Sunday, August 20, 2006

Don Juan in Helsinki: 20

The rain has nearly stopped outside, so now it's time for me to move on to a different bar. I will stop at Stockmann's on the way and buy an umbrella and a raincoat perhaps. So now I am saying goodbye to my friends here, Nad and Ville and all the others. You know, if they were Americans or Swedes I truly might suspect them of being gay blades! But, joking aside, that is rare in Finland, because gay sex is almost physically impossible for a true Finnish man--they must go to places like New York to do it. Although it is true those young fellows did seem a great deal more interested in Stina's partner than they were in her during the nude scene on TV. Of course, I know just how they felt, since I felt myself a similar horrible fascination that night in Odense watching 'Hamlet.'

This was not the only time I have ever had the strange experience of reading about myself in a journal and discovering that my memory of the relationship was very different from the lady's. I have had several reviews of myself posted on, for example, that were very crazy and inaccurate. For example, I do not wear my sunglasses indoors very often--and never during sex. And then there was 'Laura'. This was a very strange chick who was writing a website, while working unsuccessfully as an 'office temp' during the daytimes, so from the very first date I could read her account online of everything that happened between us. Including her version of our conversations. So naturally, I asked her to remove my real name and any references to Finland or the street where I lived in New York. But she still seemed to think I was her boyfriend. I thought we were just bonking (actually, I thought we were NOT bonking, because she claimed to have deep problems with the idea of sex, so mostly we just slept together the first few dates.) But when I first read her website, I was forced to send her a legal agreement from my lawyer. So after that, she changed my name to 'Jason'. You can read the whole thing at: To be totally honest, I have almost no memory of her at all, except that she was always suggesting ways she would redecorate my loft if she moved into it. In New York, this is the worst possible warning signal to send a person, sort of like a romantic '911'.

OK, I have moved on to a new bar, the 'St. Urho'. This place is named after the satirical festival invented by Finnish refugees in Minnesota to mock the perpetual rule of Urho Kekkonen. The rain has driven many tourists and local drinkers off the Esplanadi and indoors, so now there is a crowd of them, smelling of warm wet dog, in here drinking and talking very loudly. The music is strictly 'The Streets' and 'Daft Punk', very last year. But all the women here are with men, so at least I am safe from them for now. I have taken great care to avoid Vaino, as well; I thought perhaps I spotted him in the distance on Bulevardi, after I left Stockmann's, standing in the rain and howling like a wolf, but I might easily have been mistaken. Actually, that reminds me of an odd incident that happened to me in Odense on the way to the theatre, that I had not thought of again until this moment. The theatre, BTW, turned out to be just south of the train station; Stina had cleverly detoured me around it in her written directions so that I would not try to meet her there. I suppose, instead of at the flat. Where, of course the journal, with all of its terrible information, was waiting for me.

You know, shock is an odd thing. When you are old, it robs you of all appetite, even for life, but when you are young, it can also make you very hungry. Odense, in addition to being the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen--who ran away from home at about the same age as Stina and never came back again--is also the home of Odense Marcipan, so on my way to Jernbanegade, I stopped at Den Gamle Kro Bakerei and bought a few marzipan pastries. I was eating one outside on the street when I was hit by a bicycle from behind. The impact knocked me over into a puddle, and sent my pastries skidding along the pavement. The bicyclist, a pimply teenaged boy, quickly pedaled away, while I lay there too stunned to move. 'It seems we've drowned,' said a voice roughly in my ear. I was helped slowly to my feet. My right leg was very sore (I would limp slightly for days), and I had a bruised and swollen cheek where I had hit the cobbles, but nothing appeared to be broken.

My rescuer was an ancient homeless guy, squat and gnome-like, with wet shoulder-length grey hair that had been carelessly braided in places, and a long streaked grey and white beard. He had a black pirate patch over one eye, and when he smiled, it showed that every other tooth in his head was missing; most of those remaining glinted a dull silver. 'Could have been worse, son. In the old days that would have been a horse,' he said in thickly accented Swedish. His breath was a rotting mix of gums, stale Albani beer and akvavit. 'Or even a Leichter Panzerspahwagen. I can remember this street when it was hung over with swastikas. Your Count von Rosen was the first to use those, you know, not Hitler.' He belched, and began to brush the mud from my jacket, attempting to dry me off with the pages of a newspaper. I looked down--I now looked as wretched and bedraggled as he did.

'Thanks,' I said miserably. 'Can you tell me which way is the theatre?'

He gave me a shrewd glance. 'Love trouble?'

'How--how can you tell?' I said.

'There's always a girl in the picture. Remember that. Always a girl in the picture for you, son. Will you be staying on for Midsommer Aften?' (Midsummer Eve, later that month, what we Finns call 'St. John's Eve').

'I doubt it,' I said,

'Too bad,' he replied with every sign of deep regret. 'Denmark needs babies, many more babies. The theatre is just there, past the hotel, on its own little court.'

