Wednesday, September 3, 2014



After our experience in Russia, we cruised through the Baltic Sea to the Scandinavian countries.  Finland and Estonia have much in common because their languages are similar to each other but have no resemblance to other Scandinavian languages.  Grammatically, they are closer to Hungarian and Korean. 

Although the Finnish and Estonan languages have a common root, there are differences.  For example, the Estonian word for "wedding" is the Finnish word for "problems".  These words are called "false friends".  You can see this even in the same language.  Did you ever see a New Yorker trying to communicate with a Texan?  More on that later.

We arrived in Tallinn, Estonia, the last day of May and we wished we hadn't.  It was a cold, dreary, rainy day.  The temperature was in the low 40's.  We were shivering.  I've never been so cold since last July in San Francisco.  Maybe it's fitting, but Tallinn is known for displaying the first recorded Christmas tree--in 1441!  The locals would dance around it and then burn it after the celebration, presumably to keep warm. 

There are two things to see in Tallinn.  First is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which dominates the city skyline.  The other is the Kadriorg Palace.  Tallinn was a major trading center in the 14th and 15th Centuries as part of the Hansetic League trading empire.   In their salad days, the Estonians built some impressive fortifications which are still there.  For example the impregnable Fat Margaret's Tower was named long before the days of political correctness.  According to the locals, it was named after either the large cannon in the tower or a long forgotten horizontally challenged cook named Margaret. 

The Baroque style Kadriorg Palace was built in 1718 by Peter the Great of Russia as a summer home for his wife, Catherine I (not Catherine the Great).  Kadriorg means "Catherine's Valley" in the Estonian language.     Peter had purchased a Dutch style manor house on the site just after the Siege of Tallinn in 1710.  Russia defeated Sweden in the Great Northern War, and the prize was Estonia.  Later, Nicholas I greatly expanded and renovated the palace in 1827.  Over the years, the building became neglected and rundown.  Estonia was off the beaten path, touristwise, and someone figured out that a nice palace could attract foreign tourists--and revenue.  The Estonian government stepped in and restored the palace in 2000.  Today, the building is significant for its extensive art collection, much of it Dutch masterpieces.  It's not in the same league as the Hermitage, but it's pretty impressive. 

The grounds around Kadriorg include a beautiful park with a lagoon, bike path and other museums.  We stopped by the modest cottage where Peter the Great stayed when he was in town.  He liked to mingle with the people, so he stayed out of the fancy neighborhoods.  The 6'7" Peter was easy to spot in a crowd.  Peter's wife got to stay in the palace although she didn't like it in Estonia.   After Peter's death in 1725, she never came back.  The Estonian president (Toomas Hendrik, in case you didn't know) lives next door in the Presidential Palace.  We didn't visit. 

Who is Alexander Nevsky and why did they name a cathedral after him?  He has a fashionable street named after him in St. Petersburg also.  Nevsky lived in the 13th Century and was revered for defeating the German and Swedish invaders.  For his accomplishments, he was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1547.  The Soviets invoked his legacy when fighting the Germans in World War II.  In 2008, the Russian TV station conducted a poll and majority declared him the Greatest Russian, the "main hero" of all time.   Apparently Mr. Putin was asleep at the switch when the poll was taken.  Thirty years ago, the pollster probably would have been shot. 

Nevsky also has churches named after him in Sofia, Bulgaria; Belgrade, Serbia; and Tbilisi, Georgia.  He died in 1263.  Since then, the most prominent Estonian we could determine is the inventor of Skype, Jann Tallinn. 


Estonia has Skype; Finland has Nokia.  It also has Angry Birds and saunas.   The saunas make sense because it is cold and snowy in Finland for about 9 months of the year.  Many Finns came to the U.S. and settled in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where it is just as cold with even more snow.   There are millions of saunas in the U.P.   While relaxing in the sauna, they play Angry Birds on their smart phones. 

Angry Birds is the hot app that millions of people worldwide have downloaded on the smart phones and computers.  It was created in 2009 by Peter Verterbacka of the Finnish company Rovio Entertainment.  The game features wingless birds with scowling faces.  It is described as comical and addictive.  Personally, I don't play Angry Birds, or Mad Cows, or any other computer games, but to the Finns, its the greatest thing since sliced bread--or the sauna.

