Letter from Ithaca: A Year End Review of Sorts

Table of contents:

I. The year horizontally: the view from the Temple of Zeus, Goldwin Smith Hall
II. Extracts from my two books-in-progress, Coach, and What Free Men Can Do: The Untold Story of the Winter War
III. My expanding world: notes from my first forays to the French Alps and Northwestern Russia
IV. The year vertically: a more or less random list of the most, least, best, worst, most frightening, funniest, weirdest, and otherwise most memorable moments, moves, meals, and people of 2008
V. Summer diptych: “Newport ’68″ and “My Summer of Finland”


(From the essay I wrote for the illustrated catalog for my most recent U.S. photo exhibit, The Cornell Zone: 1968-2008/ A photographic meditation, Fine Arts Library, Cornell University, May 19-September 29–)

Most American colleges and universities exist in separate spaces of their own. Cornell, as a result of an anomalous combination of such factors as its private/public mix, land grant status, quixotic history, relatively large size, and, not least, ability to manufacture its own line of dairy products–including its own ever-scrumptious chocolate milk (also known as chocolate moo)–exists, hovers (floats?), in its own discrete zone or radiation belt, at once bucolic, romantic, terrifying (is there anything more terrifying than walking across the gorges that criss-cross this star-crossed campus on a dark, lonely, mid-winter’s night?, mind-expanding, desolating. And, of course, photogenic.

The Cornell I found when this prodigal son returned to its bosom, in 2002–was vastly different than the one I had left over a quarter of a century before–In some ways it was better–in some ways worse…However the things that I had loved about Big Red were still there: the couples sitting on Libe Slope gazing dreamily into the distance; the miraculousness of Beebe Lake on a perfect autumn day. The sense of separateness, and yes, of wonderment–of far aboveness, you might say.

Greetings, once again, from my creative aerie here far above Cayuga’s waters, where I have just returned from my most recent sortie to the Wild North, more about which to follow–specifically from the Temple of Zeus, the coffee house in Goldwin Smith Hall, home of Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, from whence this writer graduated sometime in the late 20th century; and the same place–well, not exactly the same place: the original, much larger Zeus, located across the hall was, to the consternation of all Artsies [as they are known hereabouts] of a certain age, replaced by an auditorium, but that’s another story)–where he, or rather, I, began dreaming of making my mark in the Real World, as we used to call it, which putatively existed somewhere out there, beyond the becalmed, elm-lined, heavily squirrel-populated Arts quad and Cayuga’s waters. It was only a notion, really, something to be stirred and sipped while leafing through the latest New Yorker and gazing over one’s coffee at the cute co-ed (as we called them) at the next table.

Long ago, and far away, as Frank Sinatra used to sing, back in the day when Cornell had mandatory ROTC (officer training) and the sexes were separated, with the co-eds, who were then outnumbered by men by a three to one ratio, as they were when I arrived on The Hill–as this remote, Bavarian-like mount of learning in central upstate New York (I think it’s central, or is it western) is also known–wore bobby sox and were restricted to their own compound on the north side of campus on the far side of Cascadilla Gorge, and could only entertain men in their rooms on certain hours of certain nights of the week–parietal hours they were called–and only if said co-eds left their doors ajar. Ah yes, long ago and far away–

Of course, that was slightly before yours truly first trooped up The Hill back in the long ago, fall of 1968, just in time to witness and participate (after a fashion) in Cornell’s last panty raid, that time-honored campus ritual that took place after a large horde of concupiscent male undergraduates, who were then concentrated in a hideous group of large concrete Quonset-like huts at the bottom of the hill, who had gathered on Libe Slope to gaze up en masse at the Northern Lights, followed by someone crying out “Panty Raid!,” whereupon the whole, unruly, frothing mass of frosh charged up the hill towards Cascadilla Bridge and the women’s dormitories in the hope of seizing, yes, women’s panties. Which they did, with the aid of the bemused co-eds themselves, who were wont to dropped one or two pairs out the window to appease the baying frosh below. Whereupon they dispersed in more or less orderly fashion. Of course, this being 1968, what with the War, i.e., the Vietnam War going on, and the country and the culture going through a heavy transitional thing (to paraphrase Samuel Jackson in “Pulp Fiction), and Cornell’s students’ desire to be at least somewhat with it, the notion of a panty raid seemed a little bit too 1946. So out went panty raids, and soon enough, parietal hours, as well. And by the next spring, some of those same suped-up panty raiders were seizing buildings for other, somewhat more serious reasons. And well, as they say, the rest is history.

Ah yes, long ago and far away. And yet here I am again back at the Zeus. At the next table three shaggy-haired undergraduates are engrossed in an intense discussion of something or another. At another, a couple of English grad student types are sitting across from each other, holding each other’s hands while poring over their respective assigned tomes. At the next, another dreamy-eyed humanities looking type is staring into the middle distance dwelling on the eternal verities. Or maybe at that cute co-ed–sorry, undergrad–over there. Hmmm that could be me. Wait–that is me!

Scared me there for a second, Rod.

Ah yes, what would I do without Cornell? To paraphrase Robert Penn Warren, all roads, for me, lead back to Ithaca. Who would have thought?


Anyway, as usual, it’s been an interesting year here at Sander Media–if at times, too interesting, if that is possible. Productive too. And, of course, I am still alive, which is the key thing–not something one would normally take for granted, especially given some of the hair-raising moments we had this year, as noted in my “horizontal” review of this year in section IV of this epic, record-breaking (“all singing! all dancing”!), 12,000 word omelet of a letter about this record-breaking year.

Amongst other things, over the last seven months along I have:

– Made two more trips to Europe, including a six week summertime circumnavigation of the Continent which saw me visit six countries, a record for one journey–Finland, Estonia, Poland, France, Holland, England–and another one in the late fall to Finland, which included my second (yes, second) visit to Suomussalmi, the site of the most famous battle of the Winter War, the subject of my next book about the “forgotten” men and women of the winter of 1939, What Free Men Can Do: The Untold History of the Winter War–(and the closest to the middle of nowhere you will ever find [trust me: you don't know the meaning of lonely until you've spent a Saturday night in March in Suomussalmi]–” And my first eye-opening, only slightly transmogrifying foray into Russia!

– Received a contract for What Free Can Do from WSOY, Finland’s most eminent publisher, assuring that its publication next October–just in time for the 70th anniversary of the war–will be an event–(the US edition, to be published by Cornell University Press, is scheduled to be published later that winter..), as well as a wonderful personal milestone. And to think that it all began with a book about Finland written by the great Finnish historian Max Jakobson way back in 1977. And guess who is slated to write the foreword? That’s right–Max– Talk about closing circles–

NOTE FROM OUR PHOTOGRAPHY DIVISION: While you’re still in the Sander Zone don’t forget to check out the two new galleries of photos illustrating Gordon’s adventures in Finland and Russia on the Winter War trail we’ve mounted by clicking “Photography” and skiing down to “The Winter War Trail: Finland “The Winter War Trail: Russia–” (And don’t forget to take your gloves! Cold down there! [And please ask Gordon to pay us more!])

– Made my return to the pages of Hudson Valley Magazine, where I published one of my best journalistic works, the “Ivy Valley” (colleges of the Hudson Valley) series in the mid-90s, with “The Comeback Kid,” an article about Jesse’s Braverman’s amazing renaissance and “redemption” as coach of the LaSalle Cadets

– Mounted photo shows on both sides of the Atlantic, including a monster 5 site show about Cornell, “The Cornell Zone,” commemorating my 40 year relationship with my alma mater, as well as another show of female portraits, “Portraits de la Femme,” in Helsinki, another first.

ANOTHER NOTE FROM OUR PHOTOGRAPHY DIVISION: See many of the images from “The Cornell Zone” and other images of Cornell and Ithaca by clicking “Photography” and trucking on over to “Cornell/Ithaca.” And while you’re at it also see many of the images of from “Portraits de la Femme” in the “Helsinki 2008″.
(And please ask Gordon to pay us more!)

– Acquired my first cellphone, so you can now text me, gang. (And was I the last man on earth not to have a cell or what?..and incidentally, I keep it off most of the time–I may be connected now, but I like my disconnected moments–which also happen to be the moments when I am creative–but you know this–.)

– Held another mind-blowing all night session of my famed experiential “course” “Hanging Out: Ithaca” (the same one that was inspired by the all night course in hanging out I “taught” under the auspices of Network for Learning long ago and far away) for my senior munchkins at Risley College for Creative and Performing Arts. Didn’t make it to the Sculpture Gardens this year for that poetry reading at dawn, but my followers and I did manage to squeeze in a dance at the Haunt, followed by the traditional walk across Ithaca, culminating with obligatory brunch-cum-crayon drawing session at the State Diner.

– Hired four new staffers, including chief aide-de-camp Tal Gluck, Cornell ’11 to replace my outgoing, already sorely missed senior munchkin, Carolyn Bonilha, as well as three staffers or temporary staffers from Finland and Poland.

– Ended my sabbatical from the blues harp by blowing away two successive groups of
friends at my uber-cool apartment in Helsinki during my latest–and longest–five week sojourn in the Finnish capital, which is rapidly morphing into my third home, after Ithaca and New York. (This is how it breaks down: over the past year, I spent roughly six months or 50% the year in Ithaca, eleven weeks–or 19%–in Helsinki, nine weeks, or 18% in New York, and the remaining 11% on individual or successive sorties to Albany, Grenoble, The Hague, London, Wiltshire, Warsaw, Tallinn, Kolga (Estonia), Viborg (Russia), St. Petersburg, Petrozavodsk, and in transit

– Brushed up on my knowledge of the suicide squeeze, the pickoff and other vital baseball esoterica while cheering on the La Salle Cadets from behind home plate at the Cadets’ Norman Rockwell-like home field in Troy, New York–while also seeing at close hand such new, un-Rockwellesque phenomena as parents from hell! More about which below!


Yes, it’s been an interesting year. To a great extent, the contours of the year were shaped by my two major works-in-progress. One moment, it seemed, I was watching the Cadets run out base hits on their movable field of dreams in the endless spring of 2008 in the figurative wilds of upstate New York, the next I was driving down Raate Road, in the true wilds of north central Finland, the same road where Finnish ski troopers, Suomi machine pistols and Molotov cocktails in hand, methodically blocked and destroyed the Red Army’s 44th Division at the Battle of Suomussalmi, in January, 1940,

That’s kind of a big range there. Sure kept things interesting. Maybe a glimpse of the first few pages from the leads to two works-in-progress, of which I am unabashedly proud, will give you a better idea. If you read closely, you will note a stylistic symmetry between these the two works, which both start in the present tense. Just like my first book, Serling. (Ah yes, at Sander Media all literary roads lead back to “The Twilight Zone,” don’t they–)


(from “The Game,” the prologue to Coach)


A moment to remember from a coach’s life–

Time: a few minutes before one in the morning.

