Sunday, March 23, 2014

From Russia with Love and Hate

Going into Russia from Finland was a bit of a shock.  Finland was nearly a utopia, but Russia was anything but one.  The country really surprised me, sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a not so good way.  Signs of capitalism were all around – luxury cars all over St Petersburg and Moscow, more upscale shopping than you can imagine, and western establishments flourishing all over the country.  All of this, however, was intertwined with signs of the past.  Drab, gray buildings abounded in many areas, and for every Volvo, Audi, and Bentley, there were at least ten other junk models.  The cities were generally dirty and not well-maintained, though some of the more upscale areas were immaculate.  Inequality seemed to be the norm. 

The Russians themselves were an interesting breed.  Going into the trip, I was told that Russians were cold and that you had to be pushy to get anything.  Indeed, this wasn’t far off.  Trying to get a Russian to smile was a difficult task, but my travel mates and I accomplished it a few times (albeit only a few).  Please and thank you won’t get you very far at all, but a firm tone and stern expression will usually do the trick.

Then there were the weird Russians.  Like those dressed in Kung Fu Panda and Shrek costumes for no apparent reason at Red Square.

And the one dude with his two monkeys at a popular restaurant in St Petersburg.  We followed him out onto the street to get a picture.  This would never fly in the US or Australia.

Speaking of eating in restaurants, have you ever tried going to a restaurant only to find it was closed due to technical difficulties?  No?  Well, it’s apparently a common occurrence in Russia as we found out when we tried to go to the Chili’s in Moscow (yes, I tried to go to Chili’s… leave me alone…)

For a country that has fully embraced McDonald’s and Starbucks, anti-American sentiment still seemed to run a bit high.  Our very first tour guide on day one advised the Americans in our group to pretend to be Canadian or Australian if anyone asked, especially if that anyone was a drunk Russian (and we had more than our fair share of encounters with drunk Russians).  We never really experienced any real anti-American sentiment, but we didn’t take our chances either.  I was Aussie.

To fully complement the anti-Americanism, there was a ton of Russian pride.  Russians seemed to be very proud of their heritage, culture, history, and everything else, and the fact that they were hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi was a big topic there.  Everywhere we went (and on every can of Coke we drank) there was something about Sochi.

Last but not least, I couldn’t get away with writing a blog about Russia without mentioning the gay issue.  We booked this trip several months before Russia’s notorious gay laws were passed in the Duma.  Morally, I normally don’t want to spend my tourism dollars in a place that is hostile to gays and lesbians (or anyone for that matter), but I had already paid for everything.  I was apprehensive about travelling there, especially after reading about the topic in the media, but I was assured that it was completely safe as long as I didn’t parade around or tell anyone about my sexuality.  Indeed, I never really had a moment where I felt unsafe because of my sexuality (though I did opt to wear my dark gray beanie in lieu of my colourful blue and green one for most of my time in Russia, just to avoid drawing unwanted attention to myself).

Our very first tour guide in St Petersburg could probably sense that me and one of the other guys on the trip were gay, and without asking us about our sexuality at all, asked the whole group one day over coffee whether we had heard of this anti-gay law.  We were shocked to hear his take on the issue – that the law was ridiculous, that nobody really cared or wanted it in effect, and that the politicians were only using it to shore up support.  Mind you, our tour guide was young and had a lot of exposure to westerners so his view probably wasn’t reflective of the population as a whole, but I was still taken aback (in a good way) by his comments.  Maybe it is like the US a bit – it’s a political tool, the young people just don’t see it as an issue, and eventually it will change.  Admittedly, Russia has a much longer journey ahead of itself on the issue that the US probably ever did, but the issue they are facing now isn’t all that dissimilar to what happened in the western world in the not-too-distant past.

In Moscow, a mate of mine who lives there advised that gay and lesbian couples walking around holding hands in public is a common sight in the city.  In the smaller city of Irkutsk, our tour guide seemed to be quite liberal as well and I think he caught on very quickly to the gays in the group.  That brings the question:  is the western media sensationalizing the issue?

I had no problems when I was there, but I’m going to give that question a big “no” response.  Moscow is a big cosmopolitan city, and the people we encountered everywhere we went on our trip are used to dealing with tourists from the liberal countries in Europe, North America, and Oceania, so their views on the issue and interactions with us can’t be construed to be similar to Russians as a whole.  Going out in public as a civil rights activist would spell trouble – gay pride parades are banned in Russia – and I imagine that being gay outside of the few biggest cities would be terrifying for a child or teen struggling with their sexuality.

