A Hidden Soviet Air Cemetery in an Estonian Forest

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We saw some pretty cool sights in Estonia outside of Tallinn.  The Soviet’s had large air base in Estonia.  Between the base and the cluster of buildings that formed the town servicing it, a cemetery is located back in the woods.  It’s obvious that they are the graves of airmen.

A large majority of the graves were unmarked.  Our guide hadn’t figured out why.  There is some ethnic tension between Estonians and the Russians who were moved here by the Soviet Union to towns where Soviet military facilities were located.  After Estonian independence, many of these Russians stayed but have not integrated.   Did they have plaques on them that widows took with them when they returned to Russia after the Cold War?  Were the names and dates so secret that they were intentionally unmarked?  Did the missions not “officially” exist?  I had a lot of questions that our fantastic guide couldn’t answer.  He hadn’t found any ethnic Russians who would talk with him about it.  I joked about going door to door.  He told me if they wouldn’t talk to an Estonian, they sure as heck weren’t going to talk to an American.

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Suomenlinna Fortress – The Russians Came!

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Suomenlinna Fortress is one of the islands in the Baltic Sea that surround Helsinki‘s harbor.  When we told a Finnish gal that we were going there, he said “it a great place to shoot Russians from.”  Historically, there has been more than a little tension between Finland and its close neighbor, Russia.

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In the mid-1700’s, Russia under Peter the Great was rising as a power.  Pete had just built a shiny new capital called St. Petersburg nearby and had his binoculars trained on the west.  Sweden built the Suomenlinna Fortress (christened Sveaborg by the Swedes) with French financial assistance to address the threat Pete posed.

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The second largest or of its type (after Gibraltar), it is a serious fort to counter a serious threat.    When it was built, it was high-tech and a big deal.  It had the world’s largest dry dock, over 5 miles of walls and hundreds of cannons.

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We checked out the museum to learn a little about its history (there are several others on the island, but the weather was so good that we wanted to be outside).  There, about defenses and battles.  In 1808, the Russians came, led by Alexander I, who had colluded with Napoleon, and began bombarding it (see below).

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When no Swedish reinforcements arrived, the Russians took the fortress, occupied it, and called it Viapori.  The Finnish war ended with the Treaty of Fredrikshamn under which Sweden ceded Finland to the Russian Empire in 1809.  Part of the reason Finland is an independent nation today is because it became an autonomous grand duchy within the empire.

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The Russians expanded the fortress, building extra barracks, a bigger dockyard and extra fortifications.   The English and French tried unsuccessfully to take the fort during the Crimean War.  Unfortunately, they only succeeded in damaging it.  Fortunately, the damage was repaired after the war.  In the build-up to World War I, the Russians used it as part of its defenses to designed to safeguard the capital, St. Petersburg.

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Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Suomenlinna became part of an independent Finland.  Later during and after the Finnish Civil War, the island held a prison camp.  The island’s museum has artifacts from, paintings and photos of all these events.

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Today, Helsinki’s Suomenlinna Fortress is more than just one of the largest maritime fortresses and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It’s a cool place to hang out.  It’s only a fifteen minute ferry-boat ride from the center of Helsinki.

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We wandered around the grounds and scampered on the rocks, enjoying the sun, picnicking and taking pictures.  While taking this one, I slid on the slick rock and fell into the Baltic (thank goodness the camera didn’t go under.  He sat there and laughed at me trying unsuccessfully to scamper out on the algae covered rocks.  Unfortunately for me, he wasn’t the only one.  Suomenlinna is the place to hang on a nice summer day.  We saw Finns lazing on the rocks and picnicking in sunny fields.

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The island is home to 850 residents, who have a pretty cool little town.  There’s a nice brewery, a bar, nice cafes, and a general store.  Many of the residents are artists who sell their wares on the island.  I bought a beautiful pair of earrings that were way cooler than their relatively inexpensive price tag.  The island is especially relaxing because there are barely any cars on the island, although I hear that people used to be able to get to Helsinki via snowmobile in winter.

