On the importance of green spaces

 

In large cities where high-density apartment living is common, there needs to be enough green space for people to escape from their dwellings. This is especially the case in Paris when the weather gets hot, as most apartments do not have air-conditioning [mine included]. Paris has no shortage of greenspaces. Ones known to everyone living outside of Paris include the Tuileries, Jardin de Plantes & Jardin de Luxembourg, to name a few. These public gardens attract people all year round. In winter the trees may be bare, but this can highlight their pruned shapes – as the image below from the Jardin de Luxembourg shows.

JardinDeLuxumbourg

There are many smaller parks & gardens that dot each arrondisement. There is also a ‘greenway’ – a 4.5 km walking/running/cycling trail called La Coulée verte René Dumont based on an old railway line that was closed in 1969. The trail crosses the 12th arrondisement – from the environs of the Place de la Bastille to La Porte de Vincennes [for a map see https://www.francedigitale.com/randonnee/information/58 ]. The trail is really cool because it runs ~7 metres above street level, giving the observer a very different perspective to the streets & buildings of Paris. Different parts were opened at different times – from the 1980s to 1993 – as it was renovated & built up in different stages.

LaCouleeVerte_09

There are lots of roses & other flowers in bloom right now – so it is a beautiful place to take a stroll & literally take some time to smell the flowers…

Poppy

The trail also crosses the Parc de Reuilly – a lovely public park with a public ‘fountain’ where people can drink & also fill containers of both still & sparkling water – something unique in the city. There are park benches where people can sit & read or contemplate life. The grass provides a comfortable spot as well.

From the Coulée verte some really whimsical buildings can be seen. This one [see images below] is the quirkiest one that I have seen in Paris so far. It was designed by Spanish-French architect/urbanist Manolo Nuñez-Yanowsky & channels Michaelangelo’s sculpture ‘The Slave‘. The human motif repeats 15 times across the top of this corner building! The building project was completed in 1988 & it actually a police station – believe it or not… [http://www.nunez-yanowsky.com/works/project/police_station].

Fortunately the Coulée verte does not look ugly from street level. Part of the reason for this is the Viaduc des arts – a stretch of 60 artists & artisans studios, that were renovated & established in the 1980s [see http://www.leviaducdesarts.com/].

The parks & greenways provide a wonderful way for Parisians to de-stress & relax, to keep fit & to spend quality time with their families in a beautiful outdoor setting. I have taken to going to the park closest to me & sitting for a while to read as well as well as taking strolls to look at the trees & flowers. I also have access to spring water: there is a source in our neighborhood that has been tapped down to ~ 600 metres! The water is cold & has a subtle taste – not as minerally as I expected. Rumor has it that a local boulangerie [winner of last year’s best baguette in Paris award] uses this water for its baguettes. The baker purportedly gets on his bicycle to fetch the water at some ungodly hour of the night. [Baguettes take ~5 hours to make from start to finish.]

Formal green spaces are a real form of art in France – historically formal gardens have been appreciated by nobles & kings for centuries. Places like the Tuileries in Paris were originally constructed so that members of the Royal Court could take a stroll when they got too cooped up in the palace. Similarly, the gardens of palaces such as Versailles and Fontainebleu were probably constructed for the same purpose. Woods or forests nearby were sometimes set aside for the exclusive use of the king for the pursuit of hunting activities, for example Le Bois du Roi near Fontainebleu. There are many others throughout France.

In the Loire valley some of the many Chateaux there also have beautiful gardens. Chenonceau is one of those, also with a neighboring forest. It is a very unusual chateau, in that it is built to straddle the river Cher.

Chenonceau_Loire_09

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I was fortunate enough to visit friends last weekend who live in the area. We were able to enjoy those woods, which border the chateau & the river Cher. Remarkably, there were very few people walking along the river & in the woods that weekend. The place was quiet, but for the beautiful bird chorus that could be heard in the trees. Delightful!

The image below show a small little rivulet where the water is almost completely still – as evidenced by the almost perfect reflection of the forest canopy in the water…

Chenonceau_Loire_17

The woods also house the tomb of Madame Dupin [1706 – 1799] – a previous owner of the castle [https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madame_Dupin]. Her claim to fame? It is a long & convoluted story, but in a nutshell she was an illegitimate child who grew up in a very well-to-do household in Paris who married into money. This reported beauty supported the arts & the humanities – having had a salon in the chateau at Chenonceau. At the start  of the French revolution she left Paris for the chateau – moving there permanently in 1792. She chose her own burial place & it is located in a beautiful spot in the woods – to be reached via a side drawbridge [an entrance/exit that is no longer used].

There are so many chateaux in this region that it is impossible to see them all. I have previously been to this region many years ago now & have visited some of them. This visit we went to the Domaine Chaumont because every year it hosts a festival where artists of various disciplines – not just horiculturists – participate in a competition where the garden exhibits are open to the public for a large part of the year. One can catch glimpses of the chateau from these gardens:

This year’s exhibit theme was ‘Jardins de la Pensée’ [‘Gardens of Thought’], as shown in their promotional material below & on their website: [http://www.domaine-chaumont.fr/fr/festival-international-des-jardins/edition-2018-jardins-de-la-pensee] The exhibit is open from April to November.

JardinsDeLaPensee

The exhibits were very creative & interesting, as I hope that the images below show. Some of my favorites were ‘Le Jardin des Voyelles‘ [‘Garden of vowels’] where a poem was represented by the consonants only – the vowels consisted of plants. By June the plants are getting larger & are partly beginning to hide some of the consonants too – so reading it was becoming a challenge! The exhibit was the brainchild of a French group called OULIPO [OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle] formed in 1960 to develop new literary forms by delving into mathematics & science among other things.

