Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Book of Hope 17: The Land of Summer

Maybe because I've been mostly single all my adult life (not that there's actually been much of it so far) I tend to be overly romantic and hopeful about other people's marriages. Or relationships or whatever. This began when I was a kid and used to pray to the Holy Mother that my parents would stay together every time they had a big fight--which was pretty much every time my dad was home for more than a week. Or when my brother and Carmen got divorced. Or later on in college when my roommate Miranda, who was the school beauty--she looked a lot like Gwyneth Paltrow, with long silky blonde hair--got married to her high school sweetheart, and I was one of her bridesmaids. Her boyfriend, well, husband I should say, was one of those big beefy 'earthy' type guys, which was what she liked about him, but in my experience, 'earthy' just pretty much means 'gross'. For example, he had gotten really drunk with his buddies that morning, so right after the wedding ceremony when we were all exiting the chapel, he let out this really loud fart. "That's my opinion of these proceedings," he said. And that sort of set the tone for their marriage, which she spent being mostly miserable. Luckily, it didn't last too long.

Actually, it was at the reception that I met the major boyfriend of my life so far, Gene, who was a buddy of the groom, though there was very little that was earthy about him. He was, if I'm honest, both a neat- and a control-freak. But I couldn't blame him, because he had the ultimate miserable wedding story. He had been engaged a few years before to another girl at St Mary's (I'm talking about the college in Maryland, not the sister-school to Notre Dame, which I keep getting Googled about every time I mention it here) who was a few years older than me. They had decided to have a quickie wedding when they were both juniors, not because she was pregnant, but because their families were both sort of devout, and they were madly in love and wanted to live together openly instead of sneaking around (which we did, so there's a clue for you). So the whole ceremony was all set up with all their friends and family at the University of Maryland chapel, but she had stayed behind at school to take a late final at St Mary's and was scheduled to fly over from Leonardtown at the last minute in a small chartered private plane. But she never made it--the plane crashed on the way. By the time he and I started seeing each other, I guess he was still rebounding from that horrible shock, and that's pretty much why we never worked out, though we kept trying for two years. I should have known better--no way anybody can follow an act like that. I kept hoping he'd get over it, but a part of him just stayed stuck waiting at the College Park airport in his wedding tux. Probably still is, poor guy.

Anyway, the point of all this is that it didn't take a genius to see a few signs of trouble between Riita and Erkki. Although, to be totally fair, we were all three feeling pretty down from the E wearing off the morning after the concert. Which began, as usual, about 4 am, with the sun rising through the eastern haze like a red star of death. Even so, personally I didn't feel like getting out of bed till 9 or 10 (I had insisted on switching to the couch futon, so it was pretty bright all night) and felt all whiney and depressed the way you do after you crash from the high, but Riita refused to get up at all. When I went into the bedroom with Erkki to check on her after we had our breakfast, she just pulled the sheet over her head and refused to speak. So I was like, OK...

"What is your reading?" Erkki asked me after I pulled out my Xeroxes from the library and decided to make a start on them.

"Ervast's Key to the Kalevala."

"I don't know it."

So I was like, "Well, it's a definitive commentary. Problem is, it's making me a lot more confused, not less. For example, according to this, there are actually two versions of the Kalevala, The 'Old Kalevala' and the 'New Kalevala', which Lonnrot apparently rewrote by adding a lot of his own poetry. In the new version, there are two separate creation scenes, for example--in the old one Vainomonen just suddenly appears as a smith. There's lots of stuff about smiths here, I guess they were kind of like the software engineers of ancient Finland."

He shook his head. "I don't remember anything about Kalevala. It was very boring to learn in school. I like 'Halo 2' and 'Half-life' instead." So much for that topic. I tried another.

"I want to get a nice 'thank-you' present for Riita before I go, because she's been so sweet to care of me. Can you think of anything she might like?" Now this was a teeny bit mean of me, because it's totally a trick question--asking any guy this is like sticking a dipstick into the oil sump of a relationship just to see just how hot it's running. Or how much of it is just getting burned off...

He shrugged. "You can get her a Sudoku book," he said finally. So I was like, uh oh. But there was worse to come.

He sidled closer to me on the couch. "Tell me, what would you say Riita is mood?"

It took me a moment to decipher this, but when I got it, I was like, "Not good. Not this morning, anyway."

"That is what I am thinking," he said. "I wish to tell her something honest, but I don't think today is a good day for that. You see, Eetu is asking me to come with him on location for a film shooting tomorrow, but Riita will not like this. So I will say to her I am having a company training time instead." OK, I know, I shouldn't have agreed with him--I should have lectured him about honesty in relationships or even ratted him out to her. But when he said he wanted to 'tell her something honest', I totally thought he was gonna say he wanted to dump her, and I was so relieved that I just butted out of the subject.