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We explored the ancient fortress walls and tunnels, checked out the rusty cannons and peered through the gun holes.  There’s a submarine from the cold war to tour and the museum.  The island also houses military barracks.

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Our Introduction To The European Football Championship 2012

English: 1964 Euro-Cup. Español: Trofeo de la ...

English: 1964 Euro-Cup. Español: Trofeo de la Eurocopa disputada en el año 1964. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most Americans know football (the American kind and the other known to us as soccer), many are unfamiliar with the European Football Championship (also known as the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, Euro 2012, the European Championship or Euro Cup).  Here, football/futball/soccer is huge.  People here are excited.  We see flags decorating balconies, viewing parties at bars, people wearing jerseys, etc. Even if people aren’t huge fans, they absorb a lot of football knowledge and culture by osmosis.  We’re enthusiastically embracing Euro 2012 as a chance to learn and are watching games.  Although I don’t think we are as enthusiastic as some fans who have been driving through Switzerland’s streets honking their horns for the past hour.

Meilleurs résultats Euro

Meilleurs résultats Euro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s how it works.  The top two teams from each of the 4 groups (referred to as pots) move on for a single elimination tournament.  Group “B” with Germany, Holland, Portugal and Denmark, is the toughest section.  Many argue that it is the hardest group ever assembled in international tournament history.  The top two teams in each group advance to a single-elimination tournament.

According to our friends, the Euro Cup is one of the most important soccer tournaments to Europeans.  Although Americans might not be familiar with it, it is one of the world’s preeminent tournaments.    To Europeans, it is second only to the World Cup and to some, it is bigger than the World Cup.  They argue that the World Cup has some weak teams while the Euro Cup only has strong teams.   It is more important than the Olympics and the European Championships.  The Euro Cup occurs every four years, alternating cycles with the World Cup’s so that a major tournament occurs every two years.

Like the Superbowl or the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, gambling pools abound.  Most offices have several pools.  Friends make informal bets.  It’s crazy.

In Geneva, an area with many immigrants and foreigners.  Euro Cup is a chance to embrace your heritage.   Everyone supports their home country and foreign nationals here get together to watch their home country’s games.  Our friend who lives next door to a Portuguese bar reports that it is packed, loud and, um, very festive on game days.

English: UEFA European Football Championship a...

English: UEFA European Football Championship appearances by country. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neighboring countries seem to rival each other more than non-neighboring countries.  History also may play a role.  We know more about European history than football/soccer history, so there could other explanations for rivalries.   Here are some of the rivalries:

This European  Cup has had a few controversies:

  • They had to post some of the games in Ukraine because some Polish cities (I’m looking at you Krakow) didn’t want to invest in the infrastructure and stadiums.
  • Several government officials are boycotting Euro 2012 to protest former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko‘s mistreatment in a Ukrainian prison.
  • BBC’s Panorama did an exposé on race-related soccer hooliganism in Poland and the Ukraine.  It showed disturbing images of racist taunts, violent attacks of minority students, as well as scenes of fans making Nazi salutes and chanting anti-Semitic epithets.
  • Authorities struggled to contain violence after the Russia – Poland game.

If you want to watch it in the US, a DVR is handy.  Most tournament games air in the morning in America.

Eurowhat? Our Introduction To Eurovision

Most Americans don’t know the Eurovision Song Contest exists.  Most Europeans have watched at least a bit of it.

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Eurovision song contest (Photo credit: kjelljoran)

Eurovision is a singing contest started in 1956 and is one of the longest-running television programs in the world.   It’s a bit like a schlocky, international American Idol in which each country gets to put forth a contestant and they compete against each other.

Developed by the European Broadcast Union, on the belief that music (along with sports) could unite a multi-lingual continent, Eurovision was content for a new technology of television.  Today, participants are broader than just the European Union countries; 43 countries take part.   Switzerland participates although it is not part of the EU.  Former Soviet republics and even Israel participates.  The contest is broadcast further Europe, Arab countries, Hong Kong, India, Canada, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea, and Vietnam all can watch it.  In fact, the Eurovision Song Contest is one of the most watched events in the world with audience between 100 million and 600 million internationally.

