Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Book of Hope 14: Sauna Culture

Riita's parents lived in North Tapiola, which is a sort of suburb both of Espoo and Helsinki. It's a planned community, she told me on the drive out there, designed to be a garden city, and architects come from all over Europe to study it. The photograph I snagged off the net is not actually their house--it's one of the same type that was built in a sort of cookie-cutter pattern in the 1950s and is a few streets away from them in a slightly more wooded area. It's also the reverse of theirs, which is also painted blue not red. But I didn't actually want to use any, you know, real photos I took of them or Riita, because a lot of embarrassing and upsetting things happened afterward, and I don't want them suing me. Or hating me or whatever.

All the way out there I was also A. worrying about Kerry and Jo, and B. totally freaked out about the spooky little orange-haired munchkin we'd met in the library. So I guess I didn't really pay much attention to the scenery that she kept pointing out to me. Frankly, it looked pretty much like a normal suburb. And Riita was all sort of 'look at me, look at me' about driving the car, which I guess is way more of a big deal in Finland. Plus as I said, the stuff that happened in the library sort of stuck in my mind. Like when we were living in El Toro, there was a colonel on the base who was sort of in charge of all the holidays, his wife was very involved in the social scene and he had two sons my brothers' ages who were real gung-ho, always breeding snakes and windsurfing and building robots and stuff. You know the type. Anyway when I was three or four, this family held an Easter-egg hunt on the big ranch they lived on, and me and a few dozen of the other kids were invited. It was a cool, very hazy morning, and one of the colonel's boys had dressed up like a big grey rabbit and was hopping and skipping around in the distance hiding brightly colored eggs. Well, naturally I thought he was really the Easter Bunny, I mean, I didn't know any better cuz I was just a kid. And he looked incredibly real--real fur, real whiskers, floppy ears. I can still close my eyes and clearly remember him disappearing into the mist doing cart-wheels and handsprings. So for years after that--like until I was almost in college!--I still believed in the Easter Bunny, even though one by one I stopped believing in Santa Claus, the Blessed Saints, the Tooth Fairy, etc etc, because I'd seen him with my own eyes. And that was kind of how I felt after seeing the fat little Swedish magician guy--my mind just kept playing the scene back to me over and over, with him disappearing down the library stairs just like the Easter Bunny, if that makes any sense. It was bogus--but somehow it still felt magic. So I guess I was still pretty distracted when we got to Riita's parents' house and maybe wasn't as into meeting them as I should have been.

There was a big black Volvo parked in front of the Koivisto's house (the second family car, the yellowish one Riita was driving, was some kind of Ford with a funny name like a condom, 'Dura' or something). Inside, her parents were waiting to greet us at the front door. Her father was a biggish guy named Pekka (are all Finnish men named that?) with thick 'distinguished'-looking greying hair, and her mom was a sort of pink pudding of a woman in a green bathrobe and slippers named Matleena or Matti for short. She had diabetes, I was told, and went to Denmark to stay in a sort of diabetic resort there for three months every year. In the meantime, she seemed to do nothing but eat desserts.There was also a son named Antti, who popped up in the sauna. A pre-supper sauna was apparently a strictly-observed ritual for all Finns, so that was where we all went first, after I heard lots of advice from Riita about the 'rules' of doing this. She was all like, "You must remember that for us a respectful silence is important in the sauna, it is almost like being in a church." Great. "It will be too hot in there even for a towel. Aren't you going to take all your clothes off?" Um, no, I was feeling weird enough already--I didn't really feel the need to go commando with a family of total strangers. So in the end, I kept my panties on. Which sounds silly, I know (plus they turned into a soggy mess in the humidity), but experience has pretty much taught me that's the smartest way to go though life anyway. Riita saw it differently. "You should really think of what Freud stage of development you want to be arrested in," she told me when we went in.

There turned out to be a lot of chatting in a sauna. The Koivisto's was pretty big, with wood-slatted floors and benches, a high ceiling with skylight windows and a stove called a 'kiaus'. "We have a saying in Finland," Mr Koivisto said, "A foreigner only becomes Finnish when he thinks +25 C is hot outside but +65 C is cold in a sauna." This saying might have been a scream, except I didn't have a clue how hot that was in Fahrenheit. But wait, there were lots more. "Our word for sauna means a hole in the ground where we went to cure sickness. We have a saying in Finland, 'First make a sauna, then build the house around it.'"

Apparently, Finns are really into old sayings. While we were mulling these over, we were joined by Riita's teenaged brother Antti, who was a tubby, pudgy-faced, clumsy-looking kid with long white-blonde bangs. He sort of lurched into the room and crashed down onto a bench right across from me, where he sat silently staring at my boobs or whatever. Which were now, like everything else about me, turning bright pink. I crossed my arms. A long silence fell.

"Hoop was staying at the Torni Hotel," Riita said to her 'rents. "I did not think it was a very nice place, so she will be staying with me tonight. There was a very dreadful man who was following her there." They both nodded sleepily.

So I was like, "Well, he wasn't exactly following me--"

"You should have notified the police," Mr Koivisto said. "Our Finnish police are very good, very honest. They do not permit such things."

"He wasn't actually following me at all. Mr Likkanen was actually pretty nice--we just had like a misunderstanding is all."

"Likkanen?" Riita's father looked thunderstruck. "You mean the EU minister?"

Then Riita was like, "No, Pekka, this was another one..." (She called her parents by their first names, which is something some of my friends did, too, when I was growing up, but which I just can never get used to. Or hanging with them naked either, for that matter.)

"Donho Likkanen," I said. Her father looked at me like I'd suddenly cursed or farted or something.

'That man is back in the country?" he said. He seemed to be trembling with anger, and his face turned a really scary shade of red. "He should be in jail. He was a gangster and a criminal when he was young--now he is some sort of pornographer in America."

"No, he was not!" Riita's mother said unexpectedly. She had been so quiet and mousy up till then I didn't even know she could speak English. "He was a very sweet boy and a national hero. He was a spy for his country--like James Bond."

"I suppose you would like to have him back again!" said her husband bitterly. The two of them began to scream at each other in Finnish, then Matti got up and rushed out, and her husband followed her, still yelling.

Riita looked really embarrassed and was like, "Oh, Hoop, I am so sorry and ashamed that you have seen this. Please forgive me. I must calm them now." Then she rushed off, too, leaving me all alone with Anttii. Who stared at me. And stared at me.

Finally after like ten minutes had gone by he opened his mouth and spoke. "There's a girl at school I really like," he said in amazingly good English. Unlike Riita and his parents, he had almost no accent, I guess from watching TV all the time. "Should I ask her to go somewhere with me sometime?"

So I was like, "Sure, why not?"

But he was like, "Because I have no confidence. She will just think of me as a friend, like all the others do."

"OK, you need to build up your confidence then. Focus on your good qualities, just like you were trying to make a big sale or something. What would you say is the most important thing about you?"

He thought about it really intensely for a minute and then said, "Well, I'm very indecisive."

"No, no, I mean the most cool thing, something positive!"

He shook his head. "I can't decide." It was at that moment that I realized that the god of Love had totally forsaken Finland.

We were joined at dinner by Riita's boyfriend Erkki, who was a taller, thinner, younger, darker-haired, and much sweeter-faced version of her father. While Riita bustled around serving us an enormous supper he shyly showed me how he'd connected his iPod to his cellphone, so he could talk on it and listen to music at the same time. "In Finland we have three types of national dishes," Riita informed me. "There is the Karelian, the West Finnish, and the Finlander-Swedish. All are good, so I have included dishes from all three traditions. You are lucky because Matleena and I are excellent cooks." There was no sign of either of her parents during the meal, though her mother joined us for dessert. Her father, it turned out, was off sulking in his 'studio', which was a separate little building like a large shed with big windows across the back yard.

"My husband is being very rude today," Matleena said. "He is in his studio now on the computer with his Estonian girlfriend." Whether she meant this was a real-life girlfriend or just someone he messaged on the Internet, I have no idea. Whatever, she ate a whole lot of cake. As far as Finnish cuisine is concerned, I gotta say the Swedish cakes and the Karelian pastries were the best, though the fish and fresh veggies were very good, too. The reindeer meat was interesting ('gamey' is how the Mothership would put it), and the boiled potatoes were...just like boiled potatoes. But the meatballs suck, and all the rye puddings and stuff pretty much tastes like wet cardboard. Weirdest of all, though, was 'Kalakukko', which is a sort of fish bread/pie filled with bones and even the head. The first time I bit into that I figured out where the name 'ERKKI!' came from. But Riita only frowned at at me when I gave a little scream and was like, "There are two proper ways to eat this dish, Hoop--the West Finn way and the Karelian way. You must not try it your American way." Apparently, the reason for Riita's culinary show-and-tell supper was this: a few years ago some Italian or French prime minister made some nasty remarks about Finnish cooking, and ever since, Finns feel it's like their patriotic duty to prove how great their diet is. I mean, in America, who cares what losers like that have to say about anything? To me it seems pretty strange to imagine basing your life on what other people think of you anyway, but the Finns actually do this with just about everything. They're sort of like a whole country full of my cousin April.

