Monthly Archives: October 2012

Helsinki, Europe’s Portlandia


On our last morning in Helsinki, I had my BEOT, Best Experience of Trip. It was grey & raining, so Ruth wanted to shop Stockmann’s Department Store (BIW, Best in World) one final time.

The night before, I noted that there were 3 CD/record stores within walking distance. Was I in Europe’s Portlandia? With 3 hours to blow, I set out to visit them. I made it to all three by 9:30, but Stupido Records and Levykauppa X didn’t open ’til 11. That left Fennica, lights on at 10, where I looked around & became quickly amazed at the influence of American music. When I got home, I googled Record CD stores in Helsinki and found a list that said about Fennica,”A big shop that hosts loads of classic rock and older american (sic) goldies a’la (sic) Frank Sinatra, soul and blues, both in LPs and CDs. Probably the only one if it’s (sic) kind in Helsinki. This is also the place where critics sell their promo-copies!”

After I had figured some of this out by myself, I approached the man in charge who turned out to be friendly, knowledgable Erkka Kettunen. Soon after he began my education, I asked him how he had learned to speak such excellent English, and he said, “By talking to customers.” A lot of folks from Australia, Canada, and England wander into his shop, look around, and ask if they can take pictures. “We don’t have any more shops like this,” they say nostalgically.

Erkka made a list of Helsinki’s still viable CD-record shops (there are 9) while telling me that Levykauppa X is best-in-town even though Eronen is famous & considered “Best in Europe”. Among American music genres, blues is the most popular in Finland. Classic performers like Muddy Waters & BB King sell best. Country & Western does well too. Willie Nelson remains popular, but Brad Paisley is current king of country. Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen were also mentioned before I asked about pop music beginning with Madonna. “Not so popular,” Erkka said.

“How is Finnish pop different from American?” I asked. “It’s sadder,” Erkka said simply. “The weather causes it.” I asked him to name a big Finnish pop star, and Erkka said Chisu. I was intrigued so he found an inexpensive double CD which I bought. Chisu’s absolutely sensational. If CDs wore out, she’d already be in recycle.

“Does rap have a following?” I inquired. “Paleface,” Erkka said immediately. After making a couple of CDs in US hip hop style, Paleface, or Karri Pekka Matias Miettinen, produced 2 in Finnish style. His most recent, “maan tapa”, is full of national spirit and doing quite well.

I asked if vinyl was making a comeback, and Erkka told me that 1% of Finnish music now comes out on vinyl, and he believed he could sell more if they were made. Bob Dylan’s new album includes both CD and LP.

As I put on my coat, Erkka gifted me with a Bobby Aro CD, “Kapakka in the Kaupunki or The Fabulous Finns Vol. 2” and mentioned a Minnesota connection. It’s clever & funny with veteran performer Aro a blend of Lawrence Welk and Weird Al Yankovic.

If you’d like to hear Chisu, I’m sorry to report that you can only order from Fennica’s website in Finland.


Revered in Lithuania



Did he make his time count!  He completed 400 paintings and sketches, more than 400 serious musical compositions including his country’s first symphony.  He was deeply involved in its independence movement, conducted orchestras, designed stained glass, dabbled in photography, etc.  And I had never heard of him.

Sometimes in travel a random decision can lead to a great discovery.   This happened in Kaunas, Lithuania.  Ruth & I exited the fantastic Devil Museum at 3 pm and still had time for one more attraction.  Across the street was something called the State Art Museum.  We paid twice as much as locals and entered the world of Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, the only artist displayed within.  Also checking him out was a group of bored teenagers on a field trip.  Ruth & I were never bored.  We found Ciurlionis curious.  With mystical names like “Eternity” & “Thoughts”, his paintings reminded me of Edvard Munch, the Norwegian who produced one of the most famous paintings in the world usually called “The Scream.”  I noted that most of Ciurlionis’ huge number of canvases were painted in 1906-7.  Why?

After we saw what we later learned was the vast majority of his output, I asked the lady in the gift shop if there was some way to hear one of his compositions.  She took us into a music room and handed me a list.  I pointed to #1, which turned out to be his most played work, “In the Forest”, a symphonic poem.  I found it quite pleasant, kind of Wagnerian.

On the way out, I asked the ticket lady how to say his name.  After several attempts to repeat what I heard, inducing amusement in her & frustration for me, I gave up and wrote in my notebook–Chir lone yis.

