Archive for July, 2015

Our last day took us to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s most amazing palace. It’s about an hour outside of St. Petersburg and parts of it echo the design of Versailles. (There is a hall of mirrors that takes its lead from France.) It’s a gorgeous building, all yellow with white trim, and gardens that are simply beautiful. It is often recognized for its beautiful fountains, all cascades down a couple of hills in the ‘backyard.’ There are also lovely rows of linden trees, all perfectly trimmed, that line one side of the palace.

What I learned about Peter the Great: he loved how Amsterdam looked, so he often tried to bring that architectural essence to St. Petersburg; he had ideas (like building a city named after himself or even building a fortress in a poor place for defence purposes) and then often acted on them without thinking them through; he had a cruel streak, and executions were not uncommon if you ticked him off; he was exceptionally tall for his time period in history, and many say he was 6’8″; and, interestingly, he had a window at Peterhof where he could see if any Dutch or English ships were sailing towards him over the Gulf of Finland. He liked to sneak down, board the ships, and then pretend he was just a sailor. Often, the captains and crew knew it was him, just based on rumours of his extreme height, but played along to humour him. Then, he would bring them all back up the hill to his palace, where he might introduce them to his wife, Catherine.

About twenty minutes before you reach Peterhof, you pass by a lovely building on the right hand side of the road. It is the place where Vladimir Putin has created an official presidential residence, in case the capital of Russia is ever moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg. (The locals call it “Putinhof,” but you can’t really get a sense of it from the road. It looks impressive, and I’m sure it’s beautiful too, but it’s private and used for official visits by foreign dignitaries.)

Peterhof is fabulous, but vast. You aren’t allowed to take photos, you have to check your coats and bigger bags in cloak rooms, and you are shuffled through by Russian women who guard each room. You also have to put paper booties (like the blue ones we wear in Ontario hospitals if someone is in isolation) over your shoes. The floors are beautiful, obviously, with great tile and wood work designs, so the booties are there to protect the floors. I did, though, wonder about the slip factor. I tended to slide around a bit. 😦

After we finished at Peterhof, we headed back into St. Petersburg to see the Church of the Spilled Blood, which was raised on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881. It’s a beautiful building on the outside, but on the inside it reminded me of what it might be like to be on the inside of a kaleidoscope, all gorgeous jewel toned mosaics and high domes that seemed to raise your eyes up to heaven. (The only thing, again, was the crush of people. There seems no way to avoid masses of tourists here, and getting up at dawn to get to such historical places still doesn’t ensure that you will have a bit of quiet.)

Tonight, a few of us went to see a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” It was so beautiful. The Imperial Hermitage Theatre is one that was frequented by Catherine the Great, who lived from 1729-1796. She was Empress of Russia and married Peter III, who was the grandson of Peter the Great. (I know, it’s confusing, this Russian royal lineage!) In both the Winter Palace tour yesterday, and at Peterhof today, we learned about her sense of style. The rooms she decorated are mostly white, and not very fussy. Peter the Great’s daughter, though, Princess Elizabeth, loved everything done up in mirrors and gold. (She is famously remembered for worrying about which dresses to wear, how to do her hair up, and what her portraits looked like.) Catherine the Great was a hard worker, following in Peter the Great’s footsteps, and she often worked eight hour days in her office on political affairs. It figures that she would also love theatre and the arts!

The Imperial Hermitage Theatre is part of the Winter Palace, which is part of the Hermitage complex. (So much art, so little time!). St. Petersburg is often referred to as the “Venice of the North,” with lovely little canals splitting up certain parts of the city. The theatre, though, sits across the road from the River Neva. It is like a little jewel of sorts.

The design of the theatre is lovely. There is a little orchestra pit section, with a balustrade separating the musicians from the audience, and the stage hovers a bit above the heads of the musicians. Throughout it all, I kept thinking of how the structure seemed both literal and metaphorical. (These are the kinds of things my head goes on about when I’m watching something on a stage…) Above, on stage, the lovely story of a young man who falls in love with a swan princess, and a stage full of beautiful colours and costumes, and amazing ballet moves. Below, in the orchestra pit, a group of musicians who do this for a living. They trundled in a bit close to the start up, with one violinist shoving her purse under her chair nonchalantly. Another guy, the percussionist, leaned against a balustrade as he waited for his part, until his friend nudged his arm off of it and gestured at the conductor. The ‘leaner’ shrugged, moved his arm, and then returned to his job of drumming.

It all seemed, to me, quite poignant. Here, in a theatre that Catherine the Great loved and frequently visited, hundreds of years after her time, a bunch of tourists from around the world trying to pretend they were posh and cultured. Throughout it all, the musicians living life, providing music for the dancers above. While the dancers have to “keep their faces on” for the audience, for the sake of creating an illusion, the musicians can roll their eyes, or speak under their breath to one another, or give a quick kiss of greeting to a fellow oboe player in passing, before beginning.

I found myself watching the musicians more than the dancers at times….and perhaps this is one thing I’ve learned from seeing parts of St. Petersburg. There is always a veneer on things of historical import, but there is also always an ‘underneath’ with many stories. I thought, today, of thinking of this city as being somewhat like an onion. There are many layers, many stories, many many people, but there is not one correct interpretation. This is what stymies me a bit, but what doesn’t really shock or surprise me. It is not what it seems, to the outsider, but perhaps this is what makes it all the more intriguing.

I’m headed homewards tomorrow and will look forward to seeing my two furballs, Sable and Gully. I also will enjoy being able to drink water from taps again, and am again so thankful for the ability to call Canada my home. For all the times I travel, and for all of the wonderful things I see, and the amazing people I meet, I always begin to long for the scent of pine, the nattering of the squirrels, the friendly people in my hometown. Maybe, just maybe, we travel to see the world, but then find ourselves in new ways, rediscovering our gratitude for home, in the very journey we have undertaken.

