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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