Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Book of Hope 15: The Whortleberry Tree

For Finns, the Kalevala is a little like the Iliad and the Odyssey all rolled into one. Heroes raise armies, march or sail off to battle, and perform magical quests--usually in 'triads', just like in the Mabinogeon or in German fairy tales--in order to win the hands of princesses in marriage. And Chris had been wrong: the Estonian version, the Kalevipoeg, is not more reliable than the Finnish. Both were compiled from songs ('runot' in Finnish) and oral traditions, but the Estonian (which is about a young giant resembling the tragic hero Kullervo) may be as much as two-thirds all made up. Of course, for all we know, that could be the case with the Finnish legends, too, because their compiler, the brilliant Elias Lonnrot, was a poet and mystic in his own right. So it's sort of a judgement call. In the 1920s another Finnish poet and mystic named Pekka Ervast reinterpreted Lonnrot's work in 'Christian occultist' terms. He pointed out that unlike the Greek Myths, for example, the Kalevala had both pagan and Christian influences. The final Rune 50 is clearly a parable of the Christ child--a young virgin named Marjatta gets pregnant from a whortleberry tree (or strawberry or lingonberry bush, according to which translation you believe. And don't ask me what she did with it in order to conceive!). Then when she gives birth, the old hero Vainomonen, who is sort of like a cross between Odin and Odysseus, is called in by the local wizard to decide what to do with the baby.

So he's all like, "Hey, kill the kid. He's a son of a bush, so he's most likely some kind of monster." Which is really pretty sensible if you respect his cultural POV. I mean, think about it--how many Hollywood monster film disasters could have been prevented by that kind of clear thinking? Or recent presidential elections, hee hee?

But nope, now it's too late. The newborn baby pipes up like the baby Jesus in a Nativity play, saying, "Shut up, dude, no way I'm a monster, I'm just a normal kid" or whatever, so he's crowned king of Karelia on the spot, and poor old Vainomonen slinks shamefacedly off into the sunset. Joining Bilbo in the Western Isles or Arizona or someplace I guess, wherever old legends go to die. After that, a golden age of Christian peace and harmony comes to the Finns. The saddest thing of all about the Kalevala is that most of the places mentioned in it, including Karelia, are no longer Finnish at all but now belong to Russia, with no hope of ever getting them back. So the myths have kind of a sad lost quality to them, like the Celtic legends of Ys. Or like most Finns, come to think of it.

But Ervast didn't stop with interpretation. He examined every line of the 50 runes for mystical significance and found they made up a pattern of magical incantations and symbols, sort of like a 'Bible code'. So now Wiccans and occultists and New Age mystics all over the world consult the Kalevala for prognostications just like the I Ching or the Tangram. I didn't know it yet, but they were gathering to hold a 'sunrise festival' in western Finland at that very moment.

Which also, though I didn't know this either yet, accounted for the absence of the little orange-haired Swedish magician when I went back to the National Library the next day--though I found myself constantly looking back over my shoulder in case he suddenly materialized again. Even without this distraction, I was having terrible trouble getting a handle on the whole subject of the Kalevala. I mean it was like back in America it had seemed so small and tidy and quaint, almost like a Moomintroll story--but up close, surrounded by the descendants of people who had maybe been in it or made up some of the stories in it, surrounded by people who had learned it as songs in kindergarten--suddenly it seemed really hard to, you know, comprehend or whatever. One minute, it felt huge and magnificent, part of the grand wheel of world mythology quoted in Hamlet's Mill, then the next minute, sort of boring and stupid and, well, trivial. I mean, it had suddenly occurred to me there was a whole foreign country waiting outside the library windows, and I only had a few short weeks to see it. And Madonna was playing tonight.

And to make matters even worse, I was now coming up, even slogging through dusty old academic texts, against what I have privately come to call 'kallakukko', or Finnish boneheadedness. I had discovered that if you ask any three Finns the same question, you will get three different answers. Like, for instance: "How do you say 'hello'?" A real tough one, right? (Riita: "Moi", Erkki" "Hei", Antti: "Terve"). This, I was rapidly finding out, was even more the case with academic interpretation and literary criticism. To be honest, I even think this national trait is deliberate--maybe it's why the Russians kept getting lost every time they invaded. Because they kept asking Finns for directions, doh. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to make this whole story sound like a prolonged 'Finnish joke', because actually I think Finns are totally amazing (I won't give the ending away by telling you why)--I'm just saying there's a reason why are three slightly different versions of every single event in the Kalevala. Finally, when my mind was totally whirling, I decided to go outside for a break and enjoy the sunshine.

