Finland, History, Music, Travel

O Captain My Captain

Finland, my geologist friend is telling me, is actually growing by the minute…by 7 square kilometers a year, to be exact…due to a phenomenon known as “post-glacial rebound.”

Any chance he’s talking about my 401K?

So, a land mass that’s growing like crazy where unfortunately almost no-one in the world lives, nor wants to live. Except maybe Lutherans.

The religious “other” category in Finland is only 2%, mostly Catholics whose favorite Protestant hymn, inexplicably, seems to be Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”).

Musically, I get that. I do. But, you know: it being the Battle Hymn of the Reformation and all, doesn’t it follow that the “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him” is probably the Pope and “our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe” is most likely the Catholic Church?

Maybe this is Finland’s subliminal payback for the Crusades.

Having been invaded and re-invaded, occupied and over-occupied for a thousand and a half years, Finland finally caught a break in 1995 when it joined the EU. Meanwhile, though, it had been credited with some of the more interesting names of wars in Europe. The Russians occupied Finland twice during the 1700s, in periods known as the “Greater Wrath” and the “Lesser Wrath” ‒ exactly how they sounded.

Other Finnish wars I guarantee you’ve never heard of (but seem fairly self-explanatory): the Winter War, the Continuation War, the February Revolution.

Even those literate in geography think of Finland as “somewhere way, way over there where it’s really, really cold,” except fellow Scandinavians, who think of those funny Finns as our backward cousins living in our backyard, about whom we have 100s of cruel jokes.

Which in turn the Finns have just as many about the Laplanders.

Particularly prone to this thinking are the Swedes, villains of Finland’s “Swedish Period,” which for some people on both sides has never really ended.

As much as the Swedes enjoy picking on the Finns, haven’t we just loved over the centuries claiming your plentiful natural resources ‒ fresh water, minerals, food crops, timber, you name it ‒ not to mention your pristinely empty territory whenever it was convenient for us?!

You probably know a Finnish person, if you think about it. His or her name likely contains an “ii,” “aa,” “uu,” or “kk” in there somewhere. Examples: brilliant former conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who’s in his 40s now, but still gets carded everywhere he goes. (His current whereabouts: the Philharmonia Orchestra, London.)

So, I’m in Stockholm, trying to stay one step ahead of the shameless ice cream hustlers and thinking I really wouldn’t mind seeing Maestro Salonen’s homeland again in a musical context.

Destination: the Savonlinna Opera Festival, held for a full month every year at the spectacular Olavinlinna (St. Olaf’s) Castle. July 2011, if you’re in the neighborhood.

(Olavinlinna Castle was built in the 15th century to “discourage” Swedish and Russian invaders from either side. Now that those countries have their own problems and Finland is low on their priority list, the castle has become a multi-purpose event venue. Besides hosting this prestigious opera festival, it also hosts an event in which iPhone customers stuck with AT&T may wish to compete: the Mobile Phone-Throwing World Championships!)

But you have to get to that neighborhood first and it’s on the beaten path to nowhere. I’d rather fly, but I’m about to get filibustered.

Come on, you know how much I hate cruise ships, those floating maximum-security prisons with garish 24-hour buffets. Here you are, in a crush of people you’d never choose to travel with in the first place, spending hours in sweaty deck chairs inviting melanoma.

On second thought, traveling by cruise ship just overnight purely as transportation might be entertaining, particularly if you think there’s a chance it might evolve into a chess tournament over reindeer stew.

Once we’re on the 1-hour flight from Helsinki to Savonlinna (which, Brits and Scots, means “Newcastle”), a town about which the term “charming” for once truly applies, I can relax.

I wrote in Ныне отпущаеши (Nyne otpushchayeshi) about my mind-seared images of Russian winter. An opposite universe in the same hemisphere, it’s always summer for me in Scandinavia.

Thus, we’re standing on the ship’s bow in our shirt sleeves in near 24-hour sunlight, leaning over the railing to capture our best photo renditions of the endless string of solitary islands and taking the tiniest sips of Akavit ‒ think caraway-flavored vodka ‒ with Finnish and Swedish acquaintances we’d made just then, who seemed to get along just fine…and a couple of them had even gone over to the dark side and fallen in love.

I’ve given up trying to figure out how people know people, but one guy said: I know the captain of this ship. Do you want to meet him?

Tietenkin! (”Of course!”)

Just as soon as we arrived, though, our captain started talking about leaving.

Meaning, retiring. Already? At your youthful age? (No flattery required.)

The captain planned to hang up his cap soon, permanently, Finland being one of the last bona fide welfare states. I learned yet another new term: “benevolent intervention.” We can’t really trust you to take care of yourself, so we’re going to take care of you for you, but please don’t complain about we go about doing that.

We told him we were on our way to the opera festival, which turned out had been going on within 30 kilometers of his home village for the past 30 years, but he’d never attended. Filled with pity, we gave him a few badly executed but absolutely free samples of the music he’d been missing.

Probably still shouldn’t expect him at Will Call.

I know just enough about opera to be dangerous, having learned Italian along the way and sung a few choruses in a few choruses, university onward. My sister married an opera aficionado and since when you’re dating someone you pretend to like every ridiculous thing they like, I’d given her Opera for Dummies as a gift…but read it myself first, just in case.

Meanwhile, at the festival, familiar operatic greats populate the program: Wagner, Puccini, Mozart. Some Béla Bartok. The heart-stopping young musician competitions that propel bright opera stars into their rightful galaxies.

Please don’t tell Finland that the rest of the world charges 10 times as much for opera tickets to performances of this quality, with some of the very same performers. Good luck getting us to pay rack rate at Royal Albert Hall, or the Met, ever again!

Giddy with opera and ice cream, the ice cream vendors having followed us from Stockholm and caught us in a weak moment, we boarded the ship back to Sweden.

Awhile later, back up on the festival-goers deck, snapping mostly silly photos this time, one of the more serious photographers ran back to her stateroom to get a forgotten camera lens.

I’ll be back in a few minutes. Please, everyone, wait for me before going to dinner.

She never made it. She was accosted in a hallway by two men ‒ strangers ‒ and assaulted.

Somebody, quick, go find the captain! (Unfortunately, he wasn’t working on our return trip.)

Despite diligent efforts by all concerned, the perpetrators were never caught. They’d apparently disembarked, passed security without a second look, and lost themselves in the crowd of taxis heading toward downtown.

The creepiest feeling of all: knowing they’d probably watched us, walking down the gang plank close around their weeping victim…laughing at her, knowing they’d probably gotten away with it.

After which we didn’t feel much like singing.

O Captain My Captain is a poem written in 1865 by Walt Whitman.


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