Chaumont_JardinsDeLaPensee_10

There was the ‘Avantgarden‘ where a trees trunk & roots had been transmuted into a something like a set of blood vessels – presented in bright red, which provided an interesting contrast to the green vegetation around… A path of bright red mulch completed the picture & captured everyone’s attention. This Russian exhibit came from Olga Podolskaya [an industrial designer], Margarita Syrtsova [founder & director of the Arteco Casa agency] & Olga Cherdantseva [landscape architect & chief curator of the gardens of the Russian Museum].

A post-apocolyptic theme was evoked in ‘(R)évolution‘ – where vegetation prevails over the man-made stuff… with the misting devices making a surreal ambience. The designers of this French exhibit were Camille Lacroix [scenographer], Christine Monlezun [director] & Philippe Bertrand [landscaper & teacher].

Chaumont_JardinsDeLaPensee_16

A striking minimalist exhibit was that of ‘La Possibilité d’une île‘ [‘The possibility of an island’] where German architect Ulli Heckmann asks the question: can a tree grow in a body of water? This is timely given the increase in extreme weather events & flooding in so many places in the world. In this exhibit a solitary Japanese maple sits in a pool of water surrounded by chips of shale. The photo I took does not do this exhibit justice…

Chaumont_JardinsDeLaPensee_06

Finally, no garden art exhibit would be complete [in my opinion] without a work from Dale Chihuly, a Seattle-based glass artist. I have seen a lot of his work previously – one particularly memorable exhibit at the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh comes to mind… This time it was a blue glass sculpture that is 3 metres high. Apparently this work was originally created for an exhibition for the Missouri Botanical Garden in 2006 & was also shown in Denver [2014] & New York [2017].

Chaumont_JardinsDeLaPensee_17

Overall, we had a wonderful afternoon looking at the almost 30 exhibits. The weather was threatening – there were some strong thunderstorms all around us & we could hear the thunder. By some incredible stroke of luck the storms missed us – we just got some rain instead. There was so much more to see in the gardens themselves, including a valley of mist [‘La Vallée de Brumes‘] where, if you are lucky, sunbeams will come through the mist… There are also lots of ponds of waterlilies in all sorts of colors…

Chaumont_LaValléeDesBrumes_02

So do you have a favorite green space near where you live? I have to say that my overall favorite is my own garden – something that I have sorely missed while living here. That said, I have tried to make up for it by spending lots of time outside in the lovely green spaces that mean so much to French people.

Game, set & match!

FrenchOpen_01

As an Aussie, I have always been a keen tennis fan. When I lived in Australia, I regularly went to watch the Australian Open – as a grand slam tournament it always attracted the world’s top players. I have been fortunate to see many of them play in Melbourne over the years. I tried to also play the game – albeit very badly. The move to the USA certainly made it harder to appreciate this sport. When I lived in Connecticut I discovered that tickets to the US Open were very expensive & the event was also very corporate. Over the years we ended up going to various lead up tournaments to the US Open instead. This was great in some ways – matches are played in a more intimate setting & you can really see the players up close [instead of sitting in the nosebleed section of a large stadium].  The Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati is a good example – we have been to this one on numerous occasions now. Here are some pics [as is out of the camera] of Roger Federer – one of my fave players of all time – from 2014 when I lugged my camera gear with me to Cincy:

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Tennis_2014__039

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This year, of course, it is ‘when in Rome, do as Romans do’ ! In a mad moment of spontaneity I decided to get tickets to the French Open – as a surprise belated birthday present for my other half, who was coming over again to visit. Cost me an arm & a leg, but I figured this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. This time I experimented taking pictures with my iPhone & a small, portable Nikon Coolpix camera – both of which do not compare to a camera with decent lenses when it comes to sports photography.

This is a very special year at the French Open, held regularly at the Roland Garros tennis facility. Roland Garros was a pioneer in French aviation, who was the first to fly across the Mediterranean [between Saint-Raphaël & Tunis] in 1913. This was an amazing achievement in its day! The then famous Garros signed up as a fighter pilot for the First World War & his plane was shot down in October 1918 – on the eve of his 30th birthday. So exactly a 100 years have passed now in 2018. [For more info, see https://www.rolandgarros.com/en-us/video/who-is-roland-garros] When France needed a place to play the USA in Davis Cup finals in 1928, a new stadium was built at Porte D’Auteuil – the site of the present day Roland Garros tennis facility which today houses 17 courts & 3 stadium size courts.

In 1928 the new stadium was named after Roland Garros, because of of lobbying by his friend Émile Lesieur. [Lesieur was also a fighter pilot during the war & was a fellow student with Garros at the famous Paris business school [HEC]. Lesieur himself was a celebrated rugby player & was President of the Stade français – an organization formed in 1883 devoted to the promotion of athletics & sports in schools & at the elite level.] The tournament this year commemorates the 100th anniversary of Garros’s death – but actually it is a celebration of his life.

The tennis complex is very nicely laid out & is next to a botanical garden, some of which is gradually being absorbed by the tennis facility. One of the catering areas, called the Orangerie, abuts it & our tickets gave us access to it where we got a quick & light breakfast before heading to check out the matches.

Lunch was also served there – quite a fancy affair – white starched tablecloths & wine glasses arranged in the standard diagonal line. The priorities were well set – there were TV screens all around the place so you could not miss the tennis while you tucked into your nice 3 course lunch in a leisurely manner!