My cousin April is the Mothership's favorite family project, next to genealogy. She's a year younger than me and lived on her parents' farm in western Minnesota her whole life. She's a huge girl with big arms and legs like tree-trunks, big red apple-cheeks, and big bright brown eyes (my mother always has claimed that she's part Native American). If I'm honest, it's sort of disturbing to be physically related to someone who's that big. Whatever, if you went to visit her on the farm, she'd always be hardworking, self-confident, loud and rowdy at times. Even bossy. A little like Riita, come to think of it. But when she used to come to stay with us (usually for a week every summer), she'd always go totally quiet and meek and mousy. And weirdest of all, she'd spend half the day in the bathroom, just staring at herself in the mirror and trying on our clothes and make-up. To me, Finns are just like that. That's why I feel really guilty writing anything negative about Finland at all, because lots of Finns google this blog and come here, read it, leave no comments, and go away probably feeling really insulted and getting none of the jokes. Because, like April, they are both fascinated and struck dumb by what the world thinks of them. And all their European fashions and modern design and English-speaking are basically like make-up and mirror-gazing. Frankly, they should just stick to what they do best, which is working hard and building beautiful things and being apple-cheeked. And ignoring everyone else.

Though I guess even Aprils get lonely, too. Last year she met an older married guy on the Internet (her laptop was a gift from the Mothership, of course) and ran off to live with him in Wildwood, New Jersey, and now she's heavily tattooed. And heavily pregnant.

After our miserable meal, still in bright daylight, Riita and Erkki drove me with all my luggage to their apartment, which was in a modern high-rise halfway between Tapiola and downtown Helsinki. It was small but pretty, with a nice sunny kitchen and bathroom, and they both insisted on sleeping in the living-room on their futon-couch and giving me their bed. Which was totally sweet but awkward. One thing I gotta say about Finnish homes: they are spotless. I mean, really really clean. You could of eaten a meal off any surface in that little apartment--as opposed to mine, where you'd be more likely to stumble over one. Admittedly, I'm a slob, and so is Kerry, but I know plenty of Americans who aren't. But honestly they are still grunge-rats compared to Finns. The biggest cultural difference, strangely enough, was in the bathroom, which was filled with stuff I couldn't figure out--as well as a few things that, let's face it, would never be big in the States. like, for instance, 'Retardex' toothpaste (at least I think it was toothpaste!)

On the other hand, both Riita and Erkii had perfect teeth--so I made a mental note to buy a suitcase of the stuff before I flew back home.

Understandably, I had a lot of trouble getting to sleep again in a strange bed in sunlight. After everything was quiet in the living room, I sat up and switched on my laptop and after I'd checked my email for news of the sickies (all three seemed better), made the mistake of googling Safe-T-Man. His corporate home page was bad enough--and after seeing it I could totally see why Riita's dad called him a 'pornographer'--but it was his blog that really boiled my pee ( After reading all the incredible lies he wrote about me (I am SO not nervous about flying--and my fingers are NOT chubby! And neither are my thighs, much), I got so pissed off and wired I could barely sleep at all. I was all like trembling with anger or whatever. And worst of all, I totally do not believe, not in a million years, that Likkanen ever had sex with Madonna! I was there, and believe me, she totally had no idea who he was. I mean, she never even glanced at him. I think if he was a former lover, like Dennis Rodman or somebody, she'd have at least remembered his face! As if!

But why would he lie about something like that? Obviously he was a lot sicker than I thought, as his 'dream' posts made pretty clear. What a perverted weirdo. Well, it was like nothing to me--I wasn't ever gonna see him or speak to him again. But of course that didn't stop me from morbidly reading his entire site.

Continued here...

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Book of Hope 13: The Opposite of Christmas

If there's one thing on earth I love even more than Moomintrolls, it's Christmas. I admit it, I'm the kind of dork who shops for Christmas presents year-round, wears stupid hats all the week before Christmas Eve (and those brooches that have flashing reindeer noses and stuff), and even shops at 'Christmas Crossing' stores sometimes. Well, when no one's looking, anyway. That's how dumb I am. And Finland, from everything I've read, is sort of like a Santa Theme Park at midwinter, always dark and snowbound and filled with little lights and special Christmas dishes. And drinks. Lots and lots of Christmas drinks. So maybe, given my tastes, I really should have waited to make this trip over winter break (it's no longer referred to as 'Christmas break' on campus) instead of midsummer in the 'land of the midnight sun'. Because my trip was like turning out to be the opposite of Christmas in every way...

Turned out Safe-T-Man was writing his own blog (I'll link this site to the url of his blog later, so you can read for yourself all the outrageously mean and inaccurate stuff he wrote about me). I found this out that morning at breakfast, or maybe I should call them 'morning' and 'breakfast' in quotes, because the sun basically shone all night and I ate breakfast at about the same time as I'd normally eat supper. I decided to eat it downstairs in the hotel dining room because by now pretty much whatever Riita said not to do I was into doing, on the principle that she was always wrong. Problem was, she was only wrong half the time, as I later found out, but because it was always at the top of her voice and I could never figure out any pattern to it, that made her totally unreliably unreliable. Whatever, the food was OK. I didn't die from it anyway. So while I was eating, he sipped coffee and aspirin and tapped away beside me (one-handed, he seemed totally clumsy with his left) at his Powerbook, which he had dragged downstairs with him.

"So what's your blog about?" I asked him.

"It's my last will and testament," he said in his usual gloomy voice, sounding sort of like 'Lurch' on the Addams Family.
So I was like, "Cool! Be sure to put me in it." And Safe-T-Man pretty much did look like death warmed over that morning. Though I probably didn't look much better.

I'd woken up in his bed an hour or two earlier feeling totally disoriented. Bright sunlight was streaming in through the thick curtains, as if there had never been any night at all, which I guess there pretty much hadn't been, just like some Korean War torture. Especially since the TV was still on. Other than that, I was all alone, but at some point while I was asleep Safe-T-Man had half-covered me with a thin white blanket, which was surprisingly sweet and thoughtful of him, especially considering he'd never been married or had any kids (or so he'd told me on the plane.) But it was getting hot already, so I kicked it off and sat up. There was no sign of him in the room. But when I staggered into the bathroom to have a pee I found him lying on the floor in there still tapping at his keyboard, but in a kind of spastic reflex sort of way, like a dying dog. From the smell, it was obvious he'd spent like a major part of the last few hours in there being sick or whatever. And here's the funny part: my first impulse was to clean it up after him! I guess because it reminded me of the time my brother Marty (the older one) came home late after a stag party the night before his (first) wedding and barfed up in the upstairs bathroom he shared with me. And when I say barf, we're talking a sort of ring of puke at eye-level all over the wall tiles. At least Safe-T-Man was pretty clean and tidy, which was another mark in his favor. Anyway, I bravely rolled up my PJs and mopped the whole place out before the Mothership could see it, because she would have had a cow, since her nerves were on edge anyway (she hated Marty getting married, but of course the moment he wanted a divorce she became his-ex wife Carmen's biggest champion and still sends her presents and stuff). And I was only 12 at the time! So I actually stood there in the doorway trying to think where I could find a mop--and then it occurred to me: Doh! This is a hotel! To hell with this sh-t, let the maid do it. At that point I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and realized I was having my worst hair day ever. We're talking cat-lady here.

Outside, it was turning out to be another seriously sunny dazzler of a day--my only complaint was that there was so much of it. It just went on and on and on. After breakfast, Riita showed up, all beaming and smiling. Somehow, she had scored two extra tickets to the Madonna concert for me! Extra meaning that she and her boyfriend ('Erkii', she said his name was) already had their own. Serious money must have changed hands, I figured, so I finally forced her to let me pay her back for them--and believe me, was I ever sorry I did. It worked out to be almost $500! So there went half my spending money up in smoke, pretty much. But I was determined to make the best of it. Who knew, it might even be a lot of fun. So I went up to Safe-T-Man's room to tell him the good news and invite him along to the concert as my guest, because I basically had no one else to ask. Only, was I ever in for my second rude shock of the morning when I did--he totally freaked. I mean, bright red face, yelling, the works:

"Of course I don't want to go to your stupid Madonna concert! I can't think of a more boring way to waste an evening!"

So I was like, "Whoa, chill--I was just asking you because I thought we were friends." I felt so lame standing in the hallway outside his room having this convo in front of Riita and, for all I knew, half the hotel.

So then he was like, "Friends? Friends? There is no such thing as friendship between a man and a woman, you stupid girl. Go find some nice young man your own age to go out with--I am too old for you!"

So then I did something really, really like shamefully embarrassing. I blame the jet-lag and, you know, being in a foreign country and so disoriented and all. I started crying. I couldn't believe it! And then Safe-T-Man just slammed the door in my face! I mean, he was totally not supposed to act like that--he had been really pretty decent up to that point, if you didn't count the corn-ball pick-up lines on the airplane. Well, that and the puking half the night on the bathroom floor. But otherwise he'd pretty much behaved like a real gentleman, as the Mothership would say. So I was totally shocked at how he'd acted--as well as sort of like disappointed or something we weren't going to be friends any more. Meanwhile, Riita was putting her arms around me (something I totally hate) and making little comforting noises. "Don't worry, Hoop," she said. "It will be easy to sell the other ticket again, you'll see. Perhaps we will get so much for it that it will pay for yours as well." (We didn't, but it was nice to get nearly $300 back).

