Monday, May 28, 2007

Notes from the Kiev Underground

The Kiev metro system is a fabulous mix of Soviet glory and Ukrainian patriotism.

The system consists of about four lines, which are distinguished by start/end names, much like BART in the Bay Area. Of course, all the station names are in Ukrainian cyrillic writing, so a little difficult to distinguish station names and directions. Better than that, certain metro stations are connected underground, with each metro line belonging to a different station, but connected by tunnels. Distinguishing which way tunnel/escalator is out, and which ones takes you to the adjoining station/lines is difficult. And even with a fluent Ukrainian translator (ie, my mother), one can spend a good ten minutes walking from tunnel to escalator to tunnel, and finding one has just gone in a giant circle through multiple stations. The winning moment during our Kruschatyk station escapade was getting to the top of an escalator and finding oneself faced with three identical white-tiled tunnels leading in different directions with no signs whatsoever, and masses of people going in and out of each of them.

But once one figures out the system, it's quite fun. For 50 kopeks, you can go all over the city, getting views over the Dnipro river and samplings of all the different stations. One station has fancy chandeliers all down it, while another is a hommage to Lenin, with dark brown marble columns and bronze statuary down the middle of the two underground platforms, enscribed with famous quotes. In contrast, the metro cars are painted sky blue and yellow (Ukrainian colours - for the sky and the wheat).

The best part of the metro is the people. Last night was a May day celebration of Kiev, consisting of a giant street party. When it rained, one notable group of older middle-aged people retreated to the metro to continue their party. They were all dressed up in their embroidered blouses, and a man was playing the accordion. They stood in a circle and danced in the traditional folk style. I'm sure much vodka was being drunk...

Earlier in the day, the two rival football teams apparently played each other - unlike the calm and peaceful protestors the day before, the sports fans were rowdier than the noisiest Bay Area fans - chants, jeers and drum-banging from rival fans echoed through all the metro stations throughout the day!

Tomorrow is our last day in Kiev before returning to L'viv in the evening. All the best,

(Sorry for no photos - I keep getting an error message in cyrillic/Ukrainian, so I can't figure out how to fix it!)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Crimea to Kiev: steamy trains, prison caves and restful political unrest

A short note to keep you posted! Unfortunately this computer has no free USB ports, so no pictures, but I'll try again tonight after the opera...

Crimea to Kiev was phenomenal. We saw the Khan's palace in the Crimea (head of the Tartars - along the lines of the Alhambra, though in a very dramatic mountainous setting, but unfortunately damaged by years of Christians, Soviets and looters). There is the famous Fountain of Tears (a la Chekhov's poem) - a marble fountain that manages to drip single drops of watery tears to represent the sorrow of a Khan who's favourite wife who died. (Though it must be pointed out that he had an entire harem to console him). The Khan's palace was followed by a three hour hike (in +30C heat, so kudos to my mother for making it all the way) past a cave monastery filled with gold-painted icons and through the Karaite fortress of Chufut Kale, which is on the top of a cave-filled mountain. The highlight of Chufut Kale is a the precipitous drop on one side (think Yosemite), but with caves hollowed into the sides. The Tartars had the brilliant idea of using these caves as prisons, so unfortunate soils were chained to rock pillars hollowed out in the caves, with views of the gorgeous valley below. There was no way out except by a (very) narrow staircase carved into the rock on the cliff. A little sketchy to get down, but completely impressive inside. Makes me glad I'm not a Tartar slave.

Our stay in Crimea finished with a stop by Sevastopol, where we eyed the Black Sea Fleet (Russian and Ukrainian navy - rather rusty, I'd have to say), and the various sites of the Crimean War (almost pointless as some of the current ones we're engaged in). The Valley of Death is where the Charge of the Light Brigade occurred - now an absolutely gorgeous series of vineyards, which is a little odd. Sevastopol (pron. Sevas-topple) also has this painted panorama of the siege of Sevastopol, which sounds totally kitsch, but is actually very impressive - paintings mixed with models to make a three-dimensional, 180-degree view of the siege. Again, glad I wasn't there at the time, but fascinating to see now!

