Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Don Juan in Helsinki: 9

The international aviation designation for Helsinki-Vantaa Airport is 'HEL'. It was built the same year my mother was pregnant with me and opened just in time for the Helsinki Olympics. Then I was born. So it was a summer of great celebration for Finland. Now my country has cause to celebrate again: Likkenen is returning home. Unaware of this, perhaps, Finland lies dozing beneath a thick quilt of puffy grey clouds. Why is it that in America even the sky is so much bigger?

Made bold by rescuing me from nightmares and no doubt, nervous by our impending landing after such a long, terrifying flight, the Strawberry will not now shut up. She talks about everything under the sun. The pale, lemony Nordic sun, which beams down on us from directly overhead, creating a dark feathery shadow on the cloud cover below, like that of the Sielulintu, the mythological Finnish 'soul-bird', who protects the sleeper from getting trapped inside his dreams and never waking up again. She talks about her mother (whom she calls 'the Mothership') worrying in Ohio or wherever and how she must telephone her the moment she lands, about cell-phone coverage and roaming charges, about her love of light opera, and about the 'Silmarillion' of J. R. R. Tolkien. Then she asks me what is the 'Sampo'? But her talk so boring that I am not listening to it, and I think she is saying 'sambo' instead.

'That is what you Yanks call a "partner",' I tell her. 'You know, if you have lived together a long time but do not intend to marry.' She stares at me in stupefaction. I feel so sorry for her then. Poor thing, I think, to have one's emotions always so naked. She needs sexy underwear for them.

'No, no, I mean the Sampo in the Kalevala. Last night I was reading about its resemblance to the 'horn of plenty' and the Welsh 'Cauldron of Annwn', but I couldn't find any description of it. Did they teach you what it looked like in school?'

'No,' I reply. 'It is just a three-sided magical mill. It spits out food and gold. And wood products. Then, as I recall it, someone throws it into the Baltic Sea, where it lies on the bottom and makes salt.' It was also the name of the old post office bank of Finland--rather like "Western Union". If there is a Sampo at work today, its modern name is Nokia. BTW, we pronounce the 'k' as a hard 'g'; nokias are a kind of bird. Nokia began life as a paper mill, then manufactured rubber tyres and galoshes. Now the company controls a quarter of the Finnish economy and is by far the biggest employer; it has been a magical mill indeed, grinding out gold from technology. And if any malevolent god should ever toss it into the sea, then suddenly Finland would be poor again, because there is very little other industry or services to employ anyone.

You see, Helsinki is not really a true Scandinavian or even Baltic city at all--it faces the Gulf of Finland and Russia to the east. It is this gulf that divides Europe from Asia. And it is on the Asian side that the true Finnish homeland lies, in the dark forests surrounding Lake Ladoga in Karelia, the country the Russians stole from us. The landscape we are flying over now, the southern tip of Finland with its thousand lakes, was mostly Swedish in its history. I have a Finnish father and a Swedish mother, so my soul stands with one foot in both these two lands. I am not alone in this schizophrenia; everything in Finland, including Helsinki (Helsingfors) has both a Finnish and a Swedish name, right down to its neighborhoods and even city streets. As a child, I thought these all referred to quite different, warring places, and I only felt truly 'at home' on the island of Aland, which lies halfway between them, where my parents sometimes took me for our summer holidays. Or sometimes to the south on the island of Gotland. My father was a great Finnish nationalist, and this was as far as he would travel from his native soil, though he once visited Estonia by ferry. My Swedish grandfather Frederik was also a nationalist but of a very different sort, as we will see. It was him who took me to see the famous 'birth-cave' on Gotland. 'Here is where the Gothic race was born,' he told me. 'Who would ever have imagined that someday it would conquer Rome and rebuild the ruins of Carthage?' Of course, I was too young then to see that the two men detested each other, which was why our family holidays had to be held on these small, neutral islands. Like all little boys, I was happy to bask in the love of all. My father's father, also a doctor, had died in the Winter War, but my father's mother was also quite attached to me; she was a silent, sweet-tempered woman who looked exactly like Nikita Krushchev in drag.