But I still couldn't believe all the stuff he'd said. Was he on crack? I guess alcoholics can develop serious mental problems when they start getting old. Because honestly, what had I done to deserve being treated like that?? I decided to forget all about it that very minute and get on with my trip. Which I did. Problem was, getting on with anything pretty much involved Riita. And now I was really stuck with her, since she'd been so nice and found me the Confessions tix and all. I mean, I wasn't just stuck with her company, I was obligated to play really nice and sweet right back at her. Ugh!

And, though I didn't know it yet, things were about to get way worse in that department. Because when we got back to my hotel room and I'd blown my nose and restored my face to something sort of human in the bathroom mirror, Riita was suddenly like, "I tried to telephone you here last night--where were you?"

So I was like, "Oh, I fell asleep watching TV with that jerk up in his room."

"In his bed? You didn't have sex with him, did you, Hoop?" she said.

Whoa! I mean, Chris could ask me a question like that. Or Jo. And there's no way on earth to stop Kerry from talking about stuff like that. But some strange woman I'd only just met the day before? Tell me that wasn't seriously whacked. So I just glared at her.

"If I had," I said, "I'd be needing a lot more make-up right now. And another shower."

She gave a huge sigh of relief. "Still, you must not stay here any more. You must pack up your bags, and we will check you out of this place after we come back from visiting the library."

"Oh, I don't think that's such a great idea."

"But you can't stay here after he has behaved like this. I think he is a crazy person. How will he act the next time you see him in the lift? You cannot trust him now. No, no--you must come with me. You can stay with us at Erkki's flat, he will not mind." Seeing the look on my face, she added, "It will be a smart thing for you to do, Hoop, you save your money and will not have to spend it all here. And besides, tonight you are coming to have dinner with my family in Espoo and meet my parents--and it is much closer to go to the flat after that. Then on Monday, after the concert Sunday night at Hartwall, we will be taking the train anyway to Turku. So you see, I have everything already planned for you!"

Yes indeed, she certainly did. See what I mean about her being bossy? But after I thought it over a bit, I really did see the logic in it--I mean, I wasn't exactly looking forward to running into Safe-T-Man again--ever! And she was right about the money. And when you travel, it really is kind of anal not to leave the tourist areas and meet the natives, so to speak, and enjoy their hospitality and learn about their culture or whatever. That's why I'd come to Finland in the first place pretty much, and she was being really generous to invite me to her parents' house and stuff. So I took the easy way out, I guess, and just went along with it, forgetting that Riita was always totally wrong half the time. For all I knew, her behavior was normal for Finns. Maybe the sex question wasn't really that strange, I decided, maybe she was just possessive or something. I mean, it was obvious she thought we were friends--maybe she just didn't have any. And so didn't know any better.

"You must pack quickly!" she said. "The library closes at your 4 o'clock on Saturdays. And it is not open tomorrow." 'My' four o'clock? What was that about? "Don't worry, Hoop, we will go back there again after we are home from Turku--you will need to, because the library is where all of the most important books in Finland are kept. And I will spend many hours helping you read through them, you will see. Then you will write a really wonderful book about Finland, and we will both be proud!"

Uh-huh. Like that was ever gonna happen.

The library she was referring to, by the way, was the University of Helsinki Library, now known as the 'National Library' (, which is the Finnish library of record. Finland is a very literate country, Riita informed me all the way there--Finns are the world's biggest readers per capita and the 4th-largest publishers of books (because of cheap paper), mostly of best-sellers translated from English, you know, stuff like Stephen King and Dan Brown. "A person who is so fluent in English as me can always find work in the home as a translator," Riita told me as we walked to Senate Square, where the library faces the Finnish Senate Building (sort of like our Capitol. In fact, Finland's government is very closely modeled on ours). The day was hot and sunny, and the big green trams rumbled along their tracks almost as erratically as the sun-burned Finns stumbled across their streets. They were all as bloated and drowsy and unpredictable as bumble-bees. It was barely noon, and already everyone had started drinking! Safe-T-Man was probably totally blasted by now. And after yesterday's incident with the crapping bum, I now was uncomfortably aware of just how many of my fellow-pedestrians were peeing in public--I kept noticing puddles in doorways and on the sides of buildings near the sidewalk. And of course, on the sidewalk. This was a country that seriously needed some pooper-scooper laws--for people! But hey, when in Rome, huh? Though I could just imagine the looks I'd get at home when I came back if I suddenly started squatting down and doing my business in front of them, hee hee.

Speaking of home (and peeing), I was pretty upset by the emails I'd found in my box before we'd left the hotel. Kerry was bleeding again, and her mom had flown to New York to look after her--now I felt like a totally selfish jerk for abandoning her like that! And there was worse news to come. Jo wrote to say her tummy trouble had returned in the form of bloody diarrhea (being in med school, she was way over-graphic on the subject and devoted like two paragraphs to her symptoms, which was too much information), and there were a bunch of text messages from Christina that had been forwarded to my email account. She had been helicoptered off her little island and was in a hospital in Stockholm having tests for bleeding from her 'sinus'--I later discovered she meant 'urethra' and had looked the word up online in a hurry. So all three of my best friends were now bleeding from mystery diseases. It was like an Ebola plague or something. Would I be next? All day long I'd been compulsively checking myself in the bathroom, but so far, so good. Was it only hitting them because of that stupid magic ceremony they'd performed at the beach? But why? But why like this? Why now? It almost made you believe in the powers of the moon or something--maybe Kerry needed to make a serious sacrifice to the Mater Dea.

Of course, having her own Mater around her apartment all week was pretty much gonna be sacrifice enough, I guess. But my own was even greater: I had...Riita. But before I get started on that topic (again), I gotta tell you what happened at the library first. Because Finland just hadn't been weird enough yet, I guess.

OK, now I have to preface my next remarks by stating the following: I am an addict. Yes, I'm a book addict. And I totally love libraries. I'd actually like to die in in a library. Everywhere I go, the first thing I look for is the nearest public or local university library. I even take pix of them whenever possible--someday I'd like to publish a coffee-table book just about libraries. So now you're probably wondering what I'm gonna say to trash the Finnish National Library. Answer: nothing. It's gorgeous. I'll go even further--it's pretty close to perfection. It looks exactly how a library should look, it has that yummy old book smell that a library should have, and unlike the public library near the Mothership's house in Montgomery County, Maryland, it even has lots of the main commodity libraries are supposed to have. No, not play-areas. Not DVD's. Not 'open spaces' or skylights or computer terminals. Books. It has lots and lots of books. It's quite a sight. Frankly, the Finns have done this so right that it instantly forced me into a total reassessment of the whole country. I mean, if you revere books, what does that say about the rest of your culture? So I have to admit absolutely nothing about the library sucked--except for some of the weirdoes inside it. And remember, I was pretty distracted by all the worrying news I'd had just before I checked out of the hotel--so that made my perceptions of them a bit more suspect, to be fair.

The main hall is absolutely gorgeous, cool and marbley and echoey and ringed by stacks and stacks of well-preserved books that seem to go up to the roof. Everything is brightly lit and beautifully crafted, even the woods used in the shelving are old and solid and lustrously polished. And all the chairs and tables and lighting is ultramodern and well designed. OK, I'll shut up now. I just wished I could find a man who was like that library. Anyway, go to the library website and have a look. And while you're there, run a search for books with 'Kalevala' in their title--you'll find nearly 1,000 of them. After we found this out, Riita suggested that since we only had a couple hours we should start with just the English titles, which apparently kept on their own special shelf. So after a sharp exchange in Finnish with a woman at the collections desk (I thought they were gonna punch each other out at one point), we went up stairs and down halls and down stairs and up more stairs to the reading room. Everywhere we went there were students reading and dozing and enjoying the relatively cool temps. Some were enjoying it so much they were wearing raincoats like it was a winter day instead of the hottest day of the year so far. Others had brought along half their life's possessions with them and constructed sort of little homes inside reading cubicles. And I don't just mean geekospheres either, though I saw plenty of laptops. I mean obviously if we were in DC or NYC half the people there would have been homeless and the place would have looked like a men's prison just before bedtime--that wasn't the case here at all. Everyone was well-dressed, pretty young, and obviously not homeless. Yet, a lot of them were scruffy and bearded and building themselves little cells anyway, like medieval hermits or whatever. And weirdest of all were the number of women doing this, too. A few of them like barked at me as we walked by. Riita just ignored them. But what the hell were they planning to do at closing time, I wondered?? Did they all hide somewhere and come out again at night? Oh wait, there was no night. And I guess their stuff was actually pretty safe in there, locked away till Monday. See? Day-care nation.

When we found the English Kalevala section, there were big gaps in it where a bunch of books had been removed. There was also a sort of humming noise behind us. It was coming from a short, very fat, jolly-looking little man in a dark old-fashioned formal suit sitting at a big table with stacks of books in front of him. He had a round, egg-shaped face with bulging eyes, a little orange goatee, a waxed mustache, and thick lock of orange hair that made him look a whole lot like the Mayor of Munchkinland in the Wizard of Oz. One of the books lay open in front of him, and he was making elaborate passes over it with his hands like a stage magician--each time he did this, a page of the book would turn like magic. When he saw us staring at him he smiled and waved his hands around some more, and the book flipped over and started walking across the table toward me.

