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Freeloading through Finland


“That guy is pokerfaced. Don’t you think he’s pokerfaced?”

Apparently the American woman was talking catty, in an exceedingly loud voice, to her husband about me. The boat sliced through the cold blue waters of the Saimaii Canal, built in 1856, in what seemed like a preposterous spot. Nowhere. I inhaled and exhaled the novel frontier “Scandinavian wilderness,” plus a snootful of flies. I felt bad. I couldn’t really manage a conversation with the Swedish tourist sitting next to me, other than, in answer to her friendly questioning, slurring a lugubrious yawp. Amidst the droning hum of the ship’s engines was the low languid gurgle of the Finno-Ugric language, which is related to Estonian, Hungarian, possibly Turkish—and not much else. Everyone sounded a little like Foghorn Leghorn with laryngitis.

Lake Saimaii is Finland’s largest lake, and the American couple were quick to slowly outloud this nugget phonetically from their guidebook, as if speaking to a kindergartener. I could tell they thought I couldn’t speak English, was probably Finnish or Russian. The reason for my extreme facial rigidity is what the French call “guelle de bois” (face of wood), meaning the previous night in a Lapeenranta campground I’d polished off a couple of six packs of Finland’s finest beer, Lapin Kulta, and was feeling it.

We were on our way to Vyborg in Russia, a dreamscape that was once Finland’s second-largest city before part of the province of Karelia was lost to the Russians after World War Two. In a country with over 187,888 glacial lakes, the Saimaii no longer seemed great shakes. I was laked out. You can only swim naked in the pristine wild with flickering water sprites so many times before you crave something new, such as dogsledding or reindeer-hunting. Or in my case, why I was here in the first place, unraveling an ancient secret perhaps older than civilization itself, and more dire than the Da Vinci Code.

It was during the Springtime in Paris, France, that I first heard about “the Statues.” I was staying with my French friend, Annick, who was a member of Servas, a hospitality-exchange organization affiliated with the UN, whose aim was to foster mutual understanding between nations and world peace. I called Servas “Serve Us,” because it was a convenient way to get a free place to stay the night. (Servas guests were also supposed to leave a gift, which in my cost-effective case involved proudly procuring a stolen pen and leaving it dangling meaningfully from the bedside table.)

Anyway, one night a Finnish Servas couple came to stay. They turned out to be Pagans. Which to the naked mind’s eye connotates anything from false idols and real gods (with a little nature worship and Medieval tapestry-like orgies thrown in). When they arrived at the Rive Gauche apartment with their backpacks they seemed, well, “frosty” and blinked with bewilderment under the artificial lights. One of them shyly adjusted his aviator sunglasses as if to say nice to meet you. Finland ranges from continuing darkness in the winter to a two-month day in the summer. The Finns seemed glad to be in ‘Mediterranean Paris” and were interested in everything under the midnight sun, ranging from Renaissance art to Asian cuisine to African dance.

After everyone else was asleep, the Pagan guy turned to me, casting a spell with his somewhat commanding voice. “You know, they’ve found these statues that are older than anything else ever discovered in [secret location in Europe].”

“Really, what are they like?”

The Pagan’s eyes were aurora borealises. “One of them is a golden boy,” he related. “The others you would not believe . . .” It almost seemed as if the Pagan had been sent on a secret mission to specifically tell me about the statues; he even hinted that one of the statues might resemble yours truly. “Some people think that white people originally came from Finland,” he capped it off, without warning, wine-stained tongue a wagging blue ribbon. We talked and drank far into the night.

Getting from Paris to Helsinki was a little like receiving bum directions from Santa Claus to take back Christmas gifts from miserable lout miscreants’ houses. (Jolly St. Nicholas’s family could possibly have Finnish origins.) With my heavy backpack, I felt like I was hauling a sackful of Nokia cellphones. But I had an invite from a French friend and her Finnish boyfriend, Pasquale and Keri, to stay at their place in Helsinki, if I could find it.

O’er land and sea my travel girlfriend (whom shall remain virtually anonymous) and I found ourselves at a confusing Legoland-like complex of apts in Stockholm, pacing the wood floors in our socks (most Scandinavians ask you to remove your shoes) and getting briefed by my friend Asko, a Finnish-Swedish ex-UN Peacekeeper. Asko’s building had a badstad, the Swedish equivalent of a sauna, which was invented in Finland. Luckily, Asko’s brother worked for Viking Lines, so we found ourselves with free tickets, then not much later drunk and dizzy in the disco of a spotless high-tech vessel which delivered us to Helsinki. Looking out over the expansive blue-white ocean bile of the Baltic, I felt like a character from The Sagas.

At the harbor in Helsinki, I squinted at the Senaatintori (Senate Square) overlooked by CL Engel’s stately domed and pillared Tuomiokirrko (Lutheran Church). Somehow architecture in Europe looked more European than it did in the States. The first thing we did was visit the kauppatori (market). I bought a Russian sandwich (with saucy Stroganoffy filling) and some smoked trout. Tastebuds tantalized, we wandered into the Centrum and entered an atmospheric luxury restaurant whose postmodern décor was dolefully reminiscent of IKEA on lysergic acid. Here for the first time in my life I dined on fresh reindeer with Arctic cloudberries, picked by hand by Finnish Laplanders. I toasted the gods with a digestif of Lakka Liquor, also made of Arctic cloudberries. I decided I’d try to get as close to the Arctic Circle as possible. I had my reasons.