Now….home….my dogs…some music….cold water….wind chimes, wine, poetry and friends. And writing. Always writing. πŸ™‚


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First thing this morning, we travelled around the city to see a couple of beautiful churches. Russian Orthodox churches are impressive, but leave me longing for the ones we saw in Scandinavia, and the ones I’ve seen in Ireland, Scotland and England. (The gold leaf gets old after a couple of churches, but the mosaic doesn’t. The icons are amazing, but I miss the lines of pews, places where you can sit and pray. Here, there are masses of people….swarming through these places. It’s hard to find a bit of quiet, unless you linger by an open doorway, or rush into the next room ahead of everyone else.)

St. Peter and Paul Cathedral is a beautiful baroque building that was created between 1712-33 as the main cathedral in the new capital of the Russian Empire. This is the place where most of Russia’s rulers are buried, including Peter the Great and the Romanovs. People still leave fresh flowers on his grave, and on the graves of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, who were assassinated. You’ll likely remember, if you like European history, that their bodies weren’t found or properly identified until the 1990s. Once identified by DNA testing, they were interred in the small chapel of St. Catherine on July 17, 1998. It’s the saddest part of this church, in my mind. It’s roped off, with a couple of blank grave markers for two of the tsar’s children who are still off being identified via DNA testing. It feels incomplete, brutal, and raw.

In opposition, oddly, there is a cathedral cat which sits on a chair near some dead tsar’s grave. That cat has been there for ten years. It sleeps on the chair and I suppose that the staff of the church feed it, but it seemed out of place. In some ways, though, I guess you could think that maybe the cat is a symbol of how life goes on. (Cats are a big thing in St. Petersburg. There is a street in the centre of the city where there are two cat statues high up near opposite windows. There are also a lot of cat tote bags and cat stacking dolls. It’s strange, and I won’t pretend to have figured out why they fancy them so much, but I will research it at some point.)

From the cathedral, we went into the Trubetskoy Bastion Prison. Our guide called the Bolshevik Revolutionaries “terrorists,” which I found interesting. (Earlier in the morning, my friend Dan had asked about the Russian view of the situation in the Ukraine. Then, the guide had said that most Russians support Putin in his attempts to gather in Russian people who just happen to live in the Ukraine. He also said that the view of Gorbachev in the 1990s (from inside Russia) was that the west was all taken in by what he called “Gorbamania.” Then, he went on to say that Putin is mostly loved by Russians. Yesterday, I was surprised to see a young man, maybe in his early 20s, wearing a t-shirt with Putin’s torso on it, dressed in a suit, with the caption: “One and Only.” It isn’t hard to see that the views inside Russia are different from the views we see in Canadian media.)

Anyway, back to the prison. I found the history about the Bolshevik Revolution pretty fascinating and want to do more reading when I get back home. I did a history and English degree in my 20s, but it’s been a while now, and I feel my brain is rusty. The cells for ‘regular prisoners’ were surprisingly large, with a window. They were allowed to read and smoke. The only time these privileges were taken away was if they were in solitary confinement, when they were only allowed to read the Bible, and not permitted to smoke at all. Our guide told us about one prisoner who lived in the prison for about twenty-two years simply because the warden had lost his papers. The man lost his mind there, even losing his ability to speak or communicate. It really isn’t a nice place. The solitary cells are extremely awful, echoing and aching, dark and without any light.

This afternoon we went to visit The Hermitage, which is actually a vast series of museums. We only saw a fraction of it, but the part we did see was in The Winter Palace. I found the rooms more fascinating than the actual art works. (I’ve been drawn to windows and doors during this trip, taking photos of them, as well as of floor and ceiling patterns. I’m not sure what this says about me, if you were to psychoanalyze me, but there are almost too many photos of that ilk on my phone and camera.)

The Hermitage visit, while interesting, was stressful. I don’t do well with masses of people pressing up against me, and there are a number of tourists-of-the-world out there who seem to not follow basic courtesy. Guides warn you to watch out for pickpockets, but it’s hard to do that when you are pressed up against four or five different people on all sides of you, and you have no space at all to move or breathe in. (Of course, then I got thinking….how quickly would a zombie plague spread in The Hermitage? Quickly. How quickly would any scary disease spread? Quickly. Then, I talked myself down and ducked into another room to take a hit of my asthma puffer….because it felt like I was either headed for an asthma or anxiety attack. Yeah, I’m cool like that…one more reason I’m single. πŸ˜‰

Tonight, we went to see a folklore show at the Winter Palace, in a little theatre built to entertain one of the Russian princesses. Anyway, we had to wait at the bottom of a flight of stairs, in a gorgeous building, for the last group of people to come out of the first show. It seemed reasonable until it turned into a bloody mosh pit. (Listen, I’ve seen U2 twice now in major stadiums, but I have never seen tourists lose their shit in a beautiful historic palace. Tonight, I did. It wasn’t pretty.) The seats were not reserved, so we were told to rush up two flights of red carpeted marble stairs and then find seats close to the stage. Our group of eight figured out a strategy. Four of us would go ahead in a calm manner and then sprint to find seats, while the other four would follow as quickly as possible. What we didn’t expect was a fellow trying to smuggle his girlfriend in through the lined up crowd which now filled the lobby. Before you knew it, people were booing, the two security guards pushed the girlfriend away, back into the lobby and the guy yelled out “We’re not going to see the show! We’re just having dinner!” as if any patiently waiting person would love or accept that excuse.

All of the sudden, there was a pressure behind me. People were pushing forward. One guard told a few of our group to go up the staircase ahead, so they did. When that happened, an entire three busloads of tourists swarmed the staircase, moving from left to right. I was on the right hand side, stuck between some stupid gates that were meant to control the crowd. In all my life, I have never seen anything so awful. My new friend Morgan, who is in his late 70s and early 80s, nearly had quite a fall. I kept trying to push back at the people behind me, but to no avail. The only way to move was forward, and it wasn’t at all safe. It was like being carried upwards in a crush of people….not of your own accord. I kept thinking, stupidly, that I could talk to the people behind me. “It’s the theatre, for God’s sake! Stop pushing!” but I’ve never been a mosh pit girl so I didn’t understand that the push from behind is something that comes from far back, not from directly behind your back. There would be no logical arguing of facts…who knew Russian folkloric dancing and singing could cause such a riot?