Finland used to be part of Russia, at least until 1917.  Russia acquired Finland by treaty during the Napoleonic Wars.  The great nationalistic Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius was instrumental in preserving the Finnish heritage during that time.  His most famous musical composition Finlandia was banned by the Russians along with some of his other works because they allegedly stirred up nationalistic emotions.    The Russians lost World War I (which wasn't called that at the time), and Finland declared its independence.   

The Russians wanted Finland back, and in 1939, they invaded in what is now called the Winter War of 1939-40.  The Finns fought more bravely than anyone would have expected, and they drove the Russians back.   The Finns were expert skiers, and their troops skied rings around the Russians in the deep snow.  The hero of the Finnish resistance was Marshal Gustav Mannerheim who was later elected president of the country.  The Finns built a museum to honor him. 

We observed that old Helsinki has a strong Russian influence, but since 1917, Finnish architects have developed a modernistic style of their own.  Architects such as Eino Saarinen led the cultural change, creating buildings of steel and glass which are seen all over the Finnish capitol as well as making their mark in Europe and the U.S.

After a boat ride through Helsinki harbor in the cool drizzle, past the Sveaborg, the Swedish built fortress, we enjoyed our day shopping at the Torget--the market square, not the discount store.  The Kauppatori Market Square consists of probably 100 booths where vendors sell fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, flowers and handicrafts.  We were not allowed to bring local food on the cruise ship.  You can buy it, but you have to consume it at the market.  Finnish street food features salmon soup and reindeer meat.  Poronkaristys--reindeer casserole is a local favorite.   We decided to eat on the ship instead.  The vendors sell beautiful fur hats and scarves in preparation for the long winter. 

By and large, the Finns are a friendly people.  Most speak English.  They obviously see a lot of American tourists and they appreciate the business. 


We next sailed to the island city of Stockholm.  It was our second trip there.  Last time, we marveled at the Vasa Museum.  The Swedes dredged up and restored a sunken warship from the 17th Century and built a museum around it.  The 226 foot long ship, with beautiful polished wood, was top heavy and sank in the harbor on its maiden voyage in 1628.  Apparently nobody checked to see if the ship was seaworthy.  The rations for the sailors included 8 bottles of beer per day.  No word if the captain was charged with SUI:--Sailing Under the Influence. 

The name Stockholm means "log island" in the Swedish language.  The story behind the name is that, according to legend, the previous capital, Sigtuna was often attacked by armed gangs and the decision was made to move the capitol to a defensible location.  The leaders took a hollowed out log, filled it with gold, and floated it on the water.  After a couple days, it landed where Stockholm stands today.

Our guide briefed us on Swedish customs and language.  The taciturn Swedes use a lot of one word phrases to express themselves.   For example, when you bump into someone, you say oy.  Not oy gevalt, or oy vey is mir, but just oy.   The Swedish language is similar to Norwegian and Danish but not exactly, although they can understand each other.  So "false friends", similar words in Norwegian, Danish or Swedish have completely different meanings.   However, none of these are even close to Finnish.  For this purpose the Finnish are finished.  Other words we learned on the street are torget which means "square" as in market square, and slott which means "castle" or "palace".


Recently the Swedes created the ABBA Museum, and this is a must see.  They took 4 artists of divergent musical backgrounds and created ABBA, a musical group which went on to sell 370 million records.  ABBA consisted of two men and two women who were married to each other (the men were married to the women.).  The group was notable as the first from a non-English speaking country to enjoy consistent success in English speaking countries.  They also did well in Latin America. 

The exhibits displayed profiles and photos of each artist.  Bjorn was a folk singer who fronted the Hootenanny Singers, a Swedish folk-skiffle group.  Benny Andersson was a member of the Swedish pop-rock group Hep Stars which was locally compared to the Beatles.  They performed cover versions of international hit songs.  Andersson set up Hep Shop which was the Swedish equivalent of the Beatles' Apple Corps, to manage and produce his compositions.  He recorded and placed many songs on the Svensktoppen, the Swedish Top 40.  Until recently songs on the Svensktoppen had to be sung in Swedish. 

Agnetha was a singer-songwriter who composed and recorded a number one hit (in Sweden) at age 17.  Besides her own compositions which made the Swedish charts, she recorded cover versions of foreign hit songs and traveled around the country, singing them at folkparks.  She also took up acting, starring as Mary Magdalene in the Swedish production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Anna-Frid worked as a cabaret singer from the time she was 13 and won a talent contest singing a bossa nova song.  She was rewarded with a record contract with EMI Records.   She met Andersson who also competed in that contest, and they later married.

