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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