We took the overnight train to Kiev. While it wasn't as hot as the previous over-nighter, it was still our own personal sauna. Made much more fun by the remaining bottles of Moldovan wine I had left...

But Kiev is really something else. It is truly a European city, with fancy restaraunts, gorgeous old buildings that rival Vienna, and monuments and artwork everywhere. The Golden Gates (think Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition) are neat, and the Santa Sophia monastery is probably the most beautiful church I've been to yet - complete with multiple gold-topped onion domes. Of course, the drama of Kiev has been the stand-off between the President and Prime Minister. Lots of military types and protests between the orange and the blue. What struck me the most was how peaceful the marchers/protestors were - no shouting, no fighting, just lots of flags and people out.

We escaped from the heat and the protestors for the evening by taking in the Barber of Seville at the Opera House. Hearing the Figaro-song (made famous by Tom and Jerry, as I recall), is pretty funny in Ukrainian, but the singing, costumes and sets were fabulous. We're off for the day, so must run - I'll put photos up as soon as I find a decent computer!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

2230 rooms of Soviet glory (or, Not as bad as I thought it would be)

Greetings from the Hotel Yalta - 2230 rooms in the former Soviet highlight of the Intourist system - for the best and brightest and most devoted labourers, to bask in all their communist glory... you get the picture. Lots and lots of Soviet concrete. With seven restaraunts, an 'authentic' British pub, a dolphinarium populated by ex-Soviet military dolphins, and an Olympic sized swimming pool used by the Ukrainian junior national swimming team (much to the chagrin of this blogger, who wanted to swim a few laps and was kicked out of the pool by an officious man with no less than three stopwatches).

But despite the over-exuberance of concrete mixers, and the alternating coloured evening spotlights that are splayed across the side of the hotel, the very run-down balcony that would not withstand an earthquake, and the rather inconvenient hotel location (20 minute walk to town), this hotel is really not as bad as I thought it would be. The food in the restaraunts is really superb (and cheap!), the local wines they serve are tasty if slightly sweet, and there are elevators down to the beach... (Yalta is on the Black Sea - a first for me).

The only problem is that there is only one key per room. This should not have been a problem for my mother and I. However, yesterday morning I decided to strike off on my own and go for a walk into the town on my own. I walked the promenade, admired the kitsch, and made my way through the local markets. Highlights included: a statue of Lenin (very solemn from the sea-side. when I walked to the back, I saw a little reflecting pool. That some enterprising businessman had filled with a couple of rubber-ducky shaped dinghys, which one could rent and row around the pool behind Lenin. I love the former Soviet Union.) and the pomegranate stands in the market. Then I made my way back to the hotel to meet my mom and grab lunch.

Except that when I knocked on the door after lunch, my mother didn't answer. Nor did she answer after I went down to reception, found there was no key, returned to our room and banged loudly. And repeated the process a couple more times. So I sat in the lobby bar and had a cup of tea. And tried again. No answer. No key. I took a walk around the hotel. Repeated the key-banging process. Visions of my mother having had a heart attack hit my guilty imagination, so I eventually bribed the maids to let me in the room, which I found spotless, but without my mother. I gathered my swim stuff (hence the national swim team experience, so I didn't get to swim. I tried the Black Sea, but it was full of jellyfish and my Ukrainian does not extend to asking if they're poisonous or not). After over six hours of being locked out of my hotel room, I eventually knocked and my mother answered. It turned out that she had been sitting out on our balcony all afternoon reading (and wondering where I was) and hadn't heard me banging the door down. And then we apparently crossed in the elevators when I bribed the maids, as she went down to the lobby for a few minutes... I thought that kind of thing only happened in the movies...

My mother bought me a very nice dinner with a very nice glass of wine last night. And I kept the hotel keys.