Date: June 12, 2008.

Place: Joe Bruno Stadium, just outside of Troy, New York.

The game: The New York State sectional championship game between the Cadets of LaSalle Institute, a Catholic military school near Troy, and the Columbia Blue Devils.

The inning: the top of the seventh.

The score: tied, 2 to 2.

Attendance: 4,264 rabid LaSalle and Columbia fans.

That’s the scene. Now let’s zoom in on the LaSalle dugout, where the Cadets, in their now well-soiled blue uniforms, are gathered together on the top step, anxiously watching the action, along with their coach, Jesse Braverman, a tightly coiled man of 57. At the moment, the Blue Devils have two runners on base, including the potential go-ahead run, on first and second.

This is by far the latest game the Cadets have played this season–or any other recent season, for that matter. The Cadets’ star pitcher, a lanky fifteen year old sophomore by the name of Dave Rosenboom, has pitched a magnificent game thus far.

Now, however, he is clearly tiring. Rosenboom has given up back to back walks to Devils. With one of the Devils’ most dangerous hitters, centerfielder Pat Fuentes due up, the momentum of the game–that crucial, elusive thing–seems to be tilting towards the Blue Devils. The eyes of hundreds of LaSalle fans are fixed on Rosenboom, trying to will the flagging pitcher the strength to power through the crisis and keep the game even–as those of the hundreds of LaSalle fans in the stands–as the lanky Fuentes steps up to the plate.

Braverman’s eyes, however, are fixed instead on the lead runner, Matt Montross, on second base and Chris Dedrik, the Devils’ coach, standing on the third base coach. Further zooming in, Braverman, who has perfect eyesight–and even better baseball antenna–notes what he later calls “unusual eye activity” between Montross, now leading off second base, and his coach, who is trying to look as casual as possible, ninety feet away. But Montross’s darting eyes give him away.

Time to bushwack the bushwacker. Quickly, Braverman gives his ace the pick-off signal. Successfully picking off a runner from second base is a tricky maneuver for any pitcher, no less a fifteen year old high school hurler, but Braverman has put Rosenboom through his paces well. A one-time high school star pitcher himself, Braverman has spent myriad hours in practice with Rosenboom and the other LaSalle pitchers demonstrating how, in order to take advantage of a potential pick-off situation, a pitcher needs to raise his front leg with his head looking directly at the batter and exhibiting no change in his normal posture when he delivers the pitch, in order not to telegraph his intentions, then when his front knee is at its apex, quickly pirouette around and throw a strike at the covering second baseman as the prospective thief makes a vain dive back to the base.

It’s a beautiful move when executed properly, something out of modern dance, and tonight it is indeed executed beautifully: just as his coach has taught him, Rosenboom wheels, LaSalle second baseman Brian Beaury covers, Montross is tagged out. As the LaSalle bench–along with their charged fans–erupt into startled cheers, Braverman allows himself a small private smile. The game isn’t over; not by a long shot. But something has changed; the players, as well as the fans, sense this too, a subtle, almost subliminal yet palpable feeling that the balance of the contest has altered, that the gods of baseball have crossed the field and lined up on LaSalle’s side. This feeling is confirmed when, on his next pitch, the fired-up Rosenboom strikes out Puentes, the Blue Devils’ star hitter. Puentes, who happens to be the cousin of the LaSalle catcher, Lukas Bridenbeck, had been looking for a curveball; Bridenbeck, guessing this, had instead called for a fastball. And down cousin Pat went, swinging. Greatness, as they say, is in the details. More cheers.

THE game continues.

It is the bottom of the seventh now. The score is still tied, 2-2. Momentum is still with LaSalle, but as Braverman knows–as everyone who is watching knows–that can change in an instant. Time to score; time to close the deal. Next up: LaSalle’s hard-charging second baseman, Brian Beaury. Braverman feels good about Beaury leading off because he is a patient hitter with a good eye who led the team in walks over the past season. On the other hand, Columbia’s fireballer, Gaige, gives no indication of tiring. The duel is on. The clock in left field shows that it is now one thirty, an unusual, almost unheard of time for a high school baseball game, but none of the four thousand fans watching the epic contest is leaving, and despite the late hour, there is no a yawn to be seen. They know that they are watching one of the greatest games they have ever seen.

Three pitches: one ball, two strikes. Looks like Beaury is going to be out of there pretty soon. But no, wait. Gaige calmly fires another fastball right down the middle, and Beaury just as calmly fires it up the middle for a single. LaSalle has had its lead off man on–.

The game continues–


(From “Dateline: Somewhere in Lapland (January 18, 1940,” the prologue to What Free Men Can Do: The Untold Story of the Winter War)


‘Tis on earth my cohorts contend.
Whosoever layeth down his arms.
Him shall I disown

–The Weary Soldiers, Yrjo Jylha

Out of the swirling blizzard poured the Finns, almost invisible with white capes covering their grey-green uniforms and white fur caps on their heads. Their machine guns barked and their knives were loose in their sheaths and they did not take many prisoners.

–from a mid-December report in Time, after the first major Finnish victory at Tolvajarvi

Only Finland, superb nay sublime, in the jaws of peril, Finland shows what free men can do. There, exposed for all the world to see is the incapacity of the Red Army and
the Red Air Force–

–from a BBC broadcast by Winston Churchill,
Lord of the Admiralty, January 19, 1940

Day by day, from Stockholm to Tokyo, an avid readership followed the fortunes of the Finns, much as they would have done a hotly contested tennis doubles–

–Richard Collier, The Warcos

The date: January 18, 1940. The place: somewhere in eastern Lapland, near the Fenno-Soviet border. The temperature: 36 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. The time: approximately 3 a.m.

The war between Finland and Russia has been raging for fifty days now–or roughly forty seven days longer than virtually all foreign observers, including the Soviets themselves–believed possible after the latter shocked the Finns, as well as the rest of the world, including their nominal German allies, with a massive, apparently well-coordinated land, sea, and air invasion of their western neighbour on November 30, 1939.

Some foreign observers, like English parliamentarian Harold Nicholson, professed to be surprised that the vastly outnumbered Finns had managed to put up any kind of resistance at all. On December 3rd, Nicholson smugly recorded in his journal that “the Finns are putting on a pretty good show.” However, he added, “they will collapse in a day or two. All they have to do,” he continued, “is to demonstrate a few hours of heroism [and] they are doing that.”

Russian generalissimo Joseph Stalin, a.k.a. as the Great Leader and his long-time crony and defence minister, Klementi Voroshilov, with whom he had once again stood shoulder to shoulder atop Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square at the most recent march-past of the Red Army at the 22nd revolutionary anniversary celebration on November 7th, evidently had roughly the same respect for Finland’s fighting ability. A day or two, a week at the most, and then, Stalin and Voroshilov were confident, the Finns would see the futility of resistance, sue for peace, and allow themselves to be reunited with Mother Russia, more or less as the former czarist provinces and erstwhile republics of Estonia and Latvia were in the process of doing (in September, having little alternative, Estonia and Latvia acquiesced to the Kremlin’s demand for sizable Soviet forces to be stationed in their territory; Lithuania followed suit thereafter).

The only thing that was remarkable to Stalin was that the stubborn Finns had not acceded to Moscow’s eminently reasonable (at least to his mind) territorial demands. The outcome was not in question. The only question was how long it would take.

But the Finns, to the astonishment of nearly everyone, themselves excepted, had refused to roll over. Instead, under the skillful generalship of their idiosyncratic septuagenarian commandant, Marshal Baron Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, the former tsarist general and commander of the victorious White forces in the Civil War, a man who genuinely feared a war with Moscow, had done all he could do to prevent it–his lightly-equipped army of three hundred thousand had fought the ill-trained, ill-clad ill-led, four-times-as-large Russian force to a standstill.

Finnish tactics were improvised. Encountering a Soviet armoured column, Mannerheim’s men would quickly lob a jerry-built fuel bomb or “Molotov cocktail,” at the T-26 tank at the point of the column–or, even more daringly, ski up and insert a satchel charge into the tank’s treads, immobilizing it–then do the same with the rear one. Motti, the Finns called the result– “cordwood.” Then the white-hooded guerillas would break cover en masse, more lethal “cocktails” in hand, and proceed to methodically incinerate the remaining “wood.” Already, in this manner, as the three hundred correspondents who had converged on Helsinki to report on the lopsided conflict had enthusiastically wired, telephoned and broadcast around the world–several Soviet divisions had been eliminated, one at Tolvajarvi, near Lake Ladoga, in the south, in early February–flanks harried, communications severed–before being methodically cut up into motti; then, even more recently, another two, in even more spectacular fashion, at Suomussalmi in central Finland, where the Soviets had originally had hoped to sever Finland in two..

NOTE TO FINNISH READERS: What Free Men Can Do: The Untold Story of the Winter War will be published by WSOY in October, 2009.

NOTE TO HELSINKIANS: I will be giving a reading from the work-in-progress at Arkipelag Bookstore on Tuesday, February 24th, 2009. Seating is limited, so be sure to get there early or else Ian the owner, aka “Ian the Gatekeeper” will bar you from entering with a friendly but firm Gallic shrug, smile, and locked door. I know of which I speak: the last time I tried to attend an event at Ian’s tres chic bookstore-cum-salon, I was barred admission and enjoined to watch the evening’s performance from the sidewalk (more about this memorable incident in section IV below). Fortunately, I was able to glean a particle of the proceedings because of my advanced lip-reading skills–at least I was until it got too cold to watch. So, unless you wish to incur the otherwise eminently amiable Mon. Bourgeot’s wrath, and/or you possess advanced lip-reading skills, I strongly suggest you arrive early! Thank you! Kiitos! Tack! (And merci beaucoup Ian!)


One of the things that keeps my life interesting is that every year my world–both in the topographical and psychological sense–is that every year it seems to expand to embrace a new place. In 2005, it was Greece and the Greek Islands. In 2006, it was coastal Norway and the Lofoten Islands. Last year, I added two new cities to “my world”–Warsaw and Rio. I mean, I didn’t just visit these places. These places are still indelibly lodged in my imagination: I sortie to them at 3 A.M. in the morning, when I am trying to will myself to sleep after a long day of creative combat. (Actually I “go” to Rio if I am trying to go to sleep, then keep swimming if I am still awake, or semi-comatose. Whatever.)