I definitely have a much less negative view (but still very negative) about the situation in Russia after visiting, and not because I think the western media exaggerates the story.  I think the negative coverage is well-deserved and should go further.  My view is less negative now because just like in the United States, Australia, and most other western countries, I can see that the anti-gay views that exist at present will likely die out with the older generations.  Yes, it will take much longer for Russia to get there than it did for those countries in the west.  Yes, their views are exceedingly harsh for a country in Europe, but with all of Russia’s other civil rights issues, it is hardly unexpected.  Is it fair?  No.  Is it just?  No.  Is it unacceptable?  Yes.  But in reality, just like the Netherlands, Canada, and Scandinavia have beaten the United States and Australia to equal rights and equal treatment for sexual minorities, so too will we beat Russia there.  And Russia will beat Uganda, Nigeria, Pakistan, and just about every other Islamic country and most African countries.  Can we move them along in the right direction?  Maybe.  If I could wave a magic wand and make it happen overnight I would, but I unfortunately don’t have that power (but imagine what an amazing world we’d live in if I did!)

I’ll leave that conversation to the activists, politicians, and thinkers.  In the meantime, I can only suggest one option:  airlift all of the gays out of Russia.  Let’s distribute them throughout the gay-friendly countries of the world.  And let’s date them.  Because there are some hot Russian men.  Real hot.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Pizza

Once upon a time there was an Italian Prime Minister who, irked that the EU chose Helsinki as the city in which to headquarter the new European Food Safety Authority, came back from a trip there and proclaimed to his countrymen that the Finns were less qualified to host any sort of food authority because their cuisine sucked.

Ok, he didn’t exactly use those words, but he actually came pretty close.

Then there was the French Prime Minister who once claimed that “After Finland, Britain is the country with the worst food.”

Fuck you, Chirac.  You may think that, but you don’t need to say it.  Dick.

Finnish cuisine really does take a beating… And to be fair, the Finns definitely aren’t known internationally for their cuisine.  But after visiting the country, I’ve determined that there really isn’t a reason they shouldn’t be known for their cuisine.  Every meal we had was fresh and delicious, and even the scarier of the foods turned out to taste pretty good.

Let’s start with dessert, because I love to start with dessert.  I picked up these lusikkaleivat (aka spoon cookies) from an old lady at the markets.  She made them from scratch and sold them in batches of 10 in little unlabelled plastic containers.  Essentially, these are the Finnish version of Danish butter cookies.  Buttery.  Sweet.  Absolutely delicious.  The jam in the middle is the traditional way of making them in Finland and was a nice touch.

Speaking of the markets, we also spotted many of these:

Lingonberries!  More commonly thought of served atop Swedish meatballs, lingonberries are native to Finland too and are found all over.  Lingonberries are a bitter berry with a very strong taste (hence why it is often served with savoury foods), but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make a great dessert too.  Our first night in Helsinki, Charlotte and I tried some whipped lingonberry porridge with white chocolate cream.  And cream is exactly what I did… Who said that?

If bitter lingonberries are at one end of the berry spectrum, then the cloudberry is at the other.  Also native to Finland, cloudberries are orange in colour and very sweet.  I’m pretty confident the cloudberry jam was the best jam I’ve ever had, and I’ve been trying hard to find it in Sydney without much luck.  We accidentally got a serving of the orange jam as part of a massive breakfast that we had at this cute little cafe that we accidentally stumbled upon.  For €15, we got all of this plus a juice and a coffee.

The cloudberry jam was served with the square block of cheese in the bottom right corner.  The cheese is called leipƤjuusto and is often referred to as Finnish squeaky cheese.  I didn’t actually realize what it was at first, but I was in love as soon as I tasted it.  It is very similar to haloumi – and I LOVE haloumi – but it’s less salty.  It goes extremely well with the sweet cloudberry jam and I REALLY want some here.

Of course, anywhere I go, I have to try the local chocolate, which for Finland, proved much better than the chocolate I tried in Estonia, Russia, or Mongolia.  Fazer is the big brand and it was good quality.

If cheese and chocolate are my first two vices, then beer is definitely my third.   I heard the beer in Finland wasn’t all that good, but I tried two local varieties and was pleasantly surprised by both.

There is also meat.  Up until very recently, the only meats I ate were chicken and turkey.  I’m not a big meat eater and didn’t even eat beef until June, lamb until July, and I had my first bite of fish (smoked salmon) only a few days before this trip.  So I surprised myself when I tried a bit of herring at the markets.  It was actually pretty good, though I only had the free sample so it was quite small.  The big ticket item, though, was not the herring… or the squeaky cheese or the cloudberry jam or the lingonberry pudding or the chocolate or the beer or the butter cookies.  It was the Italian Prime Minister:  Berlusconi.

