Monday, February 08, 2016

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 29 … Helsinki beneath my feet, but Leningrad on my mind.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 29 … Helsinki beneath my feet, but Leningrad on my mind.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Twenty-ninth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

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“We have a long history with Russia — not that peaceful all the time. So everything the Russians are doing, surely the Finns notice and think very carefully about what that might mean,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said in an interview at his coastal residence in this capital city, just a two-hour drive from the Russian border.
-- Washington Post, November 23, 2014

My day with mustamakkara, Amiraali and random hostel Libyans in Tampere was all it took to begin subconsciously sensing a fundamental reality of life in otherwise autonomous Finland during the Cold War, which is to say that even as I remained securely ensconced among the freedom-loving Finns, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Soviet Union.

The dividing line between east and west was a mere two hours by bus from Helsinki, and it was a route I’d soon be traveling to Leningrad (in 2016, St. Petersburg). The closer I got to the USSR, the more the anticipation escalated.

What sort of people would be revealed on the other side? Cold warriors in furry caps? Stone-faced ideologues spouting canned propaganda? Or, plain working folks who wanted the best for their kids, struggling to get by like most of the rest of humanity?

Looking back, questions like these strike me as indicative of a well-honed tendency to over-think almost everything. I might plausibly cop a plea of relative immaturity, being only 24 years of age (with my 25th birthday to be celebrated in Leningrad), and having no experience on the ground in a Communist country.

Moreover, considering what so many of us had been taught at school in America during the Cold War, perhaps it was understandable; knowing better, yet still harboring weird inner misconceptions, half expecting to be confronted with dogma-spouting automatons or space aliens, not living, breathing men, women and children.

The plain fact is that already, at 24, I did know better. In spite of a lifetime of being told to fear the Russian, Soviet and Communist enemy, my conscious intellect was being retrained through the very act of traveling. I would refuse to swallow the bilge, ours or theirs. Had my contrarian tendencies remained latent, I wouldn’t have come to Europe in the first place.

Back at Indiana University Southeast, falling under history’s spell and compiling coursework accordingly, Russia and the Soviet Union became objects of obsessive fascination. Professor Frank Thackeray deserves credit for this, though in a supreme irony, so does my old man.

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Roger G. Baylor, USMC, served aboard a Navy ship as a gunner in the Pacific in World War II. He didn’t talk about the details very often. Instead, he practiced something akin to transferal, becoming a self-taught scholar about the war’s European Theater – a place he never went, during the war or after it.

Specific aspects of the conflict in Europe were recurring features of my father’s storytelling, among them the heroism of the Finns in their ultimately fruitless winter war against the Soviets, but moreover, the primacy of the USSR’s role in defeating Hitler. He openly admired the Red Army.

To say the least, this wasn’t the sort of interpretation commonly heard amid backyard barbecues and baseball games in the 1960s. My dad’s friends talked far more about America’s best known victories at places like Iwo Jima and the D-Day beaches, which of course were important and noteworthy, although they tended to be unaware of the massive scale of the slaughter on the Eastern Front.

My father enjoyed reminding them. “20 million dead,” he’d say. “Just think about that for a minute.” Uncomfortable silence would ensue. Was J. Edgar Hoover listening?

One time, I recall speaking up and asking my father whether he thought Stalin’s system was a good one. His quick answer was no, not at all, except that it had little to do with the sacrifices of soldiers who fought and died for their country, just like ours did for the United States.

In retrospect, it might actually be possible to trace my recurring contrarianism to an early, primary source.

All of it aside, maybe I was just nervous. In 1985, it had been only 40 years since the end of the war, which remained a living memory. This was attested by the shape of the continent I was traveling through.

Numerous boundaries owed to post-war geopolitical calculations. There were armed camps, nuclear weapons, buffer states and untold miles of fencing. Not a hot war, but a cold one – and it was easy to feel the chill.

On Thursday, I’d finally get a look behind the curtain. Meanwhile, it was Tuesday, and a short train ride from Tampere to Helsinki for two nights in the capital.

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As previously noted, Finland belonged to Sweden for a very long time, with the Russians taking control around 1809. The Finns, Sami and remaining Swedes became subjects of the Tsar. It was at this time that Helsinki’s modern appearance began to take shape.