Now the fluffy clouds begin to thin and part enough to peek through, and we begin our long slow descent. Vantaa (Vanda) is the most punctual airport in the world, so it will not do to be late, oh no. It was the same with my school days, with my father's practice, with meals and parties and all appointments. Finns are always on time. Even to orgies. No wonder no one likes us. I look down now and see we are flying over Nurmijarvi, low enough to see trees and roads and the rooftops of tiny houses. Beyond it, the tiny runways of the airport, nestled between the Keha Ring Road and Highway 45. Everything is tiny, like the Faller and Heljaen and Airfix plastic models I played with as a child; toy trains, toy houses, toy cars. These things, I know, will still seem small to me even when I am on the ground, will still look like little plastic toys--even more than the Swedes or the Swiss, we Finns have a talent for miniaturizing the outside world and making it clean and safe. And, of course, punctual. Because here we are, landing precisely on time! Finnish time is UTC plus 3 (though it is actually plus 2 at this moment for daylight savings time). It is early afternoon, so I have lost nine hours of my life flying backwards. Traumatized by her ordeal on this flight, the Strawberry has her eyes shut as we approach the runway; her hands grasp the arm-rests so tightly that the knuckles pop out, and I can tell that she secretly wishes to hold my hand again. But I deny her this comfort. I must be cruel to be kind. As soon as the wheels touch down, unless we should crash on the tarmac and I need her to help me push out an emergency exit window, our relationship is at an end.

There is a single great bump and thud, then the tyres scream as they are thrown into reverse. We slow to a crawl, then turn off the runway toward the terminal. We have landed. And for the first time in 30 years, I am back in Finland. Oh ho, Donho, I hear you saying, this could become very boring indeed. Why do I want to know anything about Finland? I don't even care about Nokia--I have a Motorola Razr. But do not worry, this story will not be a long travelogue. If you are interested in learning about this little country come and see it for yourself. The air fare and the hotels are priced very reasonably for tourists, though you will be shocked at the prices for everything else. No, no, this is not about Finland--it is about me. I am only Finnish by an accident of history. Still, I feel some excitement inside me at the thought of being back home again. Back home! Imagine it, I was actually born in this humble soil! On the day I left, I could still have run down the steps of the plane and knelt and kissed the ground, like the Pope does in newsreels, but now there are docking bays to the terminal instead of ramps, just like in a real airport. So if I want to kiss my native soil I will have to wait until I am actually on the highway to the City Centre. After Cricket's party have exited first to go to their special 'media lounge', then there is a great clattering and bustling of activity as the rest of us remove our suitcases from overhead and pull on our jackets. I give the Strawberry a final Judas kiss to her pink cheek and it is our turn to be off. She has suggested that we share a taxi-cab from the airport; I have said no. Likkanen has seen the last of her.

Inside the terminal, it is a madhouse. Half of Helsinki is here, at least the teenager half. And all the gay blades and the lesbians too, under a banner that says 'Queer Friends Club'. But they are not here to greet me, thank goodness! It is Cricket they have come to see. Well, they can have her. I have more important business to attend to--I have to find myself a good place to die. But first, I have to find myself a good place to drink. Outside, there are more crowds gathered around a fleet of Mercedes limousines--which explains why i could not reserve one for myself--and as I manage at last to flag down a bright yellow VW Taksi, I have a terrible sinking feeling. Will I find this same situation at the hotel? (I do, as we shall see.) But in the meantime, the delicate Likkanen nose is overwhelmed by a new palette of scents, and with them an almost paralyzing rush of emotion--the smell of salt and sea, of scrub grass and pine forest, of petrol fumes and the slight odour of tar that is everywhere in Finland. There is a popular tar-flavoured candy here called 'terva', imagine that. There is even terva ice-cream! But there are no words in Finnish for 'please' or 'excuse me'; here, courtesy is best expressed by total silence. My driver is a true Finn, not a Somali or Egyptian, as you would find in New York. There has recently been a presidential election (and the red-haired lady who looks like Conan O'Brien has been reelected for six more years by only 2% of the vote), but he does not intrude his political opinion of this matter (or any other) upon me. He is supernaturally courteous all the way downtown to my hotel, but at the end of the trip he will present me with an additional 'music fee' for the racket we are listening to on his radio, mostly Cricket songs. Luckily I can keep the car windows open. It is summer and the day is swelteringly hot for Finland, which means I am comfortable in my jacket. Now I look to see the changes that thirty years have made to my home town. So here is the travelogue, and if it is boring to you, just log in for my next post. Or close your eyes while you read this part and think of bonking.

