Category Archives: tours

Finland 2018 (part 1b): Helsinki

The charisma that I found lacking in Jyvaskyla was on offer in abundance in Helsinki. Sadly, I only had about 24 hours to take in the sights; I arrived at 2:30pm on Saturday and needed to head to the airport at 2:30pm on Sunday, so I wasted no time in depositing my bags in the hotel room and heading out to acquaint myself with the city.

Although I generally dislike doing things that seem overtly, cheesily touristy, I find that bus tours can be quite helpful for providing a comprehensive overview of a new place while helping you get your bearings. They are especially handy for when you’d like to see a variety of places but don’t have time to squeeze them all into your schedule. Given that I only had a few hours before closing time, a bus tour seemed like a good way to do some scouting in advance of my longer free period on Sunday.

Senate Square, Helsinki
The Helsinki Cathedral in Senate Square, as seen from the top of the tour bus

There are a few tour bus options in Helsinki, all of which use red buses. I have taken a number of City Sightseeing tours elsewhere and I thought that was the company I was booking with when I bought my ticket. However, in reality, I was getting a ticket from Red Buses, which visits all the same places using pretty much exactly the same route. The audio recording, though, wasn’t up to the same standard I have had on previous trips elsewhere. Maybe it’s just a Helsinki thing, and the same is true for the City Sightseeing audio tour, but I have my doubts. There were big gaps between anecdotes, and during the quiet periods we kept passing by interesting things that I would have liked to have learned more about; further, there was silence during those gaps (on previous tours there has been locally relevant music used as a spacer), so I kept wondering whether there was a problem with my audio port. Most crucially, the narrator mispronounced and misused words to the extent that it was sometimes difficult to discern meaning. I can see why the tour company would record someone with a Finnish accent–it somehow makes the experience a little more authentic–but I don’t understand why they didn’t do a better job with quality control for the messaging. Still, there were some interesting anecdotes mixed in with the confusing stuff, and the WTF moments added a certain ‘je ne sais quois’ to the experience.

After disembarking, I headed off to visit some of the sights that we’d driven past during the tour–starting with the Helsinki Cathedral, which was right in front of me. It’s an elegant building with a prominent position (both in Senate Square specifically and in the city more generally). It was designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, who had been brought to Helsinki shortly after Finland was annexed by Russia, and tasked with creating a proper capital city (which was, by the way, substantially smaller then, with a population of only approximately 4,000 people). Engel dedicated over two decades of his life to perfecting the cathedral, which wasn’t consecrated until 1852, twelve years after his death. On the outside, it may look very similar to other religious buildings such as the Sacre Coeur, but the Helsinki Cathedral is a Lutheran house of worship and is therefore incredibly austere inside. It isn’t plain, exactly, but there are few decorations and ornaments, and those that have been included involve no frippery. It is amazing how this alters the thoughts and feelings you experience while you are inside the building.

Altar at the Helsinki Cathedral
Look at all the unadorned walls here, and the completely blank dome. You would never mistake this for a Catholic building.

Just a couple blocks away is the Uspenski Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox facility that, unfortunately, I couldn’t properly visit because preparations were underway for a Saturday evening mass. I was able to briefly poke my head in the doorway and catch a glimpse of some of its many icons. Although the building is stylistically quite distinct from the Helsinki Cathedral, it was built during approximately the same period and was consecrated not long after its Lutheran neighbour, in 1868. The red brick, darker interior, gilt decor, and large collection of religious artwork give it an incredibly different atmosphere. As I was leaving, I encountered an orthodox woman who had come for the service. Although I have incredibly conflicted feelings about ‘modest dress’, I did think she looked very romantically beautiful in her lace veil and shawl; because I never see such things in my daily life, I sometimes forget that people still wear these traditional forms of clothes, so it was like encountering someone who had stepped out of the pages of a history book.

