Thursday, April 29, 2010

I hope it rains on Vappu

"I wish it would rain on Vappu". The doctor said to me.

I was surprised. Granted, she made me wait even though I turned up in time. But the face of the girl who left the consulting room made me realize that sometimes good doctors have to run behind schedule for a reason.

For a person afraid of medical procedures, I have always had great times with all my doctors. Many of my close friends are doctors, and I was lucky enough to be treated by some good doctors since my childhood. The doctor, indeed, was not the average Finnish person you would meet on the street. For one thing, she smiled, even on a miserable rainy afternoon.

Throughout the checkup and the procedures, we bonded. We both joked about the weather, we both asked about our cities of origin, we both drew maps of our countries in little post-it notes to show it to each other. And as always at this time of the year, the discussion turned to Vappu.

I wish it would rain on Vappu.

Seeing my mouth hanging open at her comment, she explained further. "Do you know how many kids are found on the streets each year, just children, thirteen or fourteen years old; unconscious and sometimes not even knowing their own names, children who get only their things stolen from - if they are lucky."

"So every year near Vappu, I hope for the rains so that the kids stay home and get drunk, and then they are passed out in their own home or in their friend's home, not in the streets waiting for police and volunteers to carry them into the first aid posts and sometimes into the hospital. "

"I have heard stories, and it is not pretty."

I did not ask her if she was a mother herself, but what difference did it make? She obviously cared for the kids who she had never met, and possibly never will.

So this Vappu if it indeed rains, I will not feel too badly about it. Instead I will be thinking about the doctor who has seen enough to wish for the rains.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Notes from Berlin - III The SS Art Camp

If buildings had a religion, they all would be Hindus. After certain eras, many of them get reborn - some undergo a step down to ruins, while others step up their standing - the Musee d Orsay is a great example. What was once an old railway station has now become this:

Not too shabby, especially if you house some great works of Degas and Monet, among others. However, the one building that really did the turnaround in it's lifetimes is this squatter house is Berlin. The building was one of the old SS offices which stored a lot of documents on how SS systematically wiped out entire families and communities in many parts of Europe.

So, when the Allies won the war, the SS flooded their basement where all the war crime records were kept. I doubt if the documents themselves were called war crime journals though, they might have originally called them 'Glorious Examples of Supreme Race's Ingenuity' or something. However, given that the entire basement was flooded the Allies sealed the basement when they found they could not salvage the documents. The building was left as a ghostly reminder of a past that was both horrifying and shameful.

That was when the artists and squatter groups started moving in. Now this place does not have an inch of space without some kind of graphics on it. People live, work and sell their works here. There are also plans to turn this into an open air movie theater.

Just because your past was shitty does not mean that you cannot have a fun filled future.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lena come back

A city lives through the stories that it's streets tell about them. And in these days, street art ( or graffiti ) is the picture book which illustrate these stories.

I usually like to discover a city on my own, armed with enough reading material to start a traveling library. However, graffiti is not considered as a legitimate art form in many places, so when I heard of a free tour around Berlin which would be focused on street art, I had to sign up.

The tour was lead by a Londoner who stepped straight out of the pages of a Neil Gaiman book and his trusty dog.

And the group that gathered around them consisted of people as different and similar as a group of graffiti lovers could be. Among them were people I would meet again, and have a good time with, but I did not know that then.

So it was our guide who told us the story of Lena. See the pretty girl in the picture below? That is her, and this is her story.

The paintings of Lena appeared on the walls of Berlin one day, all with the same plaintive message "Lena, come back. I miss you." Unrequited love is an all too common and all too terrible thing, so many in the city sympathized with him. As the number of paintings across the city grew, the messages along with them also grew in their sense of loss. As the artist began to tell Lena that he would do everything, anything, to be back with her, the city waited with bated breath.

If you are a romantic who has experienced unrequited love, you would not have been able to stand these messages follow you around the city, whatever you plan to do, wherever you plan to go. So, in a sense of kinship, other people started to put out their own street posters, asking Lena to forgive the artist and go back to him.

If you have a heart, then being on the receiving end of a love that you do not reciprocate can be a terrible thing. Those who have experienced it thought back to their own experiences of the dark side of love, and rallied behind this girl they have never met with counter messages.

"Lena, do not go back to him. It is not going to change" and "Lena, are you safe, if in trouble, call xxx-xxxxxx" with their phone numbers in the posters. Lena became the friend, sister and daughter of people whom she had never met. Women who look like Lena were reported to be seen in different parts of the city. The city was on alert : one half to find her, the other half to shield Lena.

The Berlin radio station picked up the story and one of the RJs invited the artist to make his plea mainstream via his radio channel. However, it turned out to be more shocking than anyone expected it to be.

That day on air, the artist told the world the truth. There was/is no Lena. She was a figment of his imagination, an inanimate piece in his project to check how Berliners would react to a plea of love.

So, if you missed out on the love of your life in Berlin, do not put out posters asking her to get in touch with you. The city is going to shrug it's shoulders and move on, still in shock from the fact that Lena was not real.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Notes from Berlin - I

First bird call, first fresh green blades of grass, first shoots on a tree. I was getting tired of waiting for them in Finland and went to Berlin, Dresden and Prague in search of them during the first week of April. It was in a way, a temporary eloping with myself, away from the cold, grey skies and the dirty snow that became a fixture of Helsinki.

My birthday was just two weeks back, so a dear friend gifted me a moleskin notebook. For the first time in my travels, I stared to capture my journey not just in pictures, but also in words. A picture can show what you saw on the road, but being on the road is also an intensely intrinsic experience when you pause and reflect on the life left behind.

It has taken me more than two weeks to get to the little notebook with the furiously scrawled notes, but I will be transcribing them to the blog, to take them from my head and to put them away somewhere. So, in the order of random musings, here goes:

The Brand

Confession time : I have always felt like I have been to a Starbucks thanks to the many web-comics, tv series and web series that I faithfully follow. But I had never been to one, and when I saw one in Berlin ( derisively referred to as Starfucks by a local guide map to a walking tour ) I had to go inside.

The inside was not an architectural or design marvel. I have been to coffee-shops which were designed with much more love and whimsy, and I have seen food which had looked more mouth watering. I am not a coffee person, so I decided to order a tea from the counter. Tea in hand, I moved to a spot of sunshine in front of the coffeehouse. All around me, hipsters typed on, into their mac books, iPhones and even a few iPads; some of them even willing to rebel within their hipster identity by using HP touch-pads or Sony Wios. The place was intellectually snobbish. I found a free table, and sat down there, inhaling the second hand smoke that was liberally distributed by my coffee-table neighbors. Starbucks was exactly the way it was parodied to be.

Halfway through my tea, I realized that I was using my moleskin notebook in a way as to show off the fact that I am using it than actually trying to use it in a good way, and that I have been a little too careful with my placement of Bad Science, on my table. I had morphed into a little intellectual snob. I finished writing, made eye contact with the hard smoking guys sitting and typing away at a Mac at the next table, reciprocated their tight smiles and felt relief at the sense of belonging. I fit in. I can fake it at a hipster hangout.

The power of branding is very very subtle and very very strong, at the same time.