So naturally it started raining.

I was standing on the massive front steps staring up into the dark, swirling sky and noticing a strange smell of soot when my rent-a-phone rang. It was Christina. I was like, "Thank God! Are you OK?" Directly in front of me on Senate Square there stood a collection of humongous cement cut-out statues of musical instruments that people were now trying to shelter under.

"Oh yes, I'm fine really. It was nothing."

"Where are you?"

"I'm still in the hospital. But truly I'm OK, I promise."

"Well, that's a relief," I said. "I was thinking of catching a plane tomorrow and coming to check on you."

Then she was like, "Oh, that won't be necessary. It's not a convenient time really. Besides, I am being very well looked after." She sounded really weird, like her English was staring to desert her. So naturally that put me in mind of something else weird.

"Chris, I know this is like a really strange question, but have you ever met a little Swedish guy with orange hair and an orange beard, about fifty I would say? Wears a cape sort of like a stage magician? And is really really fat?"

Silence. After a few moments, she said, kind of like from very far away, "Oh, yes, I should have told you about that. You see, he is a friend of Lennart's--I think they belong some club together in Stockholm--and that is why he came to speak to the children about the Norse gods. He is an expert in these things." It was hard for me to hear the next few sentences because the connection started breaking up. "--really quite a nice man--one of the richest men in Sweden, he has many big houses here. After the talk we were invited to a gathering at one of them, just outside Lund--his name is-- all telling ghost stories, so I suppose--"

"You told him about Billy Draper and the house in Bronzeville."

She was like, "Yes, Hope, please forgive me. It's just that I'm so happy..."

"Happy?" This convo was getting stranger and stranger.

"Yes, you see--wasn't going to tell anyone, but--I'm going to have a baby! That's why I was ill."

"Wow!" I said, after I caught my breath. Riita had arrived with a big blue umbrella and was making very 'patient' faces at me as she held it over us, which meant that she was really very cross. The rain began to drum heavily on top of it like lots of impatient fingers. "Well, what will you do?"

"Oh, I'm going to have it, of course! I'm so happy, Hope. I want to have it for him."


"Lennart--the headmaster at my school. Didn't I tell you? He left his--together ever since I came back from America."

Riita hissed at me, "Come Hoop, we must hurry! We are meeting Erkki and his friend at the MOCKBA."

"Well, congratulations, sweetie!" I said into the cell-phone. "I'll call you later and we'll talk more then. And I'll meet Lennart when I come visit you in a couple weeks, OK?"

"Everything's wonderful," said Chris, and we hung up. She sounded totally insane to me. But I guess truly happy people generally do.

Now it was pouring. All around us the outdoor cafes were shutting and waiters wearing garbage bags were dragging chairs and trays and little trolleys of food covered in napkins indoors. Inside the lights were cheery, and the muffled noise of music and people talking drifted onto the sidewalks along with the smells of cooking and damp old wood and stone. A bright red SparaKoff 'pub tram' crawled by us, crowded with seriously drinking tourists routed by the rain. The long languid love-affair with the sun was over, at least for the moment, and this made me realize that, like Hamburg or San Francisco or any seaport really, Helsinki was pretty much built for mists and drizzle. And therefore most comfortable with them. Finns weren't really being themselves when they were wandering around stoned in the sunshine, they were just imitating some California dream. Now they were all back to normal. But what was the dark smoke in the sky about? I asked Riita about this while we were huddling in a doorway during the worst of the cloudburst, and she was like, "That's George Bush's fault."

So I was like, "Huh?"

"It is because he will not sign the Kyoto Treaty," she said. "Now there is global warming, and this causes more forest fires all over Russian Karelia and Murmansk. And since they have no money for fire-fighters, these fires burn all summer now and spread to Finland, where they harm our wood industry. That is what we are seeing today, the smoke from them. It is quite usual in summer now." So, yeah, America's fault again. We shouldn't have cars. And we should pay Russians not to smoke.

