Northern serenade

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St.Petersburg, Russia

Helga’s Post # 47 — It was the best of times.

Still, it feels good to be back home after a month of Northern Europe and Russia. A month without my trusted laptop and only occasional Wi-Fi. A month of walking, gawking, even stalking.

Yes, even stalking. After all, I have an excuse. I’m a writer. I have to collect images to be filed away in my mind for future use. One cannot have too many images saved. So I spy when I can. I would walk behind an interesting person or group of people, trying to glean as much detail as possible before they disappeared. Trying to listen to their speech, making up a story of their background. Amazing what plot ideas come about when you do that. People’s details prompt you to speculate about their lives, their background and their character. Before you know it, you’ve got a fictional character planted firmly in your head. A plot idea will surely follow.

We criss-crossed ten cities in ten countries in 14 days. Walking on uneven cobblestones laid by people who lived five hundred years ago or longer. Some of these cities were founded a thousand years ago. A different language is spoken in each of those countries, the total area of which is a fraction of that of Canada. (I am only referring to Northern Europe, not counting Russia).

Fortune teller. Riga, Latvia

Fortune teller. Riga, Latvia

If visitors are asked what most impressed them about these countries, they would probably answer it’s the magnificent historical buildings and architecture. Impressive indeed. Beyond words in fact. What impressed me equally though was the rich literary history of the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia, and of course Russia. This is what most of this post is about.

Think about it: some of our most treasured stories when we were kids likely had their roots in some of these countries. Take Danish author Hans Christian Anderson. Who hasn’t read (or had someone older read to you) The Little Match Girl, The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor’s New Clothes, to name a few. More recently, Denmark has produced some excellent crime authors, including Peter Hoeg (Smilla’s Sense of Snow)

Changing of the Guard. Royal Palace, Stockholm

Changing of the Guard. Royal Palace, Stockholm

Sweden, not to be outdone, gave us Astrid Lindgren’s beloved Pippi Longstocking, and of more recent past, Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander.

Or take the paintings that inspired literature and fiction. Like the famous painting by Dutch painter Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, which spawned American author Tracy Chevalier’s novel by that name.

Moving on along the literary path of the cities we visited: Jo Nesbo from Norway. He is famous for his crime novels about Detective Harry Hole, but he is also the main vocals and songwriter for a Norwegian rock band. Huge multi-talent here.

On our wanderings through these cities we came across many beautiful bookstores. Yes, bookstores! People over there still prefer printed books to Kindle, and shopping in person to online. I watched with a sense of nostalgia, being reminded how our own reading culture has changed in recent years.

The list goes on. Interestingly, over the past decade, crime novels set in the Nordic region have become best-sellers in the U.S. and Canada, and given rise to a number of blockbuster movies.

And that doesn’t even include Russia, which is a totally different kettle of fish. The country has produced some of the highest regarded literary giants. Aside from the obvious classic writers, Russia has some very good crime fiction writers. Boris Akunin is one, having written Murder on the Leviathan and over 50 others. His wry, fast-paced, intricately plotted detective stories toy with the conventions of classical Russian literature. The Fandorin novels, which first appeared in 1998, have sold thirteen million copies in Russia alone. They’ve been adapted for television and film, and have made their author well known and wealthy.

Not surprisingly, Russia also has some great noir writers, including Alexander Anuchkin, Igor Zotov, Irina Denezhkina and Anna Starobinets. The genre must have something to do with the long and bleak winters. Or their history. In general, we thought Russian people seem less friendly and relaxed as their European neighbors. When we arrived in St.Petersburg we were warned not to engage the immigration officials in conversation. ‘Not even a one-liner or zinger’.

They made up for it with their magnificent palaces and churches. There is simply nothing like it anywhere. But you’ll have to go there yourself to find out. It’s worth it! It’s like entering a fairytale. Gold and glitter everywhere in a setting of magnificent gardens and fountains. And then there is the Hermitage: One of the largest and oldest museums in the world, it was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. Its collection includes more than 3 million pieces of art. To demonstrate its size, people say that if you spent one minute looking at each piece of art in the Hermitage museum it would take you eight years to get through the whole thing.

Mind-numbing. Incomprehensible. As it must have been to the common people of Russia. The reign of the Romanov Dynasty, started in 1613, came to an end with the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Their elaborate palaces have since become museums.

But now the time has come for getting back to writing my novel without delay. Serious writing, that is.

(The painting below is to help Joe with writing sex scenes)

Titian, Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Titian, Hermitage, St. Petersburg

7 thoughts on “Northern serenade

  1. What a fantastic trip to have taken—I think my Muse would be itching to turn some of those people, snippets of conversations, and places into a story! If I ever made it to Russia, I wonder if I could visit their archives—they hold a number of my grandfather’s writings, which I’ve never seen…. Yes, I suspect there’s quite a story behind those facts!

  2. Your photos and observations brought back wonderful memories. Something I also noticed here in the wilds do Cornwall – well, maybe not so wild as I am in St. Ives. Regardless, I have come across at least 3 amazing book stores, all of them independent. What the heck does that say about West Vancouver and even Vancouver?!

    • It probably means there are more book lovers overseas. Or maybe they simply prefer printed books. Thanks for your comments. And yes, St.P was every bit as great as you told me!

  3. What a rich experience Helga, and well told! Can’t wait to see more pictures and hear about your adventures in person. With your keen eye, I’m sure you’ve absorbed the details of some fantastic settings to write into future novels.

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