This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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Capped

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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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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Touching a lost civilization

livingmuseum-1Lifestyles of thousands of years are quickly forgotten in the turbulence of the past two centuries. In Africa, 200 years is some 8 generations, and thus it was about time that a group of Damara people began to research and recount for their old ways, before all was forgotten. Out of this came the Damara Living Museum: a traditional village made up for tourists, where Damara craft and life is put on display by people enacting their customs for work.

The sun was hot in the desert and everybody wore loincloths. Only a couple of women covered their breasts. Our guide was a young, pregnant woman with full, beautiful pregnancy breasts. She was a gorgeous creature. Men were dangling bones and what looked like donkey or oryx tail hair from their loincloths.  Some had leather headwear, to protect from the sun. In summer, the day temperature can climb up to 50 degrees centigrade, thus one may wish to concentrate one’s garments over the head. But the nights are still freezing cold. Fortunately these modern Damara people probably went home to a hut with proper blankets, but how did their ancestors manage all those tens of thousands of years previously? With furs? It is not as if the animals around here are donned with insulating pelts.

We were also taken for a bushwalk to learn about local medicinal plants. Surprisingly many bushes that I recognized actually have known medicinal uses! Even oryx dung was used as a strong potion to stabilize a woman’s menstrual cycle. The ladies explained that it is strong enough to kill an unborn baby. In addition, we were shown how to hunt oryx, and how to trap dassie-rats. Although it was taboo for women to hunt in the Damara culture.

This type of tourism is the best kind: it keeps old traditions alive and feeds local people. It is sad, however, that the only reason the beautiful age-old culture of the Damara exist is for tourists, or in some protected, often distant, areas. “Progress” wipes out so much knowledge, craft, and time-tested ways of life. livingmuseum-2(Twyfelfontein, Namibia; July 2017)


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Ancient African art

twyfelfonteinThe Cro-Magnon people of Europe drew mammoths, deer, and moose. The San people of Africa made giraffes, oryxes, and wildebeest. Both depict hunts, hunted animals, and the styles are quite similar. If you look closely you can even see an animal with double sets of legs, like the one at Lascaux which is suspected to be like an animation of a walking animal when properly flashed with light. The Cro-Magnon people drew shamanic apparitions, as did the San people: if you look closely at the Twyfelfontein rock painting site you can find a lion with a deer-like animal in its jaws. The lion has a long, angled tail, with a pawprint at the end. As if from a trance dream.

The rock drawings of Twyfelfontein are similar to the ones in Lascaux. We people share a universal, collective mind, regardless of where in the world we live. Which drawings are older? The San people who drew the Twyfelfontein paintings are said to be the oldest original people of Africa, but these drawings are only about 2,000-6,000 years old; while the paintings in the Lascaux caves have survived 17,000 years. The oldest known rock art, in Indonesia, is dated 40,000 years back in time. On the one hand, the Twyfelfontein art is much younger. On the other hand, the Cro-Magnon people seem to have stopped making rock paintings some 10,000 years ago, while the San people did it until they were banished to the nearly rock-less Kalahari desert when farming became popular after Namibian independence.

Living prehistoric culture is unfortunately very easy to kill.

(Twyfelfontein, Namibia; July 2017)


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Gilded ceilings and electric lights

hallwyl-2Imagine the splendor and style of Versailles – with original electric light fittings. The bustle of a country castle downstairs kitchen – with modern, white tiles stretching over the walls and the ceiling. And an electric kitchen elevator, and three water faucets: one for hot, one for cold, and one for rain water.hallwyl-1This was all highly unusual in any wealthy, traditional-style house in Stockholm at the turn of the 20th century. But the Hallwyl couple seem to have been unusual, too: they built a palace with all the modern, sometimes experimental, luxuries of the turn of the century. They then proceeded to decorate it in the style of what can only be described as flitting from good taste to extravagant kitsch. During that time, who really chose their salon decor to mimic French gilded rococo?

The lady of the house sure did not hesitate when she bought 15th century tapestries before she even had a house, and designed the living room to fit the tapestries. She also did not hesitate in general, as she collected almost anything and everything she considered art: from china to paintings and to swords and pistols. She then proceeded to convert her newly built house to a museum for future generations, and produced a set of 78 printed books cataloguing all her possessions.

One cannot help but wonder whether this was truly the passion of a lady interested in beauty and the world, or a well-planned project to gain power through magnanimity? And how did she fit into society? Her house surely must have been the cause of many curious rumors and stories. Perhaps this was just as she liked it?hallwyl-4(Hallwyl House, Stockholm; April 2017)