Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Don Juan in Helsinki: 10

Perhaps it was this sense of doom, of being abandoned by the Fates, that led me to order my first Finnish drink. I chose to begin with Marskin ryyppy, which was invented by Marshall Mannerheim; every bar has its own recipe, but it is usually Rakamaji akvavit or 'viini' mixed with vermouth and gin. In short, Finland's dry Martini. And this bar served a surprisingly good version of it for a tourist trap, though I found the seats very uncomfortable. There seemed to be very few Finns there at all; from all around me I heard snatches of conversation in German, in Swedish, but mostly in the flat, nasal accents of my adopted America:

'Dude, this so sucks, they put something in my sandwich. I'm running back to the room now, let me call you back when I'm on the toilet.'

'Do they even have Amstel Light in Europe?'

"The umbra of this city is Luciferian, so I have set warding spells over the Invisibles. They have already arrived at Düsseldorf and messaged us. If you do not believe it, here is a photo of their apparition."

'Finns are like a hot bath--ease into your time together with them or you will burn your genitals.'

'I'll be lucky if some Finnish guy even spunks in my lunch.'

'That's how you check a cat at the airport. You gotta look for nipples. It should be easy to tell, they've got like six of them.'

'Swedish is sort of like German, so I can understand some of it, because i grew up speaking German. That's what I wrote my PhD. thesis on, the fairy tales of the Black Forest. Oh, I thought it was you, Mr Likkanen. Gosh, I never thought I'd see you again!'

This last voice belongs to the Strawberry. Naturally, she is staying at this hotel, too. Of course. With her is a Finnish girl of about her same age. 'This is Riita Koivisto--she's here from the university to look after me.'

Riita shakes my hand in the brisk manly manner of European women. She is a very typical Finnish girl, with light brown hair, big white teeth, and sturdy arms and legs designed for sports. These are toasted a light, delicious brown from a July spent at her parents' cabin beside the lake or perhaps the sea. She has curtailed her holidays by a day or two to come back to Helsinki in order to practice her English on this silly American young woman. But she does not mind. You can see at once she is a 'daddy's girl', which in Finland means she wants everyone to like her. She probably rides a bicycle everywhere, taking 'meals on wheels' to the elderly in the evenings. She is athletic and has many hobbies. She has very firm opinions about everything. She is one of the reasons I left Finland. Though, of course, she was not born then, but she no doubt takes very much after her mother. She also takes an instant dislike to me. I am neither young enough nor yet quite old enough to excite her interest, so she assumes I am just some horny dog from the airplane who is chasing after the Strawberry. Up until that moment she did not like the Strawberry so much either, but now that I am in the picture, she suddenly becomes attached to her like a twin sister.

'This is not a very nice place,' she says. 'The service is very poor and they have no good selection of beers. If you want to drink seriously, I will take you to a real Finnish bar, like the MOCKBA.'

'Oh, I couldn't possibly drink anything if my life depended on it--not after that flight,' the Strawberry replies. 'I just wanted to come up here for the view.' Then she shows us a photograph of the Helsinki skyline in a guidebook taken from a window in this bar inside a ladies' toilet; naturally, she wants to visit the toilet in order to see it for herself, but first we have to wait in a long queue. Already, I am wishing for another Marskin ryppy. Finally, it is our turn to crowd ourselves into the cubicle together, and while the Strawberry hunches on the toilet lid, Riita and I lean over her and point out the spires of the Orthodox and the Lutheran cathedrals. And, yes, look, Helsinki does have its own space needle, after all, though it is not a revolving restaurant--it is the YLE radio/television broadcast tower. 'If you are hungry we will take a stroll to the famous Kouppatori market square, and you can sample many types of Finnish specialities there,' Ritta tells her.

'Oh, that sounds wonderful,' says the Strawberry, looking at me, 'Would you like to come, too? I mean,' she adds, blushing,' If you don't mind, Riita.' From the two women rises up a warm mingled aroma of girlish skin, a soft poisonous scent of soapy showers and summer sun; how I wish I could still become aroused by it! But--nothing. Not even jammed up against them both in this hot, intimate manner. And then I am struck by a sudden thought--I don't really need to make any hot monkeys with either of these young ladies to know exactly what they would both be like in bed. But here is the difference between them. With the American, it would be so boring and predictable I could probably blog about it in advance and not have to make any updates for corrections. But with the Finnish one, there would always be some sort of strange surprise--a frog in the bed, a finger up the wrong place. If I tried to kiss her now, she might bite half my tongue off. As if sensing such thoughts, Riita pulls back from me a little. Her answer is very long in coming, and when she speaks, it is in Finnish, to let me know that I am an outsider and therefore not part of her own personal cultural exchange program.