Instead, I was like, "What kind of film is this?"

"It is guerrilla cinema. You know, sexy statements, very extreme political actions in a public places with famous Finnish actress, Kylikki Kiissiu. It is edgy. In your face."

"You mean like 'Dogme' films?" I asked.

"No," Erkki said, "They are black and white, I think. This will be film in color."

At noon, Riita emerged from the bathroom fully dressed and with her game-face on. "Let us begin the day now," she said brightly. "Hoop, do you like Pilates?" Erkki muttered his goodbyes and left, carrying a big travel-bag. I had thought--well sort of hoped, really--that Riita might still be sulking at me for the night before, but no such luck. All was forgiven. It was Erkki she was really pissed at. "He will be gone on his company retreat for a few days," she said. "But I was thinking, there are so many exciting things in Finland for you to see, why should we just stay home and wait about for him? Why can't we make some fun for our own? We could go to the Savonlinna Opera Festival, where they are having a Kalevala opera with dogs singing all the songs. There is the Kalevala Centre in Kuhmo, and the Folk Music Festival in Kaustinen. Or we can go see Kalevala paintings at the Gallen-Kallela Museum at Tarvaspaa--that is so very near to us we could walk there."

"That all sounds wonderful, Riita," I said. "Only, I really should spend at least the first week doing research. Then I can sight-see. By the way, I don't suppose you have a blank computer CD I can borrow? Cuz I need to back up all my notes today. I've had laptop hard drives crash on me twice, so I like have to to be really careful."

"Oh, that is something that Erkki should have perhaps." She tried his cell--no answer. So she led me into the bedroom and showed me the few cubic feet that Erkki was allowed to call his own in the top of a storage closet, then left me to excavate it. There were stacks of plastic CD and DVD cakeboxes wedged between a tool-chest crammed with computer parts and an old Dell desktop tower--some had been labelled, but some looked blank. While I was rummaging through these, the Dell somehow tipped over and fell partly on my head. Luckily for me, it was hollow, just a plastic case with the motherboard still attached but with everything else stripped out of it. Instead it was crammed inside with porno books and DVDs that spilled out all over the place: I had inadvertently discovered Erkki's 'man-hole'. Well, I told you every guy had one, didn't I? Even Erkki.

As I was stuffing all his swag back into it, I noticed that most of the DVDs seemed to be Finnish porn, I couldn't tell how hard-core--several featured the name of the actress Erkki had mentioned, KIssi-somebody. So that's obviously why he was so hot to visit her film set. Then I heard Riita's footsteps coming back into the room. I propped the computer case back up again, then noticed there was still one book left lying on the floor. The Game by Neil Strauss, as it turned out. So I quickly picked it up, tucked it under my arm, and pretended it was one of mine (the damn thing actually looks like a Bible, with fake black leather covers and a little gold ribbon marker)--which is how I came to be stuck with it for the next couple of weeks. Because when we left, the only way I could figure to smuggle it back eventually was to take it along in my back-pack. How I got stuck reading it is a total other story.

"Are you OK, Hoop? I thought I heard a noise."

"I slipped and fell. Doh."

"Don't worry, I have a brilliant idea. We'll go to Turku today. That way you will see the original Kalevala manuscripts in the Lonrott Collection at the university--and then we can spend tomorrow at Moominworld! You would like that, wouldn't you, Hoop?" OK, we all have our Achilles' heel--mine is Moomintrolls. After about thirty seconds of arguing, I totally caved, and that's how we ended up spending the next three hours in Riita's family Ford on Highway (Valtatie) 1, which runs between Helsinki and the old Swedish town of Turku (Abo), which was apparently Finland's first capital. We had typical highway weather: it started dark and overcast and drizzly in Espoo, then we'd get periods of brightening mixed with occasional showers. All the towns we passed through had been historically restored, so it was like a drive through coastal Maine or Delaware, and the further west we drove, the more brightly-painted and 'Swedish' the wooden houses and barns and boating sheds on all the little finger-lakes looked. Most of the signs seemed to point at some beach town called 'Hanko'--apparently this area is called the 'Finnish Riviera' because it gets more sun and warmth than the rest of Finland. Which is not saying much, to be honest.

"Hoop, why are you so crazy for the Kalevala?" Riita wanted to know after we left Espoo.

"I'm not sure, actually," I said after I'd thought about it for awhile. "I guess because it's sort of like one of those frozen mummies they found in the Alps--it's really old and strange, yet in some ways it feels so modern that it might almost still be alive, if that makes any sense."