We were pretty soaked by the time we got to the bar, which was about about a 10-block dash through puddles and flooded gutters. When I say 'we', I mean 'me', because Riita was wearing a raincoat and a pair of yellow rubber boots. "Erkki's friend is named Eetu," she hissed at me while we were being splashed by a large truck driving too close to the kerb. Why was she still whispering? "He is famous here--he is an actor and a journalist. But he is not a very nice person, I think. He is a 'bad influence' on Erkki," she added with heavy emphasis. "They are childhood friends, however, so I can do nothing to discourage them. But don't worry, Hoop--I will look after you and make sure he does nothing bad." So, as you can imagine, after hearing all that from her I was already inclined to like this Eetu guy a whole lot before we ever even got to the bar. That lasted about thirty seconds after meeting him.

The MOCKBA's thing--and every bar in Helsinki, I was discovering, has to have a 'thing'--is that it's a mock nostalgia cafe for old-school Finnish Communists and their anti-globalist wannabe Marxist hippie kids, decorated in dingy old curtains, heavy linoleum table-tops, and a samovar, with Soviet pop tunes playing on an old-fashioned record-player. If not for that, you could almost think you were in Fargo or Sioux Falls or someplace. Erkki and his friend were waiting for us on red-plush benches at a table in the corner, and he waved at us as we stumbled in. Eetu certainly wasn't what I expected--if he was typical of Finnish actors, then I can sorta see why they've never managed to export any to Hollywood. He was a very muscular little guy with a distinct facial resemblance to Toad of Toad Hall from the Wind in the Willows, with his hair and his stache and beard--in the style favored by IT geeks the world over--shaved to the same dark stubble. Maybe he had great stage presence, I dunno. If so, it was wasted on me. But it really wouldn't have mattered anyway--because it turned out I already knew all his lines by heart.

Maybe I've mentioned my interest in men's 'pick-up' books before. Long before I dug what sex actually was, I used to sneak into my big bros' rooms when they were off at football practice or camp and sort of sneak through their stuff peeking at things. If I'm honest, it was like a huge source of fascination to me as a kid to try and discover just what was going on inside guys' big thick skulls. And, you know, inside their testicles or whatever. Unlike most girls I know (or what they claim, anyway), I wasn't that much of a tom-boy--though I am pretty good at sports--it's just that ever since I was a kid, I've really, really wanted to understand men. Because I actually really like them, even if it's not hip to say so. Anyway, when we moved to Jacksonville from England, we lived in this strange house that had a sort of single connecting closet running along one side of it that opened out into all three of the kids' bedrooms (I'm thinking there had been plywood dividers between them that had fallen down or something). Whatever, it made it really easy to spy on each other through the louvred slats of the sliding doors, which I never got away with when they were home because my bros always seemed to hear me creeping around. So I would wait until they were gone for a few hours and get into their 'man-holes'--which is the secret place every guy hides his stuff. And trust me, every single guy on earth has one. Or two. Theirs were under some loose plywood floorboards in the long closet, so I created a little secret reading nook inside my part of it with a flashlight and a stack of fluffy pillows and slowly went through their literary collections.

Later, of course, when we moved to Chevy Chase, and they were both older and away at the Air Force Academy and then later in the service and then married, these collections of theirs shrunk down to a few piles of dog-eared books and magazines in the bottom of a box or two in the basement. But I was an excellent museum curator of these treasures--old Penthouse and Playboy magazines, old videotapes of Debby Doing Dallas and Misty playing Beethoven. I know you probably think I'm a total airhead from reading my blog, but actually I have a really orderly and methodical mind when it comes to information storage and retrieval. Believe me, it's the only reason I did so well in school, since I had to go to so many in so many different places and never had any kind of standardized K12 study program. I survived by taking equivalency tests. And notes. Lots and lots of notes.

But we're talking pick-up books here, and you don't need much education to read those. Or to write them, either I guess. In fact, you could probably say an advanced degree might even be a real handicap! The first big bestseller on the subject was written by a New York accountant named Eric Weber in 1970: How To Pick Up Girls. Yep, there's a copy still in the Mothership's basement. Then in the '80s along came hypnosis--the most famous guru of that technique was Ross Jeffries, who wrote a lot of books about using Neuro-Linguistic Programming to seduce women. My next oldest bro used to try to practice this on me, especially when I was home from school sick: "You are getting sleepy, your eyelids are so heavy, now you think you are a chicken..." And lately there's been a new cult of the 'PUA' (Pick-Up Artist) on the Internet, inspired by Neil Strauss' book, The Game, which is a huge bestseller and has been translated into like a dozen languages. Now, at this point in the story I hadn't yet read The Game, but I was about to, under circumstances that I could have never in a million years imagined in advance. In fact, for a period of a week or two, it was my only reading material, along with Ervast's Key to the Kalevala (which I had just hand-xeroxed in the National Library that morning and was in my back-pack turning into a totally sodden lump), which is sort of a form of hell in itself.

