The world is getting better, luckily :)

I’m reading the headlines this morning.

Egyptians are choosing a new president and a Tunisian military prosecutor demanded the death penalty for ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

There is still much to do… But it’s getting better.

Don’t listen the pessimists.

 

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Spring again

The last time I contemplated the Gudiashvili garden, it was autumn. Writing this time on a bench, I have the leisure to guess the composition of its spell : in the center, cover by the sun, a wickedly charming statue representing the rain, everywhere, cobblestones instead of grass, further, it’s the old people’s corner – where chess or backgammon consume the time they have left – and around, curvated trees. I don’t know their names. Behind my back, is my favorite Tbilisi’s cafe-restaurant, Pur-Pure, a decrepit two floor house, like all in the district when they are not totally ruined.

I also notice that the weather is as clement, as it could be in June, in Scandinavia. A light of optimist tension – that only spring can create – seems to diffuse into the air, or maybe, just in my mind.

I arrived by train. The Yerevan-Tbilisi line is an odd remnant of the soviet network in the region:an improbable old electric locomotive pulling three dusty cars – one for each comfort classes. The interior decoration of mine was kitschy as I had anticipated but adequate to sleep well. Unfortunately, this train really struggles to accomplish the 350km of mountains and dry plains separating these two Caucasus capitals, and its courageous fight to continue serving at its grand age, comes loud and joggling into the cabin. Every second feels and sounds like a warning of an imminent crash, though you get used to it, because the trip is no less than 11 hours (I let you calculate the impressive average speed reached).

I’m now trying to collect what more than distance, separates the two cities.

Yerevan is pink, yellowish and gray, Tbilisi has many colors. Yerevan’s architecture seems the concoction of a Stalinist father and a cheap Dubai business center stepmother; narrow, tortuous and hilly is what comes more to me to describe Tbilisi. Yerevan is marked by pompous squared or large avenues. Tbilisi specializes in balconies defying gravity and crumbling facades. Yerevan boasts its phantom and defective new high rises. Tbilisi is in a competition to appear more American or European than it is.

If I think about the economic atmosphere, I first noted how many more beggars and homeless Tbilisi have, and how many more pitch black cars windows you can observe in Yerevan. I’m not sure what to conclude. Georgia is visibly more dynamic but probably more pitiless. Walking through it, I count today so many repairs and renovations, both more numerous and qualitative than those in Yerevan, though, sometimes, with an esthetic a bit too disney-like.

Nonetheless, Yerevan – already – feels like home, when I move out.

The sickness of moving

At Calumet on Pushkin Street. A kind of trendy-hippies-bourgeois bar in the capital of Armenia.

I went for the local “Armenian Cognac” – five stars they say – and it’s quite a big deal for a bit more than two euros. The room is over-packed with customers and deadly volutes of acrid fog. I can only compare that to the worst student bars of Paris, in the 80s, before the first French smoking ban attempt.

You could guess the crowd quite privileged for the Caucasus region; the local middle upper-class, from kids to 30 something, the Armenian diaspora on holiday – we are mid August -and a few improbable lost westerners. I would just hope not to be a typically representative of this last category.

Coming from Finland, Paris or even Riga, the mood is wild and much less coded. I might have even described it a bit positively crazy, but I’m too new here to really know. The practical change is that fewer people have a good knowledge of English. Well, it’s obviously much better in this sort of bar than in most places of Yerevan.

I left Finland mid July and I don’t think I could return; so even if I loved the former name, “Kymmenes Linja”, the blog had to be renamed and a bit reorganized.

Stone floor, a handful of small round wooden tables, old carpets on the wall; music instruments, African cheap masks and improbable Indian symbolic objects hanging; cheesy small flags of all countries near the entrance; the venue is welcoming but not extraordinary. I suspect that its most successful selling point is a foreign-but-not naive equilibrium. The dancers start to be very uncontrollable after 2am and it doesn’t seem like there is any kind of legal closing time here. I should inquire about that later. On the door or somewhere else, I can read the place has been voted best Yerevan bar of whatever year before. Maybe this says more that I could write tonight.

