I have made my way through the Roman airport, dearest readers, and onto Southern Italy* after spending just under 24 hours in Helsinki.
In my jet-lagged daze I wandered around this lovely Finnish city. It was the mid-summer holiday weekend so the whole urban landscape was nearly vacated by residents. A slow, strange quiet hung over the neighborhoods through which we strolled. Only a few tourists and fewer locals roamed the main drags spiraling around the train station and along the water.
A combination of the weather (the wet clouds hung low and appeared nearly static–though they occasionally let loose a short burst of light rain), my lack of sleep and the very fact of being–for no real reason at al–in Helsinki when no one else seemed to be meant that everything I saw there had a bizarre patina–a kind of foggy halo.
Never have I so felt travel to be dream-like.
We sat in a cafe sipping hot cappuccino and peered out the huge picture windows at a chilly Market Square. We ferried out to an island off the coast and explored the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. I ate smoked salmon soup at a little cafe tucked near what looked to be a ship-building warehouse. We zigzagged around the cobble-stone streets near the cathedral, glimpsed the Russian Orthodox church, drank beers in an empty bar whose mid-century modern furniture and wood-paneled walls seemed incongruous with the Finnish hard-rock they were playing. When exhaustion finally won out, I made my way back to the hotel and collapsed into the heaviest sleep.
All of the strangeness of this journey was compounded by the fact that Helsinki, at this time of year, exists in nearly perpetual daylight. When I went to bed at 11 and when I awoke the following morning at 4:30 the same early-dusk light held the grey skies.
The other end of this particular summer foray into Europe will culminate, if all goes as planned, in 14 more hours in Helsinki. But I hesitate to return–I worry that it will be something like me as Orpheus, turning back to glimpse just once at what I fear is an imagined Eurydice.
*Worry not. More on these adventures to come.
The Other Side is a gay piano bar that is, alas, approaching its final days in Silver Lake. Unsubstantiated word on the street is that this amazing, hidden outpost of kitsch and glory will be converted into a sportsbar sometime in the next few months.
Sigh… Would that I had found it sooner. What terrible fools would turn a gay piano bar into anything other than what it so fabulously is? And where will I go when I want to hear good Beyonce covers by perfectly coiffed twinks, or just plain good looking gay men with beautiful voices, sitting and singing their hearts out behind an electronic keyboard masked as a grand piano?
Oh, sweet Other Side. I knew you for but one night and will love you forever!
*Let it be known that, as all this went on, the Disney Channel also happened to be the station of choice on one of the television sets above the bar, and that on said channel was broadcast a young adult film written by a friend of mine. Oh Los Angeles, you are truly an enigmatic and wonderful mistress!
Oh, Amsterdam. So lovely a little city.
The canals lined on all sides with rows of bicycles haven’t (despite their endless reproduction in all tourist materials on the lowlands) lost their charm. Dutch still-lifes and the Vermeer of the woman pouring milk in the Riljksmuseum still stun–regardless of the mass of postcards of these works they make. Dutch design and architecture, Dutch aged Gouda, Dutch people (though perhaps not Dutch cuisine) make strolling through the city at as slow a pace as you’d like a true pleasure for any visitor.
What is more, it seems a truly livable city. Particularly if you avoid certain stretches of the center and all of the Red Light District (though it is well worth suffering a trip through if you’re somewhere in the Western canal rings and need to get to fondue at Café Bern).* Infrastructure devoted to bikes and trolleys, the enormous and lovely Vondelpark and the fact that when the weather is nice, the Dutch seem to congregate in any available outdoor space, make it a place you want to stay for a stretch. Maybe a very long one.
I remember roaming in Amsterdam when I was 18. Then, because all travel was novel and certainly anything ‘abroad’ was exotic, it was strange. Now, it feels a little bit like visiting a prettier Brooklyn. The people there in the central districts are kind and good-looking, well dressed, and unflinchingly fluent in English. You can duck down an alley and find fantastic art, perfectly prepared Indonesian food, magical canal-side cafes serving La Chouffe and you’ll barely notice that you can’t utter a word in the native language. Of course you can end up in a mass of tourists oohing and ahhing at the ‘native’ bridges and photographing themselves alongside a mass of bicycles, or perhaps a live sex show. But I am willing to entertain the possibility that this darker under belly buoys up the rest of the urban culture there.
I prefer my most recent trek through the city to the one I took, low, some nearly 15 years ago. But that may just be because I like me, and cities and me in cities more now. Either way, if you find yourself meandering around Europe for any reason, Amsterdam is worth time. Maybe lots of it.
*And you do need to get to fondue at Café Bern if you’re anywhere in Amsterdam. Trust me.