Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Helsinki Summer

Helsinki, my old hometown, which I left more than half a lifetime ago, is a fantastic summer city. During the twelve days I just spent there, the temperature dropped below 25 degrees Celsius only during one day. At times, the heat and humidity were almost unbearable when the sun was burning down from a cloudless sky for almost 20 hours every day. Especially the nights were tough as none of the older buildings have air conditioning and the thick stone walls store heat during the day, which then radiates into the living quarters during night. I suppose the summer nights just are not meant for sleeping.

During days like these, the city is a true delight, with people strolling around languidly in their skimpy summer wear or lying down on the grass in the many parks. Even those having to work tend to take long lunch breaks in places like the Esplanade or the old market place, and then leave their offices in mid-afternoon to spend another day’s worth of light evenings. Terraces seem to sprout everywhere in the city serving cold beer and cider to cool down the dehydrated denizens. Not to forget gin long drink—lovingly known as ‘lonkero’ (meaning tentacle) by the Finns. A readymade concoction consisting of gin and grapefruit soda invented for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, lonkero will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year—still going strong! And for better or for worse, the Finns like their brews, which they on occasion consume in somewhat unreasonable quantities. At some 9.7 liters per capita annually, Finnish alcohol consumption falls in the international mid-range (for example, for USA the figure is 8.4 liters and for Russia 11 liters), but instead of sipping a glass of wine with our meals, the Finns have the tendency to down it all at once. Not even the high prices, which are rather striking for someone coming from outside of the euro zone, can dampen demand. (In fact, Finland has the dubious distinction of being overall the third most expensive country in Europe, after Norway and Switzerland.)

The Helsinki cityscape has changed considerably since my days there. For one, there has been a notable liberalization of entertainment policies. Restaurants can now stay open until early in the morning (except for the terraces, which must chase their customers indoors at 10 pm so that they don’t disturb the sleep of nearby residents) and they now can—and many do—import their own wines directly from the producing countries. Although not exactly legal, the police do not interfere when people walk around the city or rest in the parks with their own drinks as long as they do not cause any public disturbance.

Another major change in the past couple of decades has been the rapid internationalization of the city. Tourists have of course visited the country also before, but no t in these numbers. Today, walking around Helsinki one can hear a multitude of languages, not only those of the neighboring Scandinavian countries, Russia and Estonia, but virtually any imaginable European and non-European lingo. There are hordes of East Asians, most likely thanks to the national airline, Finnair, which offers the best gateway from Europe to Asia, with daily flights to several destinations in Japan, China, Thailand, India and elsewhere. I stayed in my brother’s apartment and each morning I would wake up to huge tourist buses hauling visitors to the adjacent Temppeliaukio church, famous for having been built inside a rock.

There are also unprecedented numbers of foreign residents in Finland. Many, like Victor who hails from Brazil and married my niece Jenni, have come for personal reasons. Others, in waves of refugees: Chileans after the 1973 coup that killed democratically elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in a period of military dictatorship; then Vietnamese boat people; later Somalis fleeing the chaos in their fractured homeland for safety or for economic reasons; next Libyans, whom Finland has pledged to the United Nations to accommodate. The opponents of Finland’s joining the European Union in 1995 attempted to scare voters that our pure country would be overrun by foreigners because of our strong economy and social security. Such a massive invasion, naturally, never materialized. The Portuguese sardine fishermen or the unemployed Italian autoworkers never moved up to Finland to seek employment with Nokia or the forest industry. The long winters and the thorny language, added to the Europeans’ general reluctance to move outside of their native comfort zone, took care of that. Nevertheless, immigration has steadily increased and with it tensions between the native Finns and the newer inhabitants. One group that is now conspicuous in the city consists of Romanian gypsies who beg professionally on the streets. Their presence has divided the citizenship into the liberals who defend their human rights and wish to extend the social benefits to them, and the average guy who finds them to be a general nuisance.

My friend Ilkka who works in forensic science had been briefed by the Helsinki chief of police who had provided some statistics. Out of the top 20 most wanted criminals in Finland, only one is currently a foreigner, compared with 17 in Sweden. This is, however, rapidly changing and, according to the chief, the next wave of dangerous foreign criminals has already entered the country. Twenty years ago, 17 of the 20 most wanted in Sweden would have been Finns, I pointed out.