Once we got upstairs and into the theatre, people rushed for seats. If the theatre had only assigned seats, it might have worked more courteously and safely. I’m surprised they haven’t thought about how assigning seats could reduce accidents and maintain some sense of decorum. It baffles my mind.

The show itself was amazing. Mad, frenzied dancing and lovely choral singing. The irony was that, in turning around to look at the other people watcing the performance, I found everyone pretending to be proper! These were the same swarm of people, from China, Israel, Italy, and Germany (from the guide signs I saw hovering), who just minutes before had nearly squished me. Bizarre!

So…my impressions of St. Petersburg: when the sun is shining, things look beautiful, but when it’s rainy, it feels sad; the Amsterdam-inspired buildings that Peter the Great loved to build are lovely, but the blocks and blocks of apartments built in the 20th century reinforce how rough it must have been here in Russia; the river is beautiful, and places within the city look a lot like Venetian canals; I like borscht, and, um, well, I like that Pushkin is still talked about proudly here.

Tomorrow we go out to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s beloved ‘getaway palace.’ Based on today’s disorganized chaos, I’m expecting to see a great historic place bogged down with masses of humans…and I know I’ll want to give a lesson in courtesy. (Since when in any part of the world is it okay to take out an elderly man, or squish someone, or bounce into them and knock them out of the way just to take a selfie in front of a piece of art? It isn’t….) It seems to me that, while Scandinavia was busy with tourists at the various historic sites and museums and churches, things seemed better organized. Maybe tours were scheduled, so that they weren’t pushed up against one another, or staff marshalled groups through with a bit of timing. Today, it was chaos…and the pushing is just too much.

After Peterhof tomorrow, we are going to see Swan Lake. I’m praying there is assigned seating because I’d like to at least pretend I’m traveling back in time. I can’t do that if people body check me out of the way….it takes me out of my mind and imagination too much.


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Left Helsinki at a reasonable hour this morning. Shifted from a tour of many people, to a group of just twelve of us. It’s been nice getting to know people more thoroughly now, having time to chat as we tour together.

All started well this morning in Helsinki. We said goodbye to our various travel companions who were headed back to America this morning. Then we went to the train station with our new guide, Timofei, and got on a fast train to St. Petersburg. The trip took 3.5 hours, but it was (unfortunately) eventful.

We were all a bit nervous about crossing into Russia. There is no big fanfare, but you are not permitted to take any photos of the border. Before you leave Finland, the border guards come in with their dog and sweep the train, but also take account of your passport details. A little while later, the Russian border guards come in and do the same thing. It can be a bit daunting.

Our tour guide told us to check the dates on our Russian Visas. Our friend, Dot, realized that hers had an initiation date of Thursday, July 23. Not good, as today is Wednesday, July 22. She told our tour guide, he went off to speak with a Finnish guard and then came back to tell her that she would not be allowed into Russia today.

It was quite a shock. We had about ten minutes to try and get her connected to the right people and information. It was hectic, and scary, and upsetting for Dot. We all felt horrible. We did get her a list of hotels near the train station, information about trains into St. Petersburg tomorrow morning, and promised to guard her bags. Then, before we knew it, she had been left at a little Finnish town close to the border. We pick her up tomorrow morning at the train station, on the way to our tour of the city. Then, in the afternoon, we’ll hang out at the Hermitage for a few hours. Tomorrow night, we’re going to take part in a show called (yes, it’s true!) “Feel Yourself Russian.” Mostly, though, we’re all thinking of Dot tonight and hoping she’s well. Thankful, too, tonight….for technology. Cell phones and ipads come in handy when you’re having a travel crisis.

When we arrived, we met up for a quick walking tour of part of the city, taking the extremely crowded St. Petersburg metro to get into the centre of town. (I can say that I do not like steep subway tunnels, or crushing, roiling masses of people thronging around me….especially in a small subway car that looks like it’s an antique.) We also went to see one of the grand churches, the women walking through and having to ‘cover’ our heads with hoods and scarves. It seemed surreal, to see such grandeaur and beauty when there is obviously poverty here. The church we saw was beautiful and I’m looking forward to seeing a couple of other churches so I can light a candle for Mum and Dad, as well as buy a small icon for myself. They are beautiful here, all bright colours and silver or gold inlaid.

Finally….the water: the city doesn’t have the best water, so hotels leave you two complimentary bottles in your hotel room fridge each day. You can only brush your teeth with bottled water. You also have to drink bottled water. You can take showers but you literally still need to keep your mouth closed. Not the nicest thing to think about, but obviously a city-wide issue, so we trundle onwards…dreaming of drinking excessively large amounts of water.

Tomorrow, it’s all about us getting our New Orleans spitfire, Dot, back on tour. Then, we’re off!


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Arriving in Helsinki on an overnight ferry from Stockholm yesterday morning was rough. Sleep has mostly escaped me here. I’m an insomniac at the best of times, but I think this sleeplessness in Scandinavia (without Tom Hanks) has to do with this “White Nights” phenomenon, with the sun partially setting and a misty twilight dusk settling over skies from about 11:30pm and then brightly rising around 4am. Your internal clock gets confused. (Also, these Baltic ferries sway a lot through the night. Images of Titanic flash through your mind when the seas get rough at 3:14am and you sit bolt upright in a little tiny cabin wondering where the hell you are exactly. I should admit, also, that the fact that the Stockholm-Helsinki ferry dispenses white wine from the soft drink machine for free doesn’t help. Two glasses of wine in and I thought I might fall asleep, but not true….)