"This is the book you are looking for," he said in a thick, sort of prissy accent. (And it was actually, it's called 'Key to the Kalevala' by Pekka Ervast, and you can buy it here: Then he stood up, twirled a thick black cape around his shoulders like he was going to the opera or something, and gave us a little bow--I am totally not making this up, either. "Ladies," he said, and marched away, disappearing down the staircase. We just stood there staring after him.

"Swedish!" Riita said finally with a snort of disgust.

But I was still pretty much in shock. See, it wasn't the book-walking thing that had upset me, though I admit that was pretty strange. But I've read about it online since then, and it's apparently a pretty easy trick for a trained stage illusionist--they just use neutral grey or beige-colored thread wrapped around their fingers to make objects move or walk or even dance or whatever. It's almost exactly like being a puppeteer. No, what really freaked me out was that while he was doing it, the fat little man had given me a great big wink. Like he knew all about Billy Draper and what had happened inside the house in Bronzeville. And that thought was way spooky...

Continued here...

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Book of Hope 12: My First Finnish Penis

If I am totally, completely, utterly, brutally honest here the Moomin Shop was kind of a disappointment. I dunno what I expected, maybe some really great dolls or books I'd never heard of--and there were tons and tons of comics--but 90% of the stuff in there, T-shirts, 'babywear', coffee mugs, kids' tableware, rubber boots, candies, etc, etc, was Japanese junk. Apparently the Moomins are a big hit in Japan, there 's a kids' TV show there or something, and the Japanese artists and cartoonists have a way different idea of the Moomintrolls than I do, you know, how they look and stuff. Also the store was really small and cramped. And it didn't help to have Riita tapping her feet and blowing out her cheeks impatiently and telling me how cheaply and shoddily everything was made and how Finns could never manufacture such a lousy product. I decided she would make a really good addition to the cast of Harry Potter: 'Miss Ida Sapprove', the Hogwarts Pursar of Lips maybe. But I decided to sneak back again sometime soon on my own so I could look more thoroughly, if it was ever possible to ditch the bitch.

Safe-T-Man was waiting outside for us at a little outdoor bar, sipping on a second black drink and lighting yet another cigarette. It was definitely weird seeing rows of people standing and drinking at counters out in the bright sunlight--I guess it shows how seriously they take it or whatever. He must have seen the look of disappointment on my face though when we came out, because he said to me, very sweetly, "Never mind. There are many other Muumii cultural experiences for you to have here. For example, there is a Moomin theme park now, I think."

So then Riita was like, " Yes, that's right: Moomin World in Naantali. Polls have shown us that Naantali is the happiest place to live in Finland. Perhaps it would be nice for you to visit there when we are in Turku--I will arrange to get tickets for you if you like." (

So here was a perfect example of Finnish behavior for you--rude and insensitive one minute, kind and thoughtful the next. The whole time I was there I thought of those people exactly like I did the little hot and cold water taps on my sink in the hotel room, which would never work at the same time, so the water was either burning or freezing, but never anything in between. Well, I guess 'off' was in between, which was pretty much the normal state for most Finns. But not for these two. In Finnish terms they were both total drama queens. First they got into a big argument about coffee. Or rather, why their country drinks so much of it (they're like the biggest consumers of coffee in the world or something). Then they started bickering about local history, and Safe-T-Man even grumbled at her about it in his mopey Finnish. The two of them were glaring at each other, and Riita's face was turning red. They appeared to hate each other's guts, but maybe that was just how Finns express sexual attraction, I couldn't tell. Everything here seemed like the opposite of America. Or maybe just of me.

"Oh, I wish you could get me tickets to the Madonna concert!" I said, you know, as a joke, but the words seemed to have a magical effect on Riita, who beamed at me radiantly. Like Katje from the airplane, she had really nice teeth.

"You like her too?"

And I was like, "Only totally! I saw her in Chicago just a few weeks ago, and check this out: she was on our plane! Yes, way--she even talked to me and whatever!" So then Riita started quizzing me about what Madonna had been wearing, which songs she had done in Chicago, etc, etc. Finally, we had something in common--so naturally, she had to work it to death all the way down the Esplanade. I mean, if I'd told her a really funny joke (that she could get), I'm sure Riita would have immediately repeated the punch-line four or five times to emphasize its humorous qualities. She was just like that. The girl couldn't help it.

The Harbor Market turned out to be a real market, with dozens of stalls selling mostly junk, but also lots of farm produce like beets and leeks and endives and stuff. There were also tons of boats along the stone wharf filled with herring and cod, etc, etc, the 'fruits of the sea,' as the French say, but there wasn't much I could realistically shop for there even if I had been in the mood for a big fry-up. However, I did buy a disposable cell-phone and a rechargeable calling-card from a Turk or Gypsy (in spite of Riita's dire warnings). I guess Safe-T-Man was feeling a bit left out or something, because at that point he said something really weird, I mean weird even for him: "I think we are being followed." Great, I thought. I mean, I was beginning to realize he was an alcoholic, now he was acting like a paranoiac, too, or whatever they're called.

I was like, "Why would anybody want to follow us?" and he just shrugged. He shrugged a lot, I'd noticed, it was like some kind of cool feature built into his inflatable dummy frame, like a poseable action figure. Or, as Carlos from work would say, maybe it wasn't a feature, maybe it was a bug.

"Perhaps some poor fellow has fallen madly in love with you."

"Shut up, no way! But that's pretty much what you wanna hear when you're on vacation," I told him. "Right, Riita?" But she just glared. Ouch! On an impulse I said, "When we get back to our hotel I'm gonna go online and see if I can find somebody scalping tickets for the concert. Would you mind to help me translate the Finnish sites?" I had more or less meant the question for Riita, but instead Safe-T-Man grunted a yes. Or something. Riita looked even more furious at this.

"I have some important business to attend to this afternoon," she snapped. "So I will have to leave you now, but I will be back again tomorrow, Hope." She pronounced my name 'Hoop'. Suits me, I thought--in fact, I'm afraid almost said it aloud. "Do not eat the food at that hotel, I do not trust their kitchens," she added darkly as she left. What was she, a health and safety inspector in her day job?

"That is one strange chick," I said to Safe-T-Man after she'd gone. "Are all Finnish women like that?" He did his patented action shrug. Up, down, up down, went his (admittedly very broad) shoulders.

"She is very typical, I think," he said. "But she is of no interest to Likkanen." I'm serious, he really said that. In the third person, no less, like he was Salvador Dali or somebody! "You know, my very first job was here in this place when I was 16. I sold ice cream at a stall. Right where we are standing now." I waited for him to go on, but that was all he said. Maybe he was lost in his memories. Or maybe he was getting Alzheimer's.

So after a really long Finnish silence (well, short for Finland, long for anyplace else on earth)--six minutes by my watch--I was like, "How long has it been since you've been back?"

"Thirty years," he said.

"Wow, that's longer than I've been alive."

OK, I know that throughout this blog or blook or whatever it is, I've said that lots of things were 'weird'. I guess I've sort of over-used the word, really--maybe I should of saved it for when I really needed it. Like now. Because on our way back to the hotel, something really--well, you know, weird--happened. I mean it was too strange to be just 'odd'--but not quite strange enough to be 'bizarro'. So, I guess I have to say it was just plain weird, that's the only right word. Though I better warn you now, it was just the first of many things like that that started happening there. If words were made of paper, 'weird' would wear right out in Finland. What happened was, we were going back to the hotel via a different route, because Safe-T-Man had this sudden allergy to the Esplanadi--I guess he still thought we were being followed, like in a spy movie. So he took me on a tour of a 'historic district' to the north, which was pretty interesting and looked a lot like Chicago near the lake, all the old buildings built of grey stone, though few were taller than 10 or 12 storeys. There was a terrific old art deco railway station, and north of it were elevated tracks just like the Loop. The whole time he kept looking back over his shoulder and chain-smoking, so finally I said to him, "I thought you weren't supposed to smoke when you're wearing patches."

And he was like, "These aren't nicotine patches--they are vitamin patches I order from India. That is Vitamin C and this one is B, and the smelly one here is a mineral supplement." Whatever, it seemed to be working--he looked pretty good for an old geezer, almost as cut as a military man, only a little soft around the gut. That was probably from all the drinking. Incidentally, I grew up in a family of smokers so it really doesn't bother me much. Both of my big bros are on the patch now, which is a good thing, and my mom only ever pretended to smoke--honest, for years she would just light cigarettes and hold them in order to be 'sociable'--but Kerry and Chris both do, even though Jo was always on their case to quit. So I'm used to it. Though, of course, I'm always happy when people give it up.
Anyway, that's not the weird part--this is: we turned a corner and there was an old homeless guy in a coat singing and sort of dancing around in front of a small group of college kids on the sidewalk. When we got closer, I saw that his pants were down around his ankles and his penis (or 'unit', as the Mothership used to call it) was hanging out and flopping around all over the place. Now, again, I am totally not an expert on any aspect of Finnish life or culture, but I can tell you for sure the whole country is pretty much into nudity, because of their saunas and stuff, I guess. Whatever, if you go to Finland you're gonna be exposed to a lot of penises, especially on TV. And I gotta tell you honestly, from what I've seen so far there is very little to write home about, so to speak. It's weird that the guys with the least to show off are usually the biggest exhibitionists, but that's pretty much the case with most things in life, I guess. Anyway, this old bum looked sort of like a toddler blown up to full size, but that didn't stop him from, you know, strutting his stuff or whatever to passersby. So then when he caught sight of us, he started yelling at Safe-T-Man in Finnish, like he knew him. And even stranger--he looked just like him! Except, you know, sort of older and filthy and unkempt. Of course, I was still at that disoriented stage after a long flight where all Finns were looking alike to me, you know, like Cabbage Patch kids or whatever. I mean, I'd even been seeing resemblances between Riita and Safe-T-Man earlier--you know, like how they moved their mouths and the texture of their skin and the expressions on their faces, etc, etc. So I was not a reliable witness at that point. Plus, jet-lag had hit, so the whole thing felt sort of like a bad dream.

