Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Book of Hope 18: The Sleepyhead Festival

Hey, sorry I haven't posted anything for the last two weeks, but I've been like really super-busy and mostly away. Actually--I kinda sorta got married. But it really wasn't any big deal, honest. I'll tell you about it later. OK, so where was I? Oh yeah--the bordello hotel room in Turku. I woke up to the sound of Riita doing her Pilates. "Wake up, sleepyhead!" she trilled when she saw my eyes open. She found this so funny she said it two more times.

So I was like, "Huh, what time is it?"

"5:30," she said. "Hurry, you must get up and pack everything. We don't want to be late for the 'Sleepyhead Festival' in Naantali."

"The what??"

"The Sleepyhead Festival--it is a famous celebration they have every year in Nantaali when they throw some famous person in the ocean for sleeping too late. We must hurry, though! Because It starts at 7." Groan. Only in Finland.

Then I was like, "What about breakfast?" Because that was included in the hotel bill.

"We will eat breakfast at Moominworld, " she said firmly. How is it that people always know what buttons to push pretty much as soon as they get to know me? Whatever. So, feeling a little hungover, I got up, grabbed a five-minute shower, packed my stuff, and then checked out in such a hurry that I somehow left my contact lenses behind. So I basically spent the rest of my trip to Finland wearing my glasses, which are super-thick and magnify my eyes, sort of making me look all bug-eyed and owlish. According to those who love me, anyway. Which also means I couldn't wear my (non-prescription) sunglasses. And we were in for a sunny morning--the sun was already high up and blazing away when we left the hotel.

Naantali is a pretty little town--it's built around a medieval convent--that reminded me a little of Cape May, New Jersey, or Fernandina, Florida (home to 'Pippi Longstocking'!), except without a real beach, but with dozens of tree-covered islands surrounding it instead. But it had the same gingerbread-jigsaw-cut wooden ornaments on the restored old houses, all painted in bright colors. And the same sort of hand-made advertising signs every few yards. We parked in a huge lot near the main harbor-front marina, in front of an old Victorian resort hotel decked with pennants that lay at the end of a beach-style boardwalk featuring a huge wooden pavilion. The place was packed with tourists, so it wasn't so easy finding a space--Riita just drove into one that someone else was backing into, then refused to look at them until they gave up honking at her and drove away. I congratulated her. "You drive just like an American," I told her. Hee hee, she hated that!

We bought coffee and stood in the crowd staring out at the water. A yacht putt-putted into the harbor and stopped, and then a lady with high hair the color of Ronald McDonald's waved from it. There was a teeny round of scattered of applause. "That is our president, Madam Halonen," Riita informed me. "Perhaps someday America will have a woman for a president, as well, just like Finland. See the tower on that island? That is the summer home for all of our presidents--she has come from there to observe all the festivity." As she spoke, a group of middle-aged men dressed like characters from Gilbert & Sullivan's The Gondoliers in red-striped shirts and funny hats marched down to the end of the pier carrying a tarpaulin which had a gray-haired head sticking out of one end. "That is Bjorn Walroos--he is a very important man, the president of Sampo," said Riita. "Also, he is one of the richest men in our country. That is why he agreed to be this year's 'Sleepyhead', because it is very good for public relationships."

The gondoliers tipped up the tarpaulin, and the 'Sleepyhead of the Year", wearing beige long johns, suddenly plummeted down into the sea water. It looked cold even for July. After a moment, he surfaced, shook the water out of his hair like a dog, then paddled back to the pier, where he was lifted out like the Baby Jesus in a Nativity play and then wrapped up in a blanket while a succession of men in business suits solemnly shook his hand. I was like, "That's it? That's what you hauled me out of bed for?"

"No, no, there is much more fun to come, don't worry. Now there will be a parade. Let's go find a good place to see it."
The 'parade' consisted of the official Sleepyhead himself, with his hair slicked down and looking bored out his skull, holding a sign that said "UNIKEKO" (Sleepyhead) driving around the town in a tiny trolley car in front of a ragtag marching band, followed by a gang of young children in Halloween costumes with their mothers, gossiping and waving at friends, close behind. That was it. Oh yeah, there was a yellow dog with a blue scarf around his neck. Then we went to Moominworld.