Today was a little less drama-filled, but quite spectacular - a visit to the Khan's palace (complete with harem) of the 12th century, a cave-monastery built in to limestone cliffs, and a long hike up to a cave fortress occupied by various people - most notably the Tartars who hollowed out caves in the cliffs to keep prisoners...

Tomorrow we are off to Balaklava to learn about the Crimean war and the folly of British officers, and then we take the overnight train to Kiev. Catch up with you soon!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Searching for kitsch from Odessa to Yalta...

While I will probably get whisked away in a black BMW with tinted windows for writing this, Odessa is a very Mafia-filled town. Despite my initial excitement, I was initially disappointed with the blocks of concrete littering the suburbs as we drove into town. What I'm beginning to realize about all these former-Soviet towns is that many of the concrete apartment buildings aren't just abandoned - more are going up, and I realize that's because they a.) need more housing and b.) probably don't know how to build anything else...

But our hotel room in Odessa had a fascinating view - the old turn-of-the-century railway station, a gold-painted onion-domed church, and then the crumbling remnants of collapsed concrete apartment buildings... And more was yet to come. Odessa's beaches are filled with kitsch - old ladies with scales to weigh yourself, tacky plastic palm trees along the beach, random cemented Greek columns. On the Potemkin steps, one is chased by people carrying monkeys, pythons and cute, furry rabbits in the hopes that you will pay for the pleasure of taking a photo with said animal. And a few blocks away, there are uber-high end haute couture shops, fancy French restaraunts, beautiful sidewalk cafes under leafy trees... The food was exquisite, the statues interesting (many pro-Soviet, one notable one of a Cossack with his horse), and the Potemkin steps almost as breathtaking as I hoped (the only thing taking away from that experience was the view of the Soviet concrete that one now enjoys from the Steps).

The stories are interesting. Odessa is built on catacombs - as they built houses, they pulled out limestone from underneath (no, really underneath) the lots they were building on. For those of us coming from earthquake-prone territory (and Odessa has had its share of seismic activity), this seems like a really bad idea. The result has been a building limit of four stories. A building limit that apparently does not apply to Soviet concrete...
But in the catacombs, we took the most fascinating tour of the trip so far. During WWII, the partisans based themselves out of a set of catacombs outside of Odessa - they lived there for years, communicating with people through notes sent in pails out of wells, and the walls are filled with interesting stories of great heroism amidst great tragedy. A moving experience.

From Odessa, we took the night train to Simferopol, and then drove down to Yalta this morning. The night train was kind of fun - bumpy, loud and our carriage had several loud snorers, but it was fun. Lots of alcohol (leftovers from the Moldovan wine cellars, where everyone was given two bottles at the end of the tour! i'm still left with one... for the Kiev sleeper train, i guess), and dinner of bread and cheese! Not too much drama, except for one of the older ladies who drank far too many G&T's and was rather ill... Us younger folk were the most sober ones on the train, i think.

As for Yalta, if I thought that Odessa was a little kitschy, Yalta is full-on super-kitsch. There are all the horrid face cut-outs to take your photo in, and several dress-up in costume and get your picture taken. You can have your picture taken in a crinoline on a Romanov-inspired throne, or in leather on a (possibly real?) Harley Davidson with an American flag in the background. I'm aiming for the crinoline...

We took a boat tour around to Swallow's Nest - a fantasy castle built on a cliff in 1912 that graces the Ukraine guide books. It looks lovely from the distance, but rather tacky (probably worse than Disneyland) up close. It is also filled with animal-carrying photo opportunists. Instead of the pythons and monkeys, though, these ones had hawks and peacocks. I resisted the temptation to take a photo with my mother with a giant peacock on her shoulder, tempting as it was.

All the best - thanks for the comments, guys - I wish you were all here to enjoy the kitsch!

Friday, May 18, 2007

a little of the landscape....

and a typical piece of Soviet concrete... our Intourist hotel in Chernivtsi!

looking for boats in Moldova...