Suddenly the old bum switched to English, though his was heavily accented and kind of unintelligible and guttural, and held out a chipped Moomintroll mug (I noticed because it had the Snork Maiden on it). "Come on lover-boy, don't be shy," he said. "Feed the Sampo. You have to pay to cross the river." So while Safe-T-Man was fumbling around in his OP's for some money, the guy looked at me and added, "Hey, you f-cking her? She's not bad. I'll have to tell my wife I've seen you two." And then he crouched down on the pavement and took an enormous dump! Right in front of everybody! I mean, not to be too gross or anything, but it just kept coming out like a long, dark oily coil of garden hose. Safe-T-man sort of grabbed my arm (I noticed he was pretty strong) and steered me off quickly. The whole time the bum was shouting stuff after us that I couldn't understand. But here's the craziest thing of all--I had this distinct feeling that he wasn't really a homeless guy at all, that he was just sort of playing a part. Though who on earth would want to do that? It was all part of the 'being spied on' feeling I guess, like the bum was some kind of secret agent and was passing along a message in code to Safe-T-Man. 'Hide in plain sight, Hope', was always Dad's favorite advice, along with, 'naked is the best disguise.' That old incontinent beggar guy was certainly well disguised, in that case. I guess what put that in my head, the idea of a disguise I mean, was the uncanny resemblance between them.

So when we got back to the hotel I was all like, "WTF was that all about? I mean, he acted like he knew you or something. And the two of you look enough alike to be brothers! Was he a friend of yours when you were young?"

So then Safe-T-Man gave me like the saddest smile on earth and shook his head (hey, I thought, another action movement!). "No," he said.

But I could totally tell he was lying. Which is always an attractive quality in a man, I think. I mean, that you can see right through him like that.

I spotted my second Finnish penis in Safe-T-Man's bed, and after that there was an avalanche of them in various shapes and sizes. Well, mostly shapes. What happened was after I got back to my hotel room, I tried out the disposable cell-phone I'd bought at the market and got it working after a ton of number entry. So first I called the Mothership back, to give her a chance to resume her cruelly interrupted nagging, then I tried Kerry and Chris (no answer). So I left them voice-mails, then hooked up my iBook to the hotel Wifi and sent around a mass e-mail, leaving out the part about the homeless guy who'd crapped in front of me in the street. Then I checked my e-mail. Nothing. Suddenly I felt so lonely and homesick I'd of been grateful for spam. But I didn't even have any of that. I'd been almost asleep on my feet when I'd called Mom, but now I felt all wired and nervy, so I packed up the laptop and went upstairs to Safe-T-Man's room.

Which was even smaller than mine. Which meant there was noplace to watch TV except for the bed. So after we wasted half an hour looking on Finnish websites and forums for Madonna tickets, we sort of started dozing off together watching nude Finnish TV shows like 'The Dudesons'. There was even some kind of upscale department store commercial featuring naked guys and chicks just jumping up and down flopping their, you know, boobs and penises and whatever up and down. Really in your face.

So I was like, "Oh, wow, none of them are circumcised." At which he frowned and looked sort of offended.

"It is against the law here now," he said. "It is considered infant mutilation, and one can go to jail for it. So you see, we clever Finns are socializing even the penis."

Basically, I was starting to get the vibe that the whole country was like a giant day-care center, only with heavy drinking. Speaking of which, Safe-T-Man had brought home a bottle or two of some unpronounceable Finnish liquor that appeared to be a combination of vodka and industrial sludge and was putting it away in record time. He offered me a taste in a gargle cup, but one whiff of the smell was enough for me. Actually, I gotta confess that it felt really nice slowly relaxing and falling asleep beside him like that. He was definitely a strange and untrustworthy kind of guy, totally into himself and dishonest and untruthful. And old. And alcoholic. But. He never smoked indoors (he told me that was 'unhealthful'). He was just the right temperature (which is very rare, in my humble experience), plus he smelled really comforting. None of that disgusting cologne that geezers like to wear. Or the 'floral male scents' that smell like Rescue Remedy or whatever and stick to you like Febreze. Just guy smell, really comforting and safe, like his name.

"Sometimes you say 'we'--and sometimes you say 'they'," I mumbled at him drowsily. "Which do you consider yourself to be?"

And he was like, "Well, when I am in America I often feel like a Finn. But at this moment, I am feeling very American." Fair enough, I thought as I fell asleep. So was I.

Continued here...

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Book of Hope 11: All Are Bound For Moominland

It turned out that Safe-T-Man had a few issues of his own. After my tummy felt better, he fell deeply asleep for a couple of hours and then woke up screaming somewhere over Sweden the next morning. I mean, screaming like a girl! The stewardess came over to check it out, but by then he was awake, so I squeezed and patted his hand until he calmed down. I mean, he had behaved really sweetly to me when I was being sick, considering what a creepy lech he could seem to be at times, so I wasn't too worried he'd get the wrong idea. I dunno what he was dreaming about, but it was definitely a Freddie Krueger (another Finn!) moment. Because Safe-T-Man was Finnish, too, if I haven't already mentioned it. He told me his name was 'Donho Likkanen' and he was some kind of designer. Seems like most Finns are, or at least claim to be. So I'd met my first Finn, aside from the stewardess, whose name was Katje and who was really nice. I mean not just nice because it was her job to be, but genuinely good-hearted. You could tell. And except for that weird mixing up of 'hallucination' with 'malfunction', her English was pretty good, too--just wait until I tried out some of my phrase-book Finnish on people! And the flight so far definitely had a trippy quality about it. For example, all during breakfast, I kept hoping Madonna would come back to visit tourist class again, but she never did.

In front of us on the plane was sitting a Finnish family who had a 3 year old girl who kept peeking back at us. I began to try to practice my Finnish on her. It must of worked, since she started laughing. Her mother tried to get her to use some of the English she knew, to which she protested (in Finnish), "I don't want to speak Swedish." Katje translated this for me when she came back with a complimentary Finnair box of candy with a Moomin inside and Moomin scenes. Now, here I have to explain about me and Moomintrolls, which are sort of the main cultural icon of Finland. They are just about my favorite things in the whole world--and I have a really big collection of the books (in English) at home next to my bed. This dates back to the first time my family visited London on our way back Stateside, which I guess was in the late '80s or so. Dad took my brothers on a 'pub crawl' so Mom was like, "OK, Hope, we girls are going on a shopping crawl." So first we went to Harrods, then we had 'tea', and then we visited all the book stores around Charing Cross. Yes, the Mothership is a big reader, that's where I get it from, though it pains me to admit it. But here's the odd thing about her: she's always reading, it's almost like an addiction with her, but she never ever says a word about anything she's read! Fiction, biography, gardening, you name it--she has absolutely nothing to say about any of them, even if it's like some best-seller she's read the night before that everybody's talking about at a party. "Oh yes, it was interesting," is all she'll ever say, her eyes darting from one side to another, like you've caught her out sneaking a drink in the middle of the morning or something. And to complete the drug addiction metaphor, the moment she's done with the book, out it goes, either back to the library or into the church charity bag. Basically, the only books in the house are mine--because I'm a total pack-rat. And of all my books, my favorites are the Moomintroll books Mom bought for me that afternoon. I have all the ones in English: Finn Family Moomintroll, Comet in Moominland, Moominland Midwinter, Moominsummer Madness, etc, etc all with their 'Ernest Benn, Limited' imprimiturs. The jackets are all pretty tattered by now, but they've got to last me a lifetime, because when I'm scared or upset I always reread them. For example, when Dad would be overseas on a posting I would read The Exploits of Moominpapa. Or, my first year in Chicago when a freak ice-storm closed O'Hare and I couldn't get home for Christmas, I spent Christmas Eve in Borders drinking hot chocolate and reading a paperback copy of Moominland Midwinter.

I would say that of all of them I find that book the most comforting. There are two characters introduced in it that I love the most, too. The first is 'Little My', who always reminds me of Jo--or Madonna--because she's a fearless trouble-maker and can never feel sad, only mad. And the second is her big sister 'Mymble', (sorry, I have no idea of what their real names are in Finnish) who is very quiet and kind and patient and has lovely long legs. She is exactly what I long to be. Of course, she remains asleep throughout that book.