Back when Berlusconi made his comments about Finnish cuisine, the Finns got angry.  And apparently when the Finns get angry, they get even.  And “how?” you may ask.  With pizza.  Finnish pizza.  They take an Italian staple and they Finnishize it.  And then they enter it into an international pizza competition in New York and take the gold medal, beating out the Italians who come second.  Ha!  And what did these Finns call their Finnish pizza?  The Berlusconi.  Never before in history has an entire country so elegantly and cleverly added insult to injury, and I LOVE it.  And I also loved the pizza.

Served at a chain restaurant called Koti Pizza, the pizza consists of “a dough that is high in fibre, smoked reindeer, chanterelles, and red onions”.  This was our hangover lunch after our big night out on the town, and it really hit the spot.

I ate reindeer.  I ate Rudolph.  Take that, Christmas!

So, the next time some ignorant leader from some bigger European nation makes a snarky comment about Finnish cuisine, just tell them how delicious squeaky cheese and cloudberry jam and butter cookies are, and remind them that Finland has a Berlusconi too.  And the Finns’ Berlusconi is way better than the Italian one.  What a turd.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

#44: Temppeliaukio Church

Let’s start with the old:  Suomenlinna.  Meaning “Castle of Finland”, Suomenlinna was built by the Swedes in the mid-18th century to protect their kingdom from those pesky Russians.  While Finland is a fairly obscure place today, Suomenlinna was well known at the time as being the strongest fortress in Europe.  Our tour guide told us that the equivalent would be the Titanic – unsinkable.  But just like the Titanic, Suomenlinna went down.  Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom until 1808 when Sweden lost Suomenlinna and the rest of Finland to the Russians during the Finnish War.  Today, the island fortress in the harbour is a popular weekend picnic spot for locals and a must-see tourist attraction.

Now let’s move onto the newer.  The biggest thing I was excited to see, however, was one of the items on my list of 103 Things:  Temppeliaukion kirkko, also known as the Rock Church.

It is known as the rock church because it was built into a giant rock.  That’s right. In the 1960’s, the Finns excavated a giant rock and put a church it in.  A giant dome tops the structure and lets in plenty of natural light.  Only Nordic people – with their amazing sense of design and style – would think of building a church which breaks all the molds (especially in the 1960’s…)

Of course, I was on cloud nine the entire time, though I always am when I cross one of the 103 Things off my list.  Charlotte seemed to really like it too!

For even more amazing Finnish design and style, we did a bit of window shopping at Marimekko – the quintessential Finnish design store which specializes in women’s apparel and home furnishings.

We also went to Stockmann, Finland’s main department store, but spent more time in the food hall looking at chocolate then we did at fancy Finnish clothes.  Ooops.

With design and style also comes art.  The Kiasma is Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art.  It was relatively small, but absolutely fantastic.

Did I mention it was a bit provocative too?

Oh my.

We also hit up the outdoor markets on the waterfront, which had amazing produce, sweets, and other foods, as well as all sorts of locally made crafts.  Glorious.

I’ve blogged about the city.  I’ve blogged about the sights.  All that’s missing now is the food… but of course, that gets a whole blog entry to itself.

Friday, February 21, 2014


Despite my big trip being centred around Russia and Mongolia, the place I was most excited to see was Helsinki.  I don’t know exactly why, but I’ve had a fascination with the Nordic countries ever since I was young.  I think it maybe has something to do with the free healthcare, safe cars, designer furniture, and all of the other statistics which rank Finland and the other Nordics at the top of nearly every quality of life, freedom, health, environmental, democracy, anti-corruption, etc. survey imaginable.  Arriving into Helsinki Airport was a sign of the amazingness to come.  Within about 10 minutes of landing, I was off the plane, passport stamped, bag collected, through customs, out the door, and waiting for a bus.  Ten minutes.  Ten.  10.  I think I’d faint from shock if that happened at Sydney Airport.

Those thinking Finland may immediately think about Nokia or reindeer or… well, probably not much else.  Honestly, how many people know anything about Finland other than that it exists and that it’s probably somewhere near Sweden?  Finland isn’t big on the world stage if you’re not paying attention.  While France, Italy, Spain, the UK, and other big European powers are like the popular kids in school – everybody knows them – Finland is the quiet kid sitting at the back of class.  You would barely know he’s there if you didn’t see him on the map once in a while.  Once you talk to him, however, you realize that oh my god he’s the coolest one in the room.  And he’s also really attractive…

Especially during autumn when the leaves were changing all sorts of colours.