Even now, when tourists gaze upon the neoclassical buildings at Senate Square, they’re seeing the Tsar’s 19th-century urban imprint, as commissioned of a German architect, who was charged with emulating the appearance of St. Petersburg, 389 kilometers away.

Surely it frustrated the Finns that their historical legacy of occupation included tangible remnants of Russian culture. For instance, certain districts of Helsinki were sufficiently “Russian” in appearance that during the early 1980s, international film directors often shot location footage (Reds, Gorky Park) there rather than the inaccessible USSR.

My own district proved novel. To cut costs, I resolved to sleep in the cheapest possible bunk, which brought me to Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium, originally intended to host the games in 1940. The war intervened, and in 1952 the athletic pageantry finally took place.

On one side of the stadium was a youth hostel, of which my only firm recollection is using the communal fridge to store a forgotten foodstuff, obeying instructions and marking my container, and having it stolen nonetheless.

Hmm. Could this be socialism?

I’d placed my bag in a train station locker before hopping the tram to the hostel to check on availability. With a spot secured, it was back to the center, and a very vivid Helsinki memory: The indoor fish market on the harbor promenade.

I walked through it from one end to the other and was sufficiently enamored to make a return trip, absorbing the shapes, sights and smells of largely unaffordable seafood, apart from a pickled herring sandwich with onion, as purchased from a kiosk.

Talk about coming a long way. My first-ever exposure to pickled herring had been in Oslo only a few days before, followed by a seafood buffet in Bergen and another aboard the Silja Line ship bound for Turku. It’s safe to conclude that the ocean’s rich bounty was making a deep impression on a corn-fed landlubber who couldn’t even swim.

Emerging from the heavenly saltwater grub shed, it was impossible to ignore Helsinki’s red-brick, onion-domed Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral church atop a hillock overlooking the harbor. Here was the Russian imperial legacy again, writ large, just as surely intended at construction to dominate its surroundings as Stalin’s garish Palace of Culture, smack in the middle of Warsaw.

A very different church, Temppeliaukio, made a puzzling impression at first glance. It is known as the Rock Church, and lends the impression of a defense bunker topped by a saucer.

Overhearing English being spoken in an authoritative tone, I noticed a small tour group and sidled over to them, close enough to follow the narrative as I fiddled with the camera lens.

The basic facts about Temppeliaukio Church: A design competition in the 1950s, construction in the 1960s, and the decision to build down rather than up, excavating stone to create a unique sanctuary.

What stayed with me from the guide’s comments that day was the concept of functionalism in architecture, or the seemingly simple idea that a building’s design should be based on its function.

Specifically, for Finland after independence, functionalist architecture was a tangible way of building “out” as population and cities grew, and building “native” in contrast to using imposed or inherited (read: Russian) forms -- as with those "borrowed" Helsinki film sets. Belatedly, it occurred to me that architecture lived and breathed, and wasn’t restricted to the past.

It strikes me now that in the end, I didn’t give Finland much of a chance in 1985. Part of it can be explained by the lure of Russia. There is also a likelihood that after almost three months of travel, my brain was beginning to adjust to returning stateside. Only a week in Europe remained.

On Wednesday afternoon, my wanderings in Helsinki took me past a pizzeria promising American-style pizza. I was hungry and intrigued, and decided to risk a minor splurge on a small pie accompanied by a draft Sinebrychoff. I’d purchased a newspaper earlier, and sat on the patio.

This travel thing was pretty good. Too bad it had to end.

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Previously:

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 28 … A Finnish detour to Tampere for beer and sausages.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 27 … Stockholm's blonde ambition, with or without mead-balls.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 26 … The Hansa brewery tour, and a farewell to Norway.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 25 … Frantic pickled Norway.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 24 … An aspiring “beer hunter” amid Carlsberg’s considerable charms.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 23 … A fleeting first glimpse of Copenhagen.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 22 … It's how the tulips were relegated.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 21 … A long day in Normandy, though not "The Longest Day."

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 19 … Sligo, Knocknarea, Guinness and Freddie.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.

The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.

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