Monday, December 31, 2012


A fellow blogger was asked by a 9-year-old what he would do if he was the President of Estonia.

Some time ago I was asked something similar, in a more serious way, by a fully grown-up and politically aware Indonesian. 

My answer was: Legalize all forms of stem cell research in Estonia. I think it would be a perfectly Estonian move, in the vein of the cultural legend that is "nobody ever told them it couldn't be done, so they went and did it". The opposition to stem cell research and human cloning is pretty much exclusively *moral*. Leave morality to the rest of the world, while the least religious country on the planet cashes in on every major pharma entity sending their best researchers here. (Pass a supplementary law requiring anyone with a PhD to do 10 hours a week community service at local universities.)

Happy Holidays etc.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

WestCoastTrip: Barcelona

There are not many cities where I want to come back.

My greatest extravagance is experience, and the only thing on which I spend money with no hope of ever getting it back is travel. My kind of travel is unusual and, by necessity, almost always solitary. To travel fast, and to travel on rare cheap deals, requires the ability to decide immediately and to decide only for myself. I don’t expect I will always have the freedom (and the disposable income) to travel like this; I also don’t take cheap, ubiquitous, fast long-range travel for granted. We may never run out of usable fuel (and possibly not even fossil fuel within my lifetime), but airlines can go bankrupt, I can lose my income, and to be perfectly honest, I just don’t have enough vacation time to travel as much as I would like. So until I’ve seen every place I want to see in my life, I do my best to avoid backtracking.

Barcelona is an exception.
Columbus pointing at Travelcat.

The early-morning shuttle service takes me from my hotel straight to Budapest airport, where the WiFi is good enough to stock up on entertainment. The Malev jet takes a relatively short hop across the Mediterranean to deposit me in the Catalan capital’s airport, and I grab the bus into town. The ride along the Spanish hills is beautiful, but once we reach the city, the traffic gets very bad very quickly. An annoying amount of time later (but still early in the day), I’m at Placa Catalunya, the main hub of touristy Barcelona, with my netbook out, trying to figure out what the address, phone number and actual location of my AirBNB host is. Even at the tail end of September, Barcelona is crawling with tourists, and hotels were prohibitively expensive – but AirBNB came through, and I got a cheap, very simple room in an excellent location. A five-minute walk away, I find the right door just off a jeweler’s shop. It’s a lot of stairs to the apartment, but I politely refuse the host’s help: the imperative to always haul my bags up to the room myself is a great motivation to avoid over-packing. Neither am I disappointed with the fact that my window opens onto an air shaft: this city does not sleep when I would sleep, and I didn’t come to Barcelona to look at it out of a window.

I start at La Rambla, the main tourist street, after passing a New Rock Boots showroom (not as cool in real life as they are on the company website; my best choice for skull-stomping boots remains the home brand Aipi). It is the one bit of Barcelona that I remember well from my last visit – a few brief stopovers during a package holiday spent mostly at Calella, one of a string of beach towns all along the Catalan coast. It was four years prior, almost to the day. A few months after my surgery, once I’d already lost a whole lot of weight, I got kicked out of the office on a three-week holiday that the company was tired of keeping on the books; so I went online and booked the trip that filled the time as much as possible. Through a bit of poor foresight, I ended up on a bus ride from Tallinn to Barcelona – four days each way. It was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience, in an “I won’t be doing that again in this lifetime” way. But Catalonia was worth the return.

On the other side of La Rambla, I pass the Christopher Columbus statue and walk across the series of ultramodern bridges to the shopping mall on a pier on the middle of the bay. It wasn’t here the last time I came, and while I admire the architecture, I don’t hang around – I am much more interested in the nearby Barcelonita quarter, and the beginning of the city’s beach. I make a note of the Frank Gehry Fish in the distance, then backtrack to the subway. It’s high noon, and I’m determined to tick off a great world church.
I’d only seen the Sagrada Familia from the outside, and very briefly, on my last visit. It’s progressed a lot in the meantime, and I take my time. I don’t have the background or the vocabulary to accurately describe the impression of that structure, particularly stunning because of its location in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable housing ward. More than any other religious structure, it is testament not to the power of a deity but to the power of mankind, of imagination, perseverance, and beauty. Despite the overt Christian symbology, God is the last thing you wonder at in that building.