Helsinki’s harbour isn’t gorgeous, but neither are any of the other ports we’ve seen on this trip. Its skyline is different, though, and the architecture changes dramatically from the sweet colours and shapes of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. It is ‘blockier’ in structure and, while I’m aware of Finland’s historical relationship to Russia, I don’t really intend for this to come across as a pun. At first, for most of yesterday, and in contrast to Tallinn today, this put me off Helsinki.

Yesterday afternoon was interesting, as I wandered down to the centre of town to check out Finland’s largest bookstore. It was amazing. Then, I just kept on walking and found little artist shops, talking with fabric and wood artisans along the way, asking them annoying questions, and just getting a sense of the place. As I walked further away from the harbour, then I could see more of the spirit of the place and the people, but I still wasn’t convinced. It wasn’t what I’d imagined from what I’d remembered of what my maternal grandmother had told me about it before she’d died in 1998. She raved about Finland, but more about Petsamo in the north, where my grandfather had worked in mining. She had loved the people and the landscape. I remember how she would tell me stories, when I visited with her, and how her face would light up. (She had the best way of telling stories….and a wonderful laugh that I still miss seventeen years later.)

Today, we travelled on another ferry to Tallinn, Estonia, which is a two hour journey from here. The average monthly income of a citizen in Helsinki is about 2,500 Euro a month, while the income of someone who lives in Tallinn is just around 1,000. This means that a lot of people from Tallinn take that ferry across to Helsinki to work here and make more money. They do this each day. Four hours each day. It’s not a comfortable journey and there are hardly enough seats for people, so many passengers find little spots to sit in corners of corridors, or perched on deck chairs on upper decks. (They also like to buy beer at 7:30 in the morning and tend to smoke a lot up there, so I stayed inside.)

Moving from Helsinki to Tallinn is like that scene in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy goes from black and white to technicolour. Both Finland and Estonia were separated by years of Soviet rule. Now, though, Estonia has ventured in the EU and things are different.

I loved Tallinn. There are churches, with assorted spires from different historical periods. The Unesco-protected Old Town is a 14th and 15th century labyrinth of quirky alleyways and cobblestones. (You find yourself always wanting to look up, but know if you do that you might hurt yourself by tripping on cobbles that are of varying heights and shapes.) Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is everything you’d imagine you might see in Moscow. It’s a 19th-century Russian Orthodox cathedral with telltale onion domes. So beautiful! Then, you go inside and you see tiny old women wearing headscarves and saying prayers. It feels as if you’ve slipped back in time somehow….until one of the old ladies elbows you to get out after she’s done her prayers. πŸ™‚

We saw the Canadian embassy, which was pretty interesting. It was hidden down a little alleyway and is apparently one of the most haunted embassies in Tallinn. Then, Dan, Michelle, Dot and I went to lunch at an old medieval hall restaurant called Olde Hansa. It was like entering into an episode of Game of Thrones….I kept wishing I had a dragon! πŸ™‚

Spending the day in Tallinn was like walking into a painting of some kind, all medieval and colourful and alive. Coming back to Helsinki felt ‘flat’ somehow. (Kind of like how my grandmother used to give us ‘flat’ gingerale to settle our stomachs when we were ill as little kids.) Tonight, though, a bunch of us walked down into the town square and had dinner at a traditional Finnish restaurant. We met a wonderful woman named Anna, who regaled us with tales of Finnish history and culture. We ate in a room which was meant to remind diners of what a traditional Finnish farm house would have been like one hundred years ago. We laughed, drank, shared stories, and now part as new friends. (The crew from Wisconsin gets a shout out here! You haven’t had fun in life until you’ve partied with the cheeseheads! πŸ™‚

Walking back to the hotel after dinner, seeing that lightened night sky above us, and hearing the sounds of so many languages being spoken around us, made me feel so grateful for what I’ve experienced on this trip so far. Tomorrow, a bunch of us head off to St. Petersburg, Russia, for a few days before returning home. Michelle just popped over to my room with a glass of coconut vodka, so I’m ready to sleep now, I hope….all looking forward to a short voyage into Russia.

What I’ve been reminded of again, though, is that sometimes what you think you see in front of you isn’t really what is there….my standoffishness in terms of Helsinki was badly placed. Tonight, listening to Anna, and asking her questions about the mines in Northern Finland, I felt connected in a new way. I could sense my grandmother there with me, reminding me to be mindful, to observe, to listen, to not judge. I learn more that way, and I should have remembered that she was the one who first taught me that grand life lesson all of those years ago.

Now, going home soon to work on my novel again, I’ll think of new and better ways to write the chapters that I’ve set here in Finland, having a better sense of how it works, historically, culturally, and perhaps most importantly, in terms of the Finnish people.


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We started out this morning with touring Stockholm’s City Hall. Nothing like the city halls at home, let me tell you! No, these are buildings that ooze history and art. (I even took a photo of the floor in the main building because the tiling was so beautiful.) I won’t bore you with historical details, but will tell you that one of the loveliest things I’ve ever seen in my life was inside this building. It was a room tiled with gold mosaics and with gorgeous murals. (Now, I’ve never officially been diagnosed with ADHD, but I know I’m definitely a tangential thinker. My dearest friends know that, as much as they know of my being indecisive and quirky….but this morning my head was swivelling around like a bobble head doll. I couldn’t figure out where to look. In fact, at one point the tour director laughed at me because I tripped on a step, all because I was too busy looking up at the ceiling.) I really am a lot like Kramer some days, and it’s okay because I accept that that is where my head is at….most of the time.

