Thursday, September 29, 2011

A DETOUR TO NEW ENGLAND: NEW HAMPSHIRE

Bob and I happened to have a free companion fare plane ticket good for anywhere in the continental United States, and we happened to have a few free hotel rooms coming through Hotels.com, and these two things happened to be coinciding with our 32nd wedding anniversary, so . . .

We flew to New England.

Bob is obsessed with crossing things off his list: Fourteeners to climb, foods to eat, countries to visit, and states in the United States to at least put his foot in.  (He once drove to the Tennessee-Arkansas border after dropping Rachael and me off to tour Graceland just so he could say he'd been to Arkansas.)  Neither Bob nor I had been anywhere in New England, so that's where we went.  He could cross off three states AND a Canadian province in one blow!

We flew in to Manchester, New Hampshire. (Did you KNOW there was a Manchester, New Hampshire? I didn't.)  Our first stop was Canterbury, a Shaker-town-turned-tourist-site about an hour north of Manchester.

Back in the mid-19th century, about 300 Shakers lived and worked here. There are no Shakers left in this particular community, but the site has been wonderfully preserved and we had a very knowledgeable, enthusiastic (non-Shaker) guide who obviously had great respect for this community.

The building below is the church, with one door for the women and one for the men.  The Shakers believed in total celibacy, and they worshiped seated apart.
The Shakers had a wonderful outreach program for orphans, and when a new child arrived in the community, he or she was assigned to care for one of these trees, which gave the child both a responsibility and a sense of belonging:

The Shakers are known for their gardens and spices:

Behind the village are eight beautiful man-made ponds like this one:

The path leading from the village to the ponds:

Of course, we had to find some "native" food.  I wouldn't recommend either one of these drinks:

We also visited the New Hampshire state capital, Concord.  With a population of about 42,000 (just a little more than half the size of the city I currently live in), it has to be the smallest state capital I have ever visited.  It's amazing that it carries so much clout.
We did find a lovely church across the street from the State Capitol, St. Paul's Episcopal Church.  It was built in the 1800s, but gutted by an arsonist's fire in 1984.  The Gothic interior was replaced with more modern decor:


 Awesome lectern:

Beautiful, vibrant windows made by a local craftsman:


This painting and its window-like framing was my favorite thing about St. Paul's:

On our way north, we made a stop in Lebanon and scouted out the approximate site of the Smith family cabin in 1813, the year Joseph had his leg operated on.  The property, which now boasts a gas station and convenience store, was next to this beautiful section of the Connecticut River:
See Bob's post here for much more detail on the site.

Finally, we stopped in Hanover to take a quick look at Dartmouth College and check another one of the Ivies off another one of Bob's Lists. The smallest school in the Ivy League, it was charming and relatively peaceful the afternoon we were there:

More to come: Vermont, Montreal, and Maine.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

FINLAND: PART II

We had a rather loquacious Finnish guide, but I loved her.  I was particularly interested in what she had to say about education, because Finland has one of the best school systems in the world. Finnish children go to preschool at age 6 and start public school at age 7.  (I think the United States is making a huge mistake pushing reading to five-year-olds in kindergarten, but that is a topic for another post.)  They start learning a foreign language at age 9, which is usually English first and then Swedish a few years later. At age 16 students decide whether or not to continue in a college prep program, and about half do and the other half start learning a trade or working. Most Finns graduate from high school at age 19. All Finnish men then have compulsory military service at age 20, and Finnish women may volunteer if they so choose.

Finnish living standards are high, with an average salary of about $4,000/month.  They pay a LOT in income taxes (a minimum of 1/3 of their income up to the highest tax rate of 62 or 63% according to our guide, but which I was unable to verify in my own research), and there is a 13% tax on groceries as well.  However, they have fabulous retirement and medical care, and all schooling is free, including the universities.
Photo from Wikipedia

One of our stops was a monument to Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), the Finnish national composer.  Our guide spent quite a bit of time telling us about him.  Here is what I learned:

* He grew up in a Swedish-speaking family, and his father died when he was quite young. His father had wanted Jean to be a lawyer, so that is what Jean studied at the university, but he ultimately gave up law to study music.

* He is known for his seven symphonies and numerous shorter pieces.

* Almost all of the music we associate with him came from his early years of composing.  He became very critical of his later works.  He was also bashed by music critics--perhaps in response to his own self-criticism.

*He had to have absolute silence to compose.

*He smoked cigars (and still lived to be 92).

* His composition, "Finlandia," is the UNofficial national anthem.  It was written in 1899 as a subtle protest against Czarist Russia domination and censorship and was originally played against a background of scenes from Finnish history.  See a great video about the music here. The part we Americans are most familiar with (the section used for the hymn "Be Still My Soul") begins at about 5:20.

The Sibelius monument was unveiled in 1967 and is composed of 600 hollow steel pipes and a separate bust of the composer.  The pipes could represent an organ, although Sibelius did not compose for organ, or perhaps they are symbols of music in general. Some believe the pipes represent the Finnish forests.