I had a bit of a wander through the harbour area, where the large weekend market was just packing up for the day. The fresh fruits looked particularly appealing, not only to me but also to the many gulls waiting around to catch things that fell off stands or to nab food right off tables if the vendors let down their guard for just a moment. I also took in the Esplanade, a long, thin park where people come to relax and picnic in the sun. It is situated near a range of shops, theatres, and restaurants, so it’s the perfect place to stop off for a mini-break in the middle of a busy day out.

Fact and Fable statue
‘Fact and Fable’, by Gunnar Finne, unveiled in 1932. The statue is accompanied by a plaque with QR codes and a URL for more info (http://vihreatsylit.fi/en/esplanadinpuisto/).

With that brief introduction to the city under my belt, I headed back to the hotel to have dinner. This hotel, incidentally, was quite a step up from the one in Jyvaskyla. It had its own cobbled courtyard and counted among its decorations a centuries-old tapestry. Sadly–tragically, even–the flamingo frescos featured so prominently on the hotel’s website were not in evidence anywhere I looked. I had so been anticipating a selfie with the pink bird art and was disappointed that this was not possible. What I got instead was front row tickets to a small urban common gull breeding colony, from which emanated an endless amount of territorial shrieking  ALL. NIGHT. LONG.

Night sky in Helsinki
Long past my bedtime, the sun is still up. This is 11:30pm in Finland in mid-June.

Though this inevitably left me feeling somewhat bleary-eyed the next morning, I was still eager to get out and explore more of the city. I had two destinations in mind: the Helsinki Art Museum, or HAM, and the National Museum of Helsinki. You might think that I was going to the former in order to see fine art, but, no, I was only there to snap a photo of its main entrance:

Main entrance to the HAM
Helsinki Art Museum entrance under the watchful eye of an enormous gull head

I’d seen the HAM the previous day during the bus tour, which mentioned the museum but said nothing about the bizarre avian decoration outside its entrance; likewise, online research yielded no explanation and no photos featuring the, um, art. I can only assume this is a temporary installation, for which I am sure the residents of the apartments across the street are extremely grateful. If you are thinking that this building looks like an unusual place for an art museum even before you factor in the gull, you may be interested to know that this facility is called the Tennispalatsi and was originally constructed in 1938 for the 1940 Olympics (which were supposed to have been held in Tokyo but were relocated to Finland); it housed four tennis courts that were never used for their intended function because the Olympics were cancelled once WWII began. However, the building did finally contribute to the Olympics in 1952, when it hosted the basketball preliminaries.

After the photo shoot, I headed over to my second and final museum of the day. The National Museum is housed in a striking building designed in the ‘national romantic’ style–one inspired by the castles and churches of medieval Finland. It houses an extensive collection of items dating from prehistory to the modern era; there was even a temporary Barbie exhibit on display when I visited, though I didn’t have time to wander through. You start by heading downstairs to learn about Finland’s earliest human residents and then climb upwards to work your way through successive periods of history.

The museum is not only full of interesting things, but also laid out extremely well. For example, though there aren’t that many prehistoric artefacts to put on display, the exhibition is rounded out with drawings, videos, and infographics that provide additional information to help you contextualise what you are seeing; these are arranged so as to reinforce certain messages and concepts and help audiences really understand and remember the topics addressed through the collections.

National Museum living stones

(This–which is a video in which the sound is crucial–is one of the weirdest but also most wonderful things I’ve ever encountered in a museum. Without any preamble or captioning, it accompanied a display about petroglyphs. The text associated with the reproduction rock art stated that often the artists painted their images on rocks that had human features. That was the only context provided. There were four of these.)

As in Norse mythology, the idea of a tree of life can also be found in ancient Finnish beliefs. Here, the layout of the room helps the visitor get a sense of how a three-part tree structure (roots, trunk, canopy) might symbolise distinct parts of the universe.