Helsinki was a city of contrasts, and a beautiful one at that.  Gorgeous old buildings could be found everywhere, and each and every one of them was well-maintained, just to match the clean, litter-free streets.

It wasn’t all old and glorious - there were plenty of new construction cranes dotting the skyline showing the growth that the city and country are experiencing.  Helsinki is consistently ranked one of the ten best cities in the world to live in, so it only makes sense that more and more buildings are popping up to accommodate those seeking the good life.  When they can, the old and new were mixed together, creating some very unique architecture.

Old and new weren’t just in the architecture.  All around town were signs of traditional Finnish culture, folklore, and more.

And then there was the new influence from outside cultures, and a good sense of humour to go with it.  Exhibit A:  we went to the biggest gay club in Helsinki and got Hello Kitty stamps at the door.

More and more, Helsinki is becoming a major hub for air traffic, especially as Finnair expands with direct flights to more and more international cities.  It’s location on the great circle route for many flights between Asia and Europe also helps.  My friend Charlotte, back in London after a few years of living in Australia, jumped over to Helsinki to meet me for the weekend – just because it is really close and easy to get there.  And with more and more international exposure comes more and more international influence to complement traditional Finnish culture.  This could easily be seen in the food.  Where else can you get a chicken burrito and Corona or a cider and bowl of salmon soup at the same restaurant?  Only in Helsinki…

The Finnish people too are a reflection of the country in which they live.  They are hospitable, going out of their way to ensure visitors feel welcome and at home.  I had the pleasure of meeting up with several locals when I was there, including Fredrik from CouchSurfing.  Fredrik and his mate Jari took me and Charlotte – complete strangers – out for a night on the town.

The hospitality was everywhere.  Exhibit B:  different English pamphlets for Brits/Aussies and Americans/Canadians.  How thoughtful!  I could read both fluently.  Does this mean I’m bilingual?

And they are progressive.  Exhibit C:  Jesus and Johnny Cash.  Even the most diehard country music  fan from Bumfuck, Texas would take offense to anything which distorts Jesus’ image.  The Finns don’t give a shit.  Let’s have some fun with it!

And finally, the Finns, despite their old history with Russia, are truly Nordic, which I love.  Exhibit D:

I know I have a majority of the world’s cities still to explore, but even after seeing them all, I have a feeling that Helsinki will always be ranked near the top of my list.  It’s definitely on the list again for a second, longer visit… and third visit…

Monday, February 17, 2014

#42: Alexander Nevsky Cathedral!

As mentioned in my last post, Tallinn’s old city is gorgeous with its cobblestone streets, medieval passageways, and colourful buildings.  The entrance into the old city was a throwback to medieval times when a long wall and series of towers guarded the city.

Once inside, however, the look and feel became strictly modern Western European.  Well-maintained buildings housed fancy boutiques, cute restaurants, and more than a few souvenir shops.

For me, the jewel of the old city was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a gorgeous Russian Orthodox Church built in the late 1800’s.  As a Russian building, it was once viewed negatively by Estonians and, with many other churches under Soviet rule, was left to decline.  After independence, however, the church was restored and is now somewhat of a symbol of the city.  And what a pretty symbol it is!

Pictures weren’t allowed inside the building, unfortunately, but I snapped a few of the outside and am pleased to have crossed this site off my list of 103 Things.

Aside from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, I also visited St Olav’s Church.

While the architecture itself wasn’t as grandiose as the Nevsky, the best part of this church was its tower.  A narrow, winding 258 steps led up to the top where sweeping views of the city could be found.  When I arrived in the morning, the skies were gray and dreary, but somewhere between step 1 and step 258, the sun did me a favour and poked out.

I wandered around more of the old city, hitting up the medieval street of Katariina Kaik, following the old city walls, and finding my way to Raekoja Plats, the central square.

I also visited the hilariously named Kiek in de Kok (ok, it’s only hilarious if you’re English-speaking and immature like me, but come on… kick in the cock!)  The name actually means something along the lines of “peep into the kitchen” because of the ability of occupants in the tower to look down into homes and other buildings.  The tower was one of many surrounding Tallinn and contained cannons and other artillery to protect the city.  Nowadays, it contains a museum about the city.  Of course, I was instantly drawn to the maps portion of the museum and learned that Estonia once belonged to the Swedish Empire.

Atop a one of the city’s hills, my big walking tour wound down at one of the best viewpoints over the whole city.

It was from this point that I could really see the old versus the new represented in the buildings in the background.

Tallinn was a surprising and enchanting city, and while I was sad to leave, I was excited to get back across the gulf and check out what Helsinki had on offer.