This year, I added two new points to my compass: the French Alps and Northwestern Russia, which I visited for “Financial Times” and Karelia and St. Petersburg, as part of my field research for What Free Men Can Do.

Herewith, excerpts from the final draft of the former, and my notes from the latter. Mind, the former was written for a very specific readership, i.e., the luxe loving readers of FT’s “How to Spend It” Magazine. As you will readily glean, I enjoyed myself immensely–so much so that I am already planning on returning to Grenoble, surely one of France’s best-kept secrets (the head of press of the New York office of the French national tourist board questioned why I even wanted to go there!). And Russia, well Russia, as you will see, was, as we used to say back in the day a trip!



(From “Long Luxurious Weekend in Grenoble,” for Financial Times How To Spend It)

Question: which European restaurant has the ultimate view to die for? My vote is with Chez Le ‘Per’ Gras, the four generation old dinery located high atop Grenoble, the elegant capital of the French Alps. Seated by the floor to ceiling window at sunset, with the cake frosting of the Alps in the distance and the lights of the city brewing up one by one is sufficient to put you in mind of a symphony by Berlioz. Who, as it happens, hails from Grenoble. The food is pretty out-of-this world, as well. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Question: what is France’s best-kept secret? Right again: Grenoble. Fine restaurants, suave hostelries, dazzling musea, tree-lined boulevards, top shopping, this compact city of 150,000 has all the requisite ingredients for the quintessential long, luxurious weekend. And then, of course, there are those views. Or as Grenoble’s most famous native son, Stendhal, put it: Au bout de chaque rue, une montagne. “At the end of every street, a mountain.” He wasn’t kidding. You’ll spend half of your time here looking up.

One of the reasons why Grenoble is relatively unknown is that non-Grenoblois think of it as far away. It really isn’t. It’s possible to fly direct to Grenoble–the city airport is only 20 kilometers out of town–but the train is really the only way to go. A short one hour’s hop from Lyons through the mountains and you’re there. And what a hop! David Lean couldn’t have scripted a more magnificent entrance.

Begin your culinary conquest of Grenoble as Napolean did back in 1813 with a royal repast at L’Auberge Napolean. Unfortunately it isn’t known what Bonaparte had to eat himself during his still celebrated two day visit, but I swore I heard the ghost of the Corsican suggest the raviolis du Dauphine aux champignone (ravioli stuffed with seafood), a local speciality, as the first entrée, followed by scallops with hot foie gras. Magnifique!

In the event, the Auberge no longer houses guests, however Grenoble lacks not for excellent places to stay. The swankiest address in the city proper is the luxe, seven story, Park Hotel, overlooking the lush, felt-like Park Mistral. Each of the 52 rooms at the hotel, a grande hotel with a distinct eccentric streak, is decorated in a different style. And dig that old telephone in the elevator. Be sure to book a room with a balcony. There’s no better place to enjoy the fireworks display on Bastille Day.

The swankiest address in Grenoble proper is the luxe Park Hotel overlooking the Park Mistral, the lushest of the immaculately manicured parks which ornament the town. A great hotel with a distinct eccentric streak, each of the Park’s 52 rooms is decorated in a different style; the bathroom in my seventh suite was big enough to live in. Be sure to book a room with a balcony. There’s no better place to enjoy the fireworks display on Bastille Day. And dig that old telephone in the elevator. Rumor has it that Stendhal himself answers it.

More in the mood for a chateau? Located ten minutes from the city center, the historic hostelry of the Chateau de la Commanderie offers lodgings fit for a king–or at least a dauphine. The castle, which dates to the 12th century and the days of the Viennes, comes with all the amenities, including a swimming pool, an ancient billiards room straight out of Cezanne, and a vast dining hall lined with portraits lined with portraits of some of the distinguished ancestors of the gracious owner, Marc de Beaumont, who’ll only be too happy to give you a tour–before introducing you to his beaming parents, who also live on the grounds.

Now that you are properly sited, make a beeline for the extraordinary Musee de Grenoble. Founded in 1798, the museum, perhaps the least-known of France’s truly great musea, is arranged so as to enable the visitor to trace the history of Western painting from Carolingian days to the modern day without interruption. A kind of Noah’s Ark of art, the museum boasts no less than 1500 works of art on its walls, including of many if not most of the recognized masters, from Rubens to Monet right up to Warhol. Watch out for the room devoted to the towering works of the great 19th dauphinois landscape painter, Guetal, and his peers. There is no more peaceful spot in France, I aver.

As long as you’re in a painterly mood, treat yourself to lunch at Fantin-Latour, the out-of-this-world restaurant named after Grenoble’s most famous artist son. Located in an ancient hotel particulier in the center of town, this very French affair is the creation of Michelin-starred “espoir chef” Stephane Froidevaux–

Continue walking into the center of town until you come to Grenoble’s main square, the charming Place Victor Hugo–which also happens to be the best place to people watch. Relax. Close your eyes. Listen to the fountains play. You’re having a Grenoblois moment.

Time to shift into shopping mode. Check out the “Rue de la Deco,” a tiny street adjoining the square where home interior shops neighbor each other. Local clothes designers Lola and Catherine Vitella also have sparkling outposts near by. Shop for avant-garde home design at Kartell. Galeries Lafayette, the town’s airy main department store, located near by, is also a great place to splash out away from the madding crowd.

Rest from your acquisitive labors with a cappuccino at Stendhal’s old haunt, the atmospheric Café de Table de Ronde, which likes to call itself France’s second oldest café. For dinner return to the Chateau de la Commanderie for a romantic meal by the pool. I recommend the warm oysters flavored with saffron, followed by veal terrine with mushrooms. Wind up your evening with a nightcap at the 1900, a groovy bar on the Place Notre Dame. Le Styx and Le 365 are also cool places to hang out until the wee hours, grab an impromptu dance with your partner and meditate on the good fortune that brought you to this enchanted world within a world in the heart of the French Alps–



From my notes from my eye-opening, slightly unnerving, and ultimately exhausting, multi-mission six day whirlwind tour to Northwest Russia, including:

–The once great city formerly known as Viipuri, once Finland’s second largest city, before the Finns were forced to cede it to Russia after the Winter War–before briefly regaining it during the subsequent Continuation War before receding it to the Kremlin following the end of that war within a war in 1944)–now a down-on-its-luck, edgy place where I wound up being lodged in the same hotel where the local mafia has its daily kaffe klatch. And which I couldn’t wait to leave.

–The startlingly, almost terrifyingly still intact, battle-scarred remains of the Mannerheim Line, the sixty mile long, heavily fortified defense-in-depth, stretching the width of the Karelian isthmus, past Viborg, which bore the brunt of the initial, failed Russian offensive in November, 1939, was the scene of the bulk of the fighting during the Winter War, and where the Russians, after regrouping and rearming were finally able to break through Finnish defenses the following February after regrouping and rearming their much larger forces and unleashing the largest artillery cannonade since Verdun. My first visit to a former battlefield–which still looks like a battlefield. And which I still can’t get out of my mind.

–Glorious St. Petersburg,. the truly great city formerly known as Leningrad, cherished apple of Peter’s eye, celebrated cradle of the Russian Revolution, scarred survivor of the longest and most murderous siege in history, i.e., the 900 day siege the city endured between 1941 and 1944 during which an estimated million Leningraders died–and the true casus belli behind the Winter War. Which I can’t wait to return to. And will, next month.

–Surprising Petrozavodsk, capital of Russian Karelia, home of Petrozavodsk State University, which I had asked my brilliant tour guide, Bair Irincheev, to include in my itinerary in order to meet the leading Russian academic experts on the Winter War, and which I only belatedly realized was ten hours away–via a cramped Dr. Zhivago-era overnight train; where I met a conclave of such experts, two conclaves actually (along with copious refreshments, of course), and was invited back in February to give a reading from the book. And where I learned, in most dramatic moment of the year, the electrifying result of the U.S. presidential election (for more about that milestone 2008 moment, see Section IV).

As you will gather, it was a very interesting trip, if at times too interesting, as it was on the morning of my second day, when I found myself temporarily marooned in the lobby of the Hotel Viborg, which I gleaned, was also a drop location for the local Mafia, or the morning of Day 6, on the train from Petrozavodsk to St. Petersburg when I made the mistake of saying something about radical Islam to that nice, gentile-looking dude from Azerbaijan–

Comes with the territory, as they say, when you’re–.(from the intro to the famed 1930 radio serial)




(October 31/Day 1).

Wake up in my room, 410, at the Klaus K, which the management has kindly set aside for me, psyched. It’s all set: I’m supposed to meet Bair, my guide/interpreter, who has made all the arrangements for this complex, multi-mission trip. I’m supposed to meet Bair at the main Helsinki station. Check my luggage: I have everything: guidebooks, three different types of antibiotics, maps, dress jacket for “Swan Lake,” twelve pairs of socks, three shirts, ear drops, the works, bunker-busting hiking boots. Zoom down to breakfast, check my email at the free computer at the check-in desk. And there’s an email from Bair. First curve: Bair–who has a thriving tourist company which specializes in taking foreign exchange students studying in Finland to Russia, with a side specialty in Winter War battlefield tours–can’t meet me at the station, after all. He has urgent business in St. Petersburg and will meet me at Viborg. Instead his assistant will meet me at the station with tic instead. Itinerary looks great. Just what I asked for: a day in Viborg, a day exploring the Mannerheim Line, three days in St. Petersburg, a day in Petrozavodsk to meet with Russian academics. Wow. Looks like Petrozavodsk is a bit further from St. Petersburg than I realized. An overnight train arriving at 7 a.m. and then turn around and take another back at 4 am? OK? Sure looks like action-packed. Hope I survive it all.

To the station in a fast, efficient (and expensive) Helsinki cab in utter darkness. Seven am and not a hint of light in the sky. This is Finland. OK. Bair’s assistant and I find each other. Board the train. Train is packed with semi-comatose passengers, mostly students it looks like, along with a few Russians–including a guy in his 60s (at least) with a gnarled face and a foxy girlfriend (?) who looks to be in early twenties. Mad artist? Pimp? Now there’s a novel right there. Freezing rain coats the window as we pull out, exactly on time. Close my eyes, excited, but also concerned–how, with my hearing, will I know when we get to Vyborg? Oh, I’ll manage, but still. This is Russia, or will be soon. Flipping through Lonely Planet, studying the maps for the three cities I will be visiting over the next six days: Vyborg, St. Petersburg, Petrozavodsk..Wow. Hard to believe: Russia. The next frontier! Huzza!

