Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Travels Past: Finland

In which we go back in time for a little visit to the old country

Be it known that I am drinking vodka and that I am drinking it ice cold and in shots. This is the way we drank it in Finland. I first arrived at Helsinki-Vantaa airport seven years ago today, January 10, 2000. I was met there by two of the most beautiful women I had ever seen in my life, one blonde, the other dark. They had characteristics in kind, however: They both had what I later came to see as the Finnish nose—a turned-up button with an amused arrogance all its own.

It was not long after I arrived before the Finns, my co-workers, had me out, naked in sauna and drunk off my butt on koskenkorva, the local farmers' booze laced with black licorice hard candy. I was so far gone that when the taxi driver finally let me out at my apartment on the island of Lautasaari I slipped on the ice and sprained my elbow. The meeting with the folks at Nokia, my client, the next morning went off well even though I was a half-hour late, lamely claiming I'd got on the wrong bus.

I am listening to Finnish music videos on YouTube as I type. The band's name is Ultra Bra, and they're a pop band that used to sing in a vocal style pecualiar to Finland in the 1970's, when the country refused to decide if it wanted to be a part of the Soviet Empire or the West. "If you bow to one, you show your ass to the other," as the saying went. I just love to listen to the Finnish language as they sing it.

None of that matters. What matters is that I'm drunk and I miss my Suomalainen. I miss them terribly.

Helsinki is a city of light. I arrived there in the dark, though by my California watch it should have been broad daylight. Light in Finland is everything. In the high winter months—when it is so very dark for so very long—every bar, lounge, and dining place is illuminated not with noisome neon but with quiet, dancing flame. Every bar has its candelabras, every entryway its torches. Fire is everywhere in the Helsinki winter. Too, there are the sun-lamps that blaze relentlessly in the offices of working Finns who would fall asleep in the bitter dark but for their painful glow. Light is more than therapy in the wintertime. Light is salvation. Light is life.

As a Californian, I had never seen a frozen sea. That soon changed. A week or two after I had arrived in Helsinki I was walking over the bridge from the island of Lautasaari to my office on the mainland. The day before, the Gulf of Finland had been choppy, with a few bits of ice here and there and the ferry boats going to a fro at will. But this morning was different. It was colder, quieter and more still. There was nothing to hear. There were no cars on the road, just the crunch… crunch… crunch of the snow-covered sidewalk beneath my boots. And then I looked up. What had before been a sea was now an expanse of pure white that glowed brightly in the strange, orange, glimmering dawn. I stopped, stunned. My jaw dropped. Over the long, long night the very sea itself had become a sheet of ice and snow. A few days later there were people trekking across it on skis and snow-shoes. Once I even saw an '80s era Chevy Caprice Classic doing donuts on the ice, its seats filled with laughing teenagers.

It seems strange, living in the sun as I do now, to miss a place so cold and dark. And I miss the place, true. But mostly I miss the people that made the place the place that it was for me. They were like a warm campfire on a cold night…

Hyvää Suomi!


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