Each country chooses a singer or band to represent their country and they compete against each other. Residents of a country cannot vote for their own country.  For example, Swiss cannot vote for the Swiss entrant.

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TV Shows We Used To Watch – The Eurovision Song Contest (Photo credit: brizzle born and bred)

Before the days of internet and cable, Eurovision was huge.  Today, it faces increased entertainment competition has lost some of its luster.  Nevertheless, it is still popular enough that he has learned all about it at work.

Famous Eurovision contestants include:

  • Sweden’s ABBA, who won with Waterloo in 1974.  Olivia Newton John placed 4th that same year.
  • Julio Iglesias placed 4th for Spain in 1970.
  • Israel’s Dana International was the first transsexual to win in 1998.
  • Celine Dion won for Switzerland in 1988 with  “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi.
  • In 1997, Katrina and the Waves won with “Love Shine A Light” they are best remembered for their 1985 smash hit “Walking on Sunshine.”
  • Scottish singer Lulu won in 1969, with ‘Boom Bang-a-Bang‘. I can’t explain how France, the Netherlands and Spain also won that year.
  • The English group Bucks Fizz won in with the song “Making Your Mind Up” and their whip-off skirts.
  • Sandie Shaw who sang “Puppet on a String” (we’d never heard of it).
  • Engelbert Humperdink‘s “Love Will Set You Free” is the UK’s entry this year.  I think my dad may have an album of his from the 60’s tucked away somewhere.
Dana International

Dana International (Photo credit: Daniel Kruczynski)

Songs with overtly political messages are banned. Notable songs that premiered at Eurovision include:

  •  “Nel blu dipinto di blu,“ better known as “Volare“ (it didn’t win)
  • Toto Cutugno‘s “Insieme“, is a song that many Germans still know by heart.
  • You might remember Gina G’s 1996 dance-pop entry for the United Kingdom, “Ooh Aah…Just a Little Bit.”
  • Luxembourg’s France Gall‘s 1965 song “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” was a sensation.  Written by famous French singer Serge Gainsbourg, it became in international hit.  It was one of the handful of Eurovision songs that radio stations played and people bought.

Some countries tend to do well:

  • Ireland holds the record for the highest number of wins with seven.  The even won three consecutive times in 1992, 1993 and 1994.
  • FranceLuxembourg and the United Kingdom are joint second with five wins.  Nevertheless, Brits have generally prided themselves on not taking Eurovision seriously and often strike out.  It was still poplar viewing in the UK, due in large part to the Terry Wogan‘s cynical commentary.  He barely suppressed guffaws over the quality of the acts/presenters and the kitsch.  Outraged at the politics behind the scoring system he stopped in 2008 and vowed never to return.

The scoring/winner is likely to change as blocs of countries have started banding together to vote one of their region a winner.  This has lead to frustration about the winner’s worthiness.  Andrew Lloyd Webber even visited Moscow met Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ask him to call on all East European countries to refrain from block-voting for each other.

Partisan voting doesn’t seem to be a new phenomenon, Cliff Richard‘s second-place finish in 1968, its now attributed to direct intervention by Spain’s then-dictator, General Franco.

A map of Europe showing how many times each co...

Historically, some countries have done poorly:

  • Until Finnish band Lordi won with their rock song “Hard Rock Hallelujah” in 2006, Finland had participated since 1961 but never even made it into the Top 5.
  • Norway has scored no points in four separate contests.
  • Austria, Finland, Spain, Switzerland aren’t far behind with three null’s.

Many self-respecting musical acts stay away to preserve their dignity.   Garish outfits are mandatory and gimmicks used in the contest include:

  • In 2008, Russian entrant Dima Bilan sang “Believe” while Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion Evgeni Plushenko ice skated.
  • Ukraine’s Kseniya Simonova‘s sand-painted  clouds, planets and angels in sand while singer Mika Newton howled into a wind machine.
  • A Moldovan act once included a woman dressed as a fairy on a unicycle and digital gnomes flying across the stage’s LED screen.
  • Sweden’s Eric Saade smashed through a glass door onstage.
Blue, representing United Kingdom, performing ...

