В Сибири одна часть русского населения окает, а другая акает.
I have been busy!
Now I live in a kommunal apartment now and don’t have any viffy.
M. decided to spend the entire remainder of her vacation by herself in Turku. M. is from the Midwest, which I think somehow explains this. It had nothing to do with her being sick of us.
A., R., and I, anyway, got the bus back to Helsinki. There, we were issued hilariously shoddy temporary passports (the photographs are somehow blurry, vertically distorted, and green) and killed yet another day before fleeing the country. We took out our vague feelings of hostility upon an eight-euro all-you-can-eat buffet in a Thai restaurant—I’ve never consumed so many pounds of wonton—from which we were eventually asked to leave. Then what? There was a long shower; we watched American sitcoms in our hostel room; A. persisted in her attempts to “pick up” the Finnish language. “I think that suohiyatattulannihetti might be a verb!”
In the morning, A. and R. made a mad dash to buy reindeer jerky—for some reason we’d been too busy killing time for the previous week to do this—before we caught a ferry to Tallinn. If you’ve never taken a ferry across a frozen ocean, I do recommend it. The ice creaks, shatters, sloughs into the black vacancies freed from snow-cover; the hull destroys that flat frozen surface by its steady pressure. You can hear the wail of the icepack cracking with every inch by which you near your destination.
Onboard the ferry, children are aggressively entertained by paid entertainers. In America, such posts exist only at the most upper-crusty of bar mitzvahs, but for some reason young Slavs are incapable of passing an hour without the assistance of a twenty-something woman, resplendent in striped stockings and some sort of tutu. She invariably has glittery barrettes affixed to each half of her pigtailed wig, and a wireless headset that broadcasts her demands to the entire ship, mall, or city park: “CHILDREN WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO WE ARE GOING TO DANCE TO THIS MUSIC WE ARE GOING TO DANCE AND SING WHO LIKES TO DANCE WE ALL LOVE TO DANCE AND SING ALL TOGETHER NOW CHILDREN WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO.” This sequined tyrant enables parents to ignore their own children entirely.
The dance-leader, I think, represents the bastardized byproduct of two opposed strains in childrearing. There’s something gross about the American conviction that children have to be paid attention to all the time, and I appreciate the European inclination to shuffle off to parts unknown anyone too young to appreciate espresso and cognac. The Russian family somehow exceeds Americans in their devotion to children—have you ever seen a Russian toddler being dressed to leave the house? it takes four people a year—while maintaining a healthily un-American respect for the poisonous fruits of adulthood (cigarettes, vodka, sex appeal). The Russian child must somehow maintain his unimpeachable place in the center of attention, while enabling everyone to relax and get adultly drunk during their ferry ride. Ergo the kiddie disco.
M. and I decide that we would like to spend the rest of our lives inside a Finnish prison. Imagine how clean the sheets would be, how peaceful the rooms, how polite the wardens! Imagine the ironed-in creases of the worn batten quilts, your small stack of books atop your single shelf…You would eat only rye porridge, brown bread and cabbage soup, and you would glow with tranquility.
In Turku, we find an actual functioning prison. It is, in fact, an attractive grey stone building, set back a little from a harborside highway, midway up a wooded hill. A wrought-iron fence guards its estate. Whenever I get nervous I will think about how, if worst comes to worse, I will simply get caught holding up a Marimekko outlet. They will deposit me in that heavenly jail, and I will be forever at peace.
I don’t remember why or how we decided to go to Turku. Travelling aimlessly in a group, we’d often slide into a mesmerized state where idle suggestions acquired some mysterious power over us. All one had to do was remark sardonically that Turku would be the “Capital of European Culture” in 2011—and a day later we were piled onto a bus, trooping even further north in order to seek adventure in the Finnish exurbs.
Actually, Turku was quite a pleasant city. Like Helsinki, it featured a Potemkin-village type of downtown, which appeared to have been built en bloc around 2009. Jarringly, in both cities this sector was distinguished from surrounding neighborhoods by its heated sidewalks. These are, I suppose, a sensible idea in a country whose snowfalls are as staggering as their tax-rates, but there was something unnerving about the radiant expanses of bone-dry cement. Benches and parked bikes suspended their little caps of snow above the barren street.
Turku convinced me that if I were a good person with more solid values, I would love nothing better than to stay there forever. Really, Helsinki did the same, and in both cities I was struck by an odd nostalgia for something I’ve never known. I longed to be the kind of person who belonged in such a place. If I valued peace, safety, excellent design and root vegetables—if my family spent Saturday nights contentedly stoking our backyard sauna—if knitted mittens and tidy wood-frame cottages gave me tremors of happiness—if I loved to bicycle through puffy snowbanks and placidly sip weak beer in modest cafés—if the pristine white snowbound cityscape didn’t inspire fantasies of fiery destruction—
Well, I did love a number of things about this country that no one talks about. It is beautiful (in a tidy, understated, clean-lined way), and I admire the polite socialism, the civic-mindedness of the whole enterprise. But Jesus, spending six days among the Finns just made me want to scream. At least in January, there’s a hush over the entire country. It’s like the inside of a snowglobe. They don’t even lock their bikes, for God’s sake! Even in chain cafés they play only the softest of Chopin’s piano solos; their emissions laws are such that their automobiles seem to glide about noiselessly and without exhaust; everyone wears woolen accessories in cheerful but tasteful hues that they no doubt knit themselves beside their HEPA-approved filtered fireplace while watching Ingmar Bergman films without subtitles. In short, it’s an entire country populated by that girl from high-school—you know, the really sweet one with beautiful hair who bakes vegan cookies and founded a successful non-profit to provide Tibetan families with milking-goats. I hate that girl, and I hate how likable she is, and I want to go back to Russia, where there’s always something abhorrent to run up against.
