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Living library at the Helsinki book fair

Posted: 2007-10-27 14:32:04, Categories: General, Helsinki, 275 words (permalink)

Yesterday I went to the Helsinki book fair and tried the Living library (in Finnish, info in English). It's a wonderful idea, originating from Denmark: you borrow a "book" like you would in a library, only that in the living library the "book" is a person with whom you can then chat for a while. The people are representing various groups towards which there's a lot of prejudice in the society.

At the book fair the living library was organized by Seta ry, an organization promoting sexual equality and Finnish Youth Co-Operation Allianssi. One could borrow for example a gay, lesbian or a bisexual, a father or mother living with his gay/lesbian partner and kids, a house squatter, a nerd, a witch, a laestadian, a muslim, an environmental activist or a young right-wing party member. The sheets presenting the "books" listed various common assumptions about people belonging to the groups in question, and it was up to the reader to find out whether the "book" he/she borrowed represented those assumptions or not.

I think the living library is a brilliant way to promote equality, fight racism and bring out fresh ideas. It's a much lower step to chat with a lesbian in the living library than to go in a bar frequented by lesbians and talk to someone there. Similarly, a well-doing businessman might never dare to visit a squatted house but might still want to hear what a squatter thinks.

The book fair is still going on this Saturday and Sunday, but in case you miss it I'm sure there will be more opportunities to borrow a living book in the future.

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Geishas, manga and anime

Posted: 2007-09-28 13:59:37, Categories: General, Finland, Hospitality exchange, Japan, Helsinki, Literature, Movies, 786 words (permalink)

Manga artist Keitaro Arima drawing a picture for fans. During August and September I again noted how Helsinki is full of festivals, concerts and other cultural events. I participated in quite a few, especially in events somehow related to Japan.

First there was a performance by three geishas from Kyoto, a promotional event by Finnair and the travel agency Ebookers who are increasing their frequency of flights to various Asian destinations. The traditional dances weren't anything new for me but the geishas also performed a rock, paper and scissors style game designed to entertain sake-drinking customers in the geisha houses. And of course virtually all of my old friends from various Japanese related societies in Finland were there. I compiled a small picture gallery of the event.

My longest trip in August and September was just a cruise to Stockholm, with a Japanese theme organized by the Japania ry society. I wrote a travel story with a few pictures (in Finnish) of the cruise too.

Shortly after the cruise I was asked if I could help the yearly Helsinki Comics Festival by hosting Keitaro Arima, a Japanese manga artist who was one of the main guests of the event. I didn't have to think twice, getting a rare opportunity to spend time with a person from the center of the manga culture (which is very popular in Japan), practising my Japanese and meeting several Finnish comics artists on the way.

It was a very nicely organized festival with a huge variety of interviews, shows and comics from all over the world, naturally emphasizing the Finnish scene. I especially liked that all the evening parties were open for everybody (with the exception of one dinner on Saturday), so one didn't need to be an insider to meet the artists and organizers also outside the daytime program of the festival. Manga fans were certainly happy with Keitaro Arima's signing session — he would not only give his signature but draw an individual picture for every fan in the queue. The session which was originally planned to last for an hour eventually became 3.5 hours.

Arima was staying in a hotel, but in Hospitality Club and CouchSurfing language hosting means offering a place to stay for someone. I've been quite active recently also in that, perhaps even a bit too active. I just counted that 21 people stayed at my place during the last two months. Almost half of them were cyclists and all the continents except Antartica were represented by at least one person. I didn't have a single bad experience and many of the guests were wonderful people, but too many is still too many. I think I'll have a break from hosting now, perhaps not completely closing my door but at least having less guests. It might happen naturally by simply getting less requests, as October and November are not the most popular months to travel in Finland for quite obvious reasons.

The latest chunk of Japanese culture I got in the Love and Anarchy film festival, which faithfully to its traditions featured a good selection of anime and non-animated Japanese films among other good movies from all around the world. I didn't see many movies during my year on the road so now it was a good time to catch up. Especially as the movie theatres in Helsinki are becoming more and more controlled by one single company which shows little else than the latest Hollywood blockbusters.