Which meant we had to first retrace our footsteps back through Naantali Old Town (passing the "Moomintroll House of Surprises" and the "Moomintroll Strange House") to the harbor parking lot, and then crossing a very, very long white wooden footbridge over to Kailo Island. Riita pointedly explained to me all the way across how the family of Tove Jansson had refused to deal with Disney at all when they decided to license Moominworld, but had signed with a Finnish company instead. And I really, really hate to say this kind of showed. I mean, I'd hate for the park to have been just like Disneyworld or whatever, but it sure could have used some Epcott Center touches, you know to make you feel like you were really inside Moomin Valley, instead of stuck on a dinky little island with a few badly constructed houses full of actors in really clunky and obvious cloth suits. Oh yeah, and with the single "Mama's Kitchen" restaurant next to the "Sniff" gift shop (our breakfast was better than the food you get at Disneyworld, admittedly). Still if I'd been a kid, I think I'd of felt way gypped. Of course, it just have been me--since I was like 20 years older than most of the other kids there.
Not to make too big a deal of it, but come to think of it, Finland could actually really use a Disneyland. The whole country reminded me of a giant US military base in some ways--full of weird rules and low, clapboard buildings, where everybody knows everybody else's business. A little more crass commercialism would probably be a good thing. When I sort of hinted at this to Riita over our pancakes and honey from the "Snork Pancake Factory", she shook her head violently at me.

"Oh no, Hoop," she said. "We like our Finland just as it is. We have many big companies here already and many malls and nice things to buy. And we have the Internet. If we became like America then we would have to allow many immigrants to come here to work at the new jobs."

"Right. And that would be like a bad thing?"

Riita looked embarrassed. "Of course we have a tradition of welcome to those who are wanting political asylum, especially from Palestine and such places, but most Finns are unfortunately not so modern as they should be in their thinking. Some Finns don't like immigrants so well. That is why we have a law that to live here, you must learn to speak Finnish. Otherwise, no one would, you see." I could see that. "Hoop, I must thank you."

I was like, "Huh? For what?"

"For being my friend. And for always talking with me so honestly. Around you I have become such a happy person on this trip. You see, I have been going through a long time of not being so happy lately. I think maybe I have even been clinically depressed. It is very common here because of our culture and the long winter night. Also many Finnish people are naturally bipolar, I have read. Perhaps I am one of those. I was thinking of going to see a doctor to discuss this and why I have so few friends who like me any longer and why Erkki is now so cold to me. And then you came, and suddenly I realized that I no longer have to be in control of everything after all. It is such a relief! Now I have confidence again that Erkki truly loves me and that everything will be very good between us again. And that is all because of you." She stared at me expectantly.

"Thank you, Riita. That's a very nice thing to say," was all I could think of to tell her back.

"You are a wonderful person. So open, so full of life. You make everyone around you laugh and feel happy."

So I was like, "Are you on crack?"

She didn't get it. "Never mind," I said. "It was a joke."

"You see?" she said, beaming.

After breakfast, we took a tour of the rest of the island. By 'tour' I mean we went for a long walk--there are no trams or trains or anything. Our first stop was the Post Office, where we were encouraged to mail letters all over the world stamped with Moominworld's own special postmark, for instance. You get the picture--and if you want to see more pictures, check them out at: . OK, not all of it was dumb. The sunlight was dazzling, and it was cool to see kids running around spilling ice cream from cones and screaming. Moominpapa's ship--in dry-dock at the far end of the island--was cute, and so was the Hemulen's house, which had painted wooden butterfliy shutters on all its windows. According to Riita, the region around Naantali is world-famous for its hand-crafted wood ornamentation on walls and doorways and gates. There was a very tiny beach with like ten yards of sand and its very own sauna. Most like the book illustrations, however, was the Moominhouse, a three or four story round house painted blue with a conical red-tiled roof.

Because we had woken up so early that morning, the sound of the kids' voices and the bright sun had a kind of lulling effect on me after we'd walked back from the Moomin swimming pier, and I started feeling pretty sleepy. We stopped and bought lemon drinks called "Zingos" (they're sort of like Oranginas) at a kiosk, and afterwards, of course, Riita immediately needed to pee. But there were long lines of kids outside the beach rest-rooms.