'Yes, of course you are invited to come with us if you like,' she says unenthusiastically. And that is the moment when I first realize that I have lost my command of the Finnish language, because I open my mouth to say no--and out pops the word 'kylla'. Yes.

Market Square lies opposite the Esplanadi from us, so we have to walk through it on the way to get there. It is a bit like a slice of Central Park, the part near 5th Avenue, if you can imagine that being just a few blocks from the East River. It has scarcely changed at all in the time I have been away. The Esplanadi is filled with benches, lots of cast-iron statues, and because this is a sunny Friday late afternoon in July, by the other half of Helsinki, the half that has not gone to the airport. It is bounded on the north by Pohjois-Esplanadi (where Cricket's personal trainer is now napping in my suite at the Hotel Kamp, next to the Moomin Shop) and on the south by Etelä-Esplanadi; supposedly in the days when Swedish and Finnish were at war with each to become the dominant language and culture, the Finns kept to the north side and the Swedes to the south. Now there are expensive stores and restaurants on both boulevards, a bandstand in the middle where a 'soft rock pop' band is playing, and long lines at the little medieval sausage kiosks with their steep, pitched roofs. Riita stops and insists we buy coffee at an outdoor bar. Because it is dark most of the year here, she explains, we are the world's largest consumer of coffee per capita. The other reason, she adds, is that Finns are so often hungover. So I do not want any yet, even if this were true. I buy a glass of 'viina' instead, local Finnish vodka. When the Strawberry sees the sign for the big 'Academic' book store, she gives an excited squeal.

'Oh my God, I'm going to spend my first free afternoon shopping there--after the Moomin Shop. Everything here is so lovely and interesting!'

'Is this city really very different than your Chicago?' Riita asks her. It is difficult to tell if she is A) being ironic, B) bored and merely practicing her English, or C) just stupid. Then I remind myself: she is Finnish. So the answer is D) all of the above.

'Oh yes, really different. Helsinki is full of history!'

Something inside me then causes me to open my mouth and say, 'I hate history.' Strawberry looks at me with her mouth wide open with surprise. But it is true, I do hate history, and I will tell you why. History is the reason I will not bonk any old ladies any more. And by old ladies, of course, I mean any woman over 40. Of course there are many other reasons not to bonk them--wrinkles, grey hairs, saggy body bits, bad smells, boring conversation, etc--but history is the biggest reason that I refuse to do it. Because they all have some of it nowadays. It is like a sexually transmitted disease.

I will give you an example of what I am talking about. A few years ago, I met a lady who was in her 40s on NySpace.com, and after a very nice dinner and evening at the theatre together, I decided to bonk with her, in spite of her extremely advanced age. Because, to be fair, she really did not look so old at all; she exercised and kept very fit, and I'm sure could have fooled any man without the 'artist's eye' of a Likkanen that she was a normal young woman. Of course, she made no secret of her age, which was my first warning clue. The second and final one came a few nights later after we had made some hot squishy monkey sex for several hours, which I admit to finding surprisingly pleasant and even interesting, because, unlike a young chick, she seemed to be enjoying it so much. 'Oh Donho'' she says to me, 'You are the only man over 50 I have known who can make love like a young stud without using viagra.' And of course, she finds this very amusing. But to tell you the truth, I am made a little uncomfortable by her words, because, OK, to be completely, totally honest with you, I had been experimenting with this drug at that time. But only for two or three years or so. So I make a huge mistake--I change the subject and encourage her to talk about other things, even herself. Next thing I know, here it comes: her history. First I hear all about her failed marriage, the many years of living together with this fellow during college and then after, when she becomes pregnant, and they get married and have two kids. Very boring stuff (don't worry, I won't go into any details). So then suddenly for no reason, he decides he is gay! They have a bitter, nasty divorce, but she has to keep seeing him because he is father of these two kids, who are now apparently away at university (at least I hope so, since we are making hot squishy squirrels at her place). So next he suddenly gets AIDS, so she spends some years nursing him until he dies and hardly bonks anybody during that period. But once he is dead, she goes crazy making up for lost time--her lover before me is an African student half her age who she was thinking of marrying in order to give him a green card, but he suddenly rushes back to Africa instead. By then I know just how he feels! Great, I think to myself; now I have to worry about AIDS coming in both the back door and the front door. You see? Half an hour ago I was OK with her--now I am not. History has ruined everything! And that is the case for most people, they just refuse to admit it.