I spend another couple of hours walking along the streets of Barcelona, picking a destination at random and not being too disappointed when the grounds of the old mental hospital turn out to be sealed off. I return to the apartment, and soon set out for dinner. I start out along the Rambla Raval – a smaller, more authentic neighborhood version of the ubiquitous Spanish pedestrian promenade, complete with a tenement building taken over by hippies and covered in counterculture slogans. I keep walking, consulting my guidebook, until I get to a particularly recommended (but not particularly expensive) restaurant and tick off another Barcelona checkpoint by having some truly outstanding paella.

I’ve got a long day ahead of me tomorrow.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

WestCoastTrip: Kaiserlich und Königlich

On my second day, I set out along the Danube to the Parliament, to book a tour. It is the grandest building in Budapest, in all of Hungary, and quite possibly in all of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; built to reinforce the nation’s sense of self-worth, as part of the millennial celebrations of 1896. The notional beginning of Hungarian statehood is not pinned down quite that exactly, but it seemed like a good year to start. The number 96 is all over Budapest, not unlike SPQR in Rome or the triple saltire in Amsterdam. Both the parliament and the cathedral have spires exactly 96 meters tall, but while the city’s main church is seldom empty, the administrative palace is far too big for the independent nation – apparently, only a quarter of the floor space is in use today. But guided tours are free for EU citizens, a blessing bestowed by Brussels’ demand that all Europeans be treated the same as Hungarians within the new empire, which is distinct from the old one by virtue of being democratic, but is quite loose and culturally diverse – much like the old one was by the time of Budapest’s grand celebration. The tours are quite popular though, and I only get a booking for a few hours later.

It took me this long to get around to posting a vanity photo.

I spend the time exploring the old quarter of Pest – not really that old by Hanseatic standards, but as pretty as any Habsburg treasure. I walk past unusual bronze memorials – empty shoes on the embankment to remember the Holocaust victims, a kindly man on a tiny bridge representing the latter-day saint of Hungarian individualism under Communist rule. I end up in a square where several roads meet in a congregation of houses by a famous architect, and nearby is the fenced-off monstrosity of the American embassy. Decades ago, a venerable elder cleric was holed up in the building, unable or unwilling to be smuggled out, escaping the heathen regime’s persecution on US diplomatic soil but remaining within his homeland. I don’t know how much of a fortress the embassy building was during the Cold War, but it must not have looked as besieged as it does today, with its bomb-proof barriers and metal fencing restricting the adjacent streets; the Communists would certainly not have allowed any visible disturbance by the embassy’s walls.

Still pretty enough in the daytime.

I circle the compound to find something altogether more agreeable, a smattering of art nouveau treasures that Hundertwasser himself would be proud of, some of their roofs tiled in uniquely Hungarian colorful ceramic. I drop into a well-concealed market building – not as big as the main market grounds near my hotel, meant to serve the surrounding community only, and now half-empty with a lot of business lost to peripheral supermarkets – and grab a thick, sweet poppyseed pie for a snack; the confectionary tradition of Hungary definitely shares a lot with that of Turkey, though to my later disappointment, their sour cherry juice is nowhere near as good as the stuff I could get in any convenience shop in Istanbul.

I walk back to the cathedral, free and open to tourists, with a massive plaza leading out to a pedestrian street with another random bronze sculpture; touristy restaurants all the way down to the riverside.
I take the tour of the Parliament, and gawk appropriately at the imperial (or is it royal?) finery, see the Hungarian crown jewels with their crooked cross, and the chamber of the actual national assembly – one of the lesser rooms according to the original building plan.

There’s plenty of daylight left, so I head down Budapest’s other axis, this one man-made for the same millennial celebrations: Andrassi Boulevard, starting in the center and terminating at a massive park with plenty of attractions, the main one being the public baths. It’s a fairly long way, and to make sure the public would make it out to the celebration grounds on the far end, Budapest constructed the first ever subway line in continental Europe – and the second one in the world, only very slightly younger than London’s. And while there’s barely a trace of finery at Baker Street Station, Line 1 of the Budapest metro retains its turn of the century charm, its tiny wooden carriages and barely submerged stations an enormous contrast to the ugliness of the other two lines. 

But I walk instead. With a couple of detours into an architecturally imposing bookshop and an alley of restaurants, I follow Andrassy (pronounced as you’d think, which is rare for Hungarian names) as it mutates from a shopping street to a giant interchange where it meets the center’s outer ring, to a quiet boulevard of embassies set back from the sidewalk.

