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...


Blogger Hope Muntz said...

Somebody at work today asked me where I got the title for this Chapter--it's from 'Justified & Ancient', which was my favorite song on MTV when I was in 7th grade. I actually thought it was about Moomintrolls when I first heard it!!

Here's a link to it on YouTube if you're interested:

7:50 PM  

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