Blue, representing United Kingdom, performing at the Eurovision Song Contest 2011 final on 14 May 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Boy band Blue (kind of like the Backstreet Boys) was big in the 90’s.  They staged a comeback in Eurovision, while it brought them some attention, it didn’t result in the desired comeback.
  • Turkey’s Sertab Erener sang  “Every Way That I Can” (a song about a woman in a harem in the 19th century, who wants to win back a Sultan that had expelled her) with a troupe of belly dancers performing enthusiastically.
  • This year, Russia’s song is from Buranovskiye Babushki a girl band whose name translates to the Buranovo Grannies.  These singing grandmothers from the Udmurt Republic have an average age in the 80’s.  Two years ago, they failed to qualify with the hip hop produced track “Dlinnaja-Dlinnaja Beresta I Kak Sdelat Iz Nee Aishon.” This translates into “Very Long Birch Bark And How To Turn It Into A Turban”.
  • Austria’s entry this year is by Trackshittaz.  I’m not kidding.  That’s really their name. They have dancers with their buttocks highlighted with fluorescent paint.  Again, I’m not kidding.  I couldn’t make that up.  They have promised to “learn a little bit of English” before the contest.  Will this lead to a name change?
  • Montenegro’s Rambo Amadeus‘ (no joke) song has a video in which he surprises two topless women with a donkey.

Azerbaijan won the contest last year so they have to host this year.  Countries have been known to put forward a lamentable contestant to avoid the expense of putting on the contest the next year.  Yes, Ireland I’m looking at you.

A Giant Spider Traveling The World

When I visited Geneva on my apartment hunting trip, I spent an afternoon in Bern, Switzerland. In front of the parliment building, there was a fantastic statute of a giant spider. When we moved to Geneva a month later, the sculpture had moved here!  It made me curious and I wanted to learn more.
The spider gets around; it is better traveled than us. The statute first appeared as part of an exhibition as part of the Tate Modern in London (below).
Since then, it has vacationed in fantastic spots all over the world. Temporary locations include:

Permanent locations of bronze cast replicas include:

Maman has been well received in each place and has become very popular.* It’s easy to see why.  The sculpture photographs well, children love to play around its legs and it’s a hit with art connoisseurs.

 
It was made by French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois. Before passing away in 2010 at age 98, she was the world’s highest paid living female artist. The sculpture is called “Maman“. The spider’s sac contains 26 marble eggs.  You can see them looking up from underneath the spider.
It’s called “Maman” and is an homage to her mother who worked as a restorer of tapestries in Paris (get it, spiders weave webs, her mom rewove tapestries).
She made a giant spider statue for her mother, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that she had daddy issues. When she was a child, she learned that her tyrannical, sadistic, father was having a long-term affair with her live-in nanny!  Insert Freud jokes here.  She spent her career exorcising these demons.  Much of her work dealt with revenge, feminism, women’s roles and power.
She saw spiders as clever, protective, life-giving and useful.  Others see it/them as both frightening and/or threatening.
*Maman has its own Facebook page with its picture in different locations.
 

Our Wider World Of Sports

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images
In the US, we are pretty narrow in terms of the sports that are “mainstream”.  ESPN only covers football (American Football), baseball and basketball in any real depth on a regular basis.  Okay, I guess you can add hockey, golf, maybe tennis and soccer too.  If you are older and remember life pre-cable, you may remember ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the one with the ski-jumper who crashed in the opening credits.  They went around the world, found interesting sporting events and made fantastic programs about them.  
 
