Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sailboats and granite and trees, oh my!

Two weeks later, and here I am writing in Hirtshals, in northern Jutland in Denmark. It’s been an exciting and exhausting trip: four out of five Nordic capitals in one week’s time span, which provided a very brief tour of Scandinavia between my long stays in Iceland and Denmark. I hadn’t really been expecting much culture shock traveling from Iceland to Scandinavia, but wow – the shock of flying into Stockholm and seeing forests for the first time in twelve weeks! I hadn’t realized how much I had gotten used to only seeing green basalt fields and volcanic mountains everywhere, but I spent the entire first week marveling at the Scandinavian landscape. I had gotten used to telling everyone about how Iceland is completely different from anywhere else in the world, but it didn’t really sink in until I found myself for the first time all summer looking at the tree-lined streets just beginning to turn colors for autumn and granite outcrops along the side of the road and on the Baltic shoreline and even the brick buildings (remember, no clay for bricks in Iceland).

Look – trees on a granite outcrop in Stockholm! And to think I found this mundane while living in New England….

I had also forgotten how small Iceland really is until I left. Stockholm, mind you, has more than six times the population of all of Iceland just in the city, and it certainly shows. Even Reykjavik had seemed rather large to me after spending most of my time in Akureyri and in Vestmannaeyjar, so I was completely overwhelmed to find myself in bustling cities with huge numbers of people (and wearing dressy city clothes too) and riding crowded trams and trains and buses to get around. I felt like such a star-struck country girl, suddenly in the big city and looking around wide-eyed at the tall buildings and all the people and noise and action.

I still haven’t seen most of the “normal” touristy things you’re supposed to do when you go to these cities (I don’t know who makes this list, but it does give me an excuse to go back…) but it has been quite a trip. After flying into Stockholm, still marveling at absolutely everything I passed, I met Nat, Williams-Mystic F’03 at the Vasa Museum (it’s a small world finding WM alumni on my travels, though not so surprising considering that it’s one of the best maritime museums in the world). He was an excellent host and showed me around Stockholm and around the Vasa Museum during my brief twenty-four hours in Sweden. Which was definitely not long enough – the city is gorgeous, and with all the islands spreading out into the Stockholm archipelago, there are lots of beautiful old boats everywhere (ferries, leisure sailboats, even floating bars).

The most exciting thing I saw, though, was the Vasa herself. Absolutely the most impressive wooden ship I’ve ever seen: she was built in the 17th century by the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in the midst of the Thirty Years War as a fancy state-of-the-art warship with an extra deck of canons and decorated with a ton of sculptures, since the ship was also to be a floating embassy. Unfortunately, though, the extra size made the ship decidedly unstable (overlarge and top-heavy) and at the very beginning of her maiden voyage, before she had even gotten through the islands around Stockholm, she keeled over and sank along with much of her crew. So she spent most of her life buried in the mud outside Stockholm until a marine archaeological excavation team found her in the 1950s and brought her back to the surface. Not sure the best way to describe the ship, but she’s huge (couldn't even take a picture of the whole thing), and provided the model for the Flying Dutchman in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (also funny story - a marine architect went to see the set they'd made for the boat in the movie, which was basically a top of a ship on a barge, and said it was really unstable and would flip over and they people on the set were like, but we designed it based on a real ship, and the architect said, yeah, what ship?, and when the guy told him it was the Vasa, he was like yeah, know what happened to that ship...?).

Here’s my best attempt to show how large and impressive she is in person:

And to get a sense of how decorative she is, here’s the stern, completely adorned with wooden sculptures:

For a really good tour of the Vasa, though (even more than what I got to see), check out Nat’s tour-by-blog.

To get from Stockholm to Helsinki after my brief stop in Sweden, I took the ferry, which was an experience in itself. Normally when I think of a ferry, I think of a basic functional boat, like Herjolfur, the ferry between Vestmannaeyjar and mainland Iceland, or the Nantucket ferry or the old Long Island side-wheel steamers from the late nineteenth century. The Viking Line’s Gabriella, however, is a 10-deck luxury cruise ship, complete with a nightclub, multiple restaurants, tax-free shopping, and even an onboard sauna. Lots of people (including a number of heavily intoxicated Finns I met onboard), it turns out, take the ferry two nights in a row across the Baltic and back as a sort of weekend outing where the purpose is to enjoy the tax-free alcohol rather than actually to get anywhere. Much like a trip to Las Vegas, this cruise ship experience was something I’m glad to have seen once, but definitely don’t need to repeat. It did turn out to be a nice trip, though, because from the top deck of this behemoth of a ship provided an excellent view of the Stockholm archipelago as we were leaving and of Helsinki as we arrived in the morning.

Here’s the behemoth of a ship herself, dwarfing the city of Helsinki.

The view of the Stockholm waterfront – the main cityscape…

…the island of Djurgården, where the Vasa Museum is located, also with an amusement park and cleverly-decorated giraffe construction cranes…

…and sunset over the archipelago as we sailed across the Baltic.

Then the next morning, I could see the Suomenlinna sea fortress, built in the 18th century while Finland was ruled by Sweden. This is also one of the surprising number of places in the city that I recognized from my first trip to Helsinki nine years ago, which strangely enough, was also for an international environmental conference.

