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Finnish tales December 21, 2005

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Because the only two people with blogs I know personally are both from university days, and because their blogs (and others) have became such a staple of my virtual diet, and because I want to tell stories, I am having many a flashback to the heady days of the late 1990s when we all found ourselves in Russia together. The few months provided many a tale, partly because we were pretty much free, partly because there was a fairly hefty gaggle of us in a pretty small town, partly because alcohol consumption was of high social value, and partly because we were such a marvellous group. Well, and the locals were pretty special too, as was the town’s location. Petrozavodsk is the capital of one of Russia’s many constituent republics, Karelia, which has close historic, linguistic, cultural, ethnic (everything, basically, although Karelians are actually only a fairly small minority within the republic) ties with Finland, which lies next door. Indeed, some areas of what is today Karelia (and neighbouring Russian regions) were Finnish before WWII.

Now I might holler on about Belarus and a bit about Russia on here every now and again, but I really should do the odd yak about Finland too, which is another great love. So rather than remembering some of the exclusively Russian tales from those months all those years ago, I’m going to describe a couple of occasions where Finns played a leading role.

As luck would have it, I was studying both Russian and Finnish back in London. And as luck would doubly have it, our university was twinned with one just near the Finno-Russian border and as luck would trebly have it, I was invited to attend a course in Finland starting roughly when the Russian course came to an end. I had never been to Russia or Finland before this trip. I’d met a gaggle of Russians and Finns back in London, of course, but it’s always interesting to study the species in its native environment so I was happy to get the chance to go to the wilds of northern Europe.

Now because of those close ties with Finland, and because Finns are richer than Russians, and because Russia is cheaper than Finland, and because they could, Finnish businessmen, mostly working in the forestry business, would come across to Karelia to buy Russian timber. And as Petrozavodsk was the biggest town in the area, there’d frequently be a gaggle of Finnish businessmen visiting the town.

Very conveniently, for the sake of this entry, one afternoon – boozing started early back then – the two bloggers, a non-blogger(ess) (to my knowledge) (about the blogging, I mean. I know she’s a woman) and I went for a drink. We popped into one of our locals where, alas, there was no four-person-shaped table for us to sit at. But a respectable-looking gentleman, alone, moustachioed and wearing a selection of greens, browns and perhaps even tweeds, occupying one table alone, beckoned us over. We youngly hardly acknowledged him, sat down and started to chat. In English. At which point the betweeded gentleman spoke to us in English and was surprised to discover a group of English folk in Karelia. We gave him our spiel. “University.” “Twinned.” “Russian.” He explained he was a Finn. “Here on business.” “Forestry.” “Cheaper.” He seemed very respectable. Boringly so. But he proceeded to get fantastically, uproariously, staggeringly drunk. Quite marvellously drunk. The tone of his conversation soon headed south. “We play cards for R_,” (the female member of our group), he suggested to me. I explained that I didn’t own her and that she wasn’t really mine to give away (or win) in a game of cards. She’s an itsenainen nainen, I said, in perhaps my first and only ever vague play on words in Finnish. (It means independent woman.) “Fuck off,” he bellowed back at me, but it was a friendly bellow and I must say that however uproarious he got, I don’t think any of us feared for anything, except perhaps that he might die, throughout the encounter. He was eventually deflected from his bright idea of winning R_ in a game of cards – R_ took it all in good spirits – and moved on to recommend to us some of his favoured sex tourism spots. “Prague. The women is very cheap. The beer is very cheap.” And then came his best line, which many of my friends have had a hard time disagreeing with as I’ve told them the story over the years. “I like drinking and fucking. Hobba hobba.” He bellowed this over and over. “Drinking and fucking.” He was fairly caveman in his linguistic level by now, but, inexplicably, still managed to talk R_ and me into going back to his hotel with him for another drink – maybe R_ secretly fancied him – at which point the bloggers abandoned us. The hotel was another story in itself. The bar was a Soviet dream. Lots of brown. Lots of wood panelling. And lots of drunken Finns and depressed-looking local prostitutes. Our caveman introduced us to his other friends, all in the same business, and one of whom looked like Dracula – it was the hair – and dressed a bit like the grimmest character in a standard Kaurismäki film. But, alas, our evening was not much prolonged. The caveman was certainly going to do no fucking that night and we said our goodbyes in the form of a note placed under his head which had now collapsed onto the table in front of him.