The group came up with the name "ABBA" in a 1973 contest.  Something fishy was going on.  The "ABBA" was a play on words--the first initial of each performer.  It was also the name of a well-known Swedish fish cannery which was not generally known outside the country.  The result was the group had to buy the rights from the cannery to use the name.  Some other entries in the contest were stuff like BABA and ALIBABA. 

The ABBA Museum is interactive, so visitors like us could do karaoke and dance on the stage with holograms of the ABBA artists behind us.  You probably don't want to hear my karaoke recording. 

The same building with ABBA also houses the Swedish Music Hall of Fame which was formed in 2013.  I'm embarrassed to say that other than ABBA, I could not name a single member of that Hall of Fame.  Most Americans could not either.  This year's inductees include Evert Taube, a well traveled folk singer who introduced music to Sweden from the far corners of the world.  He is honored in a large statue in the waterfront park across from the Stockholm City Hall.  There appeared to be a Chicago connection when the Latin Kings were inducted, or was it indicted.  As it turned out the group was not the Chicago street gang.  Other inductees included Roxette, Cornelis Vreeswijk and the heavy metal group Entombed.

Actually, until I visited the museum, I didn't know the names of the ABBA performers either.  For the record, Aagnetha and Bjorn were married to each other until 1979; and Benny and Anna-Frid were married to each other until 1981.  After their respective divorces, they continued to work together, at least for awhile.  The group split up in 1982 to pursue separate careers. 


We roamed the ancient cobblestone streets of Gamla Stan--Old Town where the Royal Palace is located.  The original city of Stockholm dates back to the 13th Century.  The King no longer lives there, but they perform the Changing of the Guard each day for the tourists.   We stood by and watched the colorful horseguards, some playing trumpets, and lines of marching soldiers dressed in brightly colored blue and white uniforms.  They marched past the Gustavus Adolphus monument in the square. 

Next door is the Nobel Prize Museum.  The banquet honoring the Nobel laureates is held each December at the Stockholm City Hall.   I didn't go inside--my invitation appears to have been lost in the mail. 


Although the crime rate is low in Sweden, at least compared to Chicago or Los Angeles, the Prime Minister Olaf Palme was shot and killed in 1986 on the street.  He was walking home from the theater with his wife late one night with no bodyguards.  A lone gunman came up behind them and shot both at point blank range.   Palme was killed, but Palme's wife recovered from her wounds. 

After that, 130 people confessed to the murder.  The police charged one guy, a petty criminal named Pettersson who confessed to the crime and was convicted.  However, the conviction was overturned on appeal because the murder weapon was not found and no motive could be ascertained.  The guy was officially acquitted.       As in the Kennedy assassination, there are many conspiracy theories floating around--the Yugoslavian security services, pro-apartheid South Africans, right wing Chileans, Kurdish revolutionaries, even a conspiracy by right-wing Swedish police.    Palme was a socialist who leaned to the Left and probably offended many people.  The bottom line is that the crime is still officially unsolved.   


The most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen, Denmark is, for whatever reason, the iconic sculpture of the Little Mermaid.  It stands on a large rock on the shore of the Baltic Sea.  All the tourist buses stop there.  The sculpture, by Edvard Eriksen,  commemorates Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish writer of children's stories.  He was played by Danny Kaye in the movies.  Andersen's secret ambition, growing up, was to be a ballet dancer.  However, he was tall and clumsy, and his feet were too big.   With those big feet, maybe he should have been a circus clown.   In any event, his school counselor told him to find another line of work.   Cartoons and children's stories were his forte, and he created fanciful figures like the Little Mermaid. 

Because it is such an iconic sculpture, it has been the target of vandals numerous times.  Its head was cut off twice.  Its arms were cut off.  It has been spray painted.  It has been covered with feathers.  The day we visited, it was OK.

Copenhagen is also famous for its world class opera house which was built in 2005 by Sir Maersk Moller, the owner of the huge shipping company, the largest company in Denmark.  The cost was $442 million.  The building stirred intense controversy among the Danes who don't like being told what to do, with the powerful Maersk calling the shots.   The building's architect Henning Larsen constantly threatened to quit the job because Moller kept submitting change orders over Larsen's objections.  The bubble shape design offended many people who thought it resembled a flying saucer.  The Danes were hoping the building would resemble the Sydney Opera House, also designed by a Danish architect.  Most assumed it would be a massive white elephant, but on the other hand, no taxpayer money was used in the construction.   The building as it stands today is a unique 14 story structure which includes 5 stories underground, and 1000 rooms.  The main hall seats 1500 people.