Freezing rain continues to pelt the windows. Finally, after about an hour, the train stops at the Russian border. Dramatic moment indeed. To think: ninety some odd years ago, Lenin, disguised, was on this train, crossing from the then semi-autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland back to Mother Russia, waiting warily in his seat as Nikolai’s border officials went through the cars, looking for suspicious persons. And now, here I am, on the same train–and now at the head of the car, those same officials’, post-Soviet equivalents appear, a line of six smartly dressed customs officers in green uniforms, slowly filing through, looking straight ahead, moving quickly–a police line. At their head is an older man trim, with a moustache, with a kind of pinched expression, a cross between mean and hurt, as much inner directed as outward, like that of a wounded lion, contemplating his revenge. That I felt, was Russia.

And now the officers are back, and now one of them–what is this?–looks at my passport and–what is this?–takes it, puts it atop a pile of other passports he has collected and disappears into the next car.

“When do I get my passport back?” I ask one of the officers, an attractive looking woman in her early twenties.

“In Vyborg,” she responds.


The journey continues.

And now we are pulling into another station, obviously a city. It looks like Vyborg, whatever Vyborg is supposed to look like. There is a garbled announcement.

As we sit there, in the grey morning, an inebriated teenager staggers past my window–my first Russian civilian.

“Is this Vyborg?” I ask one of the passengers.

“Yes, and if you are getting off at Vyborg you had better get off now, because we are about to leave.”

Wow. OK. I grab my luggage from the overhead rack and race to the door. At that same moment Bair appears at the head of the car. “Gordon!”

And we are off. A moment later the train leaves. And what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten off in time, I wonder. I would have gone on to St. Petersburg, sans guide, sans hotel reservations, and most importantly, sans proper train ticket–.

Whatever. And now we are in Vyborg. We trundle through the station, an old steely affair and emerge. At first glance, Vyborg seems a pretty grim place, particularly on a cold drizzly November morning. First item: to check in at our hotel, the Hotel Druzba. We hire a cab, or something approximating a cab and drive the half mile or so to the
Hotel. On the train I had checked the description of the hotel: “For views across the bay to the castle [Viborg Castle] this ugly place next to the bus station can’t be beaten..”

Yup, the Druzba, which resembles a kind of concrete accordion, sure is ugly. But who cares? I am only staying the night. I wait as Bair deals with the pleasant but stern babushka at the front desk. Alas, it seems that there is a problem. The hotel has no record of our reservations. Right. Bair apologizes. He will find another hotel. Sigh. Right. So this is Russia. Or at least, this is Vyborg. And Vyborg doesn’t feel all that welcoming. Shades of Tallinn, circa 1994, before the Baltic boom.

However, as they say, first impressions can be deceptive–Not to worry says Bair. He knows of another place: the Hotel Vyborg. But of course. I check Lonely Planet. The Viborg is not listed. Not that that necessarily means anything.

Bair orders another cab. Schlep to cab, just a grimy car driven by a sullen looking young man. And off we are to the Hotel Vyborg at a fast-paced 20 mph–

And here we are at the fabulous Hotel Vyborg. If nothing else, it’s centrally located, right off Leningradsky, the main drag. And this time there is no trouble at the desk–except of course, the unnerving request to surrender my passport. Not to worry, Bair assures me, you’ll get it back in an hour. We squeeze into the smallest elevator I have ever been in and up we go. Slowly. Slowly. Down a yellow hall to my room. And here’s my room. Well, it’s kind small. And it faces the back of a factory–or is that a prison? But at least the tv works, and hey, we’re only to be here one night. Cool.

And now we are off on a walking tour of downtown Vyborg. Off we go, Bair leading the way, down Leningradsky. The glum-looking building across the street would be, I gather, the Alvar Aalto Library, designed by the great Finnish architect in 1935, four years before the Winter War, when Vyborg was still Viipuri–and before the Russians “renovated” it with a granite façade, whereupon its creator disowned it. Can’t blame him..

And we are in the main, cobblestone square which features–surprise!–a large, almost corpulent statue of Lenin. Bair, an author himself, seems to have his history down, remarks that the square was the site of an important ceremony in 1944, after the Finns had to formally resurrender the city. Looking around, it’s hard to believe that this place was once one of Finland’s great cities. Here and there, looking around, one sees some buildings from the Finnish era, but they are overshadowed by their blunt-nosed Soviet era neighbors. The word that comes to mind is mongrel.

Lunchtime. Bair knows a place upstairs somewhere. Fine. The place is not bad, though the young waitress looks like she has a gun at her head. I order chicken kiev. Not bad. Not exactly good, but not bad. Bair, whose travel business has been doing exceedingly well, spends most of his time on the phone, while I thwack away at my chicken kiev as the other diners take discreet peeks at us. In between calls, Bair breaks the news. Unfortunately he will not be able to spend the night with me–he has business to attend to in St. Petersburg. He will join me in the morning, as per our itinerary, for the tour of the Mannerheim Line.

Fine, no problem. I can fend for myself. Anyway, I’m interested to see the nightlife in Viborg. “I wouldn’t advise that,” he replies. “Vyborg has one of the highest levels of street crime of any city in Russia.” Right. Ok, I guess I will hang back at hotel. No problem.

And now we are off again to continue our walking tour of Vyborg. We zigzag through the sad streets of Vyborg, Bair providing (literally) providing commentary, past the handsome, if a bit ragged looking blue-domed Transfiguration Cathedral, built in 1787, past rows of crumbling, grafitti-defaced buildings, to the 17th century Clock Tower, as a trio of giddy teenage girls, all three holding hands, skip past–the first genuinely happy people I have seen here yet. And now we are stopping at the literally bombed out skeleton of an old church, only the walls standing–A famished cat skulk out from the ruins. Desolation row, Russian style…

Off across the bridge to the admittedly impressive Vyborg Castle, “rising stoutly from a rock” (as Lonely Planet puts it). One of the most memorable images from the Winter War is that of the castle, on fire, on the last day of the war, with the Finnish flag still flying. If you look at the top of the crenelated behemoth, built by the Swedes in 1293, you can still see it. The castle is about to close; no time to see the museum. One quick walkabout of the ramparts. Now it’s time to get back to the hotel. It’s getting dark. Bair has to leave. He tries to hail an empty cab, but the driver either doesn’t see him or ignores him. Is it because of his Asiatic looks (Bair’s father is from Siberia), I wonder?
Bair shrugs it off. We walk back to the hotel, stopping at the indoor food market. Before we enter, Bair warns me to watch my wallet. Inside there are dozens of vendors, offering all sorts of fruits and candy, all clearly desperate for my business. I buy a bag of candy. A young boy follows us out, trying to sell us maps, phone cards. Bair politely but sternly put him off.

Interesting day. Back to the hotel. Nap. Go downstairs to check out the scene in the hotel. I have read in the guide that there is a halfway decent nightclub in the hotel.
Wander over to the café, where I immediately find myself stared at by group of identically dressed, thick-headed black clad men, one of whom makes a joking reference about me to one of his buddies. So this is that sort of place. Shades of the Hotel Olympia, Tallinn, ca. 1992. The only thing missing are the silver chains. I am in Mafia Land.

OK. Been there, seen that. No thank you, Ma’am. I make to return to my room and two heavily made-up women appear from around the corner, obviously hookers, and try to get into the elevator with me. I step aside, allow them to get into the elevator themselves, step back. No spasiba. Doubleback to the lobby, as other garishly dressed girls flood in–it is, after all, Saturday night. Twenty minutes later, after managing, with difficulty to get into the elevator by myself, I return to my room, lock the door, and spend the rest of the night watching the goulash that is Russian tv–

(Day 2/November 1)

OK. Day 2. Up and at ‘em. Onto the Mannerheim Line! Unlock the door, walk down the stairs to the breakfast area, a fairly large place with a decent spread beneath a massive tv screen featuring a mélange of Russian music videos, one more cartoonish than the next; not the best thing for the digestion. But the porridge is excellent. The breakfast attendant, with a face right out of Dostoevky, looks extremely sad. I suppose I would be sad, too, if I had to live in Vyborg.

Time to check out. Bair had said he would meet me at 10 a.m. sharp in the lobby. Trundle to the capsule-cum-elevator with my bags, squeeze in. The door actually closes, and it’s actually moving, and now it feels like it’s falling (thoughts of doomed Soviet space dog). OK. Here we are in the lobby. Ten sharp. No Bair. No problem–

Ten fifteen. No problem. Anyone can be late. I wander across the lobby to the café, order a coffee from the stone cold waitress. It’s Saturday morning and the place is empty except for two identically dressed Mafioso types who are having a coffee. The larger one, a burly Tony Soprano look-alike, gives me a quick once over without breaking his conversation, then looks back at his partner. I look down at my coffee. In strides another all black-clad fellow, who greets Soprano manqué and slips him something, obviously money. Soprano laughs; the bagman laughs, the other fellow laughs. Evidently Saturday morning is pay off time round the Vyborg.

Anyway, I think I’ve quite enough of Vyborg, thank you.

It is nearly 11 am now. No Bair. I fear that I am beginning to lose my ironic detachment Where the– Check out time is noon. Time to call Bair. I ask the receptionist if she speaks English if she speaks English. “Yes,” she says, brightly.

Great. I give her Bair’s card and, pointing to my hearing aid, ask her whether she could call Bair for me, whereupon I draw a blank.

One more time: “Do you speak English?” “Yes,” she answers brightly again. Then–
And the charade continues.

Ah yes, the joy of travel. Already I have images of schlepping with my luggage to the train station and returning to Helsinki. Maybe those guys over there will help me. Sigh.

Fortunately, this does not become necessary. Bair shows, apologizes. Traffic. No problem. Ah yes, the joy of travel.

And we are off. Bair introduces me to his friend, Constantine, a redheaded man in his 20s who is our driver for the day. Constantine is driving a green, rather shambolic, yet sturdy station wagon. Sturdy is good. We’re going to need sturdy today.

Leaving Vyborg. A blur of Soviet era Brezhnev blocks, their drabness slightly alleviated by rows of garish advertising boards. Before we leave Vyborg, however, Bair has something to show me. We pull up, get out. Constantine remains in the car, staring ahead. This is to be the form for the rest of this extraordinary day. Constantine drives, we get out, Constantine stays in the car, Bair expatiates.

