]> In Finland

In Finland


Part 11 of 11
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This is a blog of various impressions and experiences during the first of my settled life in Finland, home of my Finnish vaimo, in 2010-2011 and 2013-.


The World's Great Hotels

May 6, 2018

To be considered for the short list of The World's Great Hotels, it is not enough for an establishment to offer outstanding service, superlative luxury, or gourmet food. Nor is it enough that it has a tremendous location, world-class architecture, or even a long, distinguished history. No. A Great hotel must offer an experience, which cannot be had anywhere else.

More than that, it should be an experience that remains with you, so that you will continue looking back and gaining fresh inspiration from the time you spent there. Thus it must be more than pleasing sights or soothing sounds, or merely a glimpse into arts or customs foreign to your own. It must mean something. It must make you think, feel, hope, and believe. The experience of staying in a Great hotel should make you see the world differently.

1.

There is a small island with a few scattered bungalows, off the coast of a bigger island, an hour's boat journey north of still a bigger island, which itself is just fiteen miles across at its longest point. All three are fully a thousand miles from the nearest mainland, which is the east coast of Africa somewhat south of the equator, and therefore thousands more from any large concentration of people or civilization. Furthermore this is the Indian Ocean, itself the most isolated of all the earth's major three from the activities of industrialized man.

These islands, known as the Seychelles, are said to be the oldest oceanic islands in the world, the remnants of a granitic mountain range on a continental sub-plate that broke off from India as it split from the part of Gondwanaland that became Africa around 70 million years ago. The water here is pure blue on the surface and crystal clear beneath. The sky too is blue, that deep blue that can only be seen in the tropics, and when there are clouds they are billowing white or grey, standing up in great ramparts reaching from the base of the sky to the heavens.

Our resort island is perhaps four hundred yards across. It is only just big enough to possess the basic characteristics that distinguish it from a mere rock in the sea. Its shoreline consists of jumbled boulders with a few short stretches of sand here and there. Climbing the rocks to the interior reveals more of the same -- rocks with somewhat larger patches of sandy soil in between. Palms and other trees shoot up, low grass and scrub take hold here and there. Shady spots abound -- beneath trees, under overhanging rocks, in little nooks and crannies. The only sound is the irregular crashing of the waves onto rocks and sand. The sand is white, the rocks grey, the water blue, and the air clear, all clean and pure.

And these words utterly fail to describe what you feel when you look around and listen to the sea gently tossing and lapping against these ancient rocks and beach, in the warm air, with stray breezes caressing your cheeks and hair. The impressions of a world lovingly brought into existence, by forces or agent unknown except that it is beneficent. A world that feels like it is at its beginning. A great and peaceful space, existing ready to give birth -- to a marvelousness of unfolding life. We can feel our roots here, that this is truly the birthplace of our souls, and we have come to see and listen, and understand -- no, to know -- no, to apprehend -- what we are made of. This paradise of varied perfection, of ever-changing beauty, an endless sweet eternity.

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2.

There is a tower building, one among many others, in midtown Manhattan in New York City. When you arrive at the airport there is a taxi waiting for you, arranged by the hotel. You get in and are immediately whisked off, the car moving smoothly but tightly amidst an ever-changing flow. There is a television on the back of the seat in front of you, but you prefer to gaze out the windows and the sunroof at a kaleidoscope of built environment dancing past your eyes. The car moves at breakneck speeds, preternaturally aware of spaces opening up just before you get to them, yielding up your own position of only moments before to another swooping vehicle. Even the unpredicted is smoothly handled, an aborted move to a closing position turning out not as a reaction nor even a feint but as a negotiation brought to a mutually agreed close.

Soon you are leaving a domain of sloping asphalt, patches of green, streets lined by several story buildings festooned with lit signs of commercial establishments, and glimpses of taller brick apartment buildings here and there in the background. A bridge looms up spanning high through the night sky above dark water sparkling with city lights to a sheer wall stretching in both directions. And then you plunge into a world of soaring towers with jeweled faces, in some general sense similar to one another but all individual, like walking in an old growth forest where each tree has its own say.

The taxi lets you out and you enter one of the towers through a tall set of glass doors with ornate metalwork, held open by a gentleman in a festooned red uniform. Inside is a broad, high, brightly lit space with gleaming marble floors and walls. Your steps echo together with those of dozens of others moving purposefully through the space. A fountain stands cascading in one corner, potted trees occupy spots by the window. The air is surprisingly fresh. At a long counter inside you announce your presence and are directed to a bank of elevators along one side of the hall.

When one arrives you see it is as lavishly outfitted as the lobby itself. The floor numbers start at 45. You push the button for 68 and in a surprisingly short time you are letting people off at 56. Moments later you step out into another lobby, lower-ceiling and smaller but otherwise similar to the one on the ground. The staff check you in and you are delivered to your room. Your breath catches as the door closes behind you: the entire facing wall is made of glass and looks out at the forest of skyscrapers from halfway up. It is hypermodern, it is industrial, it is awe-inspiring -- but it is also what you never expected: it is beautiful.