So when I found out Safe-T-Man was Finnish I tried to talk to him about the Kalevala, but he just blew me off, same as when I asked if he wanted to share a cab at the airport in order to cut down on expenses. So I pretty much had written him off as a rude old jerk, when suddenly he started hitting on Katje, the stewardess. And this was really interesting to me, I guess because it's always sort of exotic to see mating rituals at work in another culture, like watching animals doing it in a zoo, especially bizarre ones like rhinos (which is always sort of how I imagined my parents, hee hee.) But here's the amazing thing. After Safe-T-Man muttered a few mopey sentences in Finnish to her (which I couldn't understand), it was Katje who was all over him! She even turned all pink and glowing and kept making excuses to come back and talk to him before we landed. So I guess his act really played in Europe. Or maybe it was just the shirt. Whatever--eww! But I still kept wondering what he'd said to her. Because Kerry and Jo and I sort of collect pimpin' lines, you know, the kind they teach losers in those perverted pick-up manuals guys are into, like, "Want me to show you a magic trick?" or "You had lint on your dress" (after the guy paws you with the lint he's hidden in his palm.) In those kind of books (I know because my bro's used to collect them) this is called 'breaking the ice'. But in Finland, things were always pretty icy, as I was about to learn.

The airport looked like Mardi Gras or something when we landed, lots of local fans had showed up screaming and waving banners for Madonna's arrival in Finland. Naturally, her party got off first and were whisked away to a VIP lounge somewhere, so I smiled and waved and pretended the crowds were there for me. A few people dressed in B&D outfits even waved back. So now I was actually in Finland! Everything looked and smelled totally different. It was all flat and dinky, like a giant Fisher-Price village. But weirdest of all, the signs were all in Finnish! And everywhere you went, people were speaking it, too. Luckily for me everyone in Finland speaks English--or at least they all pretend to. All except my cab-driver, who was some kind of African and only knew how to say 'I take you now', 'Faster, faster!' and 'No, more, more!' which I'm guessing he learned from porno films. When we got to my hotel, he kept making me give him more and more money for the fare, and I suddenly realized that my cash was going to go like water, in spite of all my planned economies. It's always like that when you're traveling anyway, only it somehow seems worse in a foreign country. Well, as Kerry says, it's like being raped--all you can do is give it all up and hope you get some fun out of it. Not that Kerry speaks with the wisdom and sensitivity of somebody that's actually ever been raped: as Jo cruelly puts it, Kerry never gives a guy the chance to do it first. Obviously, I was missing them, because suddenly I felt really alone. I mean, that was sort of the whole point of this trip--to get away from everyone, especially the Mothership--and I was sure I'd start enjoying that feeling pretty soon. It just wasn't happening for me quite yet.

My hotel was called the 'Torni', and it was really great, kind of quaint and old-fashioned on the outside, but pretty modern and, well, Finnish on the inside. Everything was small, but very very clean and polished. My room had all glass blocks and blonde wood surfaces and a sort of Lapland-looking handmade quilt on the bed. I was in the land of Ikea, for sure. After I checked in (there was no tipping, which was cool) and unpacked, I tried calling the Mothership on my cell, which I'd been assured would work in Europe if I prepaid an extra roaming fee. Naturally, it didn't, which meant I had no text messages and couldn't access my voice-mail either, so I ended up having to call her collect on the hotel phone to tell her I'd landed safely.

When I did she was like, "Hope, you know I don't like accepting collect calls."

"I know, Mom, but my cell phone doesn't work here."

"You told me you'd fixed that," etc, etc. This is dialogue that pretty much writes itself, if you've ever had a mother. Luckily I was able to hang up quickly, because while we were talking the phone buzzed to tell me I had a visitor. Obviously, I wasn't gonna be allowed to wallow in my loneliness for long!

My visitor was named Riita Koivisto--she was the 'guide' assigned to me from the University and apparently she'd cut her vacation short by a day or two to come back to Helsinki and look after me, as she soon made plain. In great passive-aggressive detail. In Scandinavia, everybody basically takes the month of July off, which was why I hadn't tried to stop over and see Christina first on my way to Finland, since she was busy hanging with her extended family off on some tiny little island somewhere with no toilets, but Tuesday was the official 'back to work' day all over the Baltic (I think I arrived in Helsinki on a Friday or Saturday?). Describing Riita actually isn't easy for me to do, because she was one of those people who struck you as being one way when you first met her, then sort of totally the opposite as you gradually got to know her better (as I unfortunately had to)--and then one day, reveals herself as being really different than either of your two previous opinions, if that makes any sense. And, let's face it--I'm a total chump when it comes to people. I was always the kid in the class that teachers picked on to look after the 'new kid', you know, the shy unibrow retard with a pizza-face or glasses or uber-braces or whatever. So I was always stuck being lab-partners or 'study-buddies' with every freaking geek and lame-duck in the world--in other words, I'm a pushover and get along with just about anybody. But I didn't like Riita. I mean I didn't have a hate-on for her at first sight or anything, I just found her problematic. To be honest, she was a big bossy cow of a girl and what's worse, was several years younger than me, which made her self-importance and air of always being right about everything even more annoying. Especially when I got the Bush Derangement Syndrome lectures ("Why can't Americans just use 'people power' to bring him to justice?" "Why do you support the genocidal terrorist regime of Israel?") Like I would ever say stuff like that about Finnish politics. About which I could care less actually. Their political views are their business, just as mine are my own. Anyway, the point is that normally I would just blow someone like that off as nicely as I could--but in this case, we were totally stuck with each other for the next week or two.

Part of my problem with Finns is this--their accent makes them all sound totally miserable, like a whole country of Eyores. And they sound equally sulky whether they're speaking English or Finnish, so this automatically makes dealing with them difficult because you assume they are feeling certain emotions, especially hostile ones, even when they aren't. They think they're being incredibly shy and polite (they actually have almost no polite expressions in their language and don't employ English ones easily , so you just have to guess their intentions). The only time they lighten up and laugh is when they're drinking heavily, basically. Or wandering around half-naked (sometimes not just half!) and stoned in the middle of the summer night, which is pretty much broad daylight, as I was about to discover. So in total fairness to Riita, I now think she thought she was being kind and polite the whole time she was ordering me around and lecturing me about stuff. But what do I know?

I'll give you an example: from the very first moment she walked in the door she was sniffing and literally turning up her nose at everything in the room. "This hotel does not have such a good reputation," she told me (again in fairness, I admit her English was exceptionally good--'reputation' is a hard word for any foreigner to use). "I would not stay here." Great. Who asked you to? But then five minutes later she was all like, "You must see the bar at the top of the hotel tower. It is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Helsinki." And she sounded proud of that! Go figure.

A beer was pretty much the last thing on earth I was in the mood for at that moment--it was mid-afternoon their time there (I think), and my tummy was still sore and way grumbly after that long vomiting sleigh-ride across the Atlantic. But the bar was kind of cool and it perked me up just being there, like I'd wandered into a spy movie or something. You know, like you're a Bond Girl and the canned music is your own private soundtrack. And for Finns, even priggish chicks like Riita, a beer is like a Perrier water or something at any time of day. They don't even view it as part of their serious drinking, which they have all kinds of Finnish words for the various stages of, which starts later in the evening and involves all kinds of social events and the types of drinks that are appropriate to them. As far as I can make out, the typical Finnish drinking binge is basically a marathon athletic event punctuated by visits to the sauna--the trick is to spin your drinking out for as long as possible without socially disgracing yourself, which would involve puking and passing out prematurely or drinking vodka instead of aquavit at a funeral toast or punching (or kissing) the wrong person or gender or something, so that you are actually able to fall into your own or someone else's bed near dawn under your own power. And if you make a big business deal or hook up with someone or get pregnant while you're in this sort of twilight-bombed out of your mind state, so much the better. You don't remember it, and odds are nobody else will either, since they were all in the same state you were. So you all still have your dignity. And if all this keeps happening enough times with the same person, then you either start a new political party or high-tech company together or you get married or go gay, whichever is most appropriate. At least this is my explanation for Finnish culture, but I don't pretend to be an expert on the basis of a few short weeks.

I guess this sounds like I'm some kind of prude on the subject of alcohol, but I'm totally not. Actually, I like drinking a lot, and I'm in favor of legalizing drugs, too. I think most laws about what people do in their private lives are ridiculous and sometimes even evil (these were called 'sumptuary laws' historically). It's just that occasionally you find yourself in a place where people are culturally so extreme about something that it makes you look like a Puritan or whatever. If the Finns were as into sex as they are into drinking, for example, there would be little outdoor 'shagging booths' every ten yards or so, 'shagging bars' on every street corner (and even in gas-stations!), imported shagging techniques from all over the world, and affectionate Finnish words for every conceivable position and combination. And of course, they'd tax the hell out it.

So the beer definitely had a good effect on Riita, who lightened up to the point where we were even able to discuss Mythology, you know, the reason I was actually there in the first place. I guess I'd hoped she might be an expert on--or even have an interest in--the Kalevala, but no such luck. "We studied it in high school, but no one takes such stories seriously these days," she sniffed. "It is considered old and boring. I think there is a Kalle Anka Kalevala as a comic book for children now." 'Kalle Anka' is 'Donald Duck' in Finnish, believe it or not. So what was Riita into? You guessed it: Women's Studies. The Mater Dea. Ma ma. So while we were busy chatting I noticed a very familiar silhouette on a bar-stool in front of us. Someone had dragged Safe-T-Man, you know, the inflatable dummy from the plane, into the Torni Bar, strapped him to a stool, and stuck a glass full of some disgusting-looking liquid in front of him. And maybe it was my loneliness or maybe it was poor dumb Riita's boring convo, but I was actually pretty glad to see him. Or maybe it was the Hawaiian shirt!