FrenchOpen_25_Restaurant

Our tennis tickets for the Round of 16 were for the main stadium court – named after Philippe Chatrier – a famous French tennis player & journalist. This court has ~15,000 seats – a great atmosphere for spectators because everyone is fairly close to the play. The image below is straight out of the iPhone – no zoom…

FrenchOpen_35_PhilippeChatrier

There has been criticism of the limited seating at the French Open & as I understand it plans are underway to expand the facility – moving it further into the botanical garden.

On this gorgeous Sunday on center court there were 4 scheduled singles matches – 2 women’s & 2 men’s – .

Madison Keys (images above) defeated her Rumanian opponent Mihaela Buszarnescu & Madison’s close friend Sloan Stephens defeated Estonian player Anett Kontaveit (images below).

This set Keys & Stephens up to meet in the semi-final – similar to last year’s US Open women’s final, where they met & Stephens won. [This time, Stephens won again & she is to play Simon Halep in the final on Sunday 10th of June.]

We also saw Austrian Dominic Thiem [images below] take out Japanese star Kei Nishikori – somewhat of a surprise. [Thiem himself went on to be beaten by Nadal in the quarter-final.]

FInally, Novak Djokovic defeated the Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in 3 sets [images below]. Sounds like an easy match, but it was not because many games went to deuce & were quite prolonged. Overall, Djokovic did not play well at all – he made lots of unforced errors – surprising for someone playing at that level. [He was subsequently bundled out of the Open in the semi-final in a shock defeat by the Italian player Marco Cecchinato – who made history by becoming the first Italian man make the French Open semi-final in 40 years!]

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Clay courts are a tough surface to maintain – the courts need to be ‘bagged’ regularly i.e. run over with a brush & hosed. I remember doing this at high-school as the chore that everyone hated to do. This was the last thing to do when finishing up for the day. As I watched them bag the courts at the Open I thought about those old days… But they really had the bagging down to a very fine art at the Open…

As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of great spaces for spectators to hang out. One open area had deck chairs in front of a large screen – so that people can lounge around with a bit more comfort…

FrenchOpen_34_Environs

Overall, we had a terrific day at the tennis! It was a day that I will never forget, both for the game itself as well as the wonderful lunch we were served. Getting there & back was super easy & quick with the Metro. That is one of the great things about living in a big city with an excellent public transport system. And that is something to really celebrate, isn’t it?

FrenchOpen_28_Restaurant

The north comes south

It is funny how life is full of interesting coincidences. In the last 2 posts I described my experiences on various trips to northeast Europe – to Finland – as seen through the eyes of someone whose own family comes from the Baltic region. On arriving back in Paris, I visited the Musée d’Orsay again [which I have posted on previously…] to see a new temporary exhibition that I was particularly excited about. It was called Âmes sauvages: Le symbolisme dans les pays baltes. Translated this corresponds to Wild Souls: Symbolism in the Baltic countries [http://m.musee-orsay.fr/fr/expositions/article/ames-sauvages-46485.html]. So here I found myself in back in Paris, revisiting some of the very same themes I ran into when I was checking out the art in Finland a few weeks ago! The exhibit’s advertising material depicts a striking painting by a celebrated Latvian artist, Johann Walter [1862-1932] entitled Jeune Paysanne, which was painted in 1904.

MuseeDOrsay_AmesSauvages_02

The art exhibit has been organized to celebrate & commemorate the 100th anniversary of the declarations of independence of the 3 Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania – in 1918. This period of freedom was shortlived – the 3 Republics were annexed by the Soviet Union during its imperialistic expansion. Fortunately, today the 3 countries have their independence once more.

As I already mentioned, the artworks featured in the Paris exhibit had themes common to those that I described in the Helsinki Art Museum exhibit of Finnish Art from around the same period in an earlier post. In the late 19th century, there was a cultural revival & a focus on ethnography & national identity in Europe, so many nations there were experiencing similar bursts of cultural activity. In images from the Baltic countries – including Finland – there is always the presence of the supernatural, including death in quite a few works. In one of the works from the Paris exhibit shown below, the moment that Death comes to visit & take an infant from it’s mother is depicted.

MuseeDOrsay_Rozentals_LaMort

This is a striking image on multiple levels. First, Death is depicted in white & as a woman – but her identity is unmistakable as she carries a sickle – a definitive cutting tool. Second, the look on the Mother’s face is depicted with incredible skill. I stood in front of this image for a long, long time contemplating it. There is the Mother’s look of incredulity as she looks directly upon Death & seems to not know how to deal with the situation. Yet, paradoxically at the same time there is an amazing gentleness to the scene. Death herself appears to be a compassionate being – the face depicts a calm, gentle demeanor & the white clothing does not have the negative association that typical images of the Grim Reaper dressed in black & traditionally carrying a scythe elicit. This is a classic painting created by the Latvian painter, Janis Rozentāls [1866-1916].

The exhibit depicts paintings & drawings showing scenes from real life, as well as from myths & legends – hence the symbolism label in the exhibit’s name. Here we come into contact with heros from epic poems, such as the Estonian Kalvipoeg.

MuseeDOrsay_Tuul_Kalevipoeg

The above image by Estonian artist Välko Tuul [1894-1918] depicts him in a battle [Kalevipoeg et Les Guerriers] & was painted between 1915-17. Despite being a hero, he does die [unlike heros in other epic sagas of other countries] – with the event being depicted by Estonian artist Kristjan Raud [1865-1943], entitled La Mort de Kalevipoeg . He suffers an awful death from having both feet cut off by his own sword in a strange twist of fate. The image below depicts the hero with a distorted & emaciated torso & of course, sans pieds – a very dramatic image to say the least.