But perhaps not quite all of us. I look up to notice that for the first time this girl Riita is smiling at me with approval. At last I have said something to make her accept me back to her sturdy bosom as a true Finn. You see, she hates history, too. We Finns all do; to us, history is either Swedish or Russian, just like the architecture and even the original street-names here. So a Finn lives only in the present day. Even the Kalevala is only a clever invention to give us 'identity'; there is not any real history in it, it is just a bunch of silly old folk songs. But I do not have the heart to tell the Strawberry any of this, so I keep silent. After all, she has saved up her hard-earned money for a whole year and then flown all the way across the ocean with her head in a bag in order to spend her summer vacation studying fairy tales. Obviously, here is a girl with lots of 'sisu'.

So we make our way down the Esplanadi stopping every few moments to sample ‘rahkapulla’ (tarts filled with lemon and vanilla flavoured quark, which is Finnish sour cream), ‘viili’ (gelatinous yogurt-like sour milk), or Karelian rice pasties. The chatter of the two girls was beginning to irritate me deeply, along with the glare of the late afternoon sun and the tuneless throb from the bandstand, so I went into a touristy bar called the 'Strindberg' and ordered a Salmiakkikossu. This drink is made from Kostenkorvu Viina, a very clear powerful type of local Finnish vodka, mixed with Salmiakki. Salmiakki is Finland's most popular candy, a black licorice salted with ammonium chloride; blended with Kostenkorvu, it tastes as if unsweetened anise concentrate and salt have been added to ethanol petrol and then pissed in. Or perhaps it tastes more like a salted melting rubber tyre, it's hard to say. The moment it touched my palate, it made me very nostalgic. This flavour was a potent reminder of how I had spent most of my teenaged years. I am finally beginning to relax now and feel 'at home'. And as I am sipping it, I suddenly notice a very strange little fellow who has been loitering behind us for some blocks. To describe him is very difficult, but I shall try. Something about his movements and the way he holds his head on his tiny neck reminds me of 'Gollum' from the 'Lord of the Rings'. He is very pale and very thin, almost starved-looking, so that the veins pop out from the bones in his legs. I cannot tell if he is young or old; he is wearing a coarse purple linen golf-shirt, a pair of wide khaki Patagonia short pants (I know this because I own a pair), thick white socks, Danish Ecco Birkenstock sandals gilded a bright gold, and his short whitish hair is all but hidden beneath a pale blue beret. Why is he stalking us? Is he some fellow with a crush on Riita perhaps? Or has he noticed the Strawberry and fallen madly in love with her?

The Market Square, or 'Morning Market' as it was called in my youth (because it closed every day at noon), is a bit of a disappointment to the Strawberry, I can tell. It is mostly seling fresh produce and fish--nothing we can keep in a hotel room--and stall after stall of tourist trinkets, many of them made in China. But by now the two girls have discovered a new interest in common: Cricket. And not the kind with bats and little rubber balls, either. No, the kind who is having a giant concert at the Hartwall Arena on Sunday night. Suddenly the Strawberry is seized with desire for a ticket.

'Well, I will see what i can find for you tomorrow,' Riita says very dubiously. 'But you know, it is very late to be doing this, the concert has been sold out for months.' And then, after making sure we know our way back to the hotel, she takes her leave of us rather abruptly. Of course, I realize why: she has a pair of tickets herself, most likely she is going with her best female friend or perhaps a boyfriend, and she knows that if she lingers much longer she will be tempted to offer up her own to the Strawberry. This, after all, is how one is supposed to treat a guest. But she doesn't want to, so she must leave quickly. Naturally, being Finnish, she will now feel guilty for this all night.

'Do not eat any of the food at that hotel,' are her last words to us.

'I'll go online when we get back to see if if I can find any tickets,' the Strawberry tells me just as if I care. 'You'll help me with the Finnish sites, won't you?' and I nod glumly. Of course I will. That is all Likkanen is good for any more, anyway, just as in those primitive African tribes where the toothless old men of the village are made to perform oral sex on young virgins, since they are considered too old to pose any phallic threat any more. Even Riita has given up fearing me. On the walk back I will stop at another bar and have a second rubber tyre drink and then decide to buy a bottle of it to take back to the hotel room. Later that long endless evening I will buy a second. For a true Finn it is almost like a real meal, only in liquid form. I find I am feeling extremely nostalgic, after all. Because I'm afraid I have not been totally honest with you. Yet. I have not come back to Finland just to die. Or just to scout locations for dying, like for a film shoot. No, no, I must now make a full confession. I know that you are already thinking from what you have read so far in my blournal that Donho Likkanen has never been in love. Oh ho, you are saying, he is far too cold and selfish and studly a dude for that, LOL! A real Casanova! And almost a real blonde. But in fact, I have been in love three times in my life. And all three women were Finnish, just like this Riita person. And it is actually them I have also come back to visit in the hopes that perhaps I can find some tiny flicker of caring left for me still, find someone who might still love me just a little bit after all these years. Because I have test-driven all the other women in the world, and I must be honest with you. They are not Salmiakki. Maybe many women in the world have interest in bonking with Likkanen, but nobody actually loves Likkanen. Nobody at all.