Sigh. "Well, I think it provides all sorts of useful parallels with other mythological belief systems, like those of Scandinavia and ancient Greece--even India and Persia. And the heroes in the Kalevala are really pretty cool dudes, when you think about it. Except for Kullervo, who's sort of of a late addition, they aren't interested in building kingdoms or murdering each other, like in the Iliad or the Bible, and there's not a whole lot of betrayal or cannibalism or incest or anything--all they want to do is chase women, and get drunk, and sing. There's something sort of, you know, nice about a culture like that. I mean, it really like says a lot about Finland."

"We have all those things in Finland," Riita said darkly.

So I was like, "Yeah, well, at least you don't brag about them." Well, except for Kullervo. And every Finnish heavy-metal band in existence. OK, so much for that theory. The truth was, I didn't know why I liked the Kalevala. I wasn't even sure I did any more.

We stopped in a tiny little town called Kirkonummi for lunch at a sort of tea-room. Up till then the traffic had been sort of leisurely, but after we passed Salo suddenly it was just like American beach traffic, bumper-to-bumper trucks and vans and cars with little trailers or camping equipment on their roofs. We could smell the ocean--not the dark, muddy gulf like in Helsinki, but the real salty Baltic sea--carried on a stiff westerly wind. Just before we got to Turku, the sun briefly came out, nearly blinding us. It was an omen.

Turku is a little like a mini-me version of Brussels. It's not a big city like Helsinki, and most of the newer buildings seem kind of bland and dinky, especially the university complex, but the old town is pretty in a sort of 18th-Century Dutch-looking way, kind of like what I imagined when I dreamed of going to Finland in the first place. It's on the water, specifically on a river that becomes an inlet into a bay of an archipelago in the Baltic, so that by the time the ocean water manages to creep in it's pretty much tamed and industrial-smelling. There's a little port next to the castle, which is the best-preserved fortress in Finland, Riita told me, (but looks sort of like a big Lutheran church actually), and at the far end of the embankment along the river, a pretty little cathedral. In between there are lots of historic buildings and museums, a town square and theater, and a surprising amount of greenery and night-life for such a small city (165,000), I guess because of the university students. Because I was feeling so indebted to Riita, I insisted on paying for expensive hotel rooms at the Radisson Scandic Marina Palace with some of the cash I'd unexpectedly gotten back from Eetu. Riita, who had wanted to cheap out and stay in a hostel, argued with me about splitting the cost of it, so in the end in order to save money we decided to share just one room overlooking the river. And, as it turned out, we were also sharing a bed, because unlike in most American hotel rooms, there was only the one. Which felt sort of awkward for several reasons. First of all, Riita was the kind of person who stacked and folded and numbered everything (I forgot to mention that she was so anal that everything she stored in her apartment was color-coded, I kid you not! Even socks and tupperware!) Secondly, I had inadvertently noticed that she liked to sleep in the nude or whatever--and I'm strictly a PJs person. And worst of all, well, this is embarrassing to confess (to confess that it made me uncomfortable, I mean) but--there was a huge gilt-framed mirror hung over the bed, so I felt like I was stuck in the set of one of Erkki's porn flicks. After reading Likkanen's blog, I kept thinking that this was the sort of place he had fantasized about taking us both that afternoon at the Torni. It even had sort of faux red velvet curtains and bed-covers, like in a Victorian brothel. Ewww!!!

But whatever. At least it had Wifi and the bathroom was nice. After we checked in, we visited the Lonnrot Collection at the university library and then some kind of 'pharmacy museum' inside the town's oldest building, which wasn't actually very old, only from 1700. But the castle and the cathedral were way older, and I discovered that if I squinted my eyes at them I could almost imagine Finland's Age of Heroes. Not that any of the figures from the Kalevala lived in places like this, since they were semi-nomadic warriors a little like the Riders of Rohan in the LOTR, but their descendants lived here. And so did some of the people who later made up the stories about them, in particular the author of the Kalevala himself, Elias Lonrott. But I felt I was somehow closer on my quest. Ethnologists and commentators on the Kalevala have always tried to shift its goal-posts away from Finland somehow--to places like Estonia or Karelia or wherever. There's even a school of thought that the legends refer to some ancestral Ural-Altaic homeland and have little to do with Finland at all, geographically, I mean. I don't know much about it, obviously, but that seems really tweaked to me. Even the shallowest reading of the legends tells you that its three primary heroes--Vainomoinen, Lemminkainen, and Ilmarinen--were living the good life in an endless land of summer. It was only greed and lust (and later the blasts of the icy winter brought on by Louhi, the evil witch of Pohjola or the Northland) that motivated them to get off their asses and go off babe-hunting and fighting. And when they did, they went off in ships, just like the Vikings, and headed north. Well, Finland may have a thousand lakes, but you couldn't sail very far north in them back then, because there were no canals. And you wouldn't get very far in the eastern Gulf, either, or on Lake Ladoga, according to the map. So the only realistic candidate for all that ancient action was the Baltic--only there can you sail all the way to Lapland. So this had to be the cradle of the Kalevala, where we were standing now staring out into the Aurajoki River. Where else--in Finnish eyes--could the Land of Summer lie, except in the 'Finnish Riviera?'