The animations Paprika and Tekkonkinkreet were both beautiful, although I didn't like the character drawing style in the latter too much. I didn't see yet Tales from Earthsea, the latest offering from Studio Ghibli, but it's one of the exceptions which will come to the mainstream theaters soon. Festival veteran Takashi Miike's this year's flick Like a Dragon was only mildly entertaining, Sakebi's Retribution was better but not exceptional. Same rating for Lost in Beijing by Ping Guo, the only Chinese film I went to see. Korea is producing more and more interesting movies, this year's good picks being Kim Ki Duk's Breath and Chan-Wook Park's I'm a Cyborg but That's Okay, which was a delighfully refreshing take on a difficult topic, my favorite this year. Año Uña was an interesting Brazilian experiment to do a film based on still photos, well done but still not really to my taste. The discussion with the director after the film added a nice personal touch into the viewing experience. Eastern Europe offered some of the darkest but well-done and realistic films this year, with the Cannes Golden Palm winner 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days directed by Christian Mungiu from Romania and and The Trap by Srdjan Golubovic from Serbia. The Georgian-French joint production 13 Tzameti had the most stylistic black and white shooting.

Route planner for cycling in the Helsinki region

Posted: 2007-09-04 15:24:46, Categories: General, Finland, Helsinki, Cycling, 159 words (permalink)

I just noticed that in addition to the public transport route planner for Helsinki metropolitan region, there's now a similar service for cyclists at http://kevytliikenne.ytv.fi/.

The system knows about cycling paths through parks and forests too, so the suggested route is often a nice one, at least based on a few quick tests. The "print route" feature is well done, showing both an overview map and detailed maps for the route. Cool. :-)

Of course all cyclists in Helsinki should also get the free Helsinki Metropolitan Area Outdoor map (Ulkoilukartta in Finnish), available e.g. from Jugendsali, Pohjoisesplanadi 19. The city has also produced some suggested loop routes in the city center and in many suburbs, describing the history, buildings and other features of each area. I'll have to check out some of those routes myself. Most of them are only available in Finnish though. The cycling route planner mentioned above works also in Swedish and English.

Thoughts after one year on the road

Posted: 2007-08-30 23:00:40, Categories: Travel, General, Work, Free software, Ecology, Cycling, 1074 words (permalink)

Posing for the camera at the Panchgani hill station, India. Having settled down in Helsinki at least for a while, I've had time to think what my long tour in Europe and Asia has given me and what I want to do next. Here are a few thoughts about travel and life in general after spending a year on the road.

Enjoy the unexpected, trust the unknown. Little by little, I learned to plan less and to enjoy uncertainty. I had traveled without a detailed schedule and hotel reservations before, but this time I went one step beyond that. I took roads not marked on the map, arriving in unknown villages just before sunset and got invited in to local homes. Even when I had made plans, I often changed them based on new encounters or feelings about a place. I certainly wasn't the craziest traveler out there and tried to avoid unnecessary risks, but also wanted to get rid of being a control freak. The balance shifted a bit towards adventure, and I enjoyed it.

Traveling alone is not lonely. It was never difficult to find people to talk with, and without a group of friends around I was spending more time with the locals. Of course, the majority of those encounters were rather superficial. To have deeper discussions, one usually needs to spend more time with the person and share experiences. That's the best part of having a travel partner: you can compare thoughts about an event or situation, or just start a topic which is completely detached from traveling. Having traveled both alone and with friends, I still cannot say which is better. I do know that a big group is not the way to go for me.

Travel gives new perspective for ecological living. Environmental protection might not be part of their everyday thoughts, but most people in developing countries live a fairly ecological life. Many environmentally unfriendly habits are also expensive so they simply cannot afford them. Traveling through poor areas shows that hot water is a luxury, air conditioning is rarely really necessary, and that it's easy to live by following the daily cycle of the sun, minimizing the need for artificial light (at least when the days and nights are approximately the same lenght). It can be a culture shock to come back home in a rich country where climate change is in the headlines but a lot of energy is being wasted everywhere. On the other hand, proliferation of plastic packaging and other non-biodegradable goods in the developing world produces another kind of shock. In the absense of proper waste management, residential areas are turning into big landfills and waterways getting polluted. People are used to throwing waste simply to the backyard — it didn't matter earlier but with the new materials it does.