Ferencz Liszt, who apparently kept a chicken on his head to stimulate creativity.
I reach the outskirts of the park, grab an ice cream and marvel at the statues of historically important Huns. Deeper into the park, there is a memorial to George Washington, and a number of eclectic architectural follies that were intended as temporary entertainment for 1896, but were so beloved by the people that they were kept around. I smirk condescendingly at the faux medieval castle – where I come from, we have plenty of the real thing – and genuinely admire the memorial to Anonymous (not that one, but spiritually similar). Eventually, I get to the Szecheny baths; something that every visitor to Budapest absolutely has to try – but not today. The baths are not going anywhere, and I shall be back.

For now, I take the charming retro-metro back downtown. The tram takes me to the main market building, where I grab a Hungarian specialty, the foie gras; I freshen up at the hotel and head out again, to check out the synagogue and the nearby region of dive bars - a repurposed, central but initially run-down area of cheap housing for artistic types.

Eventually I end up on Vaci utca, the touristy nightlife strip. Nothing particularly alluring there, but I find a decent-looking restaurant with a reasonably priced special of Hungarian specialties: goulash (which means something entirely different inside Hungary than it does outside), chicken paprika, and a pancake. I end the day people-watching at the plaza where Line 1 begins. It’s time to leave Budapest for a while.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

WestCoastTrip: Welcome to Budapest

After a night in a hostel’s dorm bed and an early-morning slog to the bus station, the Malev jet gets me to Budapest in the early afternoon. I don’t know very much about Budapest, other than a vague historic background, the fact that it’s two cities separated by a river, and that one of the cities is hilly. The one cultural experience I’ve had of it beforehand is a movie about Budapest’s subway ticket checkers, which does not paint a pretty picture of that metropolis’s underground system. My first experience with Budapest supports that impression. I opt for public transport to reach the city itself, but while the airport’s international terminal is new and impressive, it doesn’t have a direct rail connection yet; there’s a local bus connecting it to the end of the subway terminal. I try the ticket machines, but they won’t accept my forints; the bus driver won’t take my money either, which is a plus. On the minus side, the old bus meanders down the highway and spits me out in a marketplace right out of Tallinn’s difficult Nineties. The unsightly, graffitied communist-era train carries me to the outer edges of the old imperial city and my hotel.

There is a word for both Budapest and Vienna; I haven’t been to Prague, so I don’t know if it applies to the third Hapsburg capital, but it certainly does to every other major city of that domain. You can still see references to it on old buildings: K+K, Kaiserlich und Königlich. “Imperial and Royal” refers to the notion that the monarch ruled at once as the emperor of Austria, and the king of Hungary; it is an artifact of the unusual political arrangement that followed the realization that the metaphorical Huns could no longer effectively govern their lands without the stakeholding involvement of the self-proclaimed ones. It is that period of Hungary’s greatest significance and prosperity that dominates the center of Budapest, and I get a strong dose of K+K glory as I exit the subway station at the intersection of the outer boulevard ring and a major urban artery. The traffic intersection is absolutely massive. The Hapsburgs pioneered this architecture in Vienna for the purposes of controlling rebellions – giving the mob a nice wide road to charge down, into the face of cannon fire. In Budapest, this aesthetic – perhaps reinforced by the Communist penchant for monumental civic works – was taken to the extreme. These are not the broad freeways of LA, designed with traffic flow in mind; first and foremost, these streets were built to impress.

I drop off my bags at a cheap hotel, cringe at the smell of smoke in my room, and head back out. I woke up early that morning, with a beer headache, and didn’t care for the hostel’s communal shower; but Budapest beckoned, so I throw on a black shirt over my slept-in T-shirt and go down to the Danube.

The massive river impresses. I walk along the embankment, north from the last of the downtown bridges described in my guidebook – a Rick Steves one, which I had never tried before (but I’d been burned a few times already by terrible Lonely Planet and Rough Guides ones). I check the map to build a sequence of interesting spots that I want to see, and soon cross a bridge to one of Budapest’s lesser-known but more impressive landmarks: the Church in the Rock. Built literally into the side of a steep Buda mountain, it served as a refuge for the country’s clerics in the Second World War, among other things.

I love churches, despite being an atheist – they are frequently the expression of an era and a community’s greatest enduring achievements. I’ve been to two of the top three Catholic cathedrals in the world (St. Peters in Rome and St. Johns in New York – the other one is in Cote D’Ivoire, which will have to wait), but the Church in the Rock is one of the most literally impressive ones I’d ever visited. It’s the one I remember.