That night we just happened to attend a standing-room-only concert that included one of his compositions.  The audience was rapturous.  Later, I read in Ciurlionis, a book about him, “He conveys so powerfully our national spirit, our hopes, our expectations, the colors of the countryside, and the harmonies of old Lithuanian music” and understood that reaction.

Back in Vilnius, Ruth & I spent some time in the house where Ciurlionis rented a room for one year.  It’s now a small museum devoted to him where I learned why his incredible output occurred in a just few years.  He died in 1911 when he was only 35!  Hospitalized for depression, Ciurlionis caught a cold that led to pneumonia.  He had married a writer named Sofija and fathered a child whom he never saw.  His great-grandson, pianist Rokas Zubovas, earned a degree from Chicago’s DePaul University before returning to Lithuania where he teaches at the Academy of Music.

Besides the one in Kaunas where we literally stumbled on Ciurlionis’, there are  only 3 other museums with his works.  Since they’re in Poland, Russia, and Lithuania, I included a couple of unfortunately tiny examples of his art above.


Newseum Continued

As we walked by a rather impressive section of The Berlin Wall, Ruth said to me about Newseum, “This place really makes history come alive.”   Spot on.  Just around the corner was the glass-box express elevator to the top.

On Level 6 was one of my favorite parts of Newseum–Pennsylvania Avenue Terrace.  Even if the weather is not ideal, step outside to find, perhaps, the most sensational view of the US Capitol available to tourists.  Everyone, including ourselves, had photos taken with it in the background.  The Terrace stretches above and all along Newseum’s Pennsylvania Avenue side.  Facts about it, fittingly dubbed America’s Main Street, explain its considerable place in American history. For example, Thomas Jefferson was the first President to have an inaugural procession on it.

In addition to 6 theaters, Level 5 offers the history of the past 500 years via newspapers and documents in a long, double-stretch of cases called News History.   It would take months to read them all, but that’s not the point.

At first Newseum rejected the idea of displaying the Armani suit O. J. Simpson wore in court on the day of his acquittal, but it’s there and justified by an overstated quote from the Washington Post calling the decision of the jury, “The most dramatic courtroom verdict in the history of Western civilization.”  Ruth & I certainly  stared at the suit and discussed both that day and what led up to it for a long time.

Level 4 contained the First Amendment Gallery I spoke of yesterday where our 5 guaranteed freedoms are presented in Jay Leno type street interviews with strollers being asked to list them –religion, speech, petition, assembly, and  press.  Most could not recall all 5, but I could feel superior because they were right there for me to read.

By the time I was on Level 4, I had come to 2 conclusions.  The first occurred as I gaped at a partial recreation of Tim Russert’s office.  Newseum generally takes a tidal wave of events and somehow turns them into intimate, personal stories of those who make, report, and receive the news.  It also pulls off the tricky job of largely avoiding bias in reporting this nation’s inundation of political news.

Visitors are especially drawn to the twisted antenna mast from the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  It can’t but fail to impress, but those who walk around it find a small, very personal display of news photographer Bill Biggart’s equipment.  He didn’t survive 9-11 but his 3 very damaged cameras did, and the sight of them is very moving.

The photo above from Level 3 summarizes for me the source confusion we now all experience in learning today’s news events.

I could go on about Newseum, but I think you get the idea that it’s wise to include it in any trip to Washington, DC.  Before exiting, Ruth & I slowly moved through the Pulitzer Prize Photographs on Level 1.  The most complete display of these historic visions ever assembled, PPP is both very popular and a good way to end a visit to this stupendous addition to America’s significant museums.


Newseum: Living History


As we entered Newseum, now in the middle of the action at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC  instead of in Virginia, Ruth and I were told that our tickets were good for 2 full days.  What’s that about? I wondered.  Four hours later I understood.  We had seen a lot but were far from finished–with any level.  There are 6 of these.

Newseum’s mission is simple–to collect the news–and that effort begins even before you walk through its door.  A bank of newspapers lines the sidewalk in front with pedestrians stopping to read a few headlines.  Of course, tourists like me  immediately wonder if their hometown is represented. Both were.  There’s a very good chance that if it’s not there it will be on Level 6 in the Front Pages Gallery.  On the street, all but Antarctica among the continents is represented.  As I glanced at the front pages for that day, October 19, of O Estado de Sao Paulo and The Namibian, I wondered if Antarctica even had a newspaper.  If is does, it will be included at Newseum at some point.