I am completely convinced that Chisinau (pron. Kiss-shin-now) is the most fabulous place in Eastern Europe. We drove here from Chernivtzi, and after a rather long wait at the border, during which several officious Moldovan border security people took our passports to a small room (no doubt laughing at all our pictures) and proceeded to stamp them, accompanied by the equally officious Ukrainian border patrol, who took away various pieces of paper. Once our driver received the proper piece of paper (stamped no less than eighteen times), we were allowed to pass through and make our way to the capital of Moldova.

It is embarrassing to admit that before this trip I really had no idea what or where Moldova is. So a few facts to keep everyone up to date:
- Moldova is a country, a former part of the U.S.S.R. (and then part of the Commonwealth of Independent States)

- formerly known as Bessarabia (sp?)

- Moldova has ~3million people, is a land-locked country, and has a population made up of Romanians, Russians and Ukrainians with a smattering of other cultures as well (I'm sure I'm insulting some group horridly, so apologies for leaving people out - i'll leave it at Moldova has had a turbulent history, was part of Romania, Austria-Hungary and everyone else around this neck of the woods at some point or other, and they had a miserable time of it ever since the Soviets came in, followed by the Nazis, and then returned to the Soviets, much like the Ukraine).

But all the history aside, Moldova is a wonderful country. I am completely sold on it, and must suggest that you all come and visit! The people are friendly, the countryside beautiful (complete with picturesque villages with peasants farming the land by hand and grand-parents taking the horse and cart laden with cabbages to the next town, and, most importantly the wine is delicious).

Yesterday we went to a world heritage site - a cave monastery, hollowed out in the limestone cliffs around here. The site was beautiful, and we got there at the end of the day, when the light was dimming and the birds were singing. There is a cross at which one makes a (non-material) wish, and it will supposedly come true soon (sorry, can't tell you what mine was or it won't come true). The land was so peaceful, and the scene so beautiful, that I can well believe that magic was in the air. The Moldovan dinner and wine afterwards were similarly so superb that I may actually have run out of superlatives for them...

Today we wandered Chisinau. Despite the numerous blocks of Soviet concrete that litter the city, it is beautiful. And cheap! A luxurious multi-course lunch costs a few dollars, and a large bar of good chocolate is about 80 cents. The average person makes ~90 dollars/month, but a hideous Soviet concrete flat rents for 100/month, at the very minimum. So clearly an impoverished nation. But despite that, the people are wonderful - friendly service, a safe feel to the streets and a happy population. There is open generosity in the air - young people help the elderly cross the streets, and the cars stop for pedestrian traffic. The people are very proud of their freedom and their nation, and are desperate to make it work. I really love this place, and feel a strange kinship to these lovely people - I hope they do make this country work, and must encourage you all to buy the excellent Moldovan wine and cheese! And if you visit, try the 'mushroom cookies' which are actually thin crepes filled with mushrooms and a little cheese, folded up, and then breaded and fried: sooooo good.

Speaking of food and drink, if my words today are a little long, it is merely because this afternoon we went wine tasting in the biggest wine cellars in the world! They are located in the remnants of a limestone mine, and the cellars are so large that you tour them in a small van! (Though I wonder what the vans do to the air quality in the cellars... I think a small research project is in order...).

In all the towns that we pass, there are several items of note: every village has a memorial to the Red Army 'liberators' of World War Two - the typically Soviet bronze patriotic statues often have silk flowers placed underneath. On a lighter note, there have also been several stork nests (complete with real, live storks. But no, they don't carry babies in their beaks..). There are also working wells in every town and in every field, with shiny new buckets - clearly in use. While some of the wells are the rope and wheel wells we're used to thinking of in North America, many are a long pole with a line at the end that is carefully angled into the well...

Tomorrow we are on to Odessa, where I fully intend to relive movie history on the Potemkin steps. Hope all is well back home - all the best!