Instead of heading back to the hotel for a shower, I decide to press on, into the Buda hills. Drenched in sweat, I take the steepest paths up from river-level to the Lady with the Bottle Opener – a monument right next to a massive fortress overlooking the city. The Citadel itself costs money to enter; I don’t bother – the beauty is in the view. I go down the other side of the hill and up again, follow my guidebook for a quick run through the grounds of the royal palace, and reach the blessed cool of another unusual attraction – the Hospital in the Rock. This was another WWII sanctuary, a working hospital this time, and now a museum showing the equipment of the age. The medical technology available to German troops so long ago is impressive, but it’s always a bit weird to learn about the struggles of the people who were on the losing side of that war. I may share the Hungarians’ historic dislike of the Soviets, but there’s no doubt that the Nazis were the bad guys in the conflict. The Buda hills were the last part of the city to fall to the Red Army, after a long siege, and things got pretty bad down there in the hospital.

Travelcat in Budapest

I cross the hill again and go down through the Fishermen’s Gate. Checking the guidebook, I go for dinner at a legendary but non-fancy local eatery, with an unpronounceable name that translates as Grandma’s Pancakes. It is cheap and delicious, and to my delight, the staff does not speak English and is not bothered by that. This may be a Nordic bias, but the most surprising thing about Hungary to me was the fact that in this large country that is definitely oriented towards Europe, would be very upset if you thought of it as Balkan, and wants very little to do with the resurgence of Turkey, hardly anybody speaks English. Outside the most obvious tourist traps, this society is remarkably self-contained.

By the time I get out of the café, it is dark – and I instantly encounter the remarkable sight of the Hungarian Parliament at night. Viewed in full illumination from across the river, it is a sight that can challenge any famous urban landscape you care to name, and have a very good chance of winning.

I walk back along the embankment, on the Pest side, stopping to take pictures along the way – including the obligatory shot of one of the central bridges, so iconic that even on a Tuesday evening, there is an encampment of shutterbugs in the traffic island at its one end, tripods and all. The cities of Buda and Pest have been here for a very long time, and the importance of the Danube as a trade route has kept them busy – but for the longest time, there were no bridges at all. You could cross by boat in the summer, or walk or ride across the ice in the winter, but there were still long periods when the two sides were effectively isolated. It was not until fairly recently that a Hungarian noble prince, stranded on the wrong side and unable to get to his dying father’s bedside, took up a collection and erected the first permanent span. 

Since then, Budapest’s bridges have joined its castles as tributes to the nation’s grandeur. These are the most Kaiserlich and Königlich bridges you’re likely to find.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

WestCoastTrip: Prologue

The trick to having an adventure is to rush into it.

This adventure did not begin with the shot of a starting pistol, and it did not begin with me telling anyone “well, I’m off”. It began with another, smaller adventure – two days volunteering for a youth culture festival, while a friend from abroad visited. On the Saturday, after the day’s event schedule was done, I took Tom to Tartu’s most popular student bar for the open mic night of our comedy circuit. After my set, fueled by the performer’s free gin and tonics, we went back to the festival afterparty where I’d promised to help run the drinks station, and stopped over for a greasy late-night burger on the way. The club was full of young people who came there to be weird. Tom enjoyed the night a lot. I enjoyed it a whole lot more. The party ran out of alcohol that night.

The second day is something of a haze; I know that I did not take Tom out drinking on Sunday night. We were on the early morning bus to Tallinn, first thing on Monday morning, and I still needed to pack. And sleep.

Tom’s flight back to London was not until later in the day, so I texted him that it wasn’t a big deal for him to wake up for the 7am bus, but he made it anyway. I was catching the fast ferry across the bay a couple of hours after him, but before that, I had a business meeting in an office park far from central Tallinn. I was carrying my bags, with all the stuff I’d need for the next month, across many time zones, climates and terrains; and to my dismay, there were no left-luggage lockers anywhere in the center of town. I ended up installing Tom in a WiFi-enabled coffee shop, where he happily drank those sugary, creamy, vaguely coffee-based beverages that he’s come to love for their sheer New Europe un-self-consciousness (a welcome change from socially obsessive London), while I took the electric bus out to Kadaka. The meeting did not result in anything useful, other than experience; they might have wanted to talk to me again, but I would be unavailable for an entire month.