So I was all like, 'Hi, Mr Likkanen! [I almost said 'Aloha'] Remember me from the plane? Would you like to join us? This is Riita Koivisto from the University--she's taking good care of me." And then she went all strange again, trashing the bar and saying how much it sucked. He just stared at the two of us with an absolutely inscrutable expression--I couldn't tell whether he was about to ask us to pose in the nude for his 'Camera Ca-rub' (as a Japanese tourist had done to me a few days before in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York) or whether he found us really irritating like a couple of children and wanted us, as Jo would say, to 'just sod off!' And I definitely caught the vibe that Riita couldn't stand him at all, for whatever weird personal reason of her own, maybe his age or something. So this had the perverse effect of making me be on his side instead. After all, he was Finnish, he had just come back to the land of his birth, and yet here he was all alone in a tourist hotel bar getting drunk. What was up with that? Obviously, he was pretty lonely, too.

"We're mostly here for the view," I said, loyally defending the hotel. Riita had brought me along a little 'Lonely Planet' guidebook as a present (or a loan, I couldn't tell which from the way she offered it--this, too, was typical of her), so I showed him the page that had a pic of it. "Apparently, you have to go to the Lady's Restroom and look out the window to get the best view." And I'm telling you the absolute truth. What you do is get in line and then shuffle in and cram yourselves into a toilet stall and peer through the open window in order to see what is sort of the 'Empire State Building' view of Helsinki--from all of 16 storeys high or something! I kid you not. Below you (more or less) is the whole city, looking a little like Rostock or Kiel or Duluth, except more Russian, all the green-copper spires and roof-tops and grey-stone squares and streets and steel tram-lines and muddy brown bays and inlets looking sort of stoned and sleepy under the blazing gold afternoon sun. It's no wonder the Finns like to stay drunk all the time--they're just echoing nature, really. So one of us, Riita or me, I can't remember who, suggested a visit to the old Harbor Market Square (also in the guidebook), and the other of us, most likely me, invited Safe-T-Man along. You know, just to be polite, like when you invite some grouchy old neighbor to your noisy party. But much to my surprise, he said yes. So off the three of us went.

When we got down to the street, we turned left onto the Esplanade, which is like the biggest and most famous street in Helsinki ('Esplanadi' in Finnish). In fact, it's so big, it's actually two streets, North Esplanadi and South Esplanadi with a sort of park in between filled with some seriously ugly statues. Though to be fair, I really don't like statues, period. They always remind me of decomposing corpses. I'm sure these were very nice and historical if only I were capable of appreciating them. And then right there in the middle of the Esplanade I found my own private Mecca, the Hope Muntz Highway to Heaven: the 'Moomin Shop'! My trip to Finland would now officially be worth it, whatever else happened.

Or so I thought at the time.

Continued here...

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Friday, December 01, 2006

The Book of Hope 10: The Triple Moon

Finland is a flat marshy little country that looks like upper Wisconsin and Minnesota (and like them is filled with lakes), which is why most Finns who emigrated to America--including my great-grandparents--settled in that area. Finland has a population of 5 1/2 million, pretty much the same as Chicago, about a quarter of it living around the capital, Helsinki. It's a much younger country than we are, because it only got its independence from the Russians in the 1890s (before that it was a province of Sweden), so its great national epic, the Kalevala, was assembled from old folk tales and songs in order to give the new little nation a sense of identity. This was why the great composer Sibelius, who wrote their famous national anthem 'Finlandia', based so much of his music on it, the Kalevala I mean. They fought two wars against the USSR, winning the first and losing the second because they were allied with the Nazis. Other than that, I really didn't know much about Finland, except for Moomintrolls, of course, so I immediately started reading up on it and trying to learn a little Finnish.

Normally, I'm actually pretty decent at languages. I'm bilingual in English and German, thanks to my heritage and childhood spent at military bases there, I can speak some high-school French and Spanish, and, because of Christina, a little Swedish now, too. I can read Latin. I've even taken a semester each of Sanskrit and Classical Greek and gotten A's in both. But Finnish is the first language that's ever like totally, completely defeated me. Honestly, I don't even get how they understand it themselves--it's more like Turkish or Mongol than it is any Indo-European language. That means it's 'agglutinative', which means that bits of lots of words are strung together to form huge long ones. Unlike French, speaking it is actually no big deal, since the accent sounds like Swedish. It's knowing what to say or what it means that's the problem--so by the time I had to start packing to go on my trip, I was in a total panic over it. Because I had sort of led the university authorities at Helsinki (the biggest university there) and Turku (the oldest) to think I was at least conversational in Finnish. So I had to get back in touch with them and admit the truth--luckily I think they're used to this from visiting American academics, because they emailed me back right away saying they'd provide a 'guide'. So that was a bit of luck. I just hoped that he or she would be prepared to help me actually translate stuff, too, because if you've ever tried to use a Finnish-to-English computer translation package you will know that it's the worst, even suckier than Chinese or Russian! Last Christmas Jo Fedexed me a book called Games the Dadaists Played as a present, where it describes how they used to take lexicons and cut them up with scissors, then randomly tape the words back together again to try to create poems at parties. That's pretty much what a Finnish-to-English translation looks like.

OK, now I had disposed of the language problem, the next biggest issue about my trip was: what should I wear? Luckily I had a full-time consultant in that department, one who had lots of credit cards, wore some of the same sizes as me, and re-gifted expensive stuff, literally at the drop of a hat. So I decided to take the Metroliner to New York and spend at a few days with Kerry first before catching my Finnair flight from JFK to Helsinki. Technically, Kerry doesn't actually live in New York--she lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the river. Her 'rents bought her a little shotgun-style apartment on the third floor of a converted row-house on Hudson Street facing an ancient water-treatment plant and a pretty park that leads down to the river. From there it's an easy commute into Manhattan using either the PATH train, a bus that goes under the Holland Tunnel, or one of the little private ferries that run across the Hudson. The night I got there she took me around the corner to Augustino's, where we had veal parmesan and split a bottle of wine, and I told her all about my little thing with Daniel.

She was like. "No way, bitch! Shut up, I can't believe you sometimes. You'll do a dork like that creepy old de Burgher King--and then you blow off a perfectly sweet normal guy your own age just because of one bad phone call? Everybody sounds weird when they're talking to their mom on the phone, you should hear yourself some time." No thanks! So then she started analyzing me and advanced the highly original theory that I am only 'picky' with younger guys because they represent the threat of a real relationship, whereas if I stick to older ones I can always be sure things won't work out. Yeah, whatever. Anyway, after that the topic turned to domineering moms, at which both of us were experts. Everyone around us was craning their necks to listen to her. Kerry's voice is thrillingly low and she has this dramatic Southern drawl--we always tell her that if all else fails she always can get work in the sex-call industry. I, on the other hand, while sounding perfectly bland and Midwestern, am always being told that I sound like a bright 12-year-old boy on the phone.

I actually went through a phase of wishing I could somehow magically acquire the best traits of all three of them--Kerry's voice and charisma and smile, Jo's brains and petite grace and big eyes, Christina's curves and perfect skin and dude-magnetism. Instead, I'm still stuck being me. The weird thing is--I photograph pretty OK and people other than the Mothership are always telling me how pretty I am (to be fair, these are always people like kindergarten teachers, old ladies, delivery guys, bums on the street, or lesbian soccer players), and yet I always seem to be the wallflower when I'm around the others. I guess it must be something seriously wrong with my personality. But how can anyone change that? It's like your laugh. As Dad used to say, you play the hand you're dealt.

OK, so, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, mothers. It's a funny thing, really--because you'd probably think, reading all this, that I'm like the most Mama-whipped chick on earth, right? And yet in her quiet, sweet, homey, loving sort of way, Kerry's mom is even worse than mine (though I hate to admit it). And weirdly, Kerry's area of academic interest pretty much reflects this: her PhD is on the Mater Dea, the universal Mother Goddess figure worshipped in the Neolithic as the 'Triple Moon-Goddess' (the Virgin, the Mother, and the Crone, as symbolized in the painting by Gustav Klimt), syncretized in modern times into the Virgin Mary. Kerry's also always been heavy into the Celtic pantheon, which is where she and I sort of part ways, because she's taken the 'soft' path into Mythology by way of Women's Studies and oral histories of stuff like Druidism. The problem is, because they are just oral histories, and so were never written down, we really know very little about the Irish gods--and even less about Druidism, in spite of what New Age types claim. Next to nothing, in fact--the main authority on the subject is Julius Caesar, who tried to exterminate it, which is sort of like consulting Mein Kampf for clues about the Talmud, if you ask me. That's why I personally prefer the 'hard' evidence of the ancient written sources--the Kalevala fits somewhere in the middle between the two extremes. Which was supposedly why I was going to Finland in the first place, to sift through all the sources.

"What's the name of the Finnish mother goddess?" Kerry asked me over dessert.


So she was like, "Ha! I so knew it! Ma, ma, ma!"