I knew next to nothing about Finland before visiting, and though I am sure my current levels of historical and cultural understanding are well beneath those even of a young Finnish child, I do at least feel that I learned a substantial amount from touring the museum, and that what I picked up was the sort of crucial knowledge you would want to impart to a visitor so the they have a framework for understanding the country and its people. I got the sense that the museum was providing me with a lens through which everything I encountered in Finland was clearer and more logical.

Further, I found I was genuinely interested in everything I was learning. This is something I notice wherever I travel: No matter how little you knew about a place and its people beforehand, and no matter how unlikely those seem directly related to your own history or current life, it is almost inevitable that you will find something that connects with you personally, or that you have encountered in some fashion before, even without realising it. No matter where in the world they live, people are people, and we all share things in common.

Offering stone
Case in point: offering stone. People around the world are drawn to stones that are deemed holy because they are unusual in some way. This stone features lots of impressions where offerings–milk, food, flowers, etc.–were once left. I saw very similar things last year in Ireland.

One of the most impressive techniques utilised by the National Museum was that of housing entire structures within its gallery space. For example, there was a boxcar that you walked through as part of an exhibition on schoolchildren that had been sent to safety in Sweden during WWII; in a series of rooms showing artefacts from the 18th century, several were devoted to reconstructing an 18th-century house featuring domestic artefacts in situ; and my favourite: there was an entire traditional Finnish log cabin. This last example could be smelled before it was seen because it was the genuine article and, since cabins were originally made without any chimneys, it gave off a very strong campfire-like eau de smoke.

Log cabin
It was interesting to look inside the cabin, but it was even better to smell it.

The National Museum also dealt with politics fairly directly, acknowledging Finland’s difficulties with successive external rulers (first the Swedes, then the Russians), then its internal struggles as it sought an identity as an independent nation, and finally more modern challenges associated with the economic crisis and immigration. It was a thoughtful but practical approach that showed pride in national accomplishments without minimising less savoury moments in history or straying into the realm of propaganda. I appreciated the blunt, self-aware approach, which allowed you to interpret the information in whatever way you felt was appropriate and draw your own conclusions accordingly.

Saved art
Pieces scavenged and saved by Sakari Palsi, Olavi Paavolainen, and Yrjo Jylha during the Continuation War. This trio wandered through abandoned villages to preserve precious cultural artefacts that had been left behind when homes were abandoned or were at risk of being destroyed in the fighting.
Finnish presidents
Finland became an independent country in 1918 and is celebrating its centenary all this year. These photos are straight out of Harry Potter: The subjects, Finland’s presidents over the years, all move very subtly every few seconds. It is extremely unnerving when you are not expecting it.

I do not know many Finns personally, though I know enough people who do that I have heard all the classic stereotypes: The Finnish have intensely deadpan humour; they love vodka; their culture revolves around the sauna; they are very direct; they are quite individualistic; they’re all a little crazy (which is always linked to the long days in summer and long nights in winter). I have to say that I saw either elements of, or the roots of, most of these things, both while out and about in Finland in general and while wandering through the National Museum.

A display of sauna ladles
This is only a portion of the entire sauna ladle display. People go to the sauna not just with friends and family, but also with colleagues. Important business and political deals are completed at the sauna. And all of this is supposed to take place without clothing.

I mean that in an appreciative, kind-hearted way rather than a judgmental one. These are a people who live in an incredibly extreme environment, and although there is a decently sized immigrant population, many Finns descended from ancestors who lived in that harsh wilderness for generations upon generations and somehow managed to survive and thrive. You can’t achieve that feat without being at least a little intense, yourself. It is no surprise that the Finns are direct and no-nonsense, or that their culture contains extremes of both colour (I am picturing some of the more outlandish clothing styles I encountered on the street and also remembering this crazy article I saw a few years ago) and darkness (I’m pretty sure even lullabies are heavy metal). The people are shaped by their surroundings.