'Thank you, Herr..?' I said, fishing in my pocket for some change to give him. All I could find were several Danish kronor coins, which I handed to him.

'Me? I'm the Old Man of Odense!' Then he began to howl quite loudly, startling an elderly couple passing by. He popped the coins into his mouth one by one and swallowed them; then winked at me. 'You're a good boy. Give my regards to your mother and father.' When I glanced back in his direction from the next block, he was gone. And you want to know the strangest thing of all? All evening long, in spite of my heartbreak and despair at what I had just read in Stina's flat, a part of me deep down glowed from what he had said. 'You're a good boy.' No one had ever called me that before, certainly not my own father. Not that I could remember, anyway. Words have a magical power all of their own. I think I should like to be the sort of person who travels the earth always knowing the right words to say to make people feel that glow. But I am not. Instead, I must bonk them.

The plot of Hamlet is a very easy one to remember, even if you don't know it. It's about a kid, Hamlet, who is supposed to be king of Denmark, only his uncle Claudius has murdered his father, married his mother, and seized the throne. So he sulks and throws tantrums and occasionally kills people. He has a weepy girlfriend named Ophelia who drowns herself after he accidentally murders her father. Almost exactly like Vaino's life, really, now that I come to think of it, although his father didn't actually die for another year or two. But of course, Aino had. At the end of the play, in the final scene, everybody dies in a great bloodbath, basically. I must admit that I was rather looking forward to that part. My seat was on the balcony; after the lights went out, I went down and sat in an empty seat on the first row, so my view was not obstructed. Therefore I could see the faces of all the actors quite clearly.

The object of my most intense and horrified fascination was, of course, Hamlet himself. He was wearing a tunic and medieval tights, so it was impossible for me not to be constantly and most unpleasantly aware of his 'powerfully huge thighs' throughout the evening. After Hamlet has seen his father's ghost on the ramparts (who spills the beans about having been murdered), then Claudius makes his first appearance. Frankly, even in tights, he was not so 'old and frail' as I should have liked--but I suppose that is the trick of the actor's craft. Certainly, Stina looked ravishing and otherworldly in her stage debut; if she was nervous, she did not show it, other than by a certain over-loud emphasis of the wrong word at the wrong time. But in fairness, she was still very young. She did not do any worse than 'S' did in the role of Hamlet, really; both did pretty well I thought during the long, difficult scene when the 'play within a play', the 'Mousetrap', is performed. So I went wildly back and forth in my convictions. I was almost convinced at first that they had only a professional relationship from observing the 'chemistry' between them--but then in the famous 'country matters' scene I changed my mind again. Of course Ophelia was soon dead and out of the picture; but by then I couldn't help but notice the obvious hatred between Hamlet and Claudius. But was this, again, merely a professional jealousy? Or even just good acting? That seemed unlikely to me. And so it went for me for over two long hours, wavering back and forth between certainties, between elation and despair. Until at last, we came to the long final bloodbath.

In this scene, Laertes, the son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia, has arrived at the court of Elsinore to revenge himself on Hamlet for murdering his father and driving his sister to kill herself. So Claudius helpfully arranges a duel between them, at which Hamlet will drink poison and so lose and be killed. However, halfway through, Hamlet goes crazy and kills Claudius by stabbing him with his sword. When it was time for this in the tonight's production, however, Hamlet was over-enthusiastic and 'his wild thrusting' was far too 'painfully vigourous' for Claudius to bear. So instead of dying in a dignified fashion, after a brief soliliquy, Claudius hoisted himself to his feet and, screaming obscenities, tried to strangle the much younger Hamlet. For a few suspenseful moments the two men swayed and tottered about, then tripped over the footlights and fell heavily together into the orchestra pit, for all purposes ending the performance. Though some attempt was made by Fortinbras to shout out his 'goodnight, sweet prince' speech before the curtain was pulled.

Stunned, I exited with the rest of the audience; I was to wait for her, according to Stina's intructions, at the cafe across the street. It seemed fairly certain to me that the two actors had some good motivation to dislike each other--and increasingly, the evidence was mounting that the reason for this was inside the pages of Stina's journal. But still, I felt I must actually meet Stina face to face again before I could be sure. It was irrational, of course, but I am sure everyone has felt this way at some time in their lifes. I sat at a little table facing the window; by the time she finally trailed out of the theatre doors and crossed the street, it was nearly midnight, and so was dark at last, since we were so far south. But it was a Saturday, so the streets of the little storybook city were quite brightly lit; I thought i could detect a weary reluctance in her steps as she walked in the cafe door. Perhaps she was just tired.