PS - For those of you asking, the only boat I have seen in Moldova so far was of the rowboat variety...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Soviet concrete

It is a complete anachronism to drive in a (relatively) modern bus along a (pothole-filled) highway past farms and fields being ploughed by horse and tilled by hand. This morning we drove from Ternopil (a very proud, very Ukrainian city) to Chernivtsi, where we are staying in an old Soviet piece of concrete. Technically it is a Intourist hotel, part of the old Soviet Ministry of tourism, but it is a fine example of what an over-enthusiastic cement-mixer can do in the hands of a communist architect. The rooms are in exactly the same state as they were when it was built in the 1950's, complete with bright red Soviet phone and the original light fixtures. The atrium is a little like a cruise ship, and the room instructions are in a variety of ex-Soviet languages (including, of course, a little Spanish for the visiting Cubans...).

Ternopil's highlight was the museum, which has a complete skeleton (the original, not a plaster replica) of a woolly mammoth found in the region. There were numerous paleolithic and neolithic artifacts from archaeological sites in the Ternopil area, old stone icons that had been thrown into the river when Christianity set in, and, most powerful to me, an incredibly powerful and moving set of artifacts and artwork depicting the initial invasion of the Red Army in the 30's (greeted as potential liberators, but when they put people in prisoncamps, realized to be tyrants), and then the invasion by Nazi Germany (again, initially greeted as liberators from the Soviets, but hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians - Jews and Gentiles alike - were sent to concentration and deathcamps). There is a very strong sense of centuries of persecution and war, and atrocities from all sides.

Perhaps the reason for this is the Ukrainian geography. There are no natural borders around this country - no clear delineation by mountain ranges, bodies of water. Just long, rolling hills full of fertile soil...

Many people still use horse and cart, and the old people take the family cows for walks along the side of the road, which is really quite charming. Families of geese wander the streets, and the old women gather in groups to clearly gossip and catch up. The ghosts of concrete and brick collectives are seen dotting the country-side, with old factory towers and grain elevators that have fallen into disrepair, ransacked and destroyed in the last decade since independence.

Tomorrow we're off to Moldova - wine cellars, ancient cave monastaries, and hopefully a little less Soviet concrete...

Monday, May 14, 2007

internet in cyrillic is tricky...


Good afternoon from the Ukraine! We left Hyytiala on Saturday and made it to Helsinki in time for a little pre-Eurovision concert (Finnish reggae. i kid you not.) and a drink in the ice bar. And yes Colette, they do have grapefruit joice. A greyhound or two later (vodka and grapefrui juice for the unintiated reader), and I was safely back in my hotel room fast asleep and ready for a ridiculously early start the next day. For how far Lviv and Helsinki are from each other, it takes a rather long flight through Vienna to get here. Flying into Lviv is fas\cinating - lots of small towns, each with a church with a dome that glistens in the sun. The farms are clearly remnants of the large collective tracts. And flying over Lviv showed the mix of ancient buildings (a little like Vienna) and large Soviet-style blocks of concrete. Upon arrival to Lviv Airport, there is a very long line to get to the non-English speaking immigration official, dressed in full military uniform, wide-brim hat and weapons included. But I made it out, and was greeted by my mother, and got my first real look at the Ukraine from the ground. In the form of an incredibly sketchy taxi ride.

The taxis are a little reminiscent of Central America, though the cars are definitely more dilapidated here in the Ukraine. Many of them date back to the 1950's, and consequently are constantly in repair on the side of the road. The view from the car was mixed - old, run-down, cobblestone streets, little old ladies in shawls with shopping bags, but beautiful tree-lined streets and old stone buildings. Many churches, and many devout people of all ages in them - surprisingly, a large number of young (teenagers, twenty-something) men, praying devoutly. Despite the apparent poverty, however, the people are very kind and friendly, and our hotel is comfortable. Most importantly, the varenyky (perogies) are delicious. So a few observations on the Ukraine:

People are very dressed up here. It rather looks like the women are copying their styles out of the high fashion magazines. The majority of women (of all ages) are wearing high, pointy heels (ranging from red patent leather to leopard-print), and the outfits are reminiscent of the most extreme parts of the Oscars red carpet. Sequins, see-through gauze shirts with brightly coloured satin bras, bright, clashing prints, and incredibly bright, jelly-fish like skirts are all the rage. Strips of fabric I wouldn't dare to wear to a nightclub are daytime fashhion here! And not just the teenagers, all the way up to the middle-aged set. Needless to say, I feel very underdressed in my jeans and runners.