While the gold room took my breath away, the thing that struck me today was going to the Vasamuseet. This museum was built around a 17th century galleon that sunk in Stockholm Harbour in 1628. It was finally raised in 1961, when they preserved it and built a museum to house it. You walk into a nondescript lobby area, all dramatic black walls and pot lights and think “Big deal…where is this thing?” Then, you push through two sets of giant wood doors and walk into a wide open area that is dominated by a huge ship! It looks like the set for Pirates of the Caribbean, but then you feel amazed because you know it isn’t….it’s all real. The place vibrates with history, and with sadness, because of the lives lost when the ship sunk. It was on its maiden voyage, but sank because it leaned towards port side. The gunports were open as it was a celebratory launch, so water quickly swamped the ship and it sunk. Over one hundred crew were on board, as well as women and children. (Family members had been allowed on board to share in the first part of the journey.) They estimate that there were 150 people on board, but at least 30 died. When they raised the ship in 1961, they found the remains of about 16 people.

The museum is amazing, with five different levels, or galleries, so that you can see the ship from a number of levels. Looking through one port hole, you can see a set of stairs reaching up inside the body of the ship. They used to allow people to walk on board the ship, and inside it, but obviously they have stopped that now because of the damage and decay that could happen. The museum was packed this morning, so I can’t even imagine how it would have been with people being able to wander over her.

The history of it all is amazing, but the overwhelming emotion I felt was deep sadness. It is such an ancient, silent ship. The carvings are beautiful and artistic. You can tell they were proud of this galleon. The loss, after just a short voyage within the city, would have been horrid. The ache of it, I imagine, is embedded in that wood.

One thing that really bothered me was that they have reconstructed the faces of about five skeletons. Normally, I like that sort of thing. (I always wanted to be an archaeologist in high school, until some adult told me that “everything had already been found” and that I should choose a different occupation!) I love documentaries on history. I love visiting historical places and churches. All of these places vibrate for me. Sounds weird, but the only thing I want to do in places that old is to just grab hold of a piece of a wall, or sit down in a pew or seat, and just imagine what life would have been like all those years ago….it’s my imagination and my mind going wild! πŸ™‚

The lowest level of the museum shows the reconstructed faces, wearing clothes they might have worn, looking very much like people you might see on the streets of Stockholm today. The stories that their skeletons tell are amazing. One man was found below decks and the archaeologists can tell that he broke his femur during the sinking. Earlier in his life, they say, based on some testing they did on his skeleton, they can tell that he had been hit in the face because his nose was broken. It was possibly a bar brawl, but they will never know. Besides these clues as to their lives, there are the artifacts brought up with the ship….the tiny glass buttons that would have done up the front of a man’s shirt, or the perfectly preserved shoes a woman had worn, or even a beautifully coloured serving dish from Holland. (The low salinity of the water helped in preservation, they say, and also played a role in stopping the decay that might have happened if the sinking had happened out at sea.)

Opposite the reconstructed faces, lines of cases, one after the other, with names like “Johan” and “Beata” at the top, near the skull. Partial skeletons, but they belong to the people whose faces have been reanimated just six feet away. You can feel the sadness in that part of the museum. They were people in the prime of their lives, trying to make a living by working on a ship, or perhaps enjoying its maiden voyage to honour their husbands or sons going off to sea. The king had hoped the ship would be helpful in the war, but it was not to be. In any case, I couldn’t stay down there long. It felt like a tomb, and a place where none of those who died suddenly and horribly that day in August hundreds of years ago would have wanted to end up, on display in a museum, entombed in foam and protective glass. It makes me think about the ethics of this sort of thing….and it bothers me…but I don’t even think I can sort it out in my head yet…that’s how much I’m thinking it through right now, while feeling Vasa’s sadness.

Later, we drove to Uppsala, the famous university town in Sweden. We’re talking now about famous dead guys like Linnaeus and Celcius (the same guy Canadians love to hate in the winter when it’s -30 degrees celcius outside!). My favourite part of that afternoon jaunt was getting into the cathedral. Again, I ducked away from the tour group and wandered toward the pipe organ, where someone was practicing his heart out. I recorded it on my iphone. There is nothing like hearing someone play pipe organ in an ancient cathedral. The entire place vibrates with sound, and it just gives you goosebumps. Perfect way to slip backwards in history, and all this without the benefit of the Tardis. πŸ˜‰

Tomorrow, we head out to Drottningholm, where the Swedish royal family still holidays for part of the year. Should be beautiful and I’m hoping to see or encounter at least one ghost. (Kronborg and Elsinore was raw Hamlet…but I prayed and prayed for a ghostly whisp and nothing happened. Tomorrow, it would be nice if….something did!) Then, an overnight ferry to Helsinki, Finland.

I’m looking forward to Helsinki. My grandparents lived in a mining town called Petsamo just before WWII as my maternal grandfather was a mine manager and superintendent there. My grandmother, Alice Ennis, always spoke warmly of the Finnish people, and of how kind they were to her while she lived there, and of how the landscape reminded her of her northern Ontario home. (I sort of think Gram would like to know I’m headed to a place she passed through….and it makes me miss her again. She died in 1998, but I think of her almost every day. We were close. Anyway, I kind of like that I’ll be where she was….when she was young, and when my mother hadn’t even been conceived yet. It’s a full circle kind of poetic moment, I think, and it makes me feel she’s not so far from me after all.)


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We started today with a drive out to see Roskilde Cathedral. It is glorious and ancient and so beautiful that I felt I had a severe case of attention deficit disorder. It’s one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, and there is really no wonder why when you see it in person. The spires rise up over the surrounding neighbourhood before you even see the full beauty of the cathedral. For more than one thousand years, there have been churches built on that spot. One thing I love about cathedrals is that, if you are lucky and blessed enough, someone will be practicing on a pipe organ while you’re there, or a choir will be going through pieces they are learning. When either of those things happens, it is my experience that the cathedral you are in takes on a sort of haunted and timeless essence. You can close your eyes, if no one is watching, and imagine being there hundreds of years before….it is all about imaginging history come to life, in my mind. (It is also why I hang around at the back of tour groups, so that I can touch walls or window sills, or gates, or heavy wood doors. I love the way things feel in old churches, even if I probably shouldn’t be going around touching things….)