Tensions created by the new foreigners in Finland, as well as the plans to bail out Greece and other EU countries whose economy has gone south (even further south, that is, from the Finnish point of view), led to stunning electoral results earlier in the spring. A xenophobic protest party, True Finns, emerged as the third largest party in the parliament. This Finnish version of the Tea Party sees the European Union as the biggest threat to the country’s sovereignty and way of life. Now, in the Finnish political landscape there are numerous parties—some of which survive only one electoral cycle—and no one will ever gain the majority of the vote. In fact, there are several, including the conservative National Coalition Party, the Social Democrats, the rural oriented Centre Party and, now, the True Finns, that all hover around the 20 percent mark. Given the rather parochial perspectives of the True Finns, they were not able to form a government despite their win. Consequently, the leader of the National Coalition Party was charged with the task of putting together a government consisting of its own representatives, the Social Democrats and a bunch of smaller parties. This includes the Greens, who lost a number of seats in the latest election but still got two portfolios in the new government. (I had the pleasure of meeting briefly with the new Minister for International Development, Heidi Hautala, as she was interviewed in a TV program produced by my old friend Matti.) The electoral loss may have been a boon to the Greens, as it shocked many passive supporters to join the party in unprecedented numbers.

On the first Saturday of July the Helsinki Pride events culminated in a massive parade in support of the gay and lesbian communities. The parade passing through the centre of the city demonstrated great solidarity amongst the population, gay and straight alike. A year ago, there had been an attack on the parade by a gang of young right-wingers who used pepper spray and some other gas on the marchers. The perpetrators, all dressed in black, were soon arrested and dealt with. The huge participation in the parade this year must have been partly due to the actions of these nitwits. One of the key demands associated with Helsinki Pride this year was the call for a gender neutral marriage law. Most Finns would either support such legislation or pay little attention to the matter. However, due to the inclusion of the tiny Christian Democratic Party in the new coalition government, the proposal was dropped from the government’s program.

Another distinction of Helsinki is that it has more live music performances per capita than any other European city. Finland is quite well known internationally for its classical musicians and opera singers, like Karita Mattila whose performances at the New York Metropolitan have delighted opera fans (as well as those who found her nude dance as Salome titillating), as well as orchestra conductors, starting with our most famous composer Jean Sibelius. (My friend Vesa, who maintains the Sibelius website linked herewith, has recently published a massive 1,000-page volume about Finnish conductors for which he received the prestigious Finlandia prize for non-fiction.) But most of the live music takes place in clubs (and during the summer in the parks) where varieties of rock, blues and pop are performed.

Unfortunately, the jazz scene these days leaves much to be desired (a glance at the programs of the summer’s ‘jazz festivals’ in Finland reveals that some of the key performers include stars like Tom Jones, Elton John and Jethro Tull, who hardly are at the forefront of contemporary jazz). The most popular joint is Storyville, which I visited one evening with my friend Erkki. On most evenings, the music on offer in the pleasant basement club can barely be called jazz. At best, it tends to fall into the ‘happy jazz’ category or, if you’re lucky, the blues. Storyville’s attraction seems to be more as a venue where middle-aged women and men on the prowl can find each other and dance until it’s time to go home around 3 am (but then the question is, whose home?). Somehow, more ‘serious’ jazz has had a hard time finding a permanent home in Helsinki in the past few years. Even the local franchise of the legendary New York club, Birdland, went bust and closed its doors after just a year of operation. There is a new club, Koko, which I heard about—that it is good and fills a niche for contemporary jazz—but didn’t have the chance to visit.

On my last morning before returning to New York the following day, I walked to the nearby Töölöntori market place for a cup of coffee. Then I continued on a lengthy walk around the shoreline. Helsinki is built on a peninsula and a large number of islands in the Gulf of Finland, so the sea is never far. The Hietaniemi beach was getting crowded already in the morning. People had spread their towels on the sand or on the rocks and grass a bit further from the sea. Pretty girls in bikinis mixed with families and older folks taking in the sun and frolicking in the waves. Had I had one more day I would have risked sunburn and skin cancer and joined them. But alas, time flies and holidays are never long enough.

The rest of the day was spent with my friend Kari. We met early in the afternoon in the city centre. The day was already hot and the previous night had been quite late, so we decided to sit down, refresh ourselves with a lonkero and plan our route. We ended up walking for kilometers in the midday sunshine, exploring shops where I would purchase things to bring back home—Finnish music, a couple of novels (it is too seldom I read in my native language anymore), food items (such as hard bread, fish preserves, mustard) that may have more childhood nostalgia than actual nutritional value—and stopping at intervals to gather strength on a shady terrace. The long day—and my vacation back in the old country—ended on Kari’s balcony where we sat listening to an eclectic collection of music from our youth—ranging from old favorites (Kate Bush, Boz Scaggs and others) to 1970s Finnish progressive jazz of Eero Koivistoinen—watching the sun go down but never quite set far behind the horizon.

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