Museum display of heavy metal music
This great interactive display allowed you to sample from the wide range of heavy metal music produced by Finnish artists.

I know that statement is slightly oversimplified, but I do think there’s a lot of truth in it. And, while the Finnish climate–not to mention those crazy-long winter ‘nights’–is perhaps a little extreme even for me, I did feel an affinity for the country and its people. I never felt self-conscious in the way that I have in some of the other places I’ve visited, and my interactions left me with the sense of a kindred spirit. I have absolutely no idea what anybody was saying, though, so for all I know I was being made fun of the entire time I was there, and just couldn’t tell because nobody ever laughs.

In any case, the National Museum was an extremely educational and enjoyable experience and was a great way to finish up the trip (pun intended!). If you’ve only got a limited amount of time in Helsinki, I can’t think of a better way to get a good introduction and overview to Finnish culture in general. However, I would recommend trying to linger in the city a bit longer than I did so that you can explore some of the many other museums and cultural sites on offer. I’m sad I wasn’t able to squeeze them in during this visit, but I’m hoping to return some day.

In fact, though it won’t give me an opportunity to see more of Helsinki, I do have another trip to Finland coming up at the end of August. This time, I will be heading out into the wilds. Will the change in scenery alter my appreciation of the country and its people? Will spending time in the Finnish forest make me more laconic? Will I develop a love of saunas and swimming in very cold water? Stay tuned to find out…

Keep hold of your belongings, we’re going to Lisbon

Quite a while ago, long before anyone knew of my cancer diagnosis, my parents booked a Smithsonian tour to Portugal and Spain. As with their trips to Greece and Europe, it seemed a good opportunity for me snag a mini-vacation by hopping a quick flight and joining them at one end of their trip. Luckily, we opted for a pre-tour visit, which allowed me to meet up with them in Lisbon just a few days before, as it turned out, my chemotherapy would be scheduled to start. It was the perfect last-minute fling.

I’ve been to several countries that are, in many ways, like Portugal–I immediately saw reminders of France, Spain, Italy, and Greece–but I’d never been to Portugal itself. When friends heard of my upcoming trip, many told me how lucky I was and said that Lisbon was one of their favorite cities in Europe. I was, therefore, expecting a bit more than I got, but I worry that I am being overly harsh because of the somewhat stressful circumstances of the visit.

Lampposts
Portugal is proud of its navigators/discoverers, as you can see from the ship motifs dotted around Lisbon.
Wavy tiles
Lisbon is also well known for its limestone and basalt mosaic sidewalks, which are beautiful but can be very slippery when it rains–as we found out on our first afternoon in the city.
Water features
Lisbon appears to be a city of fountains, from smaller affairs such as the one along the sidewalk near our hotel (top left) to the more ornate variety found near the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (bottom).

To start with, my parents’ transatlantic flight was delayed by a day, so they ended up arriving the morning after my arrival rather than the morning before. Additionally, nobody had really done any planning because we were all too distracted by the whole cancer thing. My parents’ Smithsonian tour itinerary was all taken care of, but none of us had actually put much thought into what the three of us would do while we were in the city together; this resulted in a lot of shrugging and winging it. Normally, I’m quite happy to roll with the punches in this way, and so I didn’t anticipate that these issues would be that problematic. However,  I don’t think any of us felt particularly drawn to Lisbon itself–although perhaps my parents found it more appealing once their more rigorous tour began in earnest.

The city had some nice enough features and areas, but, on the whole, I wasn’t as blown away by it as I had been expecting given everyone’s comments prior to the trip. The adjective I kept mentally applying to the city was “crumbly”. Luckily, it has just enough cobblestone streets, and is slathered with just enough ornate tiling, that my eyes could tolerate the many boxy communist-style offices and apartment buildings that crowded the skyline; there are also a number of interesting statues and monuments dotted around the city, along with a fair amount of attractive greenery lining the streets.