Helsinki is a city of about half a million people, with another half spread around the three suburban cities that are connected by the inner and outer motorway rings. Of these three, Espoo (Esbo) is also Finland's second-largest city all by itself and, along with Tampere (Tammerfors) in the middle of the country, makes up Finland's 'Silicon Valley'. But only about one third of the land is developed inside the city limits; the rest is park and forest and lake--and empty grey muddy gravel fills. Houses are generally tiny and crammed together, apartment blocks are heroic and the old ones, like the older government buildings, designed by the Italian architects who originally built Petersburg. Most of these buildings are still standing, but between them now are dozens of new glass boxes, scattered about the landscape like huge aquariums filled with tiny lights. There are trams and trains running everywhere, Finnish-designed and Finnish-built to look like fat insects on wheels, in front of bright awnings and toy shop-fronts, and huge billboards advertising vodka and radio personalities. This is all new. Thirty years ago, the genial and popular communist puppet 'St. Urho' Kekkonen still ruled, the SUPO spied on all us hippie youths, and the country had more than a little of Russia's Stalinist grey drabness and shabbiness. In fact, back then it was often used as a stand-in for Moscow when filming James Bond films. Now, all is clean and shiny. The highways and roads are much wider and brighter than in those days, the traffic is heavier, though still lighter than in America. Even on a summer afternoon in bright sunlight the headlights of all the motorcars on the road are switched on, presumably by some new intrusive law designed to reduce accidents in a land where most highway deaths are still caused by hitting a moose. Strangely, however, it gives the traveller the feeling that all these vehicles' drivers are drunk. That is very possible here in Finland. Certainly my driver is, judging from the smell of his breath; he drives precisely the speed limit, working the accelerator and the brake with two feet at the same time, so that our journey consists of over a million little lurches. However the final fare, even with 'Cricket tax' added, still comes to less than $40, in spite of the dollar being so weak, so even though anyone but another Finn would be puking his guts out by now, I consider this ride a bargain. Though I find it a bit of a shock to be paying for it in Euros, rather than the old Finnish 'markka'.

OK, now here is another thing you must understand about Finland, though I hate to keep mentioning this boring subject. Already the country is annoying me, and I'm sure it is the same for you. Just as in August all of Paris shuts down, so does all of Helsinki in July. Everything--the subways, the trams, the bars and restaurants, the movie theatres, even the news on television, is on 'Sunday service.' This was true thirty years ago, and, I am swiftly discovering, far more truer right now, since these days Finland is so 'rich', and thus everyone desires to take their month of summer vacation at the same precise time as everyone else (don't worry, they will get another month off at various times over the winter). All over the countryside in a few small towns and beach resorts, business is booming, and most of Finland is eating Tyrkisk Peber candy at Moomin World, fishing at their summer cabins, or flocking to the world's weirdest festivals--the 'Sex Festival' in Kutemajarvi, perhaps, or the 'Witch Trials' and 'Kissing Competition' in Ruovesi, or of course, the world-famous 'Wife Carrying Championships' in Sonkajarvi (www.sonkajarvi.fi/?deptid=14952). I think I am being very clever to have arrived precisely at the last weekend in July, when no one will be about but just before they all return home again. However, because I did not know about the 'Cricketmania' now sweeping over this place like a plague of locusts, I could not have been more stupid. Well, to be fair, I am about to be a great deal more stupid, but I do not know this yet in the story, so please forget I have just told you so. However, on this particular day, the last Friday in July, no information kiosks or sales counters are manned, or if they are, by surly people who are either dead drunk or on their cell-phones. Even the service at the front desk of Helsinki's finest hotel, the Hotel Kamp, leaves a great deal to be desired. Because, just as I feared, this is where Cricket and her entourage are staying! The woman has cursed me like a witch! And naturally, she has taken the top two floors, including the suite I had reserved. Now it is true, the management has given me another, much smaller room lower down and for free--but the Polish girl who tells me this is new on the job, and I am tired and not understanding either her English or her Finnish very well. In fact, I will have this problem with Finnish for the next few weeks--I have simply forgotten much of it after thirty years. I will open my mouth to say one thing, and quite another thing will fly out. By the time I have recollected it completely, it will be time to leave. But I don't know any of this yet. So I decide to have a tantrum.

