shells or stage sets, that it would be impossible to keep up the intricacy throughout an entire building and that behind, perhaps, the facade is two-dimensional and supported by some wooden planks holding the whole thing up. Otherwise, Heidi and I had one night of the Brussels nightlife, since we were tipped off by a local to try L’Archiduc, an art nouveau space that tended to play jazz. We lucked out that it was 60s American soul night, one of my favorite types of music, and they were spinning original vinyl, albeit really poorly—gaps between songs, mid-song decisions to switch to something else, scratches, replays, general confusion and tardiness caused by the dj’s talking and losing concentration. But still, it was fun, and charming.
Leaving Brussels, Heidi and I stopped off for one more night at Chez Nick and Wendy (excellent cappuccinos!) and then left for Holland’s countryside. Heidi has been going to school in Wageningen, about two hours from Amsterdam where she’s been studying green city planning. I finally met her boyfriend, the gentleman Juan, and we stayed in student housing there. Over the next few days, the sky was moody, and on borrowed bikes we traveled to a twelfth century castle, through fields plush with draft horses and ponies, the dike with a pair of swans, and all over the countryside. Later that evening we had a group meal in one of the communal student housing facilities and I met some of Heidi’s classmates and friends. Since Heidi had work to do I spent one day in Utrecht wandering around on a slightly rainy day, in and out of cafes, cobbled streets and shops both on and off the canals.
Returning back to Chicago, I felt full: of kindness, generosity, images, knowledge and the more earthly things—waffles, chocolate, beer, wine, and frites. I have just graduated from my MFA and am unclear where to go and find my next “incarnation” but what I realized that gave me comfort is that most of the people I met, in Amsterdam and in Wageningen were in exactly the same place as me but with the added issue of being in international relationships or away from their homeland and in need of a visa to continue the life they had been living over the last years. It made me feel not so sorry for myself having to start over again, and opened my mind to what I want out of my next home. Community. Warmth. Attention to ideals. Fresh air.
In many ways, perhaps travel is its own floating utopia, a nameless everywhere that allows our senses to be extraordinarily keen, only to return and have home take that place as we rejoice in the comfort of the familiar.
The photoset of this journey are on flikr.com at http://flickr.com/photos/21478276@N00/sets/72057594096775591/
Ps. And if you have made it this far, and have friends in Chicago, please introduce me!