A surreal sight greets us. There, in the island in the middle of a roundabout is what appears to be a brand new 1939 vintage Soviet T-34 (?) tank. Well, not quite, Bair explains. The tank, a bona fide veteran of the war, fell into a river, its crew drowning with it. It had only recently been found, sans crew, and monumentalized by the grateful citizens of Vyborg–

Thirty minutes later we are back in November, 1939, along with the ghosts of Meretskov’s troops, sloshing through the mud of the Mannerheim Line in search of the Million Dollar Bunker and the myriad ghosts of the Winter War–



And here, finally, without further ado, and in no particular order, are some of the most/least memorable moments, moves, meals, experiences, events, and people of 2008–

Roll’ em Mack! Lights!


Hotel Maisky, Petrozavodsk, Russia. November 4th. 7: 12 Russian time, 10:12 Pacific Standard Time.

Turning on the dinky tv set in my hotel, after arriving in the capital of Russian Karelia in a sleep-deprived state, desperate for news about the election that had taken place in my faraway home country, and finding, amidst a sea of cartoon-like Russian morning tv, a blurry screen from Euronews showing John McCain preparing to make his concession speech. And realizing that–no, yes–I was beginning to cry. Unbelievable! Yes, this was the expected result, but still–.Wow!

When I left that hotel a few hours later, I was still sleepy, but I was proud! Go USA!
Now, when was the last time I–or you–felt like that?!


Joe Bruno Stadium, Troy, New York. June 12th, ca. 1 a.m.

Watching Will Remillard, the second baseman of the La Salle Cadets, the baseball team coached by my old elementary school friend, and current subject, Jesse Braverman, hit a clutch single up the middle in the bottom of the seventh inning to drive in the go-ahead run and break a 2-2 tie in the rain-delayed, hitherto perfectly matched sectional championship game against their fellow upstate New York baseball team, the Columbia Blue Devils to extend the Cadets’ winning record to an unbelievable 27-0–and send the jubilant Cadets into the familiar victory scrum on the mound. And the hundreds of patient La Salle fans in the stands into hysterics.

What a moment! To me, the Cadets’ electrifying victory–which turned on a key pick-off play that Braverman smartly called in the top of the inning that stopped the Devils from taking the lead in the top of the inning, and which his ace pitcher, Dave Roseboom just as smartly executed–epitomized both Braverman’s extraordinary personal turnaround, as well as the equally extraordinary resurgence of the Cadets, a formerly ok team which Braverman has forged into an athletic powerhouse. And isn’t it a nice coincidence that I happen to writing a book about him?)


Persevering with my book about the Winter War, at my own expense, despite the lack of a contract for same–until this year–because I believed in it, a move that has since been validated with go-aheads for the book from Cornell University Press and WSOY–

Now What Free Men Can Do, aka The Hundred Day War, looks set to be one of my most successful projects. And yet, there was a time, not so long ago, when Finns–who are now dying to read my tome [aren't they?]), were skeptical about the reason or need for–another book about the famous, as well as most written about episode of their history. Just as, at one time, or another, people were skeptical about the need, reason, or marketability of a biography of Rod Serling or a book about the Frank Family–

Moral of the story: ‘ya gotta believe. Or, as “Father G” is fond of telling his Cornell flock: there are two kinds of people in the world–people who make things happen, and people who have things happen to them–.


Hiring the Michael “Tal” Gluck, Cornell ’11, as my chief Ithaca aide-de-camp.

Tied: hiring Mariia “Mau” Vuori as my Helsinki assistant, and Marketta Tirgum, as my Suuomussalmi assistant for the Winter War book, respectively.


London, August 7.

Forgetting to read the print out of the e-ticket from Estonian Air for my 9:30 flight from London to Tallinn until I was aboard the 7:30 train from Livingston to Stansted–and discovering that Estonian Air–surprise!–now flew out of Gatwick Airport, which is in another part of England altogether. .



The cabbie I breathlessly hired upon arriving at Stansted to drive me to Gatwick (some seventy miles away), and who proceeded to veritably fly me there. (Yes, I made the flight.) Cheers, mate–you can shut off the afterburners now!

Moral: when you are flying out of London find out which of the four international airports serving southern England your airline flies out of. It’s just possible that your airline had switched airports during the interim, as mine had.


LAX, February 15th.

Leaving my spare set of hearing aids in my seat compartment, the latest of a series of a seemingly never-ending series of valuables I have left on planes and buses.


Well, I miss all of my assistants, but Carolyn, who was my principal assistant from December of last year through June of this year will truly be missed. Like all the assistants–or munchkins, as I like to call them–who have worked with me at Cornell, Carolyn (who also goes by the moniker Carolyn Valentine) I met Carolyn via Risley College of Performing and Residential Arts. However, unlike my previous Riz-assistants, who worked for me while they were undergraduates at Cornell, she had already graduated from Cornell and from Risley by the time I hired her late in last year. In Carolyn’s case, she had spent a year in New York, where she had toiled as a columnist at a garment industry newspaper while living in Bushwick, before deciding, along with her boyfriend and fellow Risleyite J.J. Manford–who also has done brilliant work for me (and from whom I commissioned my first portrait of myself [more about which below]–that she had had enough of Gotham and the Real World, and wished to return, at least for a while, to Ithaca, whereupon I hired her

Lucky me. Because Carolyn was not a student and her position with me was in effect her only job–and because the rent for the room in the Varna farmhouse she was sharing with J.J. was only $300 (which was roughly what she earned from me during an average month)–I was able to give her more work of different kinds, without worrying about how it meshed or not with her school work–and she, in turn, was able to do proportionately more work, of different kinds, for me.

Each of my assistants–who become my chief researchers, co-curators, proofreaders, secretaries, and most importantly I like to think, my friends–bring something special to the job. Carolyn brought a lot of special qualities to the position, including, amongst other things, a flair for public relations, a genius for “deep” research, and last but not least, a singular sense of humor. To be sure, one of the chief prerequisites of working for me is a sense of humor. It also helps immensely if you can write, and as you see from the following excerpt from Carolyn’s hilarious, fine-tuned “end of term” essay that I require departing assistants to write for the benefit of future aspiring munchkins, Ms. Bonilha nee Valentine, has both qualities in spades:

“So you’ve decided to work for Gordon, or why joining forces with the Gman is the sanest crazy thing you’ll ever do–

If you typically sleepwalk through work with your eyes half shut, and a hangover, this ain’t the gig for you. Future office drones, apply elsewhere: the surreal rollercoaster that is working for Gordon F. Sander is not for the faint of heart.

If good ol’ left brain is wondering what exactly you’ve gotten yourself into, never fear: there are rational explanations. Gordon pays better than your average work-study job; he’s more flexible as well. And, for you Cornellians dutifully obsessing about your future, the position looks great on your resume..

But right brain, rejoioce! For the true spirit of working for Gordon lies not in what you’ll include on your resume, but what you’ll leave off. From one week to another, yoou might find yourself buying Jack Daniels for one of his raucous gorge-side parties, or furiously crayoning Hello Kitty coloring sheets circa 1 a.m. at the State Diner–Certainly no resume could capture the fine-tuned absurdity of your weekly meetings, which are equally likely to take place over coffee in a corner of the Green Dragon (“the only spot they haven’t bugged”) or on the Arts Quad feeding squirrels (I swear, he knows their language–working for Gordon is never predictable, frequently hilarious, and makes for great conversation at parties.

Gordon is also an inspiration for anyone embarking upon a creative career. He’s a pretty rare bird: a freelance writer and photographer who’s managed to live off his idiosyncratic interests for over 30 years (no mean feat, especially when said interests include ‘The Twilight Zone,’ military history, dada, and ‘Baltic babes,’ in no particular order). You’ll see him in action as he juggles half a dozen projects at once via the sheer strength of his multi-tasking powers. He’ll give you valuable advice on how to balance your passions with the necessity of getting paid, and dole out indispensable mantras for the successful creative life, including ‘Making it Happen,’ ‘Do It To It,’ and ‘Every Day in Every Way I am Getting Better and Better.’ He’ll even tailor the position to your interests, creating assignments based on your strengths and allowing you to spearhead your own initiatives. In short, you’ve got yourself a mentor.

But perhaps the best thing about working for Gordon is that he’s not just your boss–he’s your friend. No topic from his past is off-limits, from busting out of Cornell with a 0.0 GPA to getting ‘naturally high’ with Robert Redford, to teaching motley crews of New Yorkers the fine art of ‘Hanging Out.’ And he’s genuinely interested in you, too. He wants to know what you think, where you’re coming from, what you’d tweak in his latest opus. If you can’t get out of bed for a day because the miniature dachshund you have adopted has been shipped off to a new family, he’ll commiserate. Existential crises, academic meltdowns, family hassles, romantic woes–Gordon’s got your back–

So, if you’d rather punch in your card and leave when the whistle blows, you’d better seek employment elsewhere. Otherwise: Welcome to the club. Please fasten your seat belt. You are now entering–The Sander Zone..

Perhaps you can understand, after reading Carolyn’s dead on squib, why Carolyn, who has moved to the Bay Area and is now working at Memoir magazine, not only has a bright and bodacious creative future of her own to look forward to, but will always be a member of my club.

(And incidentally, I do speak “squirrel.”)


Hotel Klaus K. Helsinki. March 8th. Inducer of hysterics: Don Davis.

Watching the video which my old friend and buddy Don Davis–who had flown to Helsinki to hang out with me there for a reunion tour of the Balt–had, unbeknownst to me, filmed, which included a lengthy sequence showing me eating some very bony chicken legs, which I repeatedly spit out. Absolutely the stupidest footage of myself I have ever seen. Laughed so hard I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Congratulations, Don, and thanks for the memory!


Cooper Union auditorium. March 3rd.

Watching my brother, Lee, the executive director of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the regional New York transportation authority also known as the MTA, faultlessly deliver his first State of the MTA address before an audience of over one thousand of his employees, press, and my mother and I.

Well done, Clip! I am proud of you! And so are we all–


Fine Arts Library, Sibley Hall, Cornell. September 19th.

Personally welcoming Cornell President David Skorton to the majestic Fine Arts Library, –which he had never actually visited before–and giving him a guided tour of my most recent photo exhibit there, “The Cornell Zone: 1968-2008.”


Cornell Club, New York, March 13th.

Being told by Jack Polack, the 95 year old Chairman of the Board emeritus of the Anne Frank House, and a survivor of the Dutch Holocaust himself (as well as the author of an excellent memoir about the same), who had sought me out after reading The Frank Family That Survived that in his opinion my book was the best general history of the Dutch Jewish experience during the war that he had come across. High praise indeed, from a very “high” man himself!

Second place:

L’Uriage spa, L’Uriage, France. July 19th.