MuseeDOrsay_Raud_LaMortDeKalevipoeg

There is a certain simplicity to the images & this makes them so much more impactful. For example, this painting from 1935 by Kristjan Raud entitled Sacrifice embodies this simplicity. From my interpretation, the image depicts a pagan ritual & the bowed heads, positions of the hands & poses struck by the bodies depict a respectful act of worship.

MuseeDOrsay_Raud_Sacrifice

The images can also capture a dynamic instant in time, such as the moment an archer lets an arrow fly on a breezy day in a painting by Rozentāls entitled L’Archer.

MuseeDOrsay_Rozentals_LArcher

As in the Finnish art exhibit I described in the previous post, the images in the Baltic countries exhibit in Paris also explored nature & landscapes. One of my favorites was an early spring landscape by Latvian artist Vilhelms Purvītis [1872-1945] entitled Les Eaux printanières, which was painted around 1910. It is a beautiful & gentle scene – in some ways minimalistically rendered – the verticalness of the birch & fir trees is a nice contrast to the horizontalness of the water with it’s melting ice & the surrounding land with retreating snow.

MuseeDOrsay_Purvitis_LesEauxPrintanieres

In another part of the museum there was a temporary exhibit of Estonian photography depicting scenes from life on the Estonian island of Kihnu – located in the Baltic Sea not far from the Estonian coast. I was able to enjoy those images as well on my visit.

Fortunately for me, these temporary exhibits did not seem to attract the tourists. They were busy on the museum’s upper floors checking out the impressionist classics that the Musée d’Orsay is so famous for (as the photos below indicate). Glad to say that I have spent considerable time in these permanent collections on previous trips to Paris, when there did not seem to be as many tourists… Tourist season is definitely here in Paris now that it is May. Note to self: I need to whip around to some other sites that will gets lots of tourist traffic before they get too crowded…

Despite my recent posts lauding late 19th century art, my favorite period & styles of art actually are early 20th century expressionism, futurism & surrealism.  The Centre Pompidou here in Paris has a permanent collection where you can check out some works from this period & the D’Orsay has some works as well.

What period of art & style do you feel most passionate about?

 

A journey north 2

This post continues on from the previous one – about a recent visit to Helsinki & some thoughts about 2 previous trips there also, as seen from the perspective of someone whose own family came from the Baltic region.

Because Finland has always had such long winters, I imagine that this has allowed cultural activities to flourish. The performing arts, literature, as well as arts & crafts are much cherished in the country. Most people seem to play an instrument [or sing]. A traditional instrument is the ‘kantele‘, originally a 5-6 string instrument that is strummed [by matchstick] or plucked.

Ateneum_Kantele

The above image shows a replica of an instrument that was used in the 1830s by a famous Finnish singer. This replica can be found in the Ateneum in Helsinki. Chords are formed by muting or stopping the strings [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kantele]. Modern kanteles are more elaborate, of course – they have many more strings, enabling a larger repertoire. The all girl Finnish group Kardemimmit are good exponents of this instrument [http://www.kardemimmit.fi/]. I have been fortunate to have heard them at our Lotus World Music Festival in Bloomington in the USA – they have visited now on a couple of occasions. Interestingly, variants of these stringed instruments appear all around the Baltic. In Estonia the equivalent is the ‘kannel‘, in Lithuania there is the ‘kankle‘ & Latvia has the ‘kokle‘. I have a kokle, which is back in the USA & I used to be reasonably proficient at playing it.

During my winter visit to Helsinki a couple of years ago, I was invited for Sunday lunch at a friend’s apartment. All the guests came bearing either musical instruments or other material – perfect for a set of impromptu performances after lunch was eaten. As a guest I too was expected to make a cultural contribution – I chose to recite some poetry by one of my favorite Latvian poets [Aleksandrs Čaks] – in Latvian, of course. This was an interesting exercise, as it showed us all the large contrast between Finnish & Latvian – two very different language groups [Finno-Ugric vs Baltic] despite the two countries being near neighbors on the Baltic. Yet, despite the language differences between the two countries, there are many commonalities in culture etc.  I say this because when I visit Finland things feel both strange & eerily familiar. Things feel strange because this is a novel language & country. Yet, things feel familiar as some aspects of the culture make me think of me of my elderly Latvian relatives [unfortunately now no longer of this world] & stories that they have told me.

This springtime visit to Helsinki was great because the Ateneum Art Museum had a special temporary exhibit devoted to showcasing Finnish Artists Society art from the late 19th century to the present day. Some of the works were really poignant – here I share with you some of the classic paintings that had the greatest effect on me.

Ateneum_Edelfelt_ConveyingChildsCoffin

The image above by Albert Edelfelt [1854-1905] is entitled ‘Conveying the Child’s Coffin‘ & was painted in 1879. It depicts the heart-wrenching scene of a family taking a funereal boat journey for the purposes of bringing their young family member to their permanent new place of rest. I stood for a long time in front of this image. It is so skillfully rendered, the light is beautiful & the visible emotion, while understated, visually nevertheless jumps out of the canvas & grabs your heartstrings.

Ateneum_Gallen-Kallela

The above image entitled ‘Lemminkäinen’s Mother‘ was painted by Akseli Gallen-Kallela [1865-1933] & depicts a scene from the Finnish epic poem Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot, which was first published in 1835 [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalevala]. A more recent version was published in 1849 & consists of 22,795 verses, divided into 50 songs! [These epic poems were not unique in the Baltic region: Estonia has Kalevipoeg & Latvia has Lāčplēsis (Bearslayer). In the latter Kalevipoeg also appears. These are just the ones I know of – there may well be others in the surrounding countries.] The Finnish Kalevala has many stories & characters. Lemminkäinen features in a number of them, but the story depicted in the above painting is that of Lemminkäinen’s Mother’s efforts to ‘remake’ his body. He has drowned in the river of Tuonela [in the underworld] while hunting the black swan that lives there. His Mother looks for him everywhere. Finally, she learns of his fate & asks Ilmarinen [a blacksmithing God] to create a copper rake [also seen in the painting]. In the underworld, she rakes up every piece of Lemminkäinen’s body & clothing from the river Tuonela. She sews the parts together & implores the Gods to bring him back to life. The painting depicts this scene.