Sandwiched between Sweden, Russia, and Norway (and throughout history often incorporated within them), Finland has been a jigsaw-puzzle piece of geopolitical real estate swaps. Inhabited for at least 10,000 years (note: at least) by a number of barbarian tribes, including the native Sami (Laplanders), Swedish Rus (forerunners of Russians), and the Russian Finns (does that make sense?), the country seemed perfect for investigating prehistory. (I was going to keep my mouth shut about the Statues, though.) During the Cold War, Finland was kind of an East-West link, and the atmosphere could still be a little like slipping into the pages of a suspense novel. Occasionally I’d be sitting next to elaborately mustached men in green suits (whom I identified as “Yuri”) with briefcases stamped with “I want you!”

Eventually we arrived at the abode of my friends, Pasquale and Keri, who cautiously welcomed us with a smorgasbord and Sibelius on the CD player. Keri, a photographer for the Finnish tabloids who specialized in shooting women with massive groodies, resembled a thin blond-haired Santa. (Finland majored in producing Santa doubles.)

After an hour of catchup, the reunion talkfest sputtered out. Someone had broached a topic which my girlfriend and I were quick to evade: how long were we staying. We sat in stony silence, all the good conversation used up, then the embarrassing silence was broken when Pasquale and Keri left to pick up another surprise guest from France. True to the Servas “Serve Us” code, I refused to take the hint and check into a hotel.

In the two weeks that followed, as we toured lakes, exhausted topics of inquiry, mildly eyed our naked bodies on our sauna excursions, and had heart palpitations over high beer prices, Pasquale, shaking her raven Hester Prynne tresses, would get a mought bit surly. So what if we mooched flatbread and smoked salmon from the refrigerator every day to save money: that was part of the cultural exchange, right? I, fathead that I am, was waiting for the proverbial Bruce Naumann boot: “Get out of my house!” But the dismissal call never came.

One Wednesday (derived from “Woden’s day from Norse myth), after spending a surreal day surrounded by topless supermodels with high cheekbones at Hietaniei Beach, the five of us went to a flash restaurant. The scenery had made some of us frisky. The French friend with a blasé “Boeuf!” began a rigamarole about how married women should be allowed to have affairs. “Zey must have zis secret garden,” he insinuated with Maurice Chevalier indifference.

Surprisingly Pasquale agreed.

Not Keri. Looking hip because of his retroactive flowered shirt, he countered, “I don’t. I think when people go out they should be loyal!” (And this from someone who photographed bare breasts for a living.) I now sensed the real reason for their cool manner. I felt less like a friend than a freeloader. Perhaps we had arrived at the wrong time?

Unsure about how to approach the subject of actually wrenching ourselves away from Pasquale and Keri’s unique hospitality, we returned to the apartment one Thursday (derived from “Thor’s day”) after what we thought was some last-minute bye-bye sightseeing. Upon return we found the house completely empty. (Finland is so safe that many people don’t lock their doors.) On the table was a note: “Here are the keys to my car. Go wherever you want. Have fun. –Keri.”

After a whirlwind Henry James tour of the countryside, grinding gears and Amexing petrol at deserted automated gas stations, we traced our path backwards on the fold-out map. What had we missed? Somehow we had sped through the 13th-century town of Turku—believe it or not, the former capital of Sweden!—and Brothers Grimm forest-fringed small towns with brightly painted clapboard houses and solid Lutheran churches. All a blur. We returned nevertheless invigorated to Helsinki, dropped off the car, and prepared to go north towards the Arctic Circle.

I went to the CPO to make an international phone call, to warn my friends and family I was running out of money, and ran into the female half of the Pagan couple! This seemed a little too weird to be a coincidence. The male half arrived soon after, his smile a portrait of reptilian mirth, and we soon found ourselves in their favorite café. Where the Pagan pointed out a shaman friend of his who had inducted him into the mysteries. Of course, it was also a coincidence that he happened to also be in the café, and wouldn’t I like to meet him?

I glanced over at the shaggy shaman, brushing off crumbs from his beard, the spitting image combination of a Hell’s Angel and Rasputin. Inexplicably, I felt a little creeped out and said that no, I didn’t want to meet him. I gave being too tired as an excuse. Once again, I was reminded of the Statues. Were people watching? I waved goodbye to the Pagans. Their friendly smiles suggested that perhaps we might meet yet again.

Next we took a train to Joensu, planning to eventually reach Rovaniemi, gateway to Arctic Lapland, and cross the Arctic Circle before the long winter set in. We checked into a campground in a pleasant forest. The campground had a sauna, where you could steam and slap yourself with birch twigs. My girlfriend thought I was crazy when she saw me maniacally digging a hole in the permafrost with a hard rock. I had a hunch, you see. (I thought of the many layers of civilization stacked up and the mysterious statue of the “golden boy,” wondered if it might be Tintin?) Once again, I felt like a friendly freshwater stream, mankind’s natural state. And then I caught sight of these strange lights seemingly moving overhead. But when we woke up the next morning in our tent, teeth chattering and toes numbing, we knew it was time to leave this land of northern lights and winter dark. Finland was beginning to freeze.

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