And I was like, "Kerry, stop bleating. You sound like a sheep!" And it was true--everyone in the restaurant was staring at us now for real. It's Kerry's theory that 'ma' is the oldest word in existence and was once part of a 'universal mother language'. Even babies in Japan call their mothers 'ma'. So she's obsessed with finding it in other words that have mythological weight. Like 'Mary', for instance. Or 'Madonna'. Well, enough of that intellectual kind of talk. We spent the rest of the evening planning an exhaustive but comprehensive syllabus of non-stop shopping for the next few days, boarded the 'silly bus' (Kerry's joke, not mine) the next morning and went into town. It's awesome to have one person in the world you can totally relax and shop and try stuff on and be a total juvenile dope with, though. I mean, neither of us would ever in a million years want a guy to see us acting like that!

Or would we? Is that like maybe part of the marriage test? That a man could see me all goofy around my friends like that--and still love me?

The two of us pretty much stayed on the silly bus (at times even the 'short bus') until the night before my flight was due to leave. Kerry had had her period those last few days, but suddenly her cramps got much worse, until she was all like doubled over with pain. Then she started bleeding really heavily and turned white as a sheet, though she had no fever. So finally I panicked and called 911 and put an ice-pack on her tummy until the ambulance came. We ended up spending the night at St. Mary's Hospital, which was only a few blocks away. Apparently all that was wrong with her was a burst blood vessel down there--no cyst, no cancer, not even an infection. It was basically just a bad nose-bleed in her vagina. The doctor even checked her out pretty thoroughly because Ob/Gyn is their main specialty there. They gave her a sedative and Maalox with Xylocaine in it for her tummy, but she still couldn't sleep, so I wandered around the place until I found a staff book rack, then spent the rest of the night reading her poems from an old paperback anthology. It's really amazing how different they sound aloud as opposed to just reading them silently to yourself. I particularly enjoyed the John Donne and William Blake stuff, though I'm not sure she got much of them, because she was pretty out of it.

Around noon the next day it was time for me to pack and catch the train across town to JFK, and Kerry was like, "Don't go. Stay here with me the rest of the summer."

So I was like, "Huh? I gotta go, hon! I can't cancel my tickets or anything this late. Besides they're sort of expecting me there. You know I'd stay if you were really sick, but there's nothing wrong with you."

"Seriously, Hope, I have a totally bad feeling about this trip," Kerry said--and then burst into tears. At that point I was totally WTF, because I'd never seen her cry before. I mean, I cry at anything, kid's faces on milk cartons, lost cat flyers on telephone poles, love songs on the Muzak at Safeway, you name it, plus every single movie I've ever been to (including cartoons!), but it's something that Kerry just doesn't do. So I was totally clueless what to say to reassure her. "I just know you aren't coming back. Or if you do, you'll be all different. You'll meet some Finnish guy and marry him and move over there or something."

"No way! And even if I did I wouldn't be living any further away than Chris does. Besides, what could happen to me anyway? The Finns like invented safety laws--and there's totally no crime there." (Ha! Shows what I know.)

"Just promise me you'll come back," she snuffled. "And stay away from any Finnish gods or monsters or whatever."

That was some sedative, I thought. And then on the train to the airport, it occurred to me that Kerry was the second person near me who'd gotten like really violently sick all of a sudden--the first time it had been Jo. What was up with that? Was I some kind of Typhoid Mary? Or was it something to do with the stupid black magic ritual they'd performed at the beach? Whatever, it was really starting to freak me out. I was gonna have to be super careful around Chris, I decided. And the other thing that was still freaking me out was Kerry's spooky 'Beware the Ides of March' speech. I mean, it wasn't like her fault or anything, but it sort of put a gloomy pall over the whole flight. And that was really unfair, because I'd been looking forward to it so much for months. So instead of, you know, being all happy and excited and stuff, for me everything just had this sort of foreboding fantasy-flick feeling, even at the airport. When I was 8 or 9 my mom took me to see this Muppet movie called Labyrinth. I guess she thought it was a kid's movie, but instead it was pretty dark and scary. The most depressing part for me was this long scene where the kid is trapped in this sort of marketplace full of old crones hauling all their worldly possessions around, and the airport terminal was pretty much like that too, full of yuppie boomers and businesswomen dragging huge wheeled cases stacked with plastic bags along behind them as they shambled aimlessly between Starbucks signs like homeless refugees. Luckily, the liquids ban on flights was a still a few weeks away from happening, so the security lines weren't too long. Well, just long enough for me to take care of all my cell-phone calls, anyway. Finally, we boarded. And then things really got weird.

For one thing, Madonna was on board my flight! And I am so totally not kidding! Maybe you've even read about the incident online or something. Of course I didn't get to see her for a few hours, not until we were over the Atlantic and she came out of the first-class section to visit her kids, Lourdes and Rocco, who were seated just ahead of us. And that so rocked, you know, to actually be in the same cabin as your greatest hero (well, heroine) in the world. What happened was, the stewardess (a Finnish woman with the most gorgeous white teeth I've ever seen in my life) told me, was that Madonna's private plane had been grounded because of some malfunction--she called it a 'hallucination' at first!--in the landing-gear, so she'd bought out half the tickets on our flight, and all the First-Class passengers were flying for free. And when Madonna was in our cabin, she actually came down our aisle and said a few words to several people, including me! I couldn't believe it!

She was all like, "Hi, I hope I haven't disturbed your flight. Hi, nice to see you, I hope your flight's going OK," etc, etc.

So when she got to me, I was so incredibly excited all I could think of to say was, "Shut up, I'm your biggest fan!"

So next she autographed my cocktail napkin for me--which I still totally possess to this day! And after that she said to me, "See you in Helsinki." I couldn't believe it! I mean I knew her 'Confessions Tour' was maybe going there (I had just been to see it in Chicago when I was moving the last of my stuff back and saying my goodbyes and whatever), but it hadn't registered somehow. Wow!

So the whole time this was going on the guy in the seat next to me was making faces and stuff like Madonna was personally insulting him or whatever. Earlier he'd made a big deal with the stewardess about being kicked out of first class, but he could of taken a later flight and still flown for free. So I didn't get what his act was all about. And he really needed to get over himself anyway. He was one of those aging Casanova Scandinavian boomer types who spend all their time under the sunlamp and basically dress and act like Valley girls. He was even wearing a bright blue Hawaiian shirt, OP surfer shorts, and and bedroom slippers--for a trans-Atlantic flight! I also noticed his arms were all covered in Nicoderm patches. Earlier he'd tried some lame come-on line to me about not being interested in women any more, like I was supposed to convert him or something. "Are you gay?" I asked him, hee hee. He reminded me of somebody, though (not just William, someone else), but for the moment I couldn't think who. It was kind of tantalizing.

At some point after that, we hit some vertical wind shear from an obvious super-cell beneath us the airline hadn't bothered to mention while we were still on the ground in New York. This started to cause some up and down-draughts where we would typically get plus and minus velocities of 1 - 2 gees, which means things were getting pretty gross in the cabin--you know, stuff started flying around and people puking as the plane rocked up and down. What was really embarrassing is this: I grew up in an aviation family, I'm the daughter of a military pilot who owned and flew his own Cessna, and the sister of two commercial pilots who fly me anywhere I want to go for free. For my family, flying was like driving the station-wagon to the store. Even so, I started hurling, too, really badly. Even more embarrassing is that I could never qualify for a pilot's license myself, no matter how much I wanted to please my dad, because I'm so near-sighted. Yep, I'm wearing contact lenses the size of coasters in all those pix. Blush!

Even more blush-making is what happened next. I was all bent over doing my business in the airline bag when I felt a sort of big heavy lumpy thing land on my head. It was the guy in the next seat's hand! He just rested it there, not trying to stroke my hair or anything--which would have been doubly disgusting at that point--and suddenly I was reminded of something else (remember, I was not rational by then).

A few years ago there was an e-mail craze for inventing your own 'porno name'. What you did was you took the name of your first pet for a first name and the name of the first street you lived on for a second, put them together, and that was your porno name. Naturally it was Kerry who turned us on to it first--her name was 'Tiger Magnolia--and Jo's was even better: 'Honey Maidenhead' or something. Christina's didn't count, being Swedish--as I recall, it worked out to something like 'Shoe-shoe' and then an unpronounceable five-syllable word after that. Mine was 'Wheezy Hawker'. My first memories are from when I was 4 or 5 and we lived on Hawker Street, just off the El Toro, California, Marine Air Corps base. We had a family dog, a huge sweet-tempered old Golden Retriever named Louise, who I called 'Wheezy' because she, well, made a wheezing noise and I couldn't say 'Louise' properly. Wheezy used to put her paw on my head and rest it there for hours, just like the geezer next to me was doing while I was hawking away. To be honest, I found it sort of comforting. And that's when it finally occurred to me who the guy reminded me of: Safe-T-Man! They looked alike enough to be twins--the same store-window dummy tanned features, the same chiseled jaw and brow and long nose, even pretty much the same flat, dull expression around the eyes. The resemblance was incredible, really. It was like someone had taken him out of the box, inflated him, dressed him in Surf Shop clothes, and then sat him down next to me for my flight! And now his sculpted plastic hand was resting on my head...

Continued here...

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