Belen
The Torre de Belem, one of the many impressive sights in the monument district
Monument of discoverers compilation
The Padrao dos Descobrimentos–the monument to the discoverers–is dedicated not just to Henry the Navigator, but also to all the key players (engineers, mathematicians, builders, artists, etc.) who helped make Portugal’s many geographical discoveries possible. In addition to Henry, there are 33 other specific historical figures shown on the two sides of the monument.
Monument part 2
The monument’s main features are those mimicking sails and the prow of a ship–very appropriate for something associated with voyages of discovery. A bit more perplexing, as my mother pointed out, is the very obvious presence of a sword, which seems to clearly link discovery with violence. Perhaps that is why Philippa of Lancaster looks so grim as she prays?
Monastery
The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, which I have photographed only in segments so as to avoid capturing any of the scaffolding that inevitably seems to be erected around the beautiful old buildings you want to document while on holiday.

Our first day–when all of us were still battling with fatigue from our respective journeys–was probably our most pleasant and relaxing. After a leisurely late breakfast at the hotel, we headed to Lisbon’s renowned Oceanario. The aquarium features a massive central tank where you can see several types of sharks, rays, eels, sunfish, and various other species of saltwater fauna. There were also many smaller exhibits were you could view more delicate specimens such as sea dragons, jellies, flatfish, and garden eels.

Afterwards, we hopped on the Telecabine, which is a cable car ride that runs along the Tagus River in the Parque das Nacoes that incorporates the Oceanario. It wasn’t a very long ride, but it was an extremely pleasant one, offering views of the Lisbon skyline and the many jellyfish down in the water. (Photos from that portion of the journey can be found on Facebook.)

Garden view
View down the Parque Eduardo VII to the statue of the Marques de Pombal–an incredibly accomplished leader who appears to have earned every bit of the recognition he is given throughout the city.
Marquis
The Marques de Pombal

The defining moment of the trip–the thing that has probably forever prevented me (however unfairly) from ranking Lisbon in my top 10 vacation destination list–is the loss of my parents’ backpack, and the subsequent loss of my cell phone, at the Santa Apolonia train station. We’d been riding a hop-on, hop-off City Sightseeing bus and had accidentally gotten on board the blue line rather than the red line. This prompted us to make such a hasty departure at the train station that the backpack was left behind. I dashed after the bus for several blocks, hoping it might eventually reach a stoplight, but eventually I had to call it quits. Stranded with no other way to get to our next destination, we opted to take a taxi; as we got into the car, my phone–unbeknownst to me–slipped out of my bag and fell onto the sidewalk. Although I discovered its absence within seconds, and subsequently performed a thorough inspection of the interior of the station, the taxi waiting area, and the lost and found, I had no luck finding it.

Amazingly, though this misadventure necessitated a 90-minute phone call that caused me to miss our entire visit to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, it does actually have a happy ending. The phone was found by a man who was traveling to Porta to visit his daughter–who had the technical savvy to track me down via social media so that she could coordinate a way to return the phone to me; it is, as I type, en route to Cornwall.

Santa Apolonia station
The scene of the “crime”
Blue line tour
A few of the more attractive sights on the very appropriately named blue line
Riverside
Both the blue and red lines spend quite a bit of time along the shores of the Tagus River

 

Agave
This poor, put-upon plant was one of the many glorious specimens at the Jardim da Estrela, which is apparently considered one of the most romantic places to take a walk in Lisbon.
Pigeons
The Jardim is a pleasant place for birds and humans alike.
Church
One of my favorite sights in Lisbon was the Basilica da Estrela, which is lovelier on the inside than it is on the outside. It was the first church in the world dedicated to the sacred heart of Jesus.
Church interior
We entered the basilica just as a service was ending, and the building still smelled of incense. Although it is a bit plain on the outside, the interior is much warmer and more welcoming.
Statues in church
As I paused to take one last photo before exiting the basilica, the building was filled with the quiet sound of Latin chants, emerging from the rear of the church where, I assume, the priest was being divested of his ceremonial raiments.
Blindfolded statues
These two blindfolded statues were on opposite sides of an intersection from each other on the road–Avenida de la Liberdade–where our hotel was located. We wondered if the accessories were a form of political protest?