My favourite story of the day came from our guide who told us that the king of Denmark, during WWII, was told by the Nazis that all Danish Jews would have to wear the yellow star badge. He refused such a thing, even offering to also wear the badge himself. In doing so, he stopped the Nazis from forcing Danish Jews to wear the star. A number of them ended up moving into Sweden, she told us, and some never returned to Denmark. Even today, listening to our guide, you can see the admiration the Danes have for their royal family. They seem to work for important causes that influence or impact the country’s well-being.

The second place we went to today was the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. I’m not the most avid fan of modern or contemporary art. Usually, it’s all abstract and I get frustrated because my brain wants to try and figure it out, and usualy there isn’t a simple way of doing that. I had lunch with my new friend Berit, who lives in Kansas City, but who was born in Norway. She is a font of information and had previously researched which pieces of art she wanted to see. We found three of the four, but then my friends Dan and Michelle told us about a piece by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. It’s titled, beautifully I think, “Gleaming Lights of the Souls” (2008). It is part of the permanent collection, so you’d need to travel to Denmark to see it. You stand outside a white hallway, with a single door leading to who knows where. Then you stand in line, going into the exhibit only two people at a time. The artist’s statement on the wall tells you a bit about what you’re about to see, but can’t come close to scratching the surface of the experience.

It is a space “where walls and ceilings are covered with mirrors, the floor is a water surface, and you stand on a platform in the middle of the water. Down from the ceiling hung a hundred lamps and a relay makes the light change colour in calm transitions. It is a lyrical work. The small shining globes are infinitely reflected and create a depth, the end of which the eye only reaches because what you see seems to fade into a mist.”

For me, it just felt like pure magic, standing in a silent room, filled with colourful bulbs that change colour and light with a wave motion. Your eyes are drawn almost everywhere at once and you feel as if you are part of the universe, rather than just grounded to a platform surrounded by water. I didn’t want to leave at all, but there was a long line of people behind us waiting to get in. I kept thinking, “oh, just all of you go away and let me sit here cross-legged on the platform for a good half hour.” I wanted more of feeling tiny, within the scope of a vast and starry sky. (Again, I admit to having a problem with touching things….and did hold a single bulb in the palm of my hand. I know…I shouldn’t have, but I did…and I’m glad I did as it felt as if I were holding a star in my hand!)

The final stop of the day was Kronborg Castle (also known as Hamlet’s castle). It rose up over the horizon and was awe inspiring. We had a tour, but again I kept trying to hang around at the back of things. I like to potentially be left absolutely alone in an historic space, so that I can imagine what it would have been like to live in such an ancient place. In the lower parts of the castle, I was grabbing at the walls and touching low ceilings, getting a feel for the energy of the place. It was powerful. (I so like to feel connected to the energy of the past…nothing like touching a wall or door or casement of a leaded window.)

I’m hoping to see Hamlet performed at Stratford next month, so it was a timely visit. It’s really one of my favourite plays, alongside King Lear. I also love Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, especially A Midsummemr Night’s Dream and As You Like It, but we never seem to get around to teaching anything but the tragedies in high school English classes. That just makes me feel sad, but that’s another story….

For today, I could imagine Ophelia hanging about in a castle hallway, waiting in vain to see Hamlet, a boy whom she loved. I always feel so deeply for Ophelia…she loved him, she lost him, he confused her, and maybe even (in some weird way) tried to protect her before it all got out of hand in the final couple of acts. In my mind’s eye, just for today, and maybe every time I’ll teach the play again in my classes, I’ll keep the images of Kronborg in my heart and mind.

Tomorrow, Sweden and the land of my mum’s all time favourite band, ABBA. I’ll be thinking a lot of her, I imagine, if I hear any ABBA songs playing. She would have liked it here. It’s beautiful and the people are friendly. Plus, there’s good beer….and friendship. πŸ™‚


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A couple of grand highlights over the last couple of days in Norway. We took the train from Bergen to Oslo yesterday, a long long journey of about seven hours. The best part of this train journey was splitting through mountain tunnels and then emerging at super high elevations. All of the sudden, you emerge out of a very dark tunnel (imagine the birthing metaphors here!) and into a bowl shaped field of bright white snow. You are, initially, blinded by the light of sun on white snow and ice. Occasionally, inside the field of white, you will see a solitary house or almost invisible pathway. You wonder, as most would, about who lives there, and what they must do for a living, so high up in the Norwegian mountains.

Then, if you’re me, and a fan of Harry Potter books and films, you think immediately of the scene where Harry encounters Dumbledore in what seems to be a bright white, misty, train station. The film’s scene has one dead character, in the figure of Dumbledore, meeting up with Harry. There is a transference of knowledge, of wisdom, really. Coming out of darkened tunnels that were dug years and years ago, into the bright light, makes you consider where you’ve been in your life, and where you’re going. In the film version of Harry’s various journeys and adventures, you get a sense of how spirits never really die, which is something I truly believe….and how we can pass important lessons on to those who live on after us. There’s a continuity there that makes you think about your place in the universe, and in the scope of the time you have to spend on the planet. What will be your contribution, your purpose? (Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately….for characters in my novel, as well as for myself, in my own life.)

Arriving in Oslo….well, it’s a beautiful city and I want to come back again and see it more carefully. We were lucky enough to spend some time at the Gustav Vigeland Sculpture Garden early last evening. Vigeland was a sculptor who believed in allowing people to interact with art. The park contains 212 bronze and granite sculptures, and took from 1939-49 to be completed. Vigeland himself lived from 1869 to 1943. He wanted people to touch the sculptures, to rub their knees, arms and shoulders. This wish was certainly in evidence yesterday as kids and parents climbed all over the open laps of statues, and posed through hugging arms of bronze or granite.