The history, however, is really something else. I am beginning to understand where the Ukrainian culture comes from - a country that has been alternating between Austro-Hungarian and Russian rule, with heavy influences and involvement from the Poles, the Tartars, the Scots, to name just a few. But this internet is sketchy and slow, and there are museums to see and perogies to eat, so I will leave it here and try to update soon! Tomorrow we are off to Ternopil. But all the stories my grandmother told me about Lviv are beginning to make sense, and despite the incredibly short skirts, I feel at least a little bit at home here...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

sauna thermodynamics

I will miss Hyytiala, for all its quirks. Yesterday three of us skipped out on our group work and went for a hike around the lake (we talked about our project, i swear). It was fabulous. The trail disappeared after a while, so we just headed off across the moss and the rocks (admiring the lovely example of deciduous to coniferous succession, and the very cool treefalls...).

We spent the last evening enjoying the sauna. The women had the small sauna this time, which is, well small. But the sauna is better designed than the others, so you can keep it VERY hot, and as humid as you want. I strongly recommend dousing the rocks with lake water frequently - the hotter and more humid, the more relaxing it is. You also can make it so hot that the less heat tolerant people leave, generating more space for the rest of us....

Once you have become so hot and sweaty that you can't stay in the sauna any longer, you get out and run to the lake. Different people have different approaches. For some, it is better to slowly cool down outside having a beer, and then when you are a little more acclimatized to the cold night air, you mosey down to the pier and jump off. For me, I prefer to not think about the temperature difference, and just run out the sauna, down the steps, and (remembering to drop my towel just before - very important), jump into the lake, and swim as fast as i can. Then once the shock to the system has worn off, slowly swimming back to the pier and climbing out before having a beer and repeating the process. So fun!

Well, I'm off to Helsinki this afternoon, and then on to the ukraine tomorrow!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Danish drag queens (or Move over, Japanese fugu...)

Last night we had the fancy course dinner. It was in the 'Old dining hall' (so the nice wooden building with long wooden tables and benches, rather than the blocky, ikea-furnished buildings...). It was fantastic. White tablecloths, French wine, delicious food. Despite being potentially lethal, very delicious. Dinner started with a fabulous mushroom soup - large chunks of dark brown, nobbly mushrooms - very pungent and flavourful. We were all impressed, the cooks had out-down themselves. And then the rumour started down the table that the mushrooms were poisonous. Our course leader stood up to explain. He had clearly taken notes during the aerosols lecture earlier this week, as he was armed with chalk, that he chose to throw at unsuspecting students during his talk. Apparently the mushrooms in the soup are quite special, and picked near the field station. They are regarded as the best tasting mushrooms in Finland (I definitely agree), and earned three stars in the mushroom text book. However, they also have three daggers in the book. After being pelted with a large hunk of chalk, I managed to correctlyidentify this as meaning they were poisonous. Highly toxic - so much so that the profs wouldn't let us handle the raw versions they had brought! Apparently the trick to make the mushrooms go from three daggers to three stars is to cook the mushrooms at least twice in water, throwing out the water each time! Then you make the soup. Tasty, tasty, toxic soup.

The rest of the dinner was a little less dramatic (moose for the meat-eaters, and stuffed peppers for us veggies). After dinner, I took part in the cult phenomenon that is Eurovision. For the unintiated, Eurovision is a televised competition in which each country sends a representative music group to compete. Last year, Finland won with a hard rock group that apparently dresses up as monsters, complete with flames coming out of their guitars on cue. Highlights from last night's semifinals included the Norwegian salsa band, which progressively pulled of layers of clothing from the lead female, her dress getting shorter every time. Denmark had a drag queen. Switzerland had a vampire-themed band. The hosts for the show are two Finnish models. Better than America's Next Top Model (well, maybe not, but equally ridiculous!).