Having the singer at the traditional Wednesday afternoon dance dedicate a dead on rendition of Edith Piaf’s “No regrets” to me and proceed to channel Piaf, as the band played on, on a magical, sunny afternoon at the famed spa, on the outskirts of Grenoble, in the fastnesses of southeastern France–


St Petersburg, Russia, November 2nd.

Being greeted by Nikolai Bavin, a former, highly decorated Red Navy sailor, in full regalia–including his medals white naval dress cap–at the entrance to his rather tatterdemalion apartment block, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, when I visited him to interview him for my book about the Winter War–


From Scott Morrisey, a member of the LaSalle Cadets, June 27th.

The email I received from Scott, while I was working on a feature about his coach, Jesse, for Hudson Valley Magazine, in response to my question to him about what he felt he learned the most from Jesse. Several days before the upstate sectional champs (see above) had suffered their first and only loss of the season in the state semi-final game at Binghamton when they were defeated in a hard-fought game by No. 1 Mamaroneck.

After the game, I watched on as Jesse gave his last post-game talk of the season to his down-hearted players. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but as he spoke, I could see that his talk had an impact. When the players got to their feet, they still looked a bit crestfallen, but they also radiated pride. Scott’s moving email gives you some idea why Jesse is such a beloved, as well as successful, coach.

“I got home very late last night after I wrote you. I was lying in bed and thinking about what affected me most about Coach Braverman. I’d have to say that it was his talk to us after our last game and only loss for the state’s semi-final. He said how he wasn’t disappointed that we lost the game. He said that whether we won or lost the state’s, either way the season was coming to an end and that what was most disappointing to him was the fact that it was the end of the season and that–he wouldn’t have the privilege of working with us as a team anymore. That is something that I think I will always remember–”

SO will we Scott! Read more about Coach Braverman’s winning touch in our forthcoming book–


The email I received this summer from a long lost friend of my grandparents, Flory and Myrtil Frank, the subjects of the The Frank Family That Survived, who had met my grandparents in 1947 on the S.S. Rotterdam, en route from Holland to New York, who had gotten in touch with me–via this site–after a friend of hers had given the book to her, to tell me of her delighted shock at discovering that the Franks of the book were the very same Franks she met and befriended fifty years ago. And to say, of course, how much she loved the book–



Musee de Grenoble, Grenoble. July 11.



National Museum, Warsaw. With Zuzanna Obajtek. July 7th.

Ateneum. With Mau Vuori. November 7th.


Dauphinois school of Alpine landscape painting, as exemplified by the works of Laurent Guetal.


St. Petersburg.


Swan Lake. Little Hermitage Theater. November 4th.


“No Country for Old Men,” directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, (2007)

” Vivre sa vie (Her Life to Live), directed by Jean-Luc Godard (1962)


The first bravura chase scene at the beginning of “No Men,” after Josh Brolin returns to the massacre site, where he is discovered by the murderers, who follow him in a searchlight-mounted truck and shoot him while driving at him, injuring him, whereupon the wounded Brolin jumps into a river, and the murderers sic a pit bull on him who swims after Brolin, who gets out of the river, cocks his gun and shoots the dog at his feet–all in the course of no more than three minutes.

The legendary, exultant dance scene in “Vivre sa vie,” in which down on her luck clerk-turned-hooker Anna Karenina,, puts a dime in a jukebox in a semi-deserted Parisian club and shimmies around a pool table while the earnest young man at the table has a progressively difficult time concentrating on his game.


Born Standing Up by Steve Martin.


900 Days by Harrison Salisbury.


Old Books, the wonderful secondhand bookstore on the Ithaca Commons where


Arkipelag Bookstore, the fantastic new English-language bookstore opened by my friend, Ian Bourgeot, in Helsinki, which, in addition to having an extraordinary collection of vintage paperback and hardcover books of all sorts, has also become a cultural salon


The performance of a Mickle Mahler play by the Finn-Brit players of Helsinki which they put on at the Arkipelag bookstore in Helsinki on November 19th–to which I was barred because I came too late (sorry Ian!), but which I enjoyed nonetheless


Reading of the passing of my all-time favorite actor, the late great Paul Newman.


Cool Hand Luke
The Hustler
The Verdict


Kolga estate, Kolga Estonia. March 14.

The heart-stopping moment that occurred during the tour given by the curator of Kolga, a massive, 17th century mansion located near the northern Estonian coast, when the latter was talking about how Kolga was haunted–and simultaneously, as if to confirm this, there was a strange, clanging sound (which even if I could hear) from the next room–

I don’t believe in ghosts–but trust me, this was scary!


Ithaca, October 1st.

The excruciatingly long, frightening morning when I stopped hearing anything–even after I inserted both of my hearing aids. Had I suddenly lost the pathetic remainder of my hearing in one fell swoop? (In which case, of course, there must, perforce, be something else wrong with me besides my hearing–) No, it developed, as I discovered to my profound relief after dashing to my ear doctor, and saying a few prayers while the in house audiologist examined my aids (please God let it be the aids–) both aids had simultaneously malfunctioned, something which had never occurred before. Phew!


Room 213. Standard Hotel. Los Angeles. February 15th. Sometime between 5 and 6 a.m.

Having a coked-up, goon-like “limousine driver” threaten to throw me out the window, when I tried to extricate a friend (who shall remain nameless), who had had one too many from the room where they were partying–

Thus continuing the star-crossed history I have had with L.A. that began in July, 1969, when I first visited the City of Angels several days after the Manson Family murders, and was renewed two decades later when I researched my biography of Rod Serling–and, amongst other things, wound up having an anxiety attack that culminated with me lying on a slab in the emergency room of Cedars-Sinai Hospital, a.k.a. “the hospital of the stars–”

What is it about me and L.A.?

“–I am a travellin’ man–all over the world–” (Ricky Nelson)



Lyons to Grenoble–especially the last twenty minutes, after the train comes down through the mountains– July.

Petrozavodsk to St. Petersburg– Paging “Dr. Zhivago!” November.


The foul, sardine-packed train from Paris to The Hague. July.


The super-comfy, non-stop campus-to-campus bus from Ithaca to New York that delivers me in style from the Cornell campus to the Cornell Club in Manhattan in four hours flat–as opposed to the dreary (if reliable) Short Line bus which takes five and a half hours, makes two stops, and culminates in the horrid New York Port Authority Bus Terminal, my least favorite building in New York.


Pytipanna (Finnish concoction of meat, ham, and potatoes) served aboard the train from Suomussalmi, in central eastern Finland, to Helsinki. March 14th.


The ham sandwich, or unreasonable mile thereof, tossed at me by the semi-comatose attendant on the train from London to Wiltshire, England. July 27th.


The Sibelius Express, from St. Petersburg to Helsinki. November.


The brownish, miasmic liquid served aboard the train from London to Wiltshire. (See above.)


I forget.


Don’t ask–

“People–people who need people–are the luckiest people in the world..”


Lee. Ithaca. May 16th. After my brother, who owns and operates his own plane, decided on the spur of the moment to fly upstate to see my photo exhibit before it came down.


The Hague. July 28th. The languorous, sentimental afternoon I spent with my mother at the Gemeentemuseum, the Municipal Museum of The Hague, the city where she grew up and hid for three years from the Germans during World War II, which ended with the two of us sitting in the garden united in reverie–


Scheveningen. July 29th. Having dinner with Mom by the beach in Scheveningen, while she regaled an absolutely fascinated Dutch waitress with her extraordinary life story–the same one memorialized in my book–which of course waitress said she had to buy!


My dear friend and colleague, Pierre de Gasquet, correspondent for Les Echos, the influential French business newspaper, who was assigned to New York to become chief of the paper’s office here, and his lovely and talented wife, Ariel and daughter.

“You’ve got to fight for your right–to party”



Dancing, rapping, and moseying around downtown Ithaca with my friends from Risley College during my annual “Hanging Out” course. May.


The night Zuzia O. and I checked out the nightlife scene in Warsaw and danced up a storm at “Cafeteria!” Dzien cu, Zuzia! Let’s do it again!


Mama Juures, Tallinn. With Don Davis. March.


Elite, Helsinki, with Mau, to celebrate the WSOY contract. November.

Maxie’s, Ithaca, with Sarah, to celebrate our friendship.


Chateau de Commanderie, Grenoble, with Andrea Matho.


My annual fall party for the Ris-kids at headquarters, October, at which both my first assistant, John “X” Carey Cornell ’89 and my current chief assistant, Tal Gluck ’11–who was born the year John (who was awarded his “X” in return for undercover work he performed during the research for my first book, Serling) were present. Two generations of Sanderites! As Gomer Pyle would say, Golll-eeee!


The party I threw at my Helsinki flat in November for my Helsinki assistant, Mau, and her friends, to thank her for her work, which was notable, amongst other things, by a deeply felt (if slightly insane) blues harp performance by the writer


The smaller but no less enjoyable reception I gave for some of my older Helsinki friends
at the same flat several days before, which was notable, amongst other things, for a slightly blotto question and answer session between my friends and I about what I will do if and when I become U.S. ambassador to Finland–as well another, no less deeply felt blues harp performance.


The lovely birthday party for me hosted by my friend and collaborator Sorrel Tomlinson at the Mondriaan during my most recent, star-crossed visit to Los Angeles at which numerous members of the California “chapter ” of my “fan club” attended, including my Swedish friend and former protégé, Louise Tornehave, and former Risleyite Brad Davis.

There are friends–and there are friends–


With Steve Burkund, formerly known as “Steve Freak,” the same Collegetown denizen who rented the closet of my C-Town apartment for $5 in the fall of 1970–and who I hadn’t seen since!. February. , San Francisco. (For more about Steve and the by gone world of C-Town and the Cornell of the late 60s and early 70s see my novel-in-progress about same, “C Town Blues,” in the Books section of this site.)


With my dear cousin, Harriet Spitzer. February., San Francisco.


Alvar Gullichsen, artist, musician, regular guy.


Mau Vuori, my Helsinki assistant.

ST. GORDON AWARD (comes with complimentary restorative keg of whiskey):

To those friends on both sides of the Atlantic who provided significant, continuing, and above and beyond moral and/or material support to my activities, and without whom much if not most of what I produced and achieved over the last year would not have been possible: :

Debbie and Jesse Braverman (Albany, NY)
John Carey (NY)
Michael Franck (Helsinki)
Ami Hasan (Helsinki)
Sarah Jacobs (NY)
Erkki Kallunki (Helsinki)
Matthew, Rose, and John Keegan (London/Kilmington)
Nick Lambrou (Ithaca)
Christian Moustgaard (Stockholm)
Ilkka Ranta-aho (Helsinki)
Ron Simon (New York)
John Zissovici (Ithaca)

Hospitality is a state of mind–


New York:

Cornell Club of New York
Gershwin Hotel


Hotel Klaus K


Hotel Telegraaf



Bair Irinchev

Celine Chivot


The lovely hostess–whose name escapes me–at the guest house at Kolga Manor, Kolga, Estonia.


