Orient Express From Eastern Helsinki (and Eastern Europe) with LOVE

SOLIDARITY, PAVLOVA AND STREET FOOD IN GDANSK

  • Cityspace kayaking in Gdansk
    Cityspace kayaking in Gdansk
  • Old town Gdansk, the owl of Minerva and Abhinavagupta
    Old town Gdansk, the owl of Minerva and Abhinavagupta
  • Me at Schopenhauer's birth house
    Me at Schopenhauer's birth house
  • Sopot
    Sopot

A visit which begins with a stunning pavlova can’t go wrong. I spent two days (16-18.9) in Gdansk, a discordant cocktail of cranes, harbor buildings and cute bourgeois architecture (houses which look like cakes) – and I am still thankful for the decadent waitress who insisted that I’d take whipped cream with strawberries and meringue for breakfast the morning I arrived.

 

The Gdansk of my childhood was a cluster of televisual images of workers in the harbor. Together with the word 'solidarity' (the name of their movement), they remained iconic throughout the 1980s and early 1990s as the crisis of socialism matured.

 

Now, after my first visit to Gdansk the name of the city is not anymore the top of an iceberg of political affects. It stands for a cluster of memories of charming small houses, restaurants, breweries and relaxed urban culture – the same moderate Disneyland that you find in all semi-touristified Northern and Central European cities. I am not cynical about it. I like it. And Gdansk is, in this respect, better than the average. It is not totally bourgeois, but expresses a bit of a working class atmosphere too. Kitsch exists, but it does not win. It is easier to breathe.

 

My two days in this Polish seaside city were due to my coordination work for the Nordic Summer University and its study circle Appearances of the Political, which I have since February 2015 been running together with Danish philosopher Carsten Friberg and partly also with the Helsinki-based artist and thinker Raine Vasquez.

 

Although we had some really exhausting meetings – the coordinators, together with the board, run the administration of this third sector organization – there was time to hang out in the relatively lively city of Günter Grass, Arthur Schopenhauer and Fahrenheit. (Gdansk was for long dominantly German, and it was called Danzig.) Schopenhauer’s birth house raised some eyebrows, as it was so cute. It did not look as depressing as his philosophy. (See pic 3.)

 

I was so busy before my travel that I did not study thoroughly what galleries and other artistic joints I should see, so I concentrated on lowbrow culture. We started already on Friday, together with popular culture enthusiast Anssi Hynynen, to explore the brewery scene. As we both brew our own beer – I am just working on a new IPA – we found the nice red AIPAs of Brovarnia Gdansk tasty and strong (up to the nose, but still with a moderately pleasant aftertaste), but I must say this was not a Mecca of wheat beer, although I respect anything made in microbreweries.

 

I had a great time with all the coordinators, planning not just the future of our own circle but the next two years of the whole Nordic Summer University – and of course eating fun (a bit rough, Polish style) dinners. We took a walk with a historical guide, who was just wonderful, one of those living books who can turn any house or ruin into living matter. Still, in the end, Gdansk is not as strong in history as it is in pleasant contemporary atmosphere.

 

Anyway, in February 2017 (see CfP here) our circle – the coordinators in love with Poland – will travel to Wroclaw, and organize an event together with the circles studying migration in Nordic and Baltic countries, international relations and human rights, and comparative futorologies.

 

10 years ago Nordic money would never have found its way to Poland, but the world is changing, and not just the Finns – who have always been between East and West – but also the Scandinavians now see the whole Baltic Sea area as an interesting cultural territory to explore.

 

Finland has always been gazing to both directions. Following this, for me it was a must to visit Sopot (pic 4), which was the mythical home of the Eastern bloc version of the Eurovision song contest. We remember it mostly through its later name Intervision. As a country which worked neurotically throughout the cold war to find ways of expressing its neutrality, Finland took part in both competitions. The site of the song festival was surprisingly small, and not that special. The park around it, though, was fantastic, straight out from a children’s book, with its huge old trees, and I got the feeling that Sopot must be a great site for events. Especially in the summer.

 

I walked a while at the Sopot beach and I enjoyed eating trashy, ‘roasted’ cod with French fries – one of my favorite lowbrow foods in seaside tourist areas. No wonder Sopot has inspired masses of Wagnerians, pop music enthusiasts and schlager fans for decades.

 

Besides the almost mythical Polish sausages and cabbages I have to say that street food in Gdansk was super. I fell in love with smoked cheese, sold at the waterfront. I have no idea if it had any local flavor, but it made a tourist happy. The same can be said of the waterfronts themselves. If Brodsky would have been from Gdansk instead of St. Petersburg, his Watermark would have consisted of less kitschy and dreamlike notes on old houses and silence in the touristified (and museumized) parts of Venice. Like in the really inhabited parts of the Venetian lagoon, the waterfronts of Gdansk are kind of raw. They offer an energetic visual experience with raunchy red-tile harbor ruins and millions of aggressive sunrays mirrored in the water especially early in the morning. When you have just a minute before been tricked to eat the most decadent breakfast on earth, this strikes your sense of beauty like a friendly punch in the face.

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