Ateneum_Gallen-Kallela_closeup

I was really struck by the emotion on the face of the Mother – it is very intense study in emotion [see close-up at left]. There is a deeply imploring look & at the same time there is also determination & desperation as well.  An amazing painting, to put it mildly, on so many levels!

To continue the story of Lemminkäinen: Finally, in desperation, his Mother convinces a bee [also seen in the painting, below the rake] to fly to the Halls of the ‘Ubergod’ Ukko for a drop of honey. This enchanted honey ends up bringing Lemminkäinen back to life.

For those interested in reading further, his story has been translated into English, see http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/kvrune15.htm]. Thanks to a Finnish friend for sharing this link!

In the exhibition there were many other artworks that were very beautiful & inspiring – portraits, landscapes depicting the various seasons & some snapshots of ephemeral moments in human interactions. The painting below by Hugo Simberg [1873-1917] depicts a beautiful moment where a grandparent strolls along a lake with his grandchild, showing that special bond that these two generations share.

Ateneum_Simberg_TowardsTheEvening

Apparently, Simberg painted his own father & young son in this image. I also like the light here – as a photographer this is my favorite time of the day…

There were so many other interesting & notable works of art to see. Anyone visiting Helsinki should stop in to the Ateneum. The exhibition I saw was a temporary one, but the museum always has works by Finnish artists on display in their galleries. Some of the other classics [that I did not include in this post] I have seen on a previous visit there.

And now to turn to the culinary side of things. Different climatic regions have their own special produce. The northern European countries are no exception in that regard – the relatively mild summers & harsh, cold winters mean that only very hardy plants survive. Lingonberries, bilberries [native to Europe & related to blueberries], gooseberries & red currants are common fruits here. Reindeer steaks are very popular, as are fish such as Baltic herring & salmon [particularly smoked or served in a traditional soup]. The emphasis is very much on seasonal produce. This spring while I was there Baltic herring, morels, false morels, asparagus & rhubarb were in season, so I was able to enjoy these wonderful foods – some on more than one occasion. What are ‘false morels’, I hear you cry? Apparently they are a type of poisonous mushroom that can only be eaten when prepared properly through parboiling when the toxins are reduced & the mushrooms become edible – under no circumstances can they be eaten raw. As I said, the toxins are reduced, but not entirely eliminated even with cooking. Supposedly, the toxins can build up cumulatively in the body, so it is said that it is best to not consume these on a regular basis [for more information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyromitra_esculenta]. I have to say, I had ’em in a soup with some reindeer meat mousse on the side & the dish was delicious! The image below shows the soup – a nice mushroomy color.

AinaSpeakersDinner

Thankfully for us all the very capable Chef at Ravintola Töölönranta [http://www.toolonranta.fi/en/front-page/] knew what he/she was doing. Many of us chose to eat the false morel soup & everyone was accounted for at the conference the next day ;). The restaurant is also in a very scenic location on Töölönlahti Bay, although it was a blustery & rainy evening when we went there.

Another excellent place to enjoy Finnish cuisine is the Michelin starred Ravintola Ateljé Finne. The place gets it’s name from the famous Finnish sculptor Gunnar Finne. He designed his working studio & this is where the restaurant is located today. Some of his works still adorn the walls & counters of the place [they can be seen on the restaurant’s website: http://www.ateljefinne.fi/en/].

The restaurant is centrally located in Helsinki. The menu is, of course, seasonal – here is a sample of what was on offer when I visited:

AteljeFinne_03_menu

AteljeFinne_04_menu

I had the herring starter, the morel/egg/nettle main & the poached rhubarb for dessert. Delicious! The Finns are also extremely fond of liquorice – as indicated by the dessert on offer. My Finnish friend had the crème brûlée & I did get to try some of it. It was really good – but I have to say that I am a really big fan of liquorice…

But back to reality now in Paris… that said I came across lightly smoked Baltic herrings in the local supermarket the other day. What a pleasant surprise that was! Could not resist buying some…

A journey north

Helsinki_48

Last week I was fortunate to have to travel to Helsinki for a scientific meeting as well as a catch up with a scientific collaborator. This was my third trip to this wonderful city & each time I have experienced it in a different season. I have been there in mid-Summer, in winter & now in Spring. Each time things were so very different. Right now the plants are getting ready for the growth season – the daffodils are out & the trees are budding. The full growth season is just around the corner… The weather is reasonably mild, but the wind still has a chill. The photos that I have included in this post are a mélange of images taken from my three trips to Helsinki.

At a latitude of greater than 60 deg North, this means that the days in Helsinki can range from being extremely long in summer to extremely short in winter. In mid-summer there is ~19 hours of daylight, no actual night, but a kind of twilight instead. I remember being jet-lagged & waking up at around 2:30 am – when I opened my curtains it was very light outside. The heavy set of curtains in the hotel let me go back to sleep without having to deal with the sunrise at 4 am! I also remember a beautiful sunset at around 11:30 pm that we enjoyed as we were finishing up dinner in a restaurant  (image below).

PostThesisDinner

In midsummer, the other striking thing was that it was light enough to actually read a newspaper outside at midnight – a friend invited me to do this – however, after a couple of minutes a cloud of mosquitoes had formed around me. [Mosquitoes are supposed to be really bad in the countryside, so I cannot imagine what that would be like.]