Encouraged to see an orientation film or 2 before riding the enormous glass elevator to Level 6 to work our way down, we sampled 3 of the films being offered just that day.  My favorite, by far, was What’s News provided by the Hearst Corporation and narrated by Charles Osgood.  Just watching the films available in Newseum’s 15 theaters would have taken almost 4 hours. The one I most regret not seeing, not even finding, is Press Box: The History of Sports Reporting, which includes some of the greatest moments in sports history.

Speaking of Hearst, I asked one of the green-jacketed staff who’s responsible for Newseum, as in who mainly provides money and exhibits, and he went kind of blank, as I did after 4 hours, and mumbled ABC and private ownership before his voice trailed off.   Over the course of my visit, however, I saw the name of every organization connected with news gathering somewhere–Annenberg, The New York Times, Comcast, etc.  Ruth was especially thrilled to see an AAUW connection in several places.  A past president of this organization–American Association of University Women–like an Asian tourist, Ruth had me take her picture with its name each time she saw AAUW.  My favorite is her emerging from a voting booth.

The thing about Newseum is that in attempting to cover the entire spectrum of news for the past 500 years and largely succeeding, it’s far more than a 2 day adventure.  After we left, pretty exhausted, I looked over the enticing exhibits we didn’t even find and sighed deeply.

Newseum, definitely a 5 Compass attraction, simply can’t be covered in one blog.  So, our personal best will continue tomorrow.  In the meantime, here’s a challenge.  The First Amendment Gallery challenges visitors to name our, as in US citizens, 5 guaranteed freedoms.  Think it over and list them.


ps  Sad news. Newseum will officially close at the end of 2019.  It hopes to reopen elsewhere.  Its current location on Pennsylvania Avenue is not financially sustainable.

State Hermitage Museum


Everyone I know who has gone to Russia ended up in The Hermitage, what Lonely Planet calls “the geographic and tourism centerpiece of St. Petersburg.”  When I asked for impressions, I received blank stares followed by vague praise. Why?  This is by reputation one of the greatest art museums on the planet, so I didn’t understand until I went there.  Now I get it.

Advised to pre-order tickets, I got on and paid $35.90 for two entries.  That’s 1,125 rounded-off rubles.  The price of entry for 2 adult citizens of Russia and Belarus is 400 rubles or $12.77.  I wrote about this tourist-treatment disparity earlier.  However, pre-ordering helped Ruth & me avoid standing in an incredibly long line when the museum opened at 10:30 am.  We simply walked in and exchanged our voucher for two tickets. This took only a few minutes but meant dealing with two dour women who did their very best to pretend that we didn’t exist.

While we were fresh, Ruth and I decided to head for the fabled Impressionist collection.  It took about 20 minutes to locate it and go there. And that’s the problem with The Hermitage  resulting in vague, glassy-eyed praise.  It’s just too big.  Consider:  more than 3,000,000 works of art in five somewhat connected buildings.  In my humble opinion, only about 200 of the results of Russian collecting frenzy are really worth seeing.  Ruth & I lost track of the number of times we shuttled through the Egyptian collection to get back to our starting point.

The Van Goghs, Renoirs, Matisses, etc. were truly awesome, but it took miles of walking through palatial palace rooms and down dim halls that ended up not being where we wanted to go to locate the genuine Hermitage treasures.  And once found, they almost always had a crowd around them. Da Vinci’s Madonna & Child, for example, was literally surrounded by Asian tourists each of whom had to have his and her photograph taken with it.  A feckless, angry female guard endlessly chased them away, but like seagulls coveting an abandoned beach picnic, they returned within seconds and resumed clicking.  Ruth & I finally gave up on getting anywhere near DaVinci’s masterpiece.

I fully admit that finding a veritable room full of outstanding Rembrandt’s almost made the entire experience worthwhile.  And then there were those 3 spectacular Lorenzo Lotto’s.  The Hermitage certainly has its treasures.  But the Hermitage experience for impatient Americans would be better if its curators would closely group the admitted big guns like the Caravaggio and the Raphaels in a small area and charge appropriately for just them.   Seeing Tsar Alexander II’s ornate apartment is a personal thrill for about 3 seconds, but then the experience became an endless succession of similarly overdone rooms that quickened my pace.

After about 4 hours and, probably, 20 miles of walking, we needed a break. Back through Egypt again, we found an overcrowded sandwich bar, not enough places to sit, and expensive coffee.

Two hours later, I was irrationally determined to see Antiquities from Siberia. Ruth sat while I trekked from one end of Floor One to the other looking for its entry and finally giving up.  Later, in Lonely Planet I read, “If you want to escape the crowds…you have to go up to the 2nd floor and then back down the stairs on the other side of the main entrance to get there.”

I could go back….but….