One of the other things about Turku is that a lot of Finland-Swedes still live there, so that between them and the tourists that flock there on the Viking Line ferries, you hear a lot of Swedish being spoken. During supper, I kept overhearing snippets of conversation and found I could actually recognize a word here and there, thanks to Christina! We ate at the Restaurant Teini near the Old Square next to the cathedral, which had dozens of rooms and dining halls (a chess-tournament/banquet was going on in one) and reminded me of an old-world restaurant complex we used to visit in Munich when I was a kid, a place for serious eating where you could order anything, including, when I was six, a birthday cake with candles and be pretty sure you'd get it. Apparently, the Teini was famous for its 'winter terrace' during the Christmas celebrations every year where they serve some sort of pukey-sounding hot spiced cherry wine--Turku, Riita told me, is known as the "Christmas City' and every year the Turku Mayor's 'Message of Peace' is broadcast to all of Finland on Christmas Eve. But we ate inside, because it was drizzling again and had turned almost chilly. We ordered smoked salmon and, at Riita's insistence, local 'raisin' sausage, and for dessert Lapp cloudberries in sweet cream and got out of there for less than like $80. Even so, I could seriously tell I was gonna max my Visa about halfway through the trip at the rate I was going, so I would either have to beg the Mothership for more money--or else, as she used to put it, 'go on the game'. As in: "If anything should happen to you before Hope graduates, I don't know what we'll do for money. At least I'm not too old to go on the game."

And of course, now I had the hotel room for it.

After supper we went to Puutorin Vessa, or as Riita translated it, the 'Public Toilet Pub.' This was a round building in the middle of a square in front of the old train station, which had originally served as its public restroom. Instead of bulldozing it, which in my opinion would have been the kindest thing to do, somebody had converted it into a bar--you actually sat on toilets while you were drinking and could even order your beer brought to you in chamber-pots! Riita kept trying Erkki's cell the whole evening--when she couldn't get through she ended up drinking too much and getting pretty buzzed. But she kept it under tight control, and when we got back to our room, touchingly, without even a word or a lecture on Freud being said, she even made the ultimate sacrifice. She wore her, you know, T-shirt and underpants to bed. No biggie, of course, but it was thoughtful, and really made me feel ashamed of how much I still resented her half the time. She was really really trying.

She had even found me an English translation of the 'Old Kalevala'--Magoun's--in the university book store that afternoon (my favorite translation, as it turns out, I don't really like the 'modern' one by Bosley. But you can read the gorgeously illustrated Friberg version online for free now! Check it out: I was thumbing through it at bedtime while she was in the bathroom--like me, she normally had to pee like once an hour, which was one of the reasons our drive here had taken so long--and after she came to bed and adjusted the sheets and pillows for fifteen minutes or so, she said, "Hoop, is everything you type for your notes?"

I was like, "No, why?"

"Well, you write so much I thought perhaps there was someone special in your life you were emailing or IMing."

"No, nobody special. I keep in touch with all my friends, I guess you could say they're special. [They were certainly acting 'special' lately, this means YOU if you're reading this, Kerry!] But to be honest, there is one other thing I'm working on, only it's kind of a secret. You promise not to tell anyone?"

"No, never!"

"OK, well, ever since college I've been writing a series of murder mysteries in my spare time about a little mouse detective. I've even sent the first book off to a literary agent."

Riita clapped her hands loudly with childish delight--I was hoping that wasn't gonna become a habit. "Oh, Hoop, that sounds so exciting! And also very cute. Do you make sweet little drawings for it?"

So I was like, "No, it's not a childrens' book--the murders are actually sort of gross and extreme."

Then she was like, "That doesn't sound so sensible to me. Why would adults want to read about a mouse detective?" And I totally couldn't think of an answer to that--but I guess it might explain why the agent still hadn't gotten back to me on it. So I changed the subject.

"I really appreciate all you're doing for me, Riita. I just hope you aren't taking time off from your classes or anything."

"Oh no, Hoop--classes do not begin again here for two or three more weeks. Besides, being with you is like a course of learning English for me. You are the first American friend I have ever known--and you must be sure to correct me all the time. I want my English to become more perfect."

"Well," I said, "I'm no expert, but I dunno if you can really, you know, learn to speak a language any more fluently than you already do without actually living in another country."

"Oh I could never move to another country! My life is here with my family! And with Erkki, too. But perhaps now we are true friends, someday you will invite me to come visit you in America?" And I'm proud to say that I actually sounded sincere when I agreed. I mean, anything could happen, right?

And the next day, it did.

Continued here...


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