This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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Where we come from

tartudec-4Over Finland: nightless night, coffee, and bears. Over Russia: beautiful ladies, Putinistan, and terrible drivers. And over the Arctic Ocean: polar bears. This is the world we live in, according to ourselves and foreigners to our country. A world of stereotypes and perceptions – many of which we struggle to ignore.

Where I come from is Finland. Indeed, nightless nights, but also cold, dark winters, introverts, silence in conversation, very little physical touching or hugging, and definitely very little expression of emotions. For Americans, “I love you” is an everyday word, quickly dropped to a life partner or daughter or friend when passing out of the door. In Finland, “I love you” is like a fabled unicorn. A phrase so rare it is a legend. Even on television, “I love you” is always translated in Finnish to “you are dear (to me)”. Because it is too intense, too monumental to be used.

But I digress. How did I get to “I love you” from a map of stereotypical perceptions of countries? Not sure. Yet please note that above I said “I come from Finland”, not “I feel like a Finn”. I wonder if anyone truly identifies with the stereotype of one’s country people?

(Tartu University Museum, Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)

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tartudec-2It turns out Estonian student life is not that different from Finnish student life. And probably both cultures have their origin in Sweden. Velvet caps and all. Estonian caps seem to be much more colorful than the Finnish ones. The contemporary Finnish cap is pretty much similar to the one on bottom right, except for that it bears a golden lyre emblem of one’s university.

In olden times, a student would proudly wear his/her cap from May Day to end September. Today, in Finland, the student’s cap is mainly worn on May Day, by both young and old. At least in Estonia the rule is that when one is relieving oneself in the lavatory, one removes the cap and either gives it to a friend or sticks it somewhere where it stays clean. Just not on one’s head.

(Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)

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Temple of knowledge

tartudec-3Once it was a chapel. Then it was a university library. Now it is the university museum. Tartu used to be one of the grand university towns in Europe. It was founded 400 years ago under the Swedish rule in a country called Livonia. Neither Livonia nor its language Livonian exist anymore. Then it was opened under Russian rule by the Baltic Germans (Yes. There were Germans living in the Baltic countries. European history is confusing). And finally, some 100 years ago, it was again re-opened as an Estonian university. Obviously under Soviet rule for quite a while.

It is befitting that the university museum is an old church. Because despite of wars and politics, critical thinking prevails. Ideas remain the sacred driving forces of not just humanity but of nations.

(Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)

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Christmas cheer in snowy Tartu

tartudec-1Well, Christmas came and went a few months ago. This is how early December looked like in Tartu. Magical, wasn’t it? tartudec-5I had some glühwein at the Christmas market. I received an insulated coffee cup of at least 3 deciliters. Halfway through it I felt like I was hit in the head, hard. I keep forgetting I am close to the Russian border.
tartudec-6(Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)

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Finland grows up

suomisataLook at that: little Finland is all grown up. For countries that happens when you can add three digits to your age. It all started in 1917 when the country tore itself off the flank of Russia and the shadow of Sweden and declared its independence. Borders were drawn and redrawn. To keep its sovereignty during WWII, Finland had to even play a dirty game, letting in the Germans to attack Russia from Finnish soil. As a loser in that game, we paid war reparations for nearly 10 years, delivering hundreds of ships, engines, and ready-to-install houses to Russia. Finland was the only country that managed to pay its WWII war reparation debts.

Since then one could write a sweeping anthology of free university education for the masses, the rise of the middle class, membership in the EU, adoption of the euro, female presidents and prime ministers, and the status of a neutral diplomat between East and West.

And I completely forgot dear Finland’s 100th birthday when I accepted the invite to go give a talk in Tartu, Estonia. While others dined, danced, and watched fireworks, I celebrated with a little piece of cake in the lounge at Helsinki Airport. How very inconsiderate of me.

(Helsinki, Finland; December 2017)

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slushAl Gore and President Niinistö opened the Slush conference in Helsinki in November for a full house: 20,000 people. They were cheered by Prince William, Prince Daniel of Sweden, and the CEO of Supercell. No security checks anywhere. Only in Finland.

(I hope this will never change.)

(Helsinki, Finland; November 2017)

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In questa tomba

operaI have a bucket list that contains 101 goals in 1001 days. A so-called Day Zero Project. While chasing items on this list I have dipped myself into various experiences. Seeing Verdi’s opera Aida live has been one of the most elusive ones; surprisingly, as it is a classic. But suddenly there were a few performances at the English National Opera in London.

I convinced a colleague to come along. He took me up on the challenge and flew over to London carrying a tuxedo, which he duly put on for the occasion. After Aida and her misfortunate lover Radamés had been buried alive in a tomb forever,  I reminded him that this was probably the most tragic opera every written, and that he should not make up his mind unless he saw another opera where people did not take quite as long a while to die as these two.

It turns out that the translation of this production was quite different: the famous line uttered by Aida’s lover upon his discover of her (“in this tomb!”) was missing. And instead of dying a slow long death in the tomb, Aida and her Radamés are apparently seeing the light, “a new day”.

Such an admirable attitude. The glass is half full even when one is buried alive forever in an Egyptian burial tomb.  Quite the benchmark.

(ENO, London, United Kingdom; November 2017)