People with no imagination are robbed on the Moscow metro, in ticket-lines in Rome, by Romani kids in Berlin. I am no sheep! It takes genuine creativity to be relieved of one’s entire purse while drinking a latte in a swank café in broad daylight, smack in the middle of Helsinki.
My broad-mindedness is further confirmed: I managed to “get stolen” not only my own crammed wallet, but also my sister’s fancy phone, her camera, her pile of just-bought Christmas gifts. And two American passports!
If you’d asked me prior to this incident what I thought of the phrase get stolen, I would have said it was stylistically clumsy but otherwise inoffensive. After A. reminded me for the seventieth time (all things considered, she showed admirable restraint) that it was I who had hung our shared purse over the back of my barstool, that it was my fault we were sharing a purse in the first place, that it was even I who’d decided to sit in the fateful Café Lassipalatsi, and, indeed, who was responsible for our spending New Year’s Eve at the edge of the Arctic Circle?—well, after this, I developed a painful sensitivity to the agency of the theft-ee. “Who gets their bag stolen in Finland?” Who indeed.
Being robbed in Europe’s most crime-free capital has a few downsides. The barista had to make several calls before she found the phone number for the local police. I spent an hour or so picking through nearby trashbins, hoping that someone had grabbed the cash and electronics and dumped the bag and passports. I even found, kneeling in a snowbank, a saintly beggar who spoke perfect English (seriously, America, you have got to step it up with the foreign languages). He pointed me toward an alley where a bunch of stripped purses had been half-buried in the snow. But not mine!
The twelfth Finn we asked knew the location of the police station, and A. and I hiked over. In the immaculate police station, we were seated in comfortable chairs alongside a handful of Helsinkians. Presumably this tidy crowd had come to file complaints about living in the cleanest, most orderly and well-appointed country in the world. When it was our turn, the suspiciously good-looking cop performed what we by now recognized as the requisite Finnish reaction to petty crime:
“A theft? But Helsinki is Europe’s safest capital! Where are you coming from? Ah, yes, St. Petersburg is very dangerous. You’re going to Tallinn next? There, crime is also very common. Unfortunately people from these places come to Helsinki at the holidays. Because of this, one must be careful even in our country.”
After Russia’s barefaced nationalism, I took a moment to bask in such genteel xenophobia. Meanwhile the cop printed out a police report that supposedly detailed our plight. In fact it said LUOSSIME HIIENNSLEENKATU KALLISUOMIENNLUOSSIM KALLI KALLI VOLUIHIEMINKATUKALLILEEN. I really can’t believe the whole world has mistaken the chirping of cartoon birds for an actual language.
Next stop? The U.S. consulate, conveniently located near the tip of a picturesque peninsula jutting far, far out into the frozen harbor. You’re welcome, dear sister.
I’m sure there are countries that welcome their own citizens into their oversees embassies with open arms. I imagine that on New Year’s Eve the British consulate offers up tea and shortbread and wassailing. The American Consulate in Helsinki is of a different breed. There, several Finns with automatic weapons and SWAT-team type uniforms stare at all comers from behind bullet-proof glass. A voice speaking heavily accented English emanates from the booth. “Take up the phone!” it says. “…Please!” There is, it turns out, a sort of old-fashioned telephone affixed to a cement column at the front of the building. It’s red, like the Doomsday phone on Stalin’s desk. We explain our predicament into the receiver, then a member of the SWAT team emerges to grab what ID we have (I have, um, a Russian visa printed entirely in Cyrillic, which identifies me as PAIPERR VUILLER.).
“Wait here until the telephone rings,” the man says.
“Here?” we say. We are standing on an unplowed sidewalk, in a blizzard, surrounded by that special pitch-darkness that comes at three-thirty in the afternoon on the last day of 2010 in Helsinki.
“Here,” says the man whose salary is paid by U.S. taxpayers. His rifle is quite black and rather large. We wait, barely glaring through the glass at the array of officers snug in their bullet-proof cocoon. Finally the phone rings into the frozen darkness. A sleepy-sounding American voice—an ambassador yanked from his holiday?—tells us there’s nothing to be done until the consulate re-opens after New Year’s. This will be…on January 4, 2011.
Trodding through the endless snow along the edge of the frozen harbor, A. does not even hit me once.
“Now we have lots of time to really get to know Finland. In January.”
“Yes. There are so many things I’ve always wondered about Finnish culture.”
“Five days! What an opportunity to discover this rich and enigmatic land!”
Here are some things we did in Finland:
1. Marveled over some really lovely office chairs and thermoses in the Helsinki Museum of Design. (I am not kidding! Those were the best-designed thermoses I have ever seen.)
2. Found the Tennis Palace. Stared.
3. Ate “squeaky cheese” by the kilogram. (I have no idea what it’s called in Finnish, but it’s my fondest and most enduring memory of Finland. It’s flat and it’s white and it tastes like fatty air.)
4. Spent fifty Euros on a round-trip bus to Turku, merely because we were all really, really sick of Helsinki.