I'm excited to see the finals on Saturday. They're being held in Helsinki, and there are going to be big screens on the main square to watch. (Tickets to see are too expensive - they're currently trading for several hundred euro apiece, to give an indication of how seriously the Finns take the competition). Almost as seriously as they take the sauna. For example, this morning there was a half hour discussion (no joke) on the sauna situation at Hyytiala...


(PS. Kippis is 'cheers' in Finnish - one of my most used Finnish words...)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Dodging chalk...

This morning's lecture was on aerosols, and was one of the most intense, but also entertaining, classes so far. It was taught by a Finnish aerosol physicist who had absolutely no tolerance for students who didn't pay attention in class. If he thought someone was chatting, daydreaming or checking email, he either asked them difficult questions about a previous point (pausing until they answered or admitted they didn't know) or he threw chalk at them and made them draw diagrams of aerosol instrumentation on the blackboard. Large chunks of chalk. And complicated diagrams. The brute-force, fear-driven method of making students pay attention. It was fantastic. I'm inspired for my next teaching position.

We got to play with hand-held CPCs in the afternoon (particle measuring devices). Our group promptly went outside and made the two students who smoke light up cigarettes... The particle counts went out of range, they were so high. We then chased down a passing minivan. Surprisingly, the particle counts were about the same for the cigarette smoke and the van's exhaust pipe... Further observations were a little less dramatic, though in case you're wondering, swarming piles of ants and vigorous shaking of pine trees don't really make more aerosols. But burning a candle (Ikea tealight) in a large classroom increases particle counts for hours afterwards...

We pointed out that the saunas might make a lot of aerosol particles, but were informed that this is a very sensitive topic to Finnish aerosol scientists, and that we were not allowed to make measurements there or say such terrible, slanderous things about the sauna...

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Taking the sauna, and other Finnish traditions

So last night was my first real Scandinavian sauna (pron. sow-na, not saw-na) experience. You sit in a tiled room with pine benches and pour water over hot rocks: the steam creates an intense, oven-like experience. I am not sure if saunas are as healthy as the Finns would like you to think (a bit dehydrating), but once you get over the burning hot steam and hard wooden benches, they are actually quite relaxing. The trick is to leave frequently to take a cold shower (or jump in the lake, if you dare).

So I have a few food-related notes for those of you who are thinking of visiting Finland (and Hyytiala in particular). First, while they eat breakfast, lunch and tea at normal times, the Finnish eat dinner at the ridiculously early hour of 4:30 in the afternoon. It leaves a gaping hole in one's stomach around 9pm. I was told this was healthy. Secondly, never, ever accept Finnish candy, no matter how cute the boy who is offering it to you. It consists of absolutely vile licorice-flavoured rocks that have a very long-lasting licorice aftertaste. And thirdly, they eat a lot of starch. Breakfast is porridge and bread (with cheese and cucumbers for open-face sandwiches). Lunch is bread, potatoes and rice, with a side of stew. And dinner typically consists of potatoes, bread, and perhaps something else (this evening, it was a potato-fish soup. Tasty, but rather a lot of potatoes). Last night, it was two types of potatoes. Not that I don't love starch. It's just a little repetitive.

But the course is fabulous - lots of good science, and interesting people. We visited the Hyytiala field site today. One of the U.S. girls and I taught the group the term 'to pimp'. As in 'the research forest is way pimped out' (see photo). But we are off to do group work - always fun (made particularly entertating because the guy who didn't know that the Ukraine is a country and that the Dutch are from the Netherlands is in my group).

Now time to have a beer and take the sauna...
The lake at Hyytiala...

Monday, May 7, 2007

Hello from Hyytiala!

(Note: I'm trying to copy and paste into a Finnish version of, which is tricky. Apologies if this makes no sense, or if the photos don't come out!!)