The adventure was, in this form, an accident. I’d accumulated enough vacation time to have a proper big one; the original idea was to see the Far East. I’d been to Hong Kong and Singapore before, and found them quite fascinating. In the spring of 2011, I was going to fly to Seoul, spend two weeks in Korea (including a few days with an acquaintance in Busan), then take the ferry over to Japan for two weeks there. Not long before my trip, the tsunami and Fukushima disaster happened. I almost still went, but it did not seem to be a good time to visit Japan. Those events would give me an important experience later – but that’s not part of this story.

As my travel insurance paid off, I had both the spare time and the spare cash to jump onto a good offer when I saw one. I did not originally intend to go back to the US – I’d been there two years before, close to two weeks spent in NYC and then staying with a friend near Washington D.C. Since I’d been in California before that, for an entire month, back in the summer of 2003 (and on my employer’s dime), America was not my first choice; but then there came an offer I could not refuse. American Airlines was starting a new direct route to Budapest, and was offering an incredible deal: several destinations in the US, plus three whole destinations on their alliance partner’s network in Europe, all on the same ticket. It was only available for a single day, until Malev, the Hungarian national carrier, woke up to what AA was actually asking of them, and for how much money; but I acted fast enough to secure a huge round trip for a mere 530 euros. Helsinki to Budapest (where I hadn’t been before) to Barcelona (which I’d wanted to visit again) back to Budapest, to NYC (never dull) to Los Angeles (which I’d only ever briefly driven through); and back from Seattle (removed enough for an adventure), connecting through NYC and back to Budapest, then to Helsinki again. I’d be paying a bit more for the ferries and other travel arrangements, but it was still an amazing deal.
The most expensive and difficult part would be getting from LA to Seattle via all the places I’d wanted to visit. I really wanted to use trains as much as I could, but even on the West Coast, which is heavily populated in the south and very civically minded in the north, the Amtrak service appeared to be abysmal. I didn’t fancy the Greyhound buses, so I convinced myself that it was worth renting a car.

I came back to central Tallinn and found Tom in good spirits, even more so when I showed him the Depeche Mode bar (closed on a Monday morning, unfortunately – but he’d come back for it, and bring his DM-loving friends). Between the aggravation of carting around my bags on public transport, and the potential cost of cabs, this was actually the perfect use case for the Minirent service, which had started up in Tallinn just before then. I could have picked up a bright-green Prius at the bus station, left my bags in it for the meeting at Mustamäe, dropped my friend off at the airport, then driven to the ferry terminal and left it there, and it would not have been that expensive. But I was about to spend a lot of money on more than just convenience. I was going to have an experience.

The hydrofoil took me across the first (theoretical) border; from a sunny, crisp late-September afternoon in Tallinn, to an absolutely dreary evening in Helsinki. For me, that city has always been a source of disappointment (for both architectural and personal reasons) and a sense of urban discomfort and uselessness that I’d rarely felt before outside of Brussels. Never mind; I was only here because my flight was early in the morning. I’d originally been meant to take the double-espresso pondhopper from Tallinn to Helsinki-Vantaa, but in the meantime, Finncom Airlines had decided it didn’t feel like flying to Estonia anymore; so there wasn’t an early bird option. I’d have to spend the night in a Helsinki hotel, and just to get some use out of those 26 euros, I had talked my way into a guest spot at a comedy show.

Not that it was anything fancy. I’d done a regular comedy club in Helsinki before, and done well; but what was available on that night was the locals’ new material/open mic night. Where Comedy Estonia had the benefit of novelty and a supportive enthusiastic fan base, in Helsinki there was nothing new or exciting about standup, not even in English. So the show, despite featuring some big local names, was in one half of a glass-fronted coffee shop in an alley just off a strip mall on Mannerheim Road. It certainly had the benefit of being as central as Helsinki gets, but nobody in the bar was there to see comedy; they were just there to get drunk on a Monday night. I don’t remember much of my five-minute set, but I do remember getting the stone-faced crowd to smirk at least a couple of times, and on the night, I considered that a win. I also remember taking the piss out of the big-name local: “I’ve been told that Tomi Walamies’s  face has recently appeared on a bus… I thought Tomi’s face was a bus!” You may understand why I don’t do standup any more.

I stayed in the bar, surfing on their WiFi until I ran out of drinks tickets that the promoter was handing out to the performers (more than fair, since nobody in the audience had actually paid to get in) – I was the only one with nothing better to do on a Monday night than to load up on Lapin Kulta – and went back to the scandalously over-priced hostel for my alarm to wake me up just in time for the first coach to Vantaa.


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