"OK, I will go back to the Sniff shop and also buy some postcards there," she said after I declined to go back with her. "And then I will try to call Erkki again. I think he will want to hear how happy I am today in my voice. It will cheer him up, too, to hear it. I know I am not so fun to be around lately. You will be good by yourself? It will not be too boring?"

"I'll be fine. Maybe I'll find a bench and take a nap."

"Don't get too much sun. Oh no, it is beginning to be clouds." She was right--a dark haze was creeping up over the western horizon. I wandered off toward the Moominhouse, which was by far the tallest landmark on the island, then found myself in a patch of empty parkland surrounded by scrub that was miraculously kid-free. There were a few benches scattered around with dozing grandmothers lounging on them, faces worshipfully propped toward the sun--that, I thought, is what I'm about. There was a drowsy hum of hornets around a trash receptacle, and an overpowering smell of Finnish hot dogs, which are sausages fried in batter. Come to think of it, I needed to make some phone calls, too. I hadn't spoken to Kerry or Chris in days--and the only email I'd had was from Jo, containing a link to an article about the rising costs of Australian med schools. I realized I even owed the Mothership a call. I turned a corner around a copse of trees and saw two or three people gathered around some kind of strange big costumed animal on another bench that looked kind of like the "Pushmi-Pullyu" from Doctor Doolittle. I walked closer, kind of half-trying to recognize it, then suddenly I realized it wasn't a Moominworld prop at all. I stopped and just stared stupidly. I think my mouth was probably literally hanging open, like "Doh".

You know how sometimes when a flash-camera goes off in your face, the light just burns into your retina, and you sort of see it frozen in your eyes for hours afterwards? Well, as soon as I realized what it was I was seeing, this scene had exactly the same effect on me. To begin with, it wasn't a single person in an animal costume at all, it was three of them, though the woman in the middle of the three wasn't exactly wearing a costume. In fact. except for the "Snork Maiden" pink flowers in her hair and a yellow anklet, she was like totally, completely stark naked. I kid you not. She was a very unusual-looking woman, too (and probably would have been even with her clothes on): she was blonde, luridly tanned, middle-aged, in pretty good shape actually (but way too overly buff and collagened-looking), but everything about her was somehow larger than life, like the statue of Havis Amanda in the Helsinki harbor--her eyes, her mouth, her lips, her boobs, all were almost cartoon-huge. She was kneeling on the park bench with her butt in the air, while behind her a guy dressed as "Sniff" was humping away at her--he had taken the costume head off (I guess it was hot work in there) and was holding it in one arm. With a shock I saw it was Eetu, my "date" from the Madonna concert. Now I suddenly realized what he'd meant by "sexy acting" or whatever. But now I was in for another, even bigger shock. The second "actor", who was standing in front of the woman's face and was obviously pretty bashful because he was, um, having trouble performing publicly (in spite of her enthusiastic attempts to help him out there), was dressed as "Snufkin" in a green hat and scarf and artist's smock--but underneath it all I could clearly see that it was Erkki.

You know, Erkki. Her boyfriend? The guy Riita lived with and was trying to phone from the Gift Shop at that very moment? After I spotted him, I really did not know where to look. My gaze wandered, and I saw there were other two guys filming all this heavy action, one with a huge camcorder suspended from some sort of elaborate belt-chest mount, and next to him a guy holding a boom mike and staring into a laptop. Then I made the mistake of looking back at the bench for half a sec. The blonde lady spotted me and stopped what she was doing. She widened her eyes and gave me a humongous smile, which totally creeped me out because--and I know how weird this sounds, but I'm just saying what flashed through my mind at the time--well, because it was like she recognized me somehow. Something about her, her expression maybe, sort of reminded me of my mother, which was way beyond gross and spooky. And then, this woman waved at me and beckoned me over, like "hey, come on and join in!" Ewwww! By now I was actually backing away like I'd disturbed a nest of snakes or something, almost tip-toeing backwards--and suddenly I bumped heavily into somebody. I jumped like a foot and turned around, really, really hoping it wasn't Riita. Because i know I sometimes say cruel things about her here, but I so did not want her to be seeing this. In fact, I didn't want to be seeing it either.