Mathis Jackson, also known as “The Gatekeeper,” Risley Dining Hall, Cornell.


Erkki “I don’t remember” Kallunki, owner of Tori


Le 1900, Grenoble France.


New York:


Helsinki (tie):



State Diner, Ithaca.


The absolutely delicious dinner I had with my friend Dienke Hondius and Jan Erik Dubbelman of the Anne Frank House at a restaurant somewhere in the middle of Amsterdam harbor


Anything my mother cooked for me.


Anything I ate at Kilmington Manor, the home of my dear friend and mentor Sir John Keegan, and his lovely and talented author cum-chef where I spent a weekend in July.


The cheesecake at Café Engel, my favorite cafe in Helsinki.

Grab bag:


That you can be arrested for throwing food in Finland–as I discovered when I was shopping for a party in November with Mau, tossing this package of goodies and that into my carton in best “Animal House” style a bit down the aisle, whereupon Mau, who generally appreciates my childish exuberance, cuffed me, and with a stern expression reminded me that “You know you can be arrested for that sort of thing in Finland!” Well, now I know. On the other hand, something about the notion of serving time for throwing food appeals to my yippie side.


The blotto Cornell couple my former assistant Sarah Jacobs, who was visiting for the weekend and I saw staggering ahead of us on a Saturday night in October, holding hands, as we walked home. Waiting to see which one would topple over first.


Spotting a blank-faced Tom Waits at a dinky coffee shop in the back of Paris Nord in August, as I waiting for my train for Den Haag. No, that couldn’t be. What is Tom Waits doing in Paris? But I’m sure it’s him. We stare at each other for thirty minutes or so. After he and his wife and partner get up and leave. Nah, couldn’t be him. A few days later I happen to read a review of Waits’ performance in Edinburgh. I check his site. On July 25 Waits gave a performance in Prague. Yup, that was Waits all right–


Having breakfast by myself at the same table of the Hotel Keurahone, Suomussalmi where I had had breakfast five months–and ten thousand miles ago– August.


Doing a spot check in hotel breakfast rooms of all the couples at the surrounding tables, using tableside repartee or lack thereof to gauge which couples are in love (telltale sign: holding hands or making goo goo eyes at each other; generally around 8%), which ones still have things to talk about (ca. 40- 42%), which ones have active issues (tell tale signs: sulking, arguing, etc. ; ca. 27%), and which ones have stopped talking to each other altogether (utter indifference to each other; ca. 23-24%, including 2-5 % margin for error).


Suomussalmi. March.


Suomussalmi. August.


Having coffee and writing post cards at my old London writing post, in the back table of the top floor of my favorite Old Town café, the magical Maison Bertaux, in Soho. July.


Trench coat. 60 euros. The Hague.

Hiking boots. 120 euros. Stockmann’s. Helsinki.

Nikon F65 35-mm camera. (Brand new). 100 euros. Amsterdam.


Bounding around Helsinki a la David Hemmings in “Blow Up,” doing back to back photo shoots with three Finnish models, courteously lent to me by my friends at Finland’s top model agency, Paparazzi, in preparation for my show, “Portraits de la Femme.”


Soviet hand grenade. Defused. Mannerheim Line. November.


Fifty, including four from my May Cornell show, forty four to my friend, Nick Lambrou, for the five site photo mural of life at Cornell for five of his Collegetown properties, and
two from “Portraits de la Femme.”


The marshalling yards of victory


With my former assistant, now native of San Francisco, and practicing teacher (hooray Erin!) across “her” San Francisco. February.


Sitting in the absolutely deserted vestibule of Willard Straight Hall of Cornell on a wintry night during December at 3 A.M. and slowly seeing all the friends and classmates from back in the day slowly materialize before my eyes–

V. THE MEMOIR SHOP: SUMMER DIPTYCH (Newport ’68 and Helsinki ’77)

Finally, for those of you in a summery mood, herewith two essays I wrote this year about two different, very memorable summers–the summer of ’68, when, as a restless seventeen year old, I bicycled to the Newport Folk Festival along with my wild and crazy revolutionary friend and fellow Jamaica High School graduate Danny Holly, and the summer of ’77, the summer I first visited Finland, at the height of the Cold War, and when the seed of my Baltic obsession, as well as What Free Men Can Do is born. A summer diptych, you might say. Submitted for your perusal, and enjoyment, in the Sander Zone!

From Newport ’68:

–.I was three weeks into my demanding duties as boating and canoeing counselor at Treasure Island Day Camp in Oceanside, New York–a job which essentially involved preventing the clusters of pre-teen oarsmen who banged around Treasure Island’s tiny “lake” from floating out into Long Island Sound–when I asked my wiseacre supervisor, Bernie, for permission to take off a day so I could bike to the Newport Folk Festival with my friend Danny Holly.

“You want to do what?” Bernie mock-exclaimed.

“Sure” Bernie continued, without missing a beat, “So we lose a few campers. Thin the ranks. Go ahead. Sounds like fun.”

My father, a retired Army lieutenant colonel with whom I had clashed repeatedly over my growing opposition to the war in Vietnam, wasn’t crazy about the idea. (My mother, for her part, had lapsed into something approaching a catatonic state, having given up attempting to comprehend the zero-to-sixty changes I had undergone that wild spring.)

Nor was he thrill mad about Danny Holly, a fellow graduate of Jamaica High School with radical leanings, a fixed, somewhat maniacal Cheshire cat grin, and a penchant for saying “Freaky! Wow!” Danny, you could say, was my Fonz. I was willing to follow Danny anywhere, just about. Several months before, I had followed Danny to the barricades, helping him organize the Strike Against The War at our school, much to my parents’ distress. Already Danny was talking about going to the Chicago Democratic National Convention to raise hell. I didn’t know about that, but bike to Newport? Cool.

And so there I was that Friday afternoon, having disembarked with Danny at New London pedalling up Route One, as hundreds of our fellow motorized pilgrims zoomed by, alternately mocking and cheering us on. Then, at long last, the welcome spires of Newport Bridge loomed into view. Then, slowly, ever so slowly, we were heaving our way up the long, new, recently built span. Then, as we began the mile-long descent, we we began picking up speed. By the time we hurtled off the bridge, we were having difficulty controlling our bikes. Freaky! Wow!

According to later reports, attendance at the 8th annual Newport Folk Festival topped 70,000, making it by far the biggest Newport ever. Many of the festival-goers were drawn by the heartbreaking news that, as a result of a new state highway, this would most likely be the last festival ever held at Festival Field. Ever since the first Newport, in 1959, an intrinsic element of its appeal had been Newport itself, and the endearing, counterintuitive sight of leftist folkies humming and strumming against the backdrop of old baronial mansions. For these folk diehards, Festival Field was hallowed ground, For them, Newport ’68 would be the last Newport, forevermore.

For others who streamed over Newport bridge that last weekend in July, 1968, the festival was just good fun, a way to get away from it all. 1968 had been a pretty crazy year thus far. Just six weeks before Bobby Kennedy had been shot, and a few weeks before that, Martin Luther King. Who knew what the rest of the year would bring? For them, the festival represented a moment of calm before the craziness resumed.

Of course, the main draw of Newport continued to be the music itself. Alas, Dylan sent his regrets. But Joan Baez had once again signed on, as had such folk evergreen as Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Fred McDowell. To stir things up, the ecumenical-minded organizers had invited such various and sundry musicians as Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, making their eagerly-anticipated first appearance at Newport; bluesmen B.B. King and Buddy Guy and Junior Well; and country singer Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys, and several dozen other wildly disparate performers.

The resulting musical ragout added up to what was arguably most joyous Newport ever, as well as, in its own endearing Newport way, the goofiest. Though scruffier than usual, the voyagers who descended on Festival Field that weekend were on their best behavior. No bad trips here, or nude frolicking. This was still Newport, not Woodstock. Woody wouldn’t have approved.

In the event, Danny and I arrived too late to get tickets for the festival’s first big concert on Friday night, entitled “Streets and Mountains,” forcing us to eavesdrop along with the hundreds of festival-goers gathered or camped just outside the festival gates. It didn’t really matter. I shall never forget lying on my sleeping bag that magical night staring into the velvety Newport night, as the dulcet tones of Joan Baez singing Bob Dylan’s song “Farewell Angelina,” wafted up into the heavens.

Farewell Angelina
I must follow the sound
The triangle tingles
And the trumpet play slow–

Preceding Baez was an enjoyably riotous line-up comprised of the Onward Brass Band of New Orleans, who kicked the festivities off with a thunderous rendition of “Down By The Riverside;” Kentucky hurricane banjo picker Buell Kazee; the Eastern European choral singing of the Pennywhistlers; Ed Young’s fife and drum music from Mississippi; Arlo Guthrie, standing in for his recently deceased father, who played an “evolutionary ditty” entitled “Swim, Swimm, Swimmy,” about the history of one-handed water travel; and the agit-prop/mummery of the Bread and Puppet Theatre. What these dissimilar performers had to do with “streets and mountains,” or folk music for that matter, was not clear.

No matter. Lying on the ground next to me, I could see Holly’s patented, demonic grin glowing in the night.

Saturday night’s big concert, which culminated with Janis Joplin’s performance, was pretty much of the same endearingly incongruous piece. Janis’s performance was predictably astounding. Trouble was, to get to it you had to sit through old-time balladeer Theodore Bikel. Two or three songs by Theodore Bikel were fine. But ten?

Finally, after Bikel had strummed his last amidst a hail of imprecations, out came Janis and Big Brother. She didn’t disappoint. For two long hours Pearl gave it her all, careening around the stage, shaking her castanets, begging the cheering audience to

Take it! Take it another little piece of my heart. Break it!

And then, all too soon, Newport ’68 was just another errant summer memory. The following Monday I was back on patrol at Treasure Island, watching out for hapless preteen boatsmen and wondering what college would be like. The next month Danny went off to raise hell in Chicago and I went off to Cornell. I never saw him again.


From My Summer of Suomi (or, How I Fell into Finland):

–Although I don’t have hard data to back me up on this, I would venture to guess that most Finns fall in love during the summer. The no-nonsense, Nokia-powered inhabitants of the northernmost country in the world are too busy working or scurrying home through the cold and dark to bother themselves with such ethereal matters during the rest of the year.