And that is how I come to be looking for a new hotel. Now, thirty years ago, this would be a problem, because in those days even the Kamp was not a quite a true 5-Star, it was still just a bit like the Metropol in Moscow. But in these happy modern times, according to my Googling, there are at least half a dozen world-class 5-Star hotels in Helsinki. And this is something else you must know about me--I will not happily stay in anything less than 5 Stars. It is simply a matter of principle, because of my health and personal tastes. I know that other lucky peeps can be just as happy with far less. But not Likkanen. And an unhappy Likkanen makes all around him unhappy--so it is actually a public service for me to avoid being provoked into tantrums. Quiet luxury does much to soothe this.

But when I tried the SAS Radisson Royal, they were completely full up! This time, however, I was patient (or perhaps just exhausted) enough to let the young Flemish fellow at the desk Google some sort of local hotel database they keep online. But no good deed ever is rewarded, because this generous mood of mine led to the worst disaster of all. The only suite he could find for me was at the Hotel Torni, which he assured me was 4-Star. Now, the Torni is Helsinki's oldest and most famous hotel, and it also happens to be the place where I went on my very first 'date'. Yes, this is true! In those days, the tower of the Torni, which is nothing like the revolving 'space needle' restaurants in Seattle or Toronto but is modelled after some church tower in Florence, Italy, had a restaurant at the very top, and this was the highest point in all Helsinki, so that one could see a view of the whole city skyline from there. It was considered very romantic indeed for dating in 1969. But here is the funny part--It is only 18 storeys high! The Torni was built in 1931, so finally after 60 years, Helsinki decided to build a much taller 'skyscraper' --and now a modern glass building towers above the Torni, which is a huge 24 storeys high, LOL! Why are there so few tall buildings in Helsinki? In a word, caution. The city is like a metaphor for socialism: 'Keep your head down or it will get chopped off'! Only true peasants make good socialists. And traditionally Finland was like those paintings by the Russian Bilibin, a little fairy tale of pine trees, log cabins, and big blonde people wearing striped stockings with their hair cut in fringes. Now the peasants gel their hair into dreadlocks, wear tongue piercings and tattoos and tap text messages over their cell phones--like the hundreds wandering about the city's parks in stoned or drunken stupours as I made my way to Yrjonkatu, some of them pissing on the sidewalks. When I saw that, I knew I was truly home again.

But at the Torni, disaster. It was not even a 4-Star any more--it was now a 3-Star! It had been downgraded just the week before! I was given one of the renovated 'glass' rooms, but it still smelled a bit of mildew. I had forgotten how everything in Finland is built small and rather shabby by American standards, how every surface is cheap, over-polished wood.On the TV was a loud strip-poker game show 'Rasypokka'); most of the guests were already half-naked. This was immediately interrupted by commercials for Lordi, the Finnish heavy-metal monster-masked Eurovision contest winners and 'Koff' beer, 'brewed by the Devil!' The word for 'devil', BTW is 'perkele', which is Finland's worst swear-word. Sitting on the mock-quilted futon bed cover, I felt too depressed even to blog. If I were not Finnish, I would have cried. Instead, I decided I needed to get drunk in the worst way. In Finland there are many, many ways to get drunk, of course, each of them worse than all the others. So with so many to choose from, I naturally made the stupidest decision possible--I went up to the Atelier Bar at the top of the tower. But of course, I was doomed anyway.

Next time: I meet an old enemy...

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