The girls get more intimate, no not with the boys, but with each other. Nishiraj A. Baruah on the many delights of Finland
For heaven’s sake, I am not in a strip joint. I ain’t in a lesbian bar either. I am in a disco! But what’s this happening on the floor? Boys stripping each other