But, during the short, berry sweet, phosphorescent summer, from late June until early August–particularly if it is a “good” summer–well, then, anything goes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my own affair with Finland, still going strong after thirty years–began during the summer, the summer of 1977 in point of fact. Actually, to be accurate, it began with a book, Max Jacobson’s riveting history of Finland, which I happened to come across one day earlier that year on the bookshelf of my brother, Lee, who was then studying at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service to be a diplomat. With every page of Jacobson’s book–arguably the best book about Finland ever written in English–I became more drawn in.

I suppose you could say that I was predisposed to fall in love with Finland. Ever since I was a child who was fond of collecting exotic or hard to find rocks, I have been drawn to the overlooked, the unsung, the little or misunderstood. Thus, too, have been the subjects I have been attracted to as a writer (as well as a photographer).

So, too, with Suomi. Here, it dawned on me, as I read Jacobson’s book, was a country whose history and evolution was at a tangent to the rest of Europe; a people who had fought seemingly innumerable wars over the centuries, including a fratricidal civil war and three separate wars within World War II that had claimed tens of thousands of lives and twice led to its dismemberment, but who had nevertheless somehow survived and triumphed over every adversity; a nation of only four million that had produced some of the greatest art, architecture, and literature of the century. An unsung country: a country worth examining further.

Perhaps a misunderstood one, too. What was all this about “Finlandization,” the glib phrase then in vogue in Western foreign policy circles to denote the process by which a putative democracy like Finland became a de facto satellite of the USSR? How much truth was there to that? The Finnish government, thrilled at my interest, was only too eager to assist me.

So, one day in early July, 1977, I found myself in a cab headed from Helsinki airport, after taking the long, suborbital-like, (then) ten hour flight from New York, squinting out at the klieg-light bright high summer sun at a lot of strange-colored yellow and green buildings and blank-faced pedestrians, including a fair share of dazzlingly beautiful women, with white blond and strawberry hair, headed for the centrum–and what turned out to be one of the memorable, exotic, eye-opening, and, ultimately, romantic summers of my life.

My initial plan was to spend two weeks in Helsinki, interviewing government officials and the like, before continuing on to the Continent, where I had other assignments. In the event, the two weeks stretched into four, then to six. Thus, to paraphrase Henry James, I fell into Finland.


Thirty one years is a long time. I can’t remember every thing happened that summer, but I can remember a lot.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things I remember about the summer of ’77–or my summer of Finland, as I call it.

I remember standing on a sidewalk and hearing a peculiar and maddeningly unplaceable pinging sound and belatedly realizing that the sound was emanating from the street light.
Why was that I asked the irrepressible Matti Kohva, my chief handler at Finn Facts, the then private pr firm to which had been charged with my care and feeding. “For the blind.” Hmm– Interesting concept. I liked that.

I remember attending an open air concert and, because it was ladies’ night (what happened to ladies’ night?)–another novel concept–and being chosen by a young lady–who seemed pleasant enough until she informed me that she was a resident of a local home for the mentally disturbed who been given leave for the day. Hmm– Interesting concept.

I remember, of course hearing a lot about the Winter War, particularly the West’s failure to succor Finland during the one hundred and five days while the Finnish David held off the Soviet Goliath. “Why didn’t you do more to help us back in 1939?” I was pointedly asked by an English-speaking bystander (this was during the day when not every Finn spoke English, or, if they did, admitted to), as if I was personally to blame? I didn’t know, I explained as politely as I could, but I would certainly find out: the seed of a future book planted–

Yes, I remember a lot of things. I remember my awe the first time I walked into the Rock Temple, right across the street from the apartment I shared with an American broadcaster named Eddy Hawkins, originally from Cleveland who was married to a Finnish nurse (who still lives in Helsinki, and is married to another Finnish nurse) and an Englishman named James Joicey from Berwick-up-on-Tweed (who later became a member of the House of Lords).

I remember taking a cruise in Eddy’s boat in the harbor and hearing him extol the virtues of Finnish nature, in particular how he could take a drive out of town and lose himself in a forest which spanned the length of Eurasia.

I remember visiting Tapiola, which the Finnish government was then very proud of, my first encounter with a planned city and seeing a lot of identical-looking mop-headed schoolchildren swimming in the giant community swimming pool in seemingly synchronized fashion.

I remember walking into a park one squintingly bright June morning and espying a group of old men play chess with giant chess pieces.

I remember getting lost somewhere in town and asking directions from a well-dressed man who, I guessed, might speak English. “Excuse me, sir,” I asked, “Do you speak English?” “No, I don’t,” the man answered quickly. Too quickly. Clearly, he was lying. (Those were the days when some Finns were shy about employing their English.)

“Are you sure you don’t speak English?” I asked.

“I am absolutely certain I don’t speak English,” he replied, before dashing down the street.

Stranger in a strange land.

I remember entering the consumerist cornucopia that was (and still is) Stockmann’s and finding myself staring at a giant cardboard cut out of someone named Danny.

Danny was very big that summer. So was Lasse Viren.

So were cruise missles–or, rather, the Carter Administration’s threat to arm U.S. B-52s with the advanced strategic surface to surface missles. I recall being given a long, impassioned lecture on the subject by the secretary-general of the Finnish Communist Party (whose name somehow escapes me), as I sat directly opposite him, comrade-style,
across an endless green baize table, in the party’s Kremlin-style conference room, as two well burnished statuettes of those original Leningrad Cowboys, Marx and Engels, glared down at us and several curious seagulls circled outside. I am fairly sure there were seagulls.


Anyway, the secretary-general wasn’t very happy about those cruise missles. Neither, understandably, were most Finns, threatening as it did to upset the then ever-delicate balance of powers between the two nuclear-armed superpowers–including the one situated on the other side of the border.

Nevertheless there was little question on whose side of the Cold War divide the sympathies of the average, non-Communist man-on-the-street lay. Those were the days when Finns, amongst other Europeans, broke into smiles when they heard an American accent.

Ah yes, those were the days. And boy, did those Finns love their rock n’ roll, the harder the better. I remember walking into the Tavastia Club and encountering a blast wave of very credibly-played rock ‘n roll.

Those were the post-Vietnam, pre-Iraq days when the United States was (I think I can say) still beloved by many Finns, not so much especially of anything we did or did not do, rock ‘n roll aside (after all, the Brits were pretty good at that) but because of what America stood for: complete freedom, especially freedom to choose our friends–or enemies–as opposed to the nerveracking, considerably circumscribed sort which had been Finland’s lot since 1948.

I saw at first hand just how circumscribed that freedom was one day in early July was reeling to an end, when Matti poked his head into my office and informed me that a domestic Aeroflot jet, commandeered by two Russian men intent on escaping to the West who thought they were headed to Stockholm, where they were certain of being granted asylum, as they had ordered the pilot, was now sitting on the tarmac at Helsinki airport, surrounded by Finnish police. Evidently, the canny, loyal Soviet captain was cognizant of one of the more onerous, less-well-publicized corollaries of the complicated “special relationship” between Finland and its Russian neighbor, i.e., that Finland could not, and would not, accept or give asylum to any refugees, and in fact was bound to repatriate any such escapees who managed to get across the heavily-guarded thousand-mile long Soviet-Finnish border. Including, presumably, anyone desperate enough to hijack a Soviet airliner.

By the time the hijacked hijackers, as it were, realized that the dutiful (and, it must be said, brave) Soviet “eagle” had taken them to Helsinki instead of Stockholm there was little they could do about it, except threaten to blow up the plane with the hand grenade one of them brandished.

Rushing to the airport to cover the event (for which I would wind up filing a dispatch for “The New York Times”), I wound up spending one of the most surreal nights of my life holed up in the small VIP lounge of the airport, which the Foreign Ministry had hastily converted to a press center, complete with an excellent spread of Finnish food, as the thirty odd members of the international press who soon materialized, for want of anything better to do, interviewed each other, played cards, romanced each other, played cards, and got progressively soused while the Mexican stand-off between the hijackers and the Finnish authorities continued through the night and well into the next day. The fact that, in the bright, high summer night the hostage plane, with its terrified crew and passengers still aboard, could plainly be seen out the window made the scene all the more bizarre.

When I left the airport at six the following morning to grab some sleep the situation was unchanged.

In the event, the sleep-deprived hijackers also decided to catch some shut eye, whereupon they were quickly and artfully subdued without injury by a SWAT team of Finnish commandos. The “hand grenade” turned out to be a dud. As I recall the now-all-but-all-forgotten incident, one of a spate of airline hijackings that occurred that year (including the better one known that took place early in 1977, when German commandos successfully stormed a hijacked Lufthansa jet), the Russians were held in custody for several days while the eduskunta debated the hijackers’ fate, knowing full well the men’s probable fate if they were extradited.

The debate was a short one. The hijackers were extradited. A short time later they were shot. End of story.

That was Finland in 1977. Perhaps, it occurred to me, there was something to this Finlandization business after all.

And yet, and yet, insofar as the term (which, understandably, most Finns hated), implied a lack of will, of courage, on the part of the sheep-like people allegedly being “Finlandized,” I felt that the term was a bad rap.

There was nothing sheep-like about the Finns I encountered that summer, nor anything putative about their democracy, however onerous the constraints on that democracy, and on Finland’s freedom of action and movement, by dint of its proximity to Russia, were.
Nor, certainly, did they lack courage.

On the contrary, I never visited or experienced a country and a nation where the concept of freedom meant as much, or which so cherished its democracy, as the Finns did in 1977.

Nor did the Finns I met lack for courage. Indeed, a good number of the Finns I met that summer seemed ready, able, and anxious to fight the Winter War all over again. I well recall a conversation I had with a sailor in a bar near the harbor who confided that if one were to look closely at the blueprints of some of the cutters of the Finnish navy, which, had been restricted to “defensive” use according to the terms of the despised 1948 Treaty of Mutual Friendship and Cooperation, one would see that those same “defensive” cutters could readily be converted to light destroyers, and another, slightly, more drunken one with another man who enthusiastically spoke about the caches of machine guns hidden around the country “just in case.”

Nor was this Dutch courage. Even though over thirty years had elapsed since the second, draconian Peace of Moscow, by which Finland lost Karelia for a second time and forever, the pain and anger over that dismemberment, and the anger over the Russian aggression that started it all still pulsed and burned bright. Many, if not indeed most of the Finns I encountered that summer were still ready to show the world what free men could do.

That, too, was Finland in 1977–



Tied: Tori — Rafla

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