When I returned to Helsinki the next time it was winter – towards the end of January. Mercifully, at that point the days were getting longer, but the sun still only rose at ~9 am & set early ~4:30 pm. The light was so different compared to the blinding light of summer – the week I was there it was overcast & we appeared to be in a perpetual twilight. I cannot imagine what it would be like around the time of the winter solstice. The picture of the sunrise below over parts of the snow covered Bay of Helsinki was taken on the one winter morning when we actually had sun for a while.

Sunrise_BayOfFinland2016

On that visit it also rained for a couple of days before I arrived. All the rain water froze over the snow – leaving everything like an ice skating rink. This meant having to shuffle around without lifting your feet like a very old person. I would imagine that there were also a lot of broken limbs that week… Not surprisingly the cars have winter tires with studs on them over there.

This time, in spring, the day length was less extreme with the sun rising at ~5 am & setting ~9:30 pm. [A great website for seeing day length, sunrise/sunset for places around the world is https://www.gaisma.com/en/ ] When I went for a walk on a lovely sunny spring weekend afternoon people were sitting in outdoor cafes & bars enjoying the sunshine. And the buskers were out as well – just like in summer!

There is some very striking older style architecture in Helsinki – it has a certain chunky & geometric style that I find very esthetic & compelling. This is seen on buildings such as museums & the main train station as well.

Yet the city has so many modern buildings as well, which are very distinctive & monumental – with interesting form, but at the same time are minimalistic. I find them also very esthetic. The best example of this minimalism I can think of is the Kamppi Chapel of Silence – a spherically shaped building crafted from varnished wood. It is as minimalistic inside as it is outside.

KamppiChapel_07

It is designed to be a haven of silence within the heart of a bustling city… It was the brainchild of 3 architects –  Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola & Mikko Summanen [of K2S Architects Ltd], was completed in 2012 & won the International Architecture Awards for the Best New Global Design 2010 [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamppi_Chapel].

Another astounding modern building is also a place of worship. It is the Rock Church – also located in central Helsinki [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temppeliaukio_Church]. As it’s name implies it is built in a rock. The space is deceiving from the outside – only the copper dome that forms its roof is really visible – the rocky surroundings hide a wonderful secret…

The circular interior is simple & the main features are the rock walls themselves, the copper dome & the interface between these two features, which is designed to let natural light enter.

RockChurch_21

The acoustics are fabulous in there – an organ was being played when I visited <em>https://neurowandererblog.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/rockchurchhelsinki.m4a</em>. Not surprisingly, the church is used as a concert venue.

The main religion practiced by ~70% of the 5.5 million Finnish population is a version of Christianity known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. The second official state church is Finland’s Orthodox Church & it has followers made up from around ~1% of the population. Both official religions have their main Cathedrals in Helsinki. These are very distinctive buildings. The Orthodox or Uspenski Cathedral has the characteristic domes, is dark from the exterior & is located on a hill. It can be seen from a number of parts of the city. As to be expected, it’s interior is elaborately & richly decorated with icons [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uspenski_Cathedral,_Helsinki].

In contrast, the Lutheran or Helsinki Cathedral is very light on the outside & inside. It is minimalistic on the inside, but very beautiful nonetheless. It is on a high point in the center of Helsinki on Senate Square [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helsinki_Cathedral] – it dominates the city skyline when viewed from the water. The first photo of this post shows it – it’s distinctive towering white form cannot be missed! It was built in a long construction process between 1830-1852.

Helsinki is a city whose history is linked with water. The city of Helsinki is located on the Gulf of Finland, which is connected with the Baltic Sea. The Gulf of Finland is littered by many islands & the best way to get a sense of these is to take a boat trip from Helsinki – either for pleasure or as a commute between Estonia, Russia & Sweden.

This is a great thing to do on a summer’s day – I highly recommend it. Apparently herds of elk occasionally can swim between islands, so boat operators have to be very watchful for the animals – as well as watching for rocks & other hazards etc.

There are so many things to do in Helsinki & surrounds – it is an outdoor culture, despite the harsh climate. In winter when the days are not so short people head north to Lappland to view the Northern Lights. In summer, they head out of town to their summer homes on the lakes – Finland has 188,000 of them! And in the city, when the weather is good [i.e. there is no snow] people ride bicycles everywhere.

Bicycles

In the next post I will talk a bit about Finnish culture, art & food…

 

 

In search of street art

 

 

I am fortunate to be living & working in the 13th arrondisement of Paris – an epicenter for street art in the city. Why is this the case? I was told that the mayor of our district is a fan of street art. [Each of the 20 Paris arrondisements have a mayor, associated town hall  & services etc., as well as having a mayor & town hall for Paris overall.] Indeed, there is a formal initiative for street art in the 13th where major works in the form of murals have been commissioned from 22 very well-known street artists [see http://www.streetart13.fr/], including Shepard Fairey.  Fairey actually has 3 works here. [I know his Cincinnatti street art & also saw a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) in Cincinnati a few years ago. [http://www.contemporaryartscenter.org/]

Street art in the 13th is larger than life – huge murals on the sides of apartment buildings are typical. I was particularly struck by one work & that started my odyssey of actively searching out the various works in our district. We were at a Japanese restaurant with a nice outdoor terrace on a beautiful sunny day & I had a really good view of this one particular mural. My gaze kept returning to it many times, because it elicited an overwhelming feeling of familiarity – but I had no idea why. After I got back to work I looked it up & discovered it was a work by Fairey! What a lovely surprise. The image at left below is the work & at right is another Fairey’s other artistic offerings in the 13th.