Mökki moi, mökki toi

I was somewhat silence because I was at mökki; and a respectable mökki goes without the marvelous progress of civilization, that is to say, internet, but also TV, tap water, or even WC.
Mökki means something like summerhouse in Finnish, but more thoroughly, a concept of peaceful time rediscovering – or faking to rediscover – communion with nature – preferably sea, lake or forest – far from your active life at your job, supermarket and pub.
So last week weather was very warm in Helsinki and I got the chance to get invited at a mökki, to fabricate my own patches of sun burn – or was it insect bites ? – under Finnish latitudes.
The mökki was hidden in a forest on an huge island, Emsalö, south of Porvoo, a fishtown situated about one hour driving Eastward from Helsinki: a charming wood house in fact, encircled by trees, rocks and mosquitoes over a splendid view of the small private beach.
Living mökki is quite simple. You wake up early, breakfast without expresso because this is not the Finnish tradition, skip the shower because there is no bathroom and wait for lunch reading on the beach. During afternoon, you may read again on the beach, clean dishes with water collected at the well 300m away – a lots of sport, you can trust me –  and maybe drink a beer waiting for dinner. The real climax is sauna, meaning also carrying even more buckets of water, but more positively your only chance to get cleaner.
Sauna is the central moment of the mökki experience because it allows you to run and plunge into the cold Baltic with pleasure. It’s even a deliverance for your body, when it has been  overheated above 80°C with löyly (the only world you need to know in Finnish to please everyone there).

I heard that real Finns do this program even when the weather is not clement; but I should advise any foreigner to experiment mökki only during the most sunny days.

A dishonest lemma in the Kallio theory

Kallio has the reputation of being the “bad” district of the so clean and quiet Finnish capital. The locals would explain that it started once upon a time, when it used to be the proletarian part of the city. Well, what could be more dangerous than the proletariat? Another explanation is that it’s a “Pigalle” kind of neighborhood, where you can still find some old-school sex shops, peep shows or miscellaneous lousy businesses.

I don’t know about the past, but I feel like this reputation is a bit over-fabricated. First, there are a few sex shops indeed, near the Sörnäinen station, but we speak here about a handful of heavy curtains, probably only inches away from an internet induced bankruptcy. Well, I don’t really know, but this is how I imagine them: seldom I see anyone passing thru their doors. Secondly, Kallio feels as safe as the rest of the city, except if the view of overdrunk people convulsing and vomiting in the street scares you.

Thus, my opinion is more that Kallio is just the dive bars and second hand shops kingdom of Helsinki, with a design-willing-to-be-district twist, because a gentrification process is – off course – on the way. It transforms itself a bit on its Eastern margin, somewhat more upscale or trendy with MuCava or Siltanen, or the Southern border, as I’ll post about another day.

But most of time, even the dive bar orientation is quite subtle and might go unnoticed to untrained eyes; except on Saturday or Friday night, when streets are filling up with students looking for a destination dirty and cheap enough for them, mixing with the would-be-arty-or-lefty crowd, and some sections of the working middle class still in the hope of dissolving their last lost dreams in alcohol.

Many of the dirty jointures are regrouped in the North, around Helsinginkatu. They don’t really worth a visit but if you got any curiosity to experiment into this sub-culture, try for example Viva la vida,Vaasankatu 18.

Well, staying fair, those usually sad places can also turn out to be fun on days their visitors are. My opinion is that two bars have more inspiration in the decoration and happen to have “good day” more often than the others : Pulmu, Fleminginkatu 13 and Molotov Bar, Vaasankatu 29. For the drinks, you better stick with a Finnish beer or Jaloviina – the local cognac – if you want to melt with the locals.

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The cosmopolitan normalcy

Today is Friday, and is Siltanen again. How commercial it may be, it’s one of the best atmosphere and music that the city can do, except maybe when Jenny Woo goes crazy … Siltanen and Kuudes Linja are the twin brothers bar and night club, sharing the same building in Kallio, founded by the king of the night of Helsinki. But is it still really Kallio? No, if i got the technicalities of the map correctly, on this side of Hämmentie, begins Sörnäinen, a busy mix of commercial and lower grade living blocks. This partial inclusion into the Kallio scene is figuratively also  evident in Siltanen, which seems to reject the local habits and take most of its inspiration in up-designed-trendy places worldwide.