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Image courtesy of ABC
In the US, I complain about the narrow range of sports covered by ESPN.*  He always reminds me “supply and demand”.  It has been a pleasant surprise here to see the large variety of sports covered well on TV.  This, ironically, does not include TV France’s coverage of cycling.  It’s horrible, very disappointing and perplexing.  How can the French be such fans of cycling when they have the worst announcers known to mankind.  Okay, maybe that was a bit extreme.  How can the French be such fans of cycling when they hear someone announce it in monotone, in the decibel level of a golf announcer at the green with NO interesting anecdotes?
 
The awesome Versus cycling announcers…worth emulating.
We’ve been watching a the Rugby World Cup.  The both the games and the coverage have been outstanding.  New Zealand’s All Blacks got past Australia in a fast and spirited game yesterday.  Next weekend, they will face France in the final.  

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Scrolling through our TV, here are some of the sporting events we will be able to see in the next week (coverage is somewhat limited this week due to the large coverage of the Rugby World Cup):

  • Pro surfing from Portugal
  • Ten million different soccer leagues and games, seriously, there are too many to list
  • Boxing (not pay per view)
  • ATP tennis from Russia (played indoors)
  • Vintage WWE?!?
  • Pro wrestling (hilarious when dubbed in French)
  • A marathon from Poland (Poznan Marathon?)
  • Motorcycle racing
  • Formula One
  • Polo from Spain
  • Equestrian competition from Norway
  • Several different golf events
  • A martial arts competition from Romania
  • Horse racing
  • Ski competition from Austria
  • Figure skating from the US
  • British Touring Car Championships
  • One football game (the American kind)
Even with all this, American football is still his favorite.
*Other family members complain about ESPN’s apparent pro-U of M bias.

 

 

Padlocks of Love – “Luccheti d’Amore”

When we were in Copenhagen, Denmark, we walked across the Brygge Broen, a bicycle and pedestrain only bridge.  When I saw these locks, I had to stop and look. I’d read a story about padlocks from the Pont de l’Archevêché on the Seine in Paris. They disappeared in the middle of the night after the city of Paris said they were concerned about their effects on their architectural heritage. People were upset over their disappearance and the locks “magically” reappeared.
Although this custom has allegedly been around since before WWI, it has become much more widespread. An Italian book that was made into a movie Ho Voglia di Te (“I Want You”) was released in 2006 featured the “Luccheti d’Amore”. In Italy, the movie became like Twilight in the U.S. increasing the padlock’s popularity. As the locations for and numbers of padlocks have risen, their notariety has grown. They are now widespread and getting media attention. Some are even listed in travel guides.

Other places where this occurrs include:

Some people decorate or write on theirs.  50 years!  Everyone should be so lucky.I don’t think that I am a particularly romantic person, but seeing 50 years written on one is really touching. Who knows, maybe we will put one up in our travels? On the other hand, this seems to be the new trendy thing, so maybe we won’t.

I don’t think that I am a particularly romantic person, but seeing 50 years written on one is really touching. Who knows, maybe we will put one up in our travels? On the other hand, this seems to be the new trendy thing, so maybe we won’t.

A New Leader in Geneva’s Best Beach Competition

It has been hot here. Really hot. Hotter than Charlotte. We don’t have air conditioning. To cool down, we went with our friends, Captain Finland and MC Roni (not their real names), to Jonction.  We brought a blanket and just chilled on the side of the Rhône. When we got hot, we went in for a dip. It is definitely the new frontrunner in the best beach competition.

Here is what we liked about it:

  • Super chill
  • If you are on the grass, you are right next to the river, not three blankets back.
  • You see trees.
  • The current is fun.
  • People are grilling.
  • You can play music.
  • Not too many kids
  • Free
Swans floated by us.
The Jonction where the Rhône and the Aarve meet.
If you come to visit, please bring us a raft, funyak, etc.
Very refreshing
People sunbathe on the docks, but we preferred the grass. It’s less crowded.
Some people came more prepared than we did
The graffiti added color
You climb out on the ladders

FYI – The clear waters of the  Rhône come from the Alps through Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). The Aarve also comes from the Alps, but via riverbeds.  As a result, it has sediment in it.  Jonction is so named because it is where the two intersect.  That is why in the picture above, you can see the clear blue mix with the cloudy water.