A true Finn, of course, is never seriously depressed. The fact that we have the highest suicide rate in the world is easy to explain; we are simply accident-prone. Especially in winter. But now it is a little after midsummer; Helsinki lies just below the Arctic Circle, so tonight we will have perhaps an hour or two of 'darkness' after midnight, when the sun will just be a glow on the horizon. You see? It is no wonder that we sometimes need a drink to get to sleep. Or two. Now, all over downtown Helsinki, the serious drinking has begun--in Finland this is called 'pre-party drinking'. Many of the young men--and a few of the young women, too, I notice--have taken off their shirts and some their pants; most of them are sipping beer or spirits from bags. We walk slightly north on our way back, so that I may show the Strawberry a bit more of the city; she wrinkles her freckled nose at the puddles on the sidewalks in front of doorways and the splashes on the walls. And then, a block or so from the train station, another disaster happens.

In front of us is a bit of a disturbance; an old beggar, his pants halfway down his hairy legs, is singing loudly and swaying about, waggling his penis. Which has a tattoo on it, I notice. Now in Helsinki, even buskers are fairly rare; beggars are almost unknown, though there were a few drunks in my time, one or two of them women, who were what Americans would call 'local characters'. Often these will spend the summers 'living rough' in dumpsters and parks. But even nowadays to see someone begging on the street with a plastic cup on the paving stone in front of him is very unusual, and several young people, their faces already politely glazed by drink, are staring at him out of simple curiosity. When he sees me, he waves, then hops forward and says in English, 'Hey, lover-boy, give me some of your money. You must pay to cross the river.' 'Lover-boy, or 'Lemminkainen' in Finnish, was my nickname when I was young and in school. Without thinking, I reach into my pocket, but all I can find in it is a twenty-dollar bill. I pull it out anyway and cautiously hand it to him.

'Put it in the cup,' he says, smiling. His teeth are very dirty. His hair is lank and long and grey, and he has a sharp bristling white beard from a week or two of not shaving. In spite of the heat, he is wearing an overcoat. His clothes are torn and darkly stained with filth, and he smells very bad indeed. He catches sight of the Strawberry standing uncertainly behind me, and leers and winks at her. 'This one isn't too bad,' he says appreciatively. Then, very slowly and deliberately, he squats down on his haunches and takes an enormous black, smelly shit on the sidewalk. The Strawberry stares at this in shock, so I take her arm and lead her very gently away, before the beggar can catch up with us. But he is done. 'I'll give your regards to my wife when I see her!' he shouts after me in Finnish, and then he starts singing again. In the distance I catch sight of a blue beret. And I see it again, along with the Gollum face beneath it outside our hotel lobby. This is very worrying and upsetting to me, to be followed around like this.

The Strawberry has said very little on our way back to the hotel. For me, used to Hawaii time, jet-lag came many hours ago, For her it hits now, all at once, and she looks suddenly pale and exhausted and takes my arm to lean on. Besides, she is still upset from the business on the sidewalk, so I don't mention the Gollum to her. 'Who was that poor old homeless guy anyway?' she asks me at last in the hotel lift. 'He sort of looked like you. And he definitely acted like he knew you. Was he a friend of yours when you were young?'

'When you were young'. How cruel women can be, even the Strawberry. It is almost sexy of her. Cruel and a bit rude, too, sometimes, even when they do not mean to be. Often it is far more polite just to lie. So I lie to her now.

'No, of course not,' I say. Technically, of course, this is not a lie at all--he certainly was never a friend to me. But I have noticed that American women are very Catholic, deep down inside themselves; they all want white weddings, and they all believe a man lies by omission. What I do not not say, among many other things, is that once upon a time that poor old guy singing and begging and crapping on the street was one of the richest young men in Finland. And, next to me, the most good-looking.

Next time: The naked truth.

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