An inauspicious, perhaps, but entertaining introduction to Finns closer to their natural habitat. But soon I would see them in greater numbers. On the morning after Argentina knocked England out of the 1998 World Cup, I set off with a heavy heart (and head) for Savonlinna, via Helsinki, to deepen my cultural and linguistic understanding of the Finns (and drink a lot). After a brief and happy reunion in Helsinki with my (erstwhile) beloved, I went north for more student fun, only this time with a group of strangers. The northern summer is so perfect, as was the location, and we were soon like old pals. Savonlinna, although pretty bloody famous by Finnish standards, is still fairly small and we only found a couple of places to go out in the town, both of which were pretty good fun. But the months of drinking had taken something of a toll on me. Or, rather, on my shape. I was not a thin man. Rotundity levels were high and the long days and constant boilingness had given me a rather pink tinge. Not that I gave a toss, really, but it provided the fuel for my favourite Finnish quote of the summer number two. While standing at the bar to order another beer, a friendly, handsome, strapping, big blond thing asked me, nicely, smilingly, but definitely drunkenly, “Are you English?” Now I am nothing if not Nimmo-like in my manners, and I gave him a polite, vicarish reply and then asked him how he had guessed. “Because you have a big, fat, red face.” It was quite the nicest insult I’d ever been given. He said it so friendlily, unaggressively, almost well-meaningly, and continued to beam at me afterwards. It was a bit of a conversation-stopper, though, and our friendship didn’t blossom. It didn’t get me in that gym the next day but I’m happy to inform that I am now waif-like and pasty in comparison.

Time flew ever onwards and it was soon further goodbyes to new-found friends, another quick stop in Helsinki – a city I adored and still love to this day – then a quick trip to Turku to see some pals there before ending anything study-related on this trip and heading to Sweden on the ferry for a bit of pure tourism. But I was to have one valedictory moment more of drunken Finnish joy. The ferry trip from Turku to Stockholm is fucking gorgeous. I happened to go when there was a perfect sunset, but you also pass through an archipelago and it’s just stunningly beautiful from port to port. The ferry trip is also famous as an out-and-out, total piss-up. And it didn’t disappoint. Our caveman seemed practically sober in comparison to some of the pissheads on board. I was anti-drinking-alone at the time and so sat soberly by, scribbling postcards and enjoying the scenes of revelry around. Then, all of a sudden, a walrus of a woman wearing a carpet approached with all the grace and elegance of a rhino. Bellowing seems to be the order of the day amongst drunken Finns. “Do you have a husband?” she bellowed. “How observant for a rhino-like drunken walrus in a carpet,” I thought, but she slowly clocked her mistake and adjusted the gender accordingly. I explained I didn’t. She then thundered round behind my chair, causing tidal waves as she went (no, that’s not true), and in the quickest movement she’d no doubt made in quite a number of years, grabbed my balls. And we lived happily ever after. No, no, we didn’t. Well, it was a bit of a shock to have your balls grabbed by a rhino-like walrus in a carpet, but I managed to make it quite clear that I didn’t actually that much fancy a quick shag, if she wouldn’t mind awfully. She didn’t mind at all, in fact, and happily thundered off, not noticeably crestfallen or affected in any way, in search of her next grabbee.

Which is a strange way to embody my love for the Finns, with three stories of drunkenness and less than noble behaviour. But they’re the best storiful moments. And I do love the Finns. Very much. And Finland is, I think, if push came to shove, my life depended on it and I just HAD to answer a quiz question on what my favourite country on earth was, excluding Blighty, naturally, then I think I’d have to plump for Finland. I love the people. I adore the landscape. I crave the language (the most beautiful on earth). And if it only had a 12-month summer, rather than a 10-minute one… But we can’t have everything.


1. lukeski - December 29, 2005

I’m pleased that your version of the Petroskoi story is identical to mine. I, of course, regale every Finn I ever meet with it. What is most concerning, though, is that most of my (very few) entertaining stories generally begin (as do several jokes) with an Englishman, a Kilburn poof and a Northern Jew walking into a bar…

2. BiB - December 29, 2005

It’s a great tale, isn’t it? The one I’ve most dined out on in my life, perhaps. My Danes loved it, and we all initially guffawed at what a caveman he was. Trouble is, as they thought further on’t, they couldn’t help thinking his life-philosophy, drinking and fucking, was pretty spot on. I sometimes even subscribe to it myself.

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