So I arrived in Finland late last night. I was pleased to see my hotel room full of Ikea furniture. I was less excited to see that all the buildings looked like Ikea stores (i.e., large blocks). However, after a two-three hour drive north, we ended up in Hyytiala (pron. hoot-ee-ala), the field site where I'll be staying this week.

This lady in the photo was located in the breakfast room of my hotel - she held a sign directing us where to leave our dishes...

The drive up was fascinating. I learned all sorts of things about Finland. There are thousands of moose, and hundreds of wolves - so many, that they're trying to cull both populations. Climate change is noticeable over the last five years - longer growing seasons, and they can see the movement of the tree line, and oaks now populating the southern forests.

On a historical note, I learned that Finland was actually part of Sweden for hundreds of years, before being taken over by Russia for a century. It finally gained independence in 1917 during the Russian Revolution. As Finland didn't have a monarch, but was modelling it's government after Sweden, they actually nominated a German prince to be their King. Due to various political events, the prince never turned up to claim his crown.

The course has been good today - learned lots about soils and isotopes. My fellow students are generally pretty interesting. There are people from everywhere from Bulgaria to the U.S. Though my favourite comment today was from an american: the ukraine? what, is that, like, some part of russia? - when i explained it was former Soviet Union, and now its own country (and even reminded him of the poisoning during the election a few years ago), the response was: really? nope, never heard of it. I managed to bite my tongue, but the other people in the group seemed as amused as I was.

Finally, my first Finnish word is kitos - which means thank you....

We enjoyed the flight: notes from Frankfurt airport

My greatest fear on a transcontinental flight has nothing to do with lost baggage, terrorism or turbulence resulting in my being stranded on a Lord-of-the-Flies-like desert island. It doesn't even have to do with the tedious security process, in which I inevitably get hauled aside for secondary screening and have the entire contents of my two carefully packed carry-ons (which are intended to carry me through the next month) emptied onto a counter and searched by TSA officials. My fear is entirely centered on my neighbour - a person I will be belted in and sitting next to foreleven hours. This time, I lucked out. Unlike my previous flight from Frankfurt, I did not have a water bottle spilled on my head. No small children kicking the back of my seat. No super-chatty lady who wants to talk about the excruciating details of her daughter's relationship. A polite gentleman who quietly watched movies and made sure I got my breakfast. But who had one quirk I have never actually experienced outside of television: he talked about himself in the plural.

At first, I thought he was with a co-worker who must have been sitting elsewhere ('we had to get a special visa for this business trip' and 'we do software programming'). But he must also have had his family with him ('we are travelling to sweden - we have family there'), though he also spoke for his family and co-worker's opinions ('we have heard of atmospheric chemistry - we think it must be very interesting' and 'we really don't like airplane food'). But it eventually dawned on me that he worked and was travelling on his own.

And now we're wondering which of our fellow passengers in the waiting lounge will be our neighbour for the flight to Helsinki. We're hoping for someone who refers to himself in the third person...

Friday, May 4, 2007

Berkeley good-byes

It's been almost seven years that I've been in Berkeley, California, and that has been more or less reduced to 10 boxes that are getting shipped to Colorado tomorrow.

I'll miss the views of the Golden Gate Bridge on the walk home every day. The veggie burrito at Razan's. More or less all the fruits and vegetables at Berkeley Bowl. Especially the heirloom tomatoes in the summer. I'll miss the flowers all year round. And I'll miss the rain (yes, you all think I'm crazy, but it makes the place so green). But all of that I can deal with - farmer's markets exist in Colorado, and I will have photos of the ocean. So the only thing I'll really miss will be the company of my friends.

I'm terrible at keeping in touch, and we all spend enough time in front of our computers that the extra twenty minutes to write a friendly email rarely materializes. So instead, I'm going to try this blog. (And this way, you can all skip the writing and just see the photos.) Let me know what you think.

So a virtual farewell toast to Berkeley (with one of Dave's gin-vodka-scotch-lemon sorbet-with-hint-of-banana cocktails in my hand. it's virtual so I don't actually have to drink it.) and... Chapeau!