 

So ever since that afternoon I have been dashing around the arrondisement either on weekends or on the walk home from work to find the various works. Indeed, there is even a work on the grounds of our Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital!

Most of the works tend to be on the eastern side of the district – this is typically where the new apartment buildings are. There are also some in the south part – again where newer apartment blocks are. [The part of the district I live in has older buildings, that typically have elaborate decorations. These do not provide the blank canvases that these larger than life murals need.] It is really nice to be looking at these works of street art now: trees are blossoming & complement the works very nicely.

 

Some of the works are more subtle than others & are nestled in in locations where they might not be seen at first glance. You have to hunt for them & that is part of the fun.

 

The themes are varied & many. They can include natural subjects & whimsical, if not somewhat twisted, views on human relationships…

 

Another interesting thing about this arts project is that there is also a permanent gallery space that features temporary exhibitions of these artists’ work. It is entitled Galerie Itinerrance [http://itinerrance.fr/]. Currently, the work of D*Face is featured in the gallery & I have to say that I find his work somewhat unsettling. But that is the power of art – it can make us react & think…

The presence of these large pieces of art have encouraged others to try their hand at street art – albeit on a smaller scale. As I understand it, these works are non-commissioned. There are some pretty talented people around, to be sure… here are a few nice examples.

 

StreetArt_Additional01

The cool part about the alley wall in the above photo is that new images are added to it from time to time, so I keep checking it every now and again. Someone recently added an artwork on the opposite wall of the alley. It is right across from the other images. I like the whimsy here.

StreetArt_Additional04

As I already mentioned, artists aim to get a reaction out of their viewers. Well I certainly reacted to the one below as I walked past it. I just saw it out of the corner of my eye & automatically crossed to the other side of the footpath without knowing why! Then I took a closer look…

StreetArt_Additional_12

…clearly my Aussie Huntsman spider template is pretty much still intact even after not living there for many years. 🙂

So which are my favorite pieces of street art? There are 50 commissioned works in total, so I may well change my mind when I see more of them. But here are my 2 faves so far. I really like how the image on the left has taken total ownership of the building. I also find the color pallette appealing & this is also why I like the image on the right as well. The image at right is on a smaller building & I like that it brings the art closer to the viewer. The detail on the black & white geometric patterns is also great [although you don’t see it so well in this photo].

 

Do you have street art in your neighborhood? Chances are that you do. Sometimes it can be tricky to spot…

When the cup of emotions runneth over…

In an earlier post I mentioned Antonio Damasio’s latest book – The Strange Order of Things. I have nearly finished reading it. During these months it has stimulated me to contemplate the nature of feelings & emotions & their importance for human primates. Recently, coincidentally, I have also found myself in a few situations where I have had to watch the emotions of others spilling out with potentially unsavory consequences:

  1. A lover’s tiff that spills out into the street.
  2. A man throwing out his ex & her belongings from his apartment in our building.
  3. A protest march where riot police are at the ready.

In the case of the first two situations, these were private affairs between individuals that unfortunately played out in a public space. When emotions run this high usually there is not much thought about the impact of one’s actions on others. In the third case, the collective emotions of a crowd were displayed, united by one cause. In all cases the situation has an element of unpredictability . How it ultimately plays out can also be influenced by the [in]actions of bystanders.

1. Anger exploding to boiling point: One Saturday afternoon my other half & I were having lunch in my favorite brasserie (image below) in the Butte-Aux-Cailles neighborhood.

LesTanneursDeLaButte_01

As we were finishing our coffees we noticed two men emerge from one of the businesses across the street, with the larger one starting to shove & punch the other one. The scuffle continued as they made their way into an apartment building next door. Then we saw a pair of legs on the ground through the glass door of the apartment building’s front door. At that same time one of the waiters from a restaurant next to ours rushed across the street to help out. What to do? As my other half went to pay for the meal, I stood & watched to see if the situation would escalate – and if I should call the Police. Thankfully, it looked like things had settled down – the big burly guy emerged from the apartment building. He saw me standing & watching inside. He made a very aggressive gesture at me – basically the equivalent of “what the hell do you think you are looking at”? The head & body went forward with eyes bulging, the arms went out to the sides in a ballistic manner. He was still clearly angry & wanted to take it out on someone/something… What to do? I made a non-confrontational gesture back – in slow motion & in a non-aggressive manner.  I spread my arms out, pointed my palms to him, put my head to one side & arched my body back a bit – to non-verbally say “whaaaaaat are you doing?”. Then I turned my back & walked over to the counter to the servers hoping that this had defused the situation. Sure enough. Nothing further happened. That said though, I figured that the servers would literally have my back – they would see if he was coming across the street to harm me. I told them what I had seen happen. They did not look particularly perturbed & actually rolled their eyes – it seems like this guy is a bit of a hot head, so there clear is a history to this. Apparently, he owns the business across the road. Note to self: do not go & spend any money there & aid his business…

I pity any customer who went to order food there that afternoon…

2. The bitter end to a relationship: One morning before work I realized that I had no bread: necessitating a quick dash to the boulangerie across the road! As I walked down the stairs I could hear a very loud & angry conversation in one of the corridors. I could hear it on the 5th floor already. Turns out it was all on in the ground floor corridor – the main corridor leading out of the building.

Couloir

A fellow was having an argument with his ex. Why ex, you ask? Because her clothing & belongings were strewn all over the floor in the corridor – the corridor that all of us have to walk through everyday. I did not say anything as I had to step over her stuff & also had to literally walk between them – there was nowhere else to go. Made me feel pretty uncomfortable, but they continued their argument unfazed. As I walked out of the building I was pinned down by the Gardienne who told me not to worry because the Police had been called. Yikes!