 Detail of one of the pipes:
The monument was rather controversial, and so a more "traditional" bust of the composer was added.  However, note that poor Jean does not have ears. There is some argument about the metal shape surrounding Sibelius's head, but most believe it represents his very unique way of hearing music.  After all, he did not compose on a piano; he did not even have one until he was 50, which was after the bulk of his composing was done.
I think he rather looks like Dr. Zhivago here, don't you?
Our final stop in Helsinki was one of the most unique churches I've ever seen: Temppeliaukio Church, a Lutheran church built in 1968-1969 inside a small mountain of rock.  The rock walls are left exposed, and the ceiling is a glazed dome.

 If you can believe it, this is one of Helsinki's most popular tourist destinations:
 I got a kick out of this sight of two men "kneeling at the altar" to snap their photos:
 We did have to wait a bit to get in as there was a wedding in progress.  This church is a very popular place to get married, and couples have to reserve their date a full year in advance.
Set up for the next wedding was happening during the time we were inside.  Crazy.

Finally, no country post is complete without a few food photos.  I include what Bob drooled after but figured he couldn't sneak through customs:
I'm so glad I didn't have to eat Rudolph and Smokey.

Friday, September 23, 2011

FINLAND: PART I

Are you getting the feeling that we were on the "If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium" tour?  I think I've come to the conclusion that you can't get an accurate feel for a place unless you spend AT LEAST one night there, and preferably two.  That is one of the major downsides of a cruise like the one we took.  On the other hand, there is some benefit to being able to move quickly through several countries, getting an overview and being able to superficially compare and contrast.  At least we know where we would like to return.

Finland is definitely one of the places we would like to go back to.

Helsinki, the capital city, is neither as old nor as big as Stockholm.  Our guide told us that the Finns have never gone outside of their borders to conquer others, but have often been conquered (by the Swedes, by the Russians, and most recently by the European Union, according to our guide).  In fact, Finland was part of Sweden for 800 years and part of Russia for 100 years, but has been independent since 1917.

A few more random facts:

* The entire country is bilingual: Finnish and Swedish.  In fact, 6% speak Swedish as their mother tongue.  The two languages are completely unrelated to each other. Most Finns speak at least one additional language, and often two more.

* Helsinki has "only" 585,000 inhabitants, and there are just 5,000,000 in the entire country.

* There are at least 250,000 reindeer in Finland, and it is the home of Santa Claus. (Our guide was very firm on this point.)  All reindeer are owned as part of herds and are not hunted.  There are also 90,000 to 100,000 moose, and they ARE hunted.

* The ship building industry is very large; 60% of the world's ice breakers and 25% of the world's cruise ships are built in Finland.

* Of the Scandinavian countries, Finland is the only republic.

* Finland has three main resources: 1) forests, 2) forests, and 3) forests. In fact, forests cover 2/3 of the country.

Helsinki itself is a beautiful, clean city:

. . . completely unaffected by Western culture:

Our first destination was the medieval town of Porvoo, about 30 miles east of Helsinki. Our guide played the beautiful "Karelia Suite" by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius over the intercom as we drove through those beautiful Finnish forests, which were frequently punctuated by meadows bursting with wildflowers--purple, pink, and white lupine; yellow buttercups; and white Queen Anne's lace.  Those same colors were used to paint the buildings of Porvoo:
Bob and I ate lunch at a fish smorgasbord that had a snail theme (in the decor, but not on the menu):
I loved the old Porvoo Cathedral, built in the 15th century and so much simpler than most of the churches we saw on this trip:
We were lucky to be there for the noon-time bells:


After lunch we returned to Helsinki, and our guide turned us loose. (Yay!) Bob and I headed for the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, built firmly upon the rock--literally. Designed by a Russian architect (note the little golden onion domes), it was constructed between 1808 and 1862.  Unfortunately, it was closed, so we could only enjoy the exterior.

The main cathedral of the city is just a few blocks away from the Uspenski Cathedral.  It faces a huge open square that was filled with vendors when we were there. It is known as both the Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral and St. Nicholas's Church (not after Santa Claus, but after Tsar Nicholas I). Neoclassical in style (think of the White House), it was built in 1830-1852.
I love these steps leading up to the front:

Rather than the dark, ornate interiors we had seen in so many other places, this interior was painted in tones of muted aqua, rosy pink, and dove gray.  Although there was very little in the way of decoration, it was wonderfully elegant, beautiful, and peaceful.

This cathedral was actually modeled after St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia, which is geographically closer than I had realized: Just a 3.5 hour trip away.

Our guide told us that Finns are very reserved.  Their quiet demeanor seemed to me to be perfectly exemplified by this cathedral.  And by the way, do you know how to recognize an extroverted Finn?  Instead of looking at his shoes when he is talking to you, he looks at YOUR shoes.

NEXT: FINNISH-ing Finland.
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