Free software remains one of my passions. I didn't keep myself very well up to date with world news during my trip. To avoid spending all the time in Internet cafes, I dropped many mailing lists and web sites which I used to follow regularly. However, I continued to read the weekly editions of LWN.net during the whole year. That was the best way to keep an eye on what was happening in the free software world. I love the freedom, the community involvement without excluding commercial activities and the good match with mobile lifestyle. I can carry a virtually unlimited amount of interesting applications, information and art in digital form without possessing many material goods, and free licenses guarantee I can share what I have with my friends too.

A full-time job is not the only possible choice. A long break from work gives a good opportunity to think what kind of role should work have in one's life. Before my trip I had a well-paid full-time job, something which is respected and even envied in the society. Now I'm not so sure I want to continue the same way. I'm not alienated from work, but managing my own time as a freelancer sounds tempting. A normal full-time position is not out of the question, but if something is going to take the most of my time five days a week, eleven months a year, I'd better really like it. The standard five weeks of vacation per year may be enough to rest before getting back to work, but it's not long enough to focus on any other big project.

Changing the environment from time to time is good for me. Since I got my first job abroad in summer 1999 (in Geneva), I've never stayed very long in one place. The longest was almost three years in Finland before my bicycle tour — and it was starting to feel too long. I have a tendency to get involved with various volunteer activities and to pick up other hobbies, which are interesting but gradually fill up all my free time. Moving to another country provides a natural cut-off point to leave some of them behind and be ready for new challenges. It's already a way of life for me and it's difficult to say when, if ever, I'll settle down somewhere permanently.

A month, a year or undefined time for travel — all very different. It was obvious already when I left that traveling for a year was going to be different from the short trips I'd done before. I had time to stop for days or even weeks when I wanted, and I created the route plan on the way. What I didn't think about was that traveling for a year is still very different from traveling for an undefined period of time. I met many who were on the road for at least several months but rather few who were roaming around with no end in sight. Those who did, had often given up the notion of considering any single place in the world as their home, which made a big difference. I didn't have my return date set in stone, but it was still clearly a plan for one year. I had rented my flat out for one year, taken travel insurance for one year and, more importantly, it was a one year plan in my mind. I did consider continuing, but decided it was good time to stop for a while. Being constantly on the move is liberating but also tiresome, I need breaks from traveling too. However, it's not a given that those breaks would necessarily be in Finland.

Keeping up with the news

Posted: 2007-02-05 09:29:56, Categories: Travel, General, India, Free software, Politics, 303 words (permalink)

People often ask me how I keep up with the world news while traveling. The short and honest answer is that I don't keep up very well at all. :) Occasionally I do check out a newspaper or some websites, and my folks at home inform me if something really groundbreaking happens, at least if it is related to the area where I'm traveling in. Friends sometimes tell by email what has happened to them lately and it's always nice to read those mails.

For the traveler who likes to keep up to date, India is one of the easier places. Good quality English language newspapers are readily available, sometimes also in restaurants or hotels avoiding the need to buy the paper yourself. I discovered that the editorials and opinions page of the Times of India is particularly interesting. The articles are also available on the web so I'll share two good pieces with you. One of them is about urbanisation and overpopulation while the other takes on the state of science in India:

I currently don't have a source of general news which I'd check regularly. Browsing the sites of major newspapers would be too time consuming because I'm not connected to the Internet daily and would have to go back several issues each time to get the full news flow. A weekly summary delivered by email would be optimal, suggestions are welcome. I'm still passionate enough about Free software to read the weekly issues of Linux Weekly News, and for some reason I find it fun to read the Ask the Headhunter newsletters although I'm not currently searching for a job. Otherwise my search for information in the net is usually reduced to current practical needs such as visa information and weather forecasts from the Weather Underground.

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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