What does it mean, to be immersed in this tableau, this machine, this organism of such scale, created by Man? Every building a unique testament to the gathering of resources from points and processes far and wide, and a pairing to inspiration, not just to build something functional, but to express something uplifting. In another words, to dream -- even while realizing dreams, so that we may dream even higher. And inside these edifices the greatest luxuries, the most advanced technologies on earth: every need provided for, every sense caressed, so that we may rise above our baser needs and lift our eyes and our minds. Humankind lofting itself to a higher plane of existence.

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3.

In an unassuming quarter of downtown Stockholm, on the southwest edge of the island of Södermalm, a hospital complex stands. A white building on its east side of about eight stories displays a broad face to the ring road in front of it, while its back looks out high over a strait to a much larger island to the south. This height is increased by the fact that Södermalm itself rises around a hundred feet from sheer cliffs just inward from its shores.

The hotel is here mainly for visitors to the hospital, and its premises are on the fourth and fifth floors, occupying them solely, so that when you get off the elevator, it is easy to forget you are even in a hospital at all, except perhaps for the fact that it is very clean. The reception desk sits in a small lounge space with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to the south. It is a calm setting.

The rooms are Scandinavian, with uncarpeted floors, spare but comfortable furnishings, and well-equipped bathrooms. The premises are very quiet, in the same way that a business district is after everyone has gone home for the evening, and that feeling extends throughout the room and the interior. It is rare even to see another soul in the hallway.

In the morning breakfast is served in a counterpart to the reception space but on the higher floor. The fare is compactly laid out but ample, consisting of breads, meats and fish, cheeses, yoghurt and cereal. The breakfast room has the same quiet atmosphere that the entire hotel has had so far. But there are people here. Here and there at the tables there are couples and some individuals, many with rolling carts placed next to them. Each cart contains a rectangular basket lined at the bottom with soft bedclothes -- and a baby lying quietly amongst them, sleeping more often than not. The babies are very, very small -- little more than doll-sized -- and at some point two and two come together and you realize that these must be the occupants and visitors of the hospital's maternity ward.

Sometimes it is just a mother, sometimes a father, but often both, speaking together in soft tones. None of the babies are crying. They must have done their share of that quite recently, but now they rest or coo quietly. The parents eat slowly and quite often pause doing nothing at all, just gazing lovingly and wonderingly at the small packages in their rolling baskets. The looks of the fathers are particularly striking -- perhaps the mothers are still too exhausted by their recent ordeal to fully succumb to the same soft tenderness their partners feel.

You sit and have your breakfast, rested by the quiet night and readying in no particular hurry to start your day. It is easy to think of all that lies ahead of these small babies, less than 24 hours old. All that you have experienced in your life so far -- your earliest memories of childhood glowing with soft joy, easy life at home moving from amusement to wonder to amusement with no requirements, followed by the first introduction of fear with the onset of school, and followed again by responsibility, tension, and worry to maintain your position in various ways, and then a gradual gaining of confidence and equilibrium as it continued. Only to be followed by new fear once again upon needing to go out and face the world as an adult supporting yourself, and then again calming and increasing confidence as bearings are gained. And, at last, coming to grips with entering the second half of your expected life, wrestling with the idea of death that can no longer be ignored as academic, and eventually after a long struggle, if you are lucky, coming to terms with it. But never again to experience life as simple and carefree as those first months and years.

All of that lies ahead of these infants.

Somehow, to see them lying there, gazed at lovingly, brings a taste of their future -- and your past -- close to your heart. And yet at the same time there is a noticeable element of the unknown. The world has changed mightily since your childhood. And the nature of that transformation has been in some ways similar to your own transition to middle age. Oh, there were fears and worries to be sure in the 1970's. The threat of nuclear war, the existence of real wars, gulfs between nations, and gulfs between groups within nations. But now we have a truer glimpse of our race's own mortality. Whether we fail as a civilization to adapt to the coming depletion of fossil fuels, or we create a species or a machine more intelligent than ourselves, reducing us to the position of mere animals having passed the torch we now hold at the vanguard of conscious, thinking existence forward, the end is visible. It is difficult to conceive of what these babies will face when they must make their own transition to adulthood decades down the road. And while part of you wishes you could be around to see it, you cannot suppress a shudder of fear and worry, and a hope that they will be able to receive all of the gifts that you yourself have been given.

And that makes you aware of your responsibility. In all of improbability you were granted Life, and the first few years of existence were so ineffably sweet that all of the travails since then (but occasionally rewarded by short joys) might seem worth it. But regardless, it is for us to pay back and to earn that Gift by maintaining a world where it will possible for others.

All of this, you understand and experience during that short breakfast period at this completely unique and deceivingly unremarkable hotel, set in a modest section of southern Stockholm.




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