The most famous of the sculptures is called The Monolith. From afar, it looks like your traditional monolith, but up close, you see it is made up of hundreds of sculpted naked bodies, piled one on top of another. He lived and worked on this great undertaking during WWII, so you have to think a lot of that would have influenced this monolith. Another famous piece is called “The Wheel of Life,” and shows the stages of a human being’s life, from birth to death.

My favourite sculptures were those on the bridge, though. There is a woman with wild hair who seems to be completely powerful and primal. I liked that about her. It seemed like she had broken out of herself, had emerged somehow new and raw. Further up on the hill, near the monolith, there was a sculpture of two elderly women, both looking into the distance, across a green space of manicured lawn. You could see there was pain in the first woman’s face and eyes, and you could see that the woman behind her, with her hands on her friend’s (or perhaps mother’s shoulders) was there to support her.

I guess what I most loved about the Vigeland park was the idea that we are all part of a cycle. Not in the “Lion King” Broadway musical kind of way, but in a more quite, reassuring way. We are not here for long, I kept thinking, but we manage to uphold one another through times of struggle and through times of triumph. That is what makes us so amazing. We humans have the potential to destroy, but we also have such ability to uplift and honour and celebrate one another. Part of that is just being present with others whom you know and love, as friends, family, or lovers. We walk together, but I think sometimes we forget it’s a huge part of why we must be here….and I don’t claim to know how to get back to that….but I do think a visit to Vigeland can’t hurt as a reminder of our interconnectedness.

The other thing of note yesterday was seeing the ancient Viking boats. You can’t escape trolls here, but you also can’t escape vikings. (Even some of the trolls wear viking hats, but I kind of think that is almost sacrilegious in many ways! πŸ™‚

There was a guided tour, but I always feel like I want to rush to get to see the artifacts. I hate waiting to hear stories, when I can read about it before I get to a place, or when I can just soak up the emotions and history of the place and what’s left behind. A large cavernous room, lit with torches, and offset with blank white walls can easily pay proper tribute to a recovered Viking boat. If you get there when there aren’t many people, well, you can imagine what it would be like to have rowed in that boat, to have crossed seas, to have left behind such an amazing legacy.

This morning, we had free time, so I went to see the Edvard Munch “Scream” in the National Art Gallery of Norway. It was much smaller than I thought it would be, and it’s one of four originals that Munch painted. I was much more impressed by his painting of The Madonna, and by his piece of the three girls on the bridge. The Madonna image was interesting because she is portrayed as being naked, with an almost reddish gold halo around her head. The woman with me thought it was a bit risque, but I thought it was beautiful. (I always think Mary is pretty amazing and I like that Catholicism has a woman to pray to, and pray with, I guess you could say. I have always wondered how a person could be the mother to Jesus. That just seems like a responsibility that I’d want to run from. When I saw Munch’s painting of her today, I thought, “Wow….now that looks like a powerful rendition of Mary, all sort of pagan-like and earth goddess-y.” I liked it because of that….and it made me think about her in a new way.)

Munch wasn’t really that well through most of his life and many say the infamous scream painting embodies the agony he felt in dealing with mental illness. In the painting, you can see his friends off in the distance, coming to his aid. It got me thinking, yet again, as to how creativity and mental health share a slim bridge of meaning….and how sometime artists pay great tolls to create their work. Paintings in the room of a person dying in a sick room, and a little girl ill in bed both contribute to the notion that Munch carried heavy emotional burdens. They emerge in his work, certainly, and you can feel that pain in the colour, in the scenes, he painted.

The final adventure for the day was going to the Ibsen Museum. Whenever I teach our AP “Studies in Literature” course, I touch on this play, which is one of my favourites. Here is a play wherein a woman is treated as a child within a marriage, but chooses to leave both her husband and children, risking great ridicule during a time when it all wasn’t socially acceptable. I like that Ibsen might be an early feminist, in his writing plays like this….just as Shakespeare writes strong women. The only disappointment was that we didn’t get to tour his apartment as the English tour was too late in the afternoon and we were due to catch a ferry from Oslo to Copenhagen.

It didn’t matter, though. Walking through the Ibsen museum, seeing some of the things he used in his daily life, and reading more about his life in that place, made me feel more aware of my respect for him and his work. Part of the exhibition spoke of John Lennon’s love of Ibsen’s works. He even took to wearing the small wire circle glasses as a tribute to Ibsen, which was interesting.

When people sometimes question the worth of literature, of how it can impact humans now and in the future, I often balk. How can it not? Time passes so quickly, I was thinking today. My life is half done already, but I can spend an hour or two thinking of the art and writing of two creators even though they died so long ago. This, to me, speaks to the value of the arts….and of how they animate us, as humans, to reach for greater things….to aspire to things like truth and beauty. (Now, the Romantics would have capitalized those concepts, and perhaps I should have, too…because, in this day and age, they seem to be too often lower cased rather than given their due worth and value.)

….writing to you on the North Sea….with the sun still high in the sky….at 10:26 at night. Will wonders ever cease?


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Norwegians love their trolls. There is no denying it. The trolls are everywhere, as I said in my last post. There are troll magnets, key chains, tote bags, and mugs. While they market them well, and tourists like me find them intriguing, the people of this place still believe they need to be a bit wary of trolls…and rightfully so!

Today, we traveled through a fjord. There were hairpin turns on a very steep road, on a huge bus that shouldn’t really have been able to logically (or safely) navigate those turns. The lower you go into the fjord, the higher the mountains seem, and more vast the water seems, and the smaller you seem as a human. Here is ancient geography: mist wreathes the topmost mountains and cliffs, seabirds swoop down and cut across the visual field before you, and kayakers cut through the water closest to the shoreline. All of it has an overwhelming effect.

The two hour boat ride down the fjord was beautiful, but seemed long. I felt, somehow, that we were dwarfed by the scope of the landscape. It was a bit unsettling. Two hours of feeling tiny and insignificant and in awe of the beauty around you can make you sleepy….and I sort of dozed off in the boat. (I know the Italian tourists across from me must have enjoyed that as my head bobbed up and down.)