'Oh, I'm so exhausted!' she said when she caught sight of me. 'What a terrible ordeal! Did you see it, Lemo?' We hugged; she kissed me listlessly. 'Professional actors are so jealous--they are like big babies. Did you see how the two of them conspired to wreck my debut? I'll never forgive either of them as long as I live!' We ordered coffee and cakes, while she continued to chatter. She went over every nuance of her performance--she quizzed me for my opinion of each of her lines, but without waiting for any answer. Did she seem properly polished to me? Or over-rehearsed? She begged me to be honest with her: should she just give it all up? Was she totally without talent? It crossed my mind to say yes, but her performance at that moment would have made a liar of me. She was displaying a great deal of talent at hiding her emotions, whatever they might really be, where I was concerned.

As she talked, I saw a figure furtively steal out of the theatre doors behind her and tiptoe across the street during a long lull in the now very sparse traffic. It was Hamlet, still wearing his tunic and tights and little gaily-coloured feathered cap, with his stage sword thrust at an awkward angle into his belt. By the time Stina announced that she was too tired to eat and just wanted to go home to enjoy a long, hot bath, I had forgotten about him. But as the two of us walked together down Jernbanegade back toward her flat, I looked back and saw his shadow flitting behind us, hopping and dashing from one bit of cover--a lamp-post, a shop doorway--to another. Several times groups of tourists noticed him also and pointed him out to each other; perhaps they thought he was part of the town's miniature 'Hans Christian Andersen' theme park staff. In spite of his sword, I felt no fear of him; quite the reverse, in fact. If he confronted us, I felt I would enjoy giving him a good beating. The reason for my sense of confidence was very simple, if maybe unrealistic; we Finns traditionally believe all Swedish men to be 'homos'. In fact that is a favourite crowd chant during hockey matches between the two countries. By the time we approached Stina's front door, I was even feeling quite eager for him to rush out from the darkness and cause a scene. But he did not. For all I know, he spent the rest of the night outside, staring up at her windows. Swedes are always scared of a true Finn.

But still his haunting of us had an effect on me intellectually. It forced me to face the fact that at least most of what Stina had written in her journal had been true. He was behaving exactly like a jealous lover. In fact, I even found myself approving of his courage to make such a fool of himself--he was behaving as a jealous lover should act. Of course, I reminded myself, he was an actor. Now a part of me wanted to simply pick up my suitcase and walk out; perhaps I could find an open bar and deal with this crisis properly in traditional Finnish fashion. Perhaps I could even find Mr 'Powerfully Huge' and beat the devil out of him. But I stayed where I was out of simple curiosity. Wounded though I was, still I felt an idle, almost malicious interest just to see what Stina would do next. In that sense, her performance now was far more entertaining than it had been onstage.

When we got inside, and she turned on all the lights in the flat, I could see for the first time what a shambles she really lived in. Clothes were spread everywhere, even thrown in heaps on the floor; we had to clear them off the bed in order to lie down. 'Oh, you go ahead and fall asleep if you like, Lemo darling,' she told me. 'I know you must be tired from your long day, just as I am from mine. I'm going to run a hot bath and relax in it before I come to bed. I need to wash all this terrible disappointment away.' I said nothing. I took off my soiled, stained clothes and put on clean ones from my bag, then lay down on her duvet, which was little cleaner. A cool breeze rustled through the lace curtains. Somewhere out in the night below, Hamlet lurked, lovesick. An hour passed. I went into the bathroom; Stina was sleeping soundly in the bath, the water nearly ice-cold. I was considering whether just to leave her there or not when the telephone rang loudly in the bedroom.

It was her agent, Holger, in Copenhagen. He had heard that she was dumping him for another agent in Stockholm. He rang her twice more that night; each time she would lie next to me in the bed crying into the receiver at him. 'Oh, I know, I know, I'm being so unfair to you,' she would sob. 'This is cruel and terrible of me. And after you've invested so much of yourself in my career. It's just that I've outgrown you already. It has nothing to do with you as a person--you're a warm, caring, kind, decent man. Oh no, you mustn't say that about yourself.' I could hear him weeping as well on the other end. And he wasn't even gay! He was married with two children! On and on this went for hours. And in those days long-distance telephone calls were quite expensive. Near to dawn, about three hours later, she fell sound asleep again (this time snoring very loudly), and I took the opportunity to slip out of the bedroom with my clothes and my bag. I dressed quietly, repacked my suitcase, and crept quietly out the front door. On the front landing, I thought of leaving her a farewell a note, but decided against it. There seemed nothing to say, really. Then, as I walked down the silent, deserted street, it occurred to me that I had not actually said a single word to her the whole time we had been together. Not one word! And being both Finnish and a woman, she hadn't even noticed.

I caught the first train that morning back to Copenhagen. I spent an extra day or so there, and saw the sights and went to the Tivoli. Then I caught the ferry home. And it was on that ship that I first met Maarit Näkyvä. The Old Man of Odense had been right--there is always a girl in the picture.

Next time: The True Finnish Girl.


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