When I came back from the bakery, they & the belongings were no longer there. As I ate my croissant upstairs though, I could hear shouting in the street as the argument started up again. Then later as I went to work, I was dreading having to go thru that corridor again, but there was no-one there this time. Outside the building her belongings etc. had been neatly stacked next to the front door.  I wondered about her all day & whether she find somewhere else to go. The belongings were gone at the end of the day…

3. Emotional contagion & crowds: When we are in group or crowds we can be spurred on by others & our positive or negative emotions can be magnified those around us. Sporting events & protest marches are good examples where this can happen – where one ‘in-group’ confronts another – symbolically in sport, but literally in a protest march.

I was walking home from work one night I was struck by the number of people in the street. They were carrying signs & clearly were either going to (I thought), or coming from a protest march. As I walked further along the Boulevard de L’H’hôpital I realized that there was actually no traffic on that street – only loads of police vans with police with riot gear etc. That said, they did not look particularly perturbed  – they were just chilling out near their vans with their colleagues. I walked on to the large roundabout at Place D’Italie – a major roundabout where 7 streets come together. The traffic is always chaotic there at any time of day: cars, buses & scooters taking seemingly random lanes, yet somehow always making it through the intersection safely. The same can be said for pedestrians – I negotiate this roundabout twice a day because I live on one of it’s feeder streets. I am making sure I will not get mowed down as I listen to a podcasts. The image below does not really show the chaos, but hopefully you get an idea of the scale of it.

PlaceDItalie_pano_small

That day, however, the roundabout was completely clear of traffic! All the streets to the roundabout had been blocked off. Even though the protest was over, there were a large number of people still milling around in the roundabout with their signs, flags & other symbols of protest – even deckchairs! When I got to my street I was surprised to see that it was being used as a staging area by the Police. But again, no-one looked particularly perturbed, they were just hanging out chatting with each other.

Where was I during all of this? I asked someone about what was going on & was told that the march was definitely over. So I decided get some sushi at my favorite Japanese restaurant – a stone’s throw [pun intended] from the roundabout. So, here I am tucking into a nice sushi dinner watching Paris’s finest when I notice they start suiting up into their riot gear… uh oh…

…& then they all marched off towards the roundabout with their hard hats, batons & shields!

There was a lot of whistling & yelling for a bit by the detritus of the march. That said, motorists, motor cyclists & bus drivers were not impressed either – looked like they had been stuck waiting to pass through the roundabout for some time – it was peak hour traffic time around 7:30 pm or so. There was also a convoy of buses in our street going nowhere… The Police went over to open the roundabout up to allow traffic to circulate again. And it did.

In the end I had to wonder about how much role-playing/ritual was also going on that day. I say that partly because of conversations I have had with locals. Perhaps I am also cynical – but I did not get an overwhelming sense of really negative energy from the crowd: they had been able to have their protest & make their point. Indeed before long the Police came back to their vans & they did not particularly stressed & perturbed either.

In fact, after they took off their riot gear they hung out & chilled – some on cell phones smoking cigarettes, others vaping. Then they packed up & drove off. And at that point I had finished my sushi & also went home with now normal traffic in our street.

Even though the remnants of the crowd had made a lot of noise, it seemed to me that they did not really want an encounter with police in riot gear. Similarly, the police also had no interest in a confrontation either. Why? Might be because they are literally neighbors. The 13th arr. headquarters of the C.F.G. – the amalgamated set of unions who organized the protest in response to some of Macron’s reforms – is literally across the road from the 13th arr. Hotel de Police [headquarters]!

BlvdLHospital_Pano_small

So what did I learn from these three recent situations ? A couple of things: A. You realize that you are potentially quite vulnerable when you are not totally fluent in the local language when things like this happen. Happily, I have enough command of the language to ask someone what is going on… B. A situation where a person, or people, is/are very upset can turn on a dime – it can do so because of what others do or how they react. In the case of the first situation I was able to defuse it with a non-verbal gesture & in the second case, the best thing to do was to remain silent & go past & let it be. In the third case, the Police as a group had to show emotional intelligence & disperse a group of remaining protesters in a way which would not escalate the situation. This is a very difficult thing to do.

So how do we read the collective emotions of groups & crowds? We don’t really know. I thought a lot about my experience & how I gleaned information from the crowd. Somewhat ironically, this is a new area of research in my lab…

Postscript: We have also had student blockades of a number of universities in France in response to reforms announced by Emmanuel Macron. This also includes an institution of higher learning just near me [site du Tolbiac de l’université Panthéon-Sorbonne], where students had barricaded themselves in a building for 3 weeks & prior to that had been rioting & throwing projectiles at Police. Apparently, the Police stormed the building one morning at 5 am & took control of it by 6 am. Funny thing was, I heard none of this, despite the windows in my apartment being wide open since we are in the middle of a heat wave… Go figure.

There is never a dull moment here. I had forgotten what it is like to live in a big city again…

Postscript 02 MAY 2018: One of yesterday’s May Day marches here in Paris turned very ugly – with hundreds of people being arrested. There was a confrontation with riot police on the Pont Austerlitz & a McDonald’s restaurant was completely destroyed & cars were damaged [within a [cobblestone’s throw from our hospital]. From the reports on the nightly news & the newspaper stories this time it appears that a certain faction of the crowd were out for violence – marring the day for all of those people who wished to march peacefully. [http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2018/05/01/1er-mai-le-defile-parisien-perturbe-par-une-serie-de-violences-200-black-blocs-interpelles_5293042_3224.html]

Where were we during all of this? Fortunately, we were not at work – May 1st is a public holiday in France.