The other tourist attraction of Copenhagen is the famous amusement park, Tivoli Gardens.  The Danes were pioneers in the amusement park business.  Tivoli Gardens was the world's first amusement park as we know them today.  It was built in 1843.  It was the creation of Georg Carstensen  who had a vision to create a magical place of fun and joy for the Danes.  Today we call that an amusement park.  People lived drab lives in the mid-1800's, and the park was a diversion for them, like a fairy tale.  Carstensen built Chinese and Japanese gardens with fountains and colorful flowers.  He created a theater and a concert hall.  Pantomime was especially popular at that time   The good thing about pantomime was that if you couldn't speak the language, it wasn't a problem--it was pantomime.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, they started building thrill rides.  We went on 2 rides during our visit.  The first was the Himmelskibet, a/k/a The Star Flyer in which I sat in a cloth chair, feet dangling while the ride swung me around in a circle at 50 mph, 300 feet in the air  While I was up there, it started raining.  I was never so scared in my life.  The other ride we took was the Golden Tower where we once again sat in a seat, feet dangling while they lifted us about 300 feet in the air and let it go.  We dropped in free fall.  I was relieved to get back on the tour bus.  We didn't buy an all ride pass, so the rides were very expensive--about $15 apiece.  It's one thing to be terrified, it's another to have to pay for it. 


Everywhere you go in Denmark are pictures of the beautiful Crown Princess Mary, with or without her husband, the Prince.  She is a brunette in a country where most women are blondes.   Mary (formerly Donaldson), is from Tasmania, Australia.  Prince Fredrik met her in Sydney where she was a marketing executive during the 2000 Olympics.   He actually picked her up in a bar.   She didn't know who he was--he didn't wear a crown on his head.  He didn't drop names.  That wouldn't have helped anyway--she probably didn't know Queen Margrethe from Queen Latifah.   He simply introduced himself as "Fred".  The good news is that the relationship worked out.  They got married in 2004  and have 4 kids today.  She learned to speak Danish and endeared herself to the Danish people.  They live in the Rosenborg Palace in Copenhagen where the crown jewels are displayed.      


I saw a bumper sticker today, "The few, the proud, the Norwegians".  Oslo is the capitol of Norway, the richest country in Europe (oil wells) , and maybe the most expensive also.  The pier is across the road from Akershus Castle, a large fortress built in 1290 to protect Oslo.   Indeed, it has survived 9 sieges over the centuries, mostly by the Swedes.

We did a lot of hiking in Oslo.  We explored Akershus Castle and then proceeded downtown pasts City Hall, the National Theater and the National Gallery which is know for its Edward Munch collection.    The City Hall is best known for the annual ceremony where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded.  The other awards are given in Stockholm. 

The Henrik Ibsen Museum, named after the Norwegian playwright is on a commercial street across from the Royal Palace in a double storefront, down the street from the 7-11.  The small museum features Ibsen's apartment where he lived modestly, maybe surprisingly so,  because he is considered the greatest playwright in the Norwegian language.  Norwegians compare him to Shakespeare.

The Royal Palace and its extensive grounds are nearby. The King and Queen live there, and it was not open for tourists on the day we visited.  For the record, their names are King Harald V and Queen Sonja (formerly Sonja Haraldsen) .  The King has relatives in high places.  His first cousin is King Philippe of Belgium, and his second cousins include Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, Queen Elizabeth II of England and King Carl XIV Gustav of Sweden.  The Royal Palace was built in 1849 and is somewhat smaller than, say, the ones in St. Petersburg or Versailles, but is still impressive.  The verdant public park surrounding the palace covers hundreds of acres.  They do the Changing of the Guard every day at 1:30 PM.

We visited Norway 10 years ago and previously saw the popular tourist attractions Vigeland Sculpture Park , the Viking Ship Museum and the Ski Jump (with a zipline) ,  built for the 1952 Olympics.    Vigeland was a sculptor who sculpted nude people, especially plump kids in every contortion.  His 200 or so sculptures in bronze, granite and wrought iron are featured all over that park.  It attracts over 1 million visitors each year by appealing to their prurient interests.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip, the people we met were friendly, and we look forward to more trips.  There's a cruise available to the North Pole, but Dianne refuses to let me go.     



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