As we pulled into the harbor, I had an excellent view of the waterfront, some of which I also remembered from my prior visit way-back-when…

…and of the Marina Congress Center, where I spent four days hanging out with the fisheries nerds.

I spent most of my time in Helsinki at the ICES conference, where I got a general feel both for some of the current research in fisheries science and fisheries management in the North Atlantic and for the procedural process (i.e. mess) of generating scientific advice on the fish stocks of the North Atlantic. The EU formally asks for ICES to provide advice that is then theoretically the scientific basis for European fisheries management, and this whole process of getting all the scientists from twenty different countries together to generate advice – before even getting to the process of then making policy for all these countries – makes Iceland seem very, very simple. I know I will be able to spend the next six months trying to decipher the European Common Fisheries policy and how it as applied, but I think I could spend a lifetime trying to figure it out.

ICES is also currently going through some major structural changes in how it structures its various committees (each with a different name that is mostly informative once you know something about the system, despite the fact that they are bantered around as if there should be an inherent difference between a “committee” and a “program” or an “expert group”), ultimately aimed at creating a structure that can accommodate the ongoing shift from single-stock species-based management to ecosystem-based management, including integration of non-science disciplines. In general, this seems like a good idea, but I was frankly far over my head in trying to decipher the bureaucratic structure of the organization and the political and procedural framework in which it works. I wasn’t quite clear by the end of the meeting what ICES actually sees as its purpose for existing – some combination of providing advice on fish stocks, creating a forum for international dialogue and cooperation in science and management, and promoting and guiding further research in marine science – but beyond the hazy boundaries, I couldn’t quite figure out what is and is not considered within the scope of ICES. This is probably partly the fault of my ignorance of organizational history and details, but I also suspect that it has something to do with confusion within the organization itself. I was curious, for instance, why ICES seems so dominantly focused of fisheries biology without incorporating all the other aspects of an ecosystem that should tie into ecosystem-based management (for instance, why shouldn’t the research I did last year on water chemistry in the bioluminescent bays of Vieques be relevant to “exploration of the seas”?). It seems like ICES does interdisciplinary, applicable science better than most organizations I’ve come across, but there is still most certainly room for expansion and improved integration across disciplines, both within the sciences and into relevant fields in history, economics, sociology, anthropology, etc.

Here are 650 fisheries nerds at the opening session, where we heard speeches from both the President of Finland and the Mayor of Helsinki. Yup, Finland cares about its fisheries so much that the president came to talk to us and the mayor invited us to a fancy evening reception at city hall and even shook my hand on the way in.

It wasn’t all work though – I also had time to see the city a bit, both some exploring, and lovely walks from the hostel where I was staying (in the old Olympic Stadium from 1952) to the conference center.

The Olympic Stadium, with a tall tower easy to see from all across town.
Also conveniently located near a very nice sauna and Olympic-size swimming pool, which I of course had to try one night before leaving. And the Finns are right – Icelandic sauna just doesn’t compare with the saunas in Finland (though only in Finland do they ban swimsuits from the sauna).

I also happened across a Finnish military marching band, which traveled 50 kilometers from the base to an area on the outskirts of downtown Helsinki to perform a birthday concert for a man who apparently used to have some sort of important connection with the government/military and also is apparently the richest man in Finland. Pretty nifty birthday present, a marching band coming to perform right on the street outside your house…I guess these are the benefits of being rich and famous.

Also, can you tell the theme I found among the statues all across Helsinki?

I kept laughing out loud each time I saw one of these statues looking regal and statuesque with a bird nonchalantly perched atop.

So that was my brief introduction to Scandinavia – maybe not what the average tourist tends to see, but I think a good introduction nonetheless. From Helsinki, I flew to Copenhagen, where I spent just a few days – enough time to acquire my visa (finally!) from the Immigration Service office, spend Yom Kippur (Jom Kippur in Danish transliteration) at the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen (fairly different from what I’m used to at home, though I recognized a lot of the Ashkenazi melodies and I met some really wonderful people who told me some more about the Jewish community in Denmark beyond what I remembered from Lowis Lowry’s Number the Stars), and take a day to see what I could of the city before heading north. Copenhagen is really a gorgeous city, also profoundly maritime much like Stockholm – I’ll definitely have to spend more time there before I leave Denmark, but I was glad to have the chance to walk around the city in the early autumn weather (it feels so warm here! This is the furthest south I’ve been since the end of June, and it shows). I caught up on my touristy activities by going to see the Little Mermaid statue by the harbor (the original pre-Disney version of the story was written by Hans Christian Anderson, probably the Danish author I know best), one of the most inexplicably popular tourist attractions I’ve ever come across…

…watched the changing of the guard at the royal palace…

…and took a canal tour all around city from Nyhavn, a gorgeous (though now rather gentrified) port area lined with beautiful wooden sailing boats.

I was sorely tempted to leave off the fish for a while and see if someone would let me work on one of these gorgeous boats. But I suppose there’ll be plenty of time starting next summer for me to play around on boats.

So now I’m at the North Sea Centre in Hirtshals, a full quarter of the way through my year’s travels and just beginning the next stage of my adventure here in Denmark.

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