Obviously Eetu had read it though, because right off the bat, as soon as we ordered drinks, he started hitting on me: "You are not so attractive as I expect," he said. Well, yeah, it's true I was soaked to the skin, and my hair was a mess--I had to finally shoo Riita off from trying to dry it with paper placemats--but that's not why he said it. He was 'negging' me, which is what PUA's do to chicks to lower their self-esteem and make them vulnerable. In plain English this is called 'insulting' and from what I can tell is an ancient form of flirtation dating back to the dawn of kindergarten.

So I was like, "Well you certainly aren't what I expected either. What kind of acting do you do?"

"Sexy acting," he said, with a booming laugh. "You can know me in some popular films like Finska Gigant. But now I am also becoming producer and making these films of my own. Yo, dig, I am always trying to talk this boy here to become my partner with me."

"Eetu was the host for his own show on Aluetelevisio," said Erkki proudly. You could tell right away that he really looked up to his friend and thought he was cool, which is why I could see big problems down the road there for Riita. Maybe that was why she was such a crab. It was, as far as I could tell, still lunchtime, but the two guys were already 'pre-party drinking' for the Madonna concert at 7. And my internal clock was so screwed up by now that I really didn't know what time it was--basically I was hungry and sleepy 24/7. But too wired to actually sleep. So what the hell, I had a Koff beer, too. When in Rome or whatever, right? But when the drinks arrived with the MOCKBA's deliberate Soviet-style 'rude service', Eetu stared 'kinoing' me. In plain English, this is called 'pawing'. In Eric Weber's book, it's a no-no, but times change, I guess. Now in 2006, it actually seems to work, so guys in bars all over the world who use the 'Mystery Method' (named after Strauss' mentor) are all stroking the arms of the poor dumb women they've just met right above the elbow, as recommended. That's the saddest and scariest thing about these stupid little tricks--most of them actually work! Naturally, they work with guys even better--but why bother? I mean, let's face it, almost anything works with guys. They are just so easy. (Except for the one you really want, of course, who is pretty much impossible.)

And I'm pretty impossible too, I guess--at least where 'kinoing' is concerned. Because I have this thing: I totally hate to be touched by strangers. I'm not even that crazy about it with friends or family. Maybe it's because mine was pretty much non-touchy-feelie. We were affectionate, pretty much, but not in a physical way--for instance, if either of my brothers scored a touchdown or announced they were engaged or something, my father would just shake hands with them. And the Mothership will only touch any surface after she wipes it clean. Whatever, I have to actually establish social relationships with dental hygienists and manicurists, etc, etc, before I can stand for them to touch me at all. And with Eetu, that clearly was not gonna be happening. As soon as I could wrestle myself away, I excused myself to the bathroom (there was no 'Ladies'), hid inside a stall so Riita couldn't find me, and after I'd dried off a bit, called Jo in Australia. God alone knows what time it was there.

"Oh yeah," she said when I told her about Chris. "Turned out I was, too." She sounded faint and drowsy.

"You were what, too?"

"You know, preg. I just took care of it this morning. That's why I'm feeling like a dessicated aardvark turd right now."

I was like, "Oh my God."

So she was like, "Well, I just couldn't keep it, Hopey. I'm in second year, and the pressure's too intense. Besides, the father was some German back-backer who was playing the piano at a party, and that was never going to work. He had the loveliest fingers, though," she added, yawning. So after she drifted off, I called Kerry. Yep, pregnant, too.

"Oh God, Hope," she kept saying over and over, "What am I gonna do?"

"Don't ask me, girl," I said. "What do you wanna do? What's your gut telling you?"

And she was like, "You don't wanna know what it's telling me right this minute, trust me. But seriously, if I try to have it, my family's so gonna freak. I don't know what to do."

So I said, "Well, what does the guy have to say? Who is the father anyway?"

"Well, that's the other thing," Kerry said in an embarrassed voice. "I mean, I'm on the patch, so I'm not really sure."

But suddenly I was. The whortleberry tree...

Continued here...


Anonymous ktv2 said...

In Russia giving misleading directions is called being a "Susanin"--

2:57 PM  

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