Personally, I think the bar is a better offer than the club (Kuudes Linja), and ironically, dancing is more comfortable and enjoyable in the former, than the later. Another asset that can make Siltanen lovable – outside of the music off course -is that you might find there more people than usual, just smiling. And trust me – if you leave long enough in Finland – very fast, you will get starved of people smiling around you.

Not much to say about the drinks, except they are fair. Expect the standard lounge drinks, beers, house wines and even caipirinia. My last good note about Siltanen, you can also there enjoy a correct brunch on Sunday.

Heterogeneous dispersion

Last Saturday tour sadly started, again, with a litany of windows, that let us guess the profound emptiness behind them, to even dare try entering. So out of luck, we eventually decided to divert our steps towards the Punavuori main drinking street: Iso Roobertinkatu.

A quick look around and Llamas bar felt like the best choice. Maybe 50 people were sharing this relatively small – no more than 30 square meters – South-American-inspired bar.

Llamas is not without some charms, though the decoration blend too much with the Disney kind of design to say better. Traditional high chairs at the bar have been replaced by swings attached to the ceiling – funny idea but not practical with intoxicated consumers – and it might also be the reason why ordering has been restricted to a small corner at the extremity of it. So inevitably, it means that a queue would form if many people want a Brazilian cocktail  at the same time. No, not a socially good and messy battle at the bar, but a dull organized queue like in a self-service restaurant. A bad idea in general, and even less pardonable for a “Latin” destination.

I ordered a Caipirinha. The good point was the atmosphere:  joyful, chatty and friendly, like too rarely in Helsinki; thanks maybe of the unusual human density of the day. This spirit made its  magic, and easy new friends along.

I prefer off course more packed than less, but at some point, the curve creates only new inconvenients – less moving and a growing queue – with no more fun. So I left Llamas with a newly formed group to mbar, specifically the summer terrace, which is more lounge and less interesting in my opinion than the winter room, but a perfect place to witness how late the sun is now expanding the day in Scandinavia.

Rapture day hangover

Not so much that my brain is knockout after an excess of alcoholic consumption, but the fact that no one ascended at 6pm today to meet the lord in the cloud, is rather shockingly puzzling and gives me headaches. What could have gone wrong? This prediction was so convincing.

Howbeit, I should just go back to my everyday business of thoroughly exploring the great city of Helsinki… Like I mentioned yesterday, my neighborhood – Kallio – recently welcomed the arrival of a new bar: MuCava. Off course, the district doesn’t have a shortage of alcohol licensed premises, quite the opposite, but most of them look a bit the same, a variation somewhere between a low-end pub, a soviet dive bar and a motorway hotel bar. In this perspective, MuCava – which means “nice” in Finnish – looks  like a formidable and promissing avant-garde of the Kallio scene. It is situated on Hämeentie -the big boulevard climbing right after the Hakaniemi market place – in front of Kuudes Linja, the night club that inspired me for the title of this blog.

MuCava is, for now, a bit hidden behind scaffolding, but the owner reassured me that this will be removed soon and moreover, the local authorities granted him the right to have a terrace. The first room of the place is quite small, maybe about 10m3 and the bar itself is filling half of it. I noticed instantly cocktail equipments and a large choice of spirits unlikely in Kallio, probably even larger than Siltanen which was before – as far as i know – the only bar standing apart our local scene. To my inquiry if cocktail were possible, it was answered yes, thus I decided to go for a dry martini. I got the lemon twist variation and, yes, it was very must enjoyable.

If funny how little it needs, to feel at home : contrary to the Finnish usage, I got a bar tab opened, without asking, or that it was even mentioned in the discussion. I’m not sure how this could make a precedent in the Finnish bar culture or if MuCava would be able to follow through on a very busy night, but I very much like the effort.

The decoration is sparse and unpretentious but you can notice a real determination to make the place both comfortable and different. And for big groups or those who would be scared to pack in the small first room, the place has also a larger back room decorated alike.

I am certainly marking this destination in my favorite list and I just hope that its roots in the speakeasy NYC wave will inspired others to do the same.

Rapture day eve

Oh God! I just learned that today is our last – “beyond the shadow of a doubt” –  according to some devout people.