This grand gesture is only one of the many kindnesses we were shown during our time in Lisbon, and that is what I will remember most about the trip: The people were generous, friendly, and incredibly helpful. From shopkeepers to waitstaff to strangers on the street, there was a consistent attitude of openness and welcome. For example, when we left the Gulbenkian, one of the employees insisted on walking us to the nearest metro stop to ensure that we wouldn’t get lost; there was no need for him to do more than point, but he graciously took the extra step–literally–to guarantee that we reached our goal.

I suspect that I would probably enjoy Lisbon more if I had the time to visit it again in better health, over an extended period, and with more of an opportunity to really explore the ins and outs of the city rather than take such a hectic, scattered approach. That said, I still feel lucky to have been able set aside a few days to go and enjoy some late summer sunshine in great company, and to replace “lymphoma” with “Lisbon” as the L-word most prominent in my mind!

(For more photos of Lisbon, visit my Flickr gallery)

An afternoon at the asylum

Inevitably, when people go home for the holidays, they make jokes about how insane their families are, or how they’ll go mad if they have to spend too much time hanging out in their hometown. This year, my family took all the crazy talk seriously and literally went to the asylum–the Athens Lunatic Asylum, or, as it’s now known, The Ridges.

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The main building, which now houses Ohio University’s Kennedy Museum of Art

 

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Another view of the main building, which was built according to the recommendations of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, who felt that mental health facilities should give patients an opportunity to live calm, fulfilling lives.

The Ridges is one of my favorite places in town. It’s got beautiful old buildings, peaceful grounds, and lots of interesting history–which I recently read about in The Asylum on the Hill. Prior to that, I’d also had the privilege of getting a guided tour of the main building (now home to the Kennedy Museum) shortly after the facility was taken over by Ohio University. Of course, I’ve also heard many stories over the years from people who were probably more interested in drama than in accuracy–especially in relation to the story of “The Stain”, which was caused by decomposition of the body of an escaped patient who hid away, and died in, the asylum’s attic.

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To counteract bad and inaccurate press, and also to give visitors a chance to hear about the asylum from an experienced insider, the Athens Historical Society now runs tours led by George Eberts–a mental health expert who was based at the facility for nearly 20 years before being relocated to the new Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare building across the river.

Outside the old asylum
Our tour guide, George Eberts, can be seen in the black jacket and khaki trousers in the front right of the photo.

Ebert told us about the construction of the facilities, which were built from blueprints crafted by the architect Levi Scofield shortly after he left the army. The asylum was the first building designed by Scofield, who went on to create numerous other structures around Ohio.

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In addition to hearing about the architecture at the Ridges, we also found out about mental health treatment over the years. When the Athens Lunatic Asylum first opened, patients who were able led very “normal” lives there–they tilled fields, harvested crops, took care of livestock, went on walks, held picnics, and generally enjoyed as peaceful an existence as the caretakers could create for them.

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Black vultures seemed to be very attracted to the Kennedy Museum’s roof…
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…especially on the sunny side of the building.
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The vultures also enjoyed the roof of the energy station.

Eberts said that the system worked well for a couple of decades, but then began to experience difficulties as patient numbers exceeded the capacity of the building. Later on, there were also some issues associated with more unsavory treatment practices, such as electro-shock therapy and lobotomies. Interestingly, Eberts reported that both of these techniques were sometimes successful (and, in fact, the former is still used today), but are now viewed negatively at least partly because they were employed somewhat indiscriminately–and not always with sufficient permission from the patients.

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I like windows.
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A lot. 
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(Though they aren’t quite as attractive when boarded up.)