After the cruise down the fjord, we boarded the Flam railway. It is, quite simply, a bonkers little railway that weaves in and out of the highest parts of the mountains. At one point, we climbed so high that we went through a tunnel and came out into a little bowl of land that had a house surrounded by snow. Seeing snow in July, especially when you are a Canadian who gets plenty of it for the most part of the year, is just plain strange. It was stunning, though…

One of the most interesting stories today came from someone who talked to us about the Huldra. She is known as a wood nymph of sorts who lures men up into the hills. The huldra is theΒ “skogsra” or forest spirit, but she is also present in both Swedish folklore (as Tallemaja, “pine tree Mary,”) and is also known as “Ulda” in Sami tales.

Her ‘gig’ is this: she hangs out in the mountains looking for men to seduce and use as slaves. If she isn’t sexually satisfied by the men she gathers, well, they usually end up dead. She sings and dances to lure them, which is not really unlike the whole legend of sirens. The word ‘huldra’ in Norwegian means “covered” or “secret,” and this is largely because of her physical appearance. She seems beautiful from the front, as she sings and dances and lures men to their respective downfalls, but if you were to see her from the back, you would see that she has the tail of a cow. She also has a hollow back that looks like a rotting tree. If any man sees her back or tail, the story goes, they are in trouble. She then reveals herself as being even more ugly and, usually, something horrible would happen to the seduced man.

This got me to thinking about the selkie of Celtic lore, as well. In that case, the selkie seals sometimes shed their skins to walk on land. If a man steals their skin, then the selkie must stay with the man. In that piece of legend, the female really doesn’t do well. In the legend of the huldra, though, the women fare better than the men. In any case, it is interesting to note that there are these elemental creatures, around the world, luring humans to poor endings.

Tomorrow, we take the train to Oslo. I know there will be beautiful scenery again, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Tolkien’s work today. Here are some of the landscapes and lore that inspired him in creating Lord of the Rings. The stamp of Viking history and lore is also there in his work. It made me think, staring out at massive hills and fjords, that I would really have liked to have had supper with Tolkien. Imagine what that might have been like? In a place where creatures like trolls and the huldra live, it makes perfect sense to imagine a hobbit or two, trolls and a clutch of dwarves wandering through these hilly parts.

I’ll keep my eyes peeled!


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Sometimes the universe has plans for you when you least expect it. For me, in the last few years, it’s come down to travel and writing. In 2012, I went to Ireland to attend a poetry writing retreat with some amazing poets. In 2013, my friend Dan suggested I join his school’s tour to Australia and New Zealand. (At the time, I was thinking, “Why? I could just go to Ireland to write….”) But I think my soul was smart enough to kick me in the ass and get me going. Where else would I be able to hold a koala, see a dingo in the wild, and then feed a kangaroo at an animal sanctuary. Last year, I went to Saskatchewan and spent ten days with great writers at the Sage Hill Writing Experience. That changed my life as a writer, my mindset opened up and I’ve made amazing new friends who know what it’s like to love writing even more than people some days!

Dan and his wife, Michelle, asked me to think about Scandinavia and Russia this summer, so I’m writing this from Bergen, Norway. It’s 10pm, but you’d swear it was 5pm. It’s that whole northern European, midnight sun thing, and I’ve got to say that it is pretty darn cool to see. It makes you feel a bit timeless somehow, like you’re in a Dr. Who episode or something. (or…maybe that is just jet lag).

First thing to notice about Scandinavia….even just from hanging out briefly at the Copenhagen airport this morning….is that trolls are a very, very big thing. My sister, Stacy, asked me to bring her back a troll. I thought, “Yeah, okay, I read there was a troll store in Bergen…” Um, no….there are trolls in every store! One store even had baby-sized onesies with trolls frolicking all over them. There are troll fridge magnets, mugs, postcards, and even trolls picking their noses! It was, to be honest, a bit overwhelming. I couldn’t even pick a troll this afternoon. More on trolls later, I’m sure, although Moomins are also big here…

Bergen is beautiful. I arrived on time, and everything seemed grand, until I realized that my big brown flowery bag, nicknamed “Monster” by an Irish cab driver in the summer of 2012, had not arrived. This is, as my friend Alexis reminded me today on Facebook, the second year in a row that “Monster” has been delayed. (I feel a bit like a turtle without its shell…but the bag is apparently having a fine time at Pearson and will soon be on a Dreamliner flight out overnight. If all goes well, Monster will be here when I get back to the hotel tomorrow afternoon. Please God….my sunscreen is in there…and my rain jacket!)

Bryggen is an old part of Bergen. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Bergen was the capital of Norway. It’s all about the fish, and it is my intent to eat fish every darn night. (I also, though, want to try reindeer at some point….) Bryggen is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for fine reason. There are a number of really colourful old wooden buildings that date back to just after the fire of 1702, although the footprints of those current buildings are much, much older. There are little wooden alleyways, all crazy and Dr. Seuss like, and doorways that seem arthritically bent into themselves, and tiny stairways that are totally wonky. Everything creaks. It’s amazing! πŸ™‚

After a supper of soup, fish and cabbage with capers, Dan and Michelle and I went for a walk. Up high on the hill is the Bergen Cathedral. We wandered past the Bergen Kunst Museum, where you can see works by Munch (“The Scream”). Opposite the museum is a beautiful little lake with a fountain in the middle. It’s called Lille Lungegardsvann and you sort of feel, while you walk around it, that you’ve slipped out of time again. It’s so beautiful here….and I feel sorry that, when Dan and Michelle first asked me to join them on this tour, I said “What’s there? Vikings? I like vikings, but how many dead viking ships can you see before it’s too much?” In a day, I’ve learned that vikings are as plentiful as trolls, but that this place is much more complex. I’m looking forward to learning more, and to going out on the fjords. (Partially, I’ll admit, because I just like to say the word
‘fjord’ out loud!)


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