So let’s do the program of our last night. It’s 9pm. In the street, the sun is beaming a soft yellow glow over the majestic Kallio church. It would have been nice to eat a small thing at Lemon grass – the Thai local restaurant around my corner – but they close at 8pm. About food, I often come too late considering the local habit of ending dinner 2 hours before I even start to be hungry. Anyway, the end of the world being so close, I decide to go for the local hamburger chain : Hesburger. They lacked imagination for their name as for their food which is the standard copy-paste of MacDonald. Only two customers. I pay the cheeseburger and leave. My plan is to eat it while enjoying the last moment of sun walking along the Hakaniemen sea arm. Many people have gathered along these shores with picnic and beer. This is a strong selling point of Helsinki. The city is just a patchwork of nature – lakes, sea, forests, parks, fields, real countryside – and not so dense populated areas. 400 meters north of the main central station, you could really feel like outside a big urban center. Note about the cheeseburger : not good, too much white and red sauce, not enough vegetables.

First stop at Gaselli, a professional and dull big place that serve gallons of beer everyday, specially during weekend off course. I just heard some loud live music passing in street and maybe wanted to take my new role as a city critic too seriously. Most of the public is over 40. Men are static – firmly holding their pint of beer – but some women enjoy more the music, dancing and waving at the sky, maybe at the Christmas decoration still hanging above us. I ordered a glass, wrote these lines and moved along after only one sip, unable to stand more the bad music and the bad wine.

Like on sea front, every garden has been taken over by the Finnish youth – more often gothic or unrepentant hard rock looking than the Parisian – drinking steadily from their 24 tins pack – hastily hidden with plastic bag – of Karhu beer. The day has been pure blue indeed, with generous temperatures. It’s not so warm now, probably only in the low tens, but when you support regularly minus 15 in the winter, that feels like spring.

Next stop is Corona Bar. Because it’s a classic and it deserves better than just a mention like two days ago. This huge venue – which has a twist of an art student bar atmosphere – was created by the Kaurismäki brothers. An immense pool room, a 10 meters U bar and a few tables are filling this really down-to-earth place. It’s a safe choice for everyone and I personally like its heterogeneous crowd, the fact that they served toasts anytime and that you may eat and seat at the bar. All these not so common in Helsinki. A few defaults to note though : no Caipirinha yet and some spelling errors on the wine list.

On the way home, I randomly discovered a new bar : MuCava. It is such a good surprise that I will do a special post on it tomorrow. If we are still alive.

A post-traumatic night

It’s the sixth time I visit Helsinki. So i got this original idea: maybe I should really start the blog I always speak about to share my discoveries.

I’m now in the subway – for those who don’t know, there is only one line in Helsinki – towards the center, precisely Kamppi, a not so attractive neighborhood, conglomerate of modern buildings, businesses, hotels, bars, clubs, but also several huge shopping malls, those you would except more in a suburb than in the middle of an European capital.

Later on, walking along Corona Bar, mostly empty, I can feel it’s going to be a very quiet night. Finns won their championship 2 days ago and the little bump of craziness that this victory inspired them, just may be already gone. This is something you have to adjust, coming from a city like Paris. Most of the time, all places look awfully empty.

Leaving behind Loose Bar then MBar confirms my first fear. The city has been literally deserted on this Wednesday night. I remember that once, one local, described Wednesday here, as a little Friday. I just really hope it’s going to be true  except every 15 years or so, when “Suomi” rehabilitate their hangover of a two days ice thing trophy celebration.

If you ever end up looking around like me tonight, I’ll always advise you to enter the Torni Hotel, continue its corridor until the end and turn left before the elevator to visit downstairs the American Bar. It’s a bit old fashioned cocktail bar that really knows how to prepare an Old Fashioned. It may be the oldest cocktail bar of Helsinki, about 80 years, but still one the best. You will probably meet there a few people from the hotel and the local bourgeoisie. It’s not a crazy place, but in any case, drinks are always very good, bartenders welcoming and it will never feel weird to be alone here waiting for the second part of the night.

This time, I’m first choosing a Café Diablo (Sambuco, Grand Marnier and Cognac). It’s served very hot in a wine glass. Well executed but a bit too much an approximation of a real espresso to make it a high mark for my taste. But time to stop blogging because I just engaged in a debate with a Finn – exiled in Geneva back in town for tonight – if Sauna is a distinctive trait of the Finnish culture or not. Already 1am, it’s not going to be a discussion with an easy conclusion, but an Old Fashioned will settle the night before going home.