We also got to hear about some of the things that George experienced first-hand, including finding secret spots where patients relaxed and partied out of the view of their caretakers. He also told us about a time when some orderlies accidentally locked themselves in a room with one patient, leaving the rest of the residents on their floor to run wild; he also had a story about a caretaker who outwitted the authorities who came to bust him for taking a woman back to his room.

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The old grand ballroom is at the bottom left of the photo. We could see the relatively new brickwork joining the upper and lower windows of the two-story hall; when the ballroom was first in use, the windows used to stretch the entirety of the two storeys.
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The only thing better than windows is windows and vultures.
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…or you could just have windows. 

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Or doors. I just like portals, generally.

While working at the asylum, Eberts often came face-to-face with its history. He got the opportunity to explore many of its nooks and crannies, including the creepy basement. (However, asbestos prevented him from checking out the women’s wing, which he described as the atmospheric part of the building that everyone would visit if only they could.) He told us how he was once called out to help move a heavy stone staircase (shown below). Historical photos later revealed that it had been used by visitors who needed help gracefully descending from their carriages. On another occasion, he was sent into town to retrieve the decorative fountain that used to sit out front and had been sent off for repairs. The metal angel couldn’t be salvaged, but the stone base was returned and is now located in the asylum’s back “yard”–where it is overrun by weeds and is no longer home to the two alligators that used to lounge in its waters during the warmer months.

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Graffiti left by former asylum residents. It’s hard to read here, but it says something about how cheap locks can’t keep him in. This is some of the only “window graffiti” that can still be seen by visitors; most of the other examples are in areas that are now off limits.
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The old weighing house, in front of which trucks used to drive, first empty and then full, so that harvested crops could be weighed.

Although we spent the majority of the time focused on the main building, we also wandered around other portions of the grounds. We passed several of the “cottages” where later patients could live together in small groups, and we took in the one remaining greenhouse and root cellar. We also headed up the hill to visit one of the asylum’s three cemeteries; we saw the two graves where former Civil War soldiers–one white man from the Confederate side, and one black man from the Union side–are buried in close proximity.

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In the near future, OU is going to build an observatory on the hill behind these trees. George and his colleague Tom O’Grady–who teach astronomy together at the university–are lobbying for it to include a planetarium as well as a telescope.

At the end of the tour, George gave us permission (though I’m not exactly sure he was empowered to do so!) to head up the fire escape and peek through the windows into the abandoned women’s wing. You couldn’t see much except for some photogenically peely paint on the walls of empty rooms.

 

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The creepiest thing wasn’t the haunted house atmosphere so much as the vertigo caused by looking between the slats of the three-storey fire escape.
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A look inside the abandoned wing of the building.

Perhaps the best part of George’s presentation was the calm and humanizing way that he spoke about mental health issues, which left me with a greater sense of empathy and gave me a real appreciation for the work that he and his colleagues have done over the years at both the old and new incarnations of the asylum.

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Evening falls over The Ridges

I’m sure most people would raise an eyebrow if invited to visit an old mental asylum for the holidays, but, in our case at least, it was well worth the trip. We got to spend time outdoors on a beautiful sunny afternoon and hear about some fascinating local history. Hats off to George and the Athens Historical Society for hosting such an educational and generally pleasant event–their last one of the year, and a novel way to celebrate the winter solstice and my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary, which happened to fall on the same day. [Feel free to mentally insert your own joke about marriage and mental institutions.]  Thanks to the addition of an atmospheric flock of vultures and a prowling Cooper’s hawk, there was really nothing else I could ask for. Now we just have to figure out what kind of outing we can do next year in order to top this one!

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Updates: My dad did a newspaper story about George’s tours earlier this year. You can read it here. He also took some photos during our tour:

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My mom checks out the facade of the Kennedy Museum
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Sasha and I listen to George’s fascinating history of the asylum.