But it wasn't Riita. It was the bum from Helsinki, the one who had crapped on the sidewalk in front of me a few days earlier. "Wake up, sleepyhead!" he shouted at me in his terrible growly English, then laughed at the expression on my face. Which to be honest, must have looked pretty funny really. How did I know it was the same guy? I just knew, that's all. The scary eyes, the face, the voice, were all still exactly the same. Actually, the rest of him looked a lot different today--cleaned up, sort of, with his long grey hair in a pony-tail. He was wearing almost-new Nikes and a soiled black T-shirt that said "Bonk Industries" on it and was holding a big round fabric light reflector. He pointed at Eetu, and said, "That's the second-biggest frog I've ever seen." I'd had enough. I turned and ran. I mean, I felt like a fool, but at the time it really seemed the only appropriate adult response to the situation. Because I was suddenly desperate to stop poor Riita from seeing it. I mean, I know Scandinavians supposedly aren't possessive or jealous like we unhealthy Americans are, but something about the scene struck me as a deal-breaker anyway.

As I ran, drawing stares from old ladies and kids as soon as I rounded the corner, I suddenly got mad. I mean, there were kids all over the place there, for Christ's sake! What if small children happened to see what was going on? What was the point of filming something like that at Moominworld? Obviously it was against the rules (if not the law, I didn't know), which I guess is what made it "guerilla film-making", but I still couldn't think of any political--or especially even erotic--statement they were making there.

And, if I'm totally, brutally honest with myself, I was pissed off for another reason, too, I mean aside from being angry on Riita's behalf. And that was because I'd had the teeniest little a crush on Erkki. Not even "one-quarter of an eighth of an inch in love", as Kerry would say, but a crush-lite. It was something about his eyes and how sweet and patient he always looked when he was around Riita. Now I was seeing all of that in a slightly different light. Which (speaking of light) began to change as I was passing "Snufkin's Cabin", first brightening, then getting that dramatic dark glare you see sometimes before a storm.

I bumped into Riita in the middle of a flock of baby strollers.

"Come on, hon" I said to her, all out of breath. "We gotta get the hell out of here!"

"But Hoop--why?" she said. Actually that was a pretty reasonable question. Problem was, I hadn't really thought of an answer to it. So I just said the first thing that came into my head.

"I'm having a really bad allergy! So we better get out of here fast, or else you'll have to take me to the hospital." I grabbed her arm and started marching her toward the front gate.

She was like, "Hoop, stop this, what's wrong with you? What is it are you allergic to?" Another good question--what was I allergic to? Finland? Public sex or whatever? Surely not Moomintrolls. Though I have to be honest here--it was gonna be some time before I could look at them again in quite the same way. Especially Snufkin. Because I've never really cared for Sniff all that much anyway, if I'm honest. Him I could live without--but not Snufkin. What is it with guys anyway? I guess I had sort of been starting to think it was me, not them, but it wasn't, was it? They were all perverts, let's just admit it. I mean, you pretty much expected that kind of lifestyle choice from guys like Eetu--but from Erkki?? He really had seemed so sweet. But I couldn't get the picture of that gross woman messing with the front of his smock with her big collagen mouth out of my head.

"Didn't you see?" I snapped at Riita. "There were whortleberry bushes growing all over the place. I could have had a seizure--I'm totally allergic to the whortleberry."

"Just like in the Kalevala," she said, allowing herself to be dragged out onto the footbridge.

"Yes, exactly like the Kalevala."

Riita dragged her feet and sulked the whole way across back to Naantali. "I thought you liked Muumit," she was muttering, half in Finnish. "I didn't see any such trees." A sudden wind sprang up, and overhead a flight of ravens flapped by us, screeching. I had a tingling feeling all over, like a volcano was about to erupt on the island. Now I had another thought stuck in my mind: how had the bum known that Riita had said, "Wake up, sleepyhead!" to me first thing that morning? Was he psychic? Had he bugged our hotel room? Or was it just a coincidence? And if it was a coincidence, then why was a majority of the people I'd actually spoken to in Finland all on the same tiny island at the same moment? I mean, I know Finland's a small country, but there's no place on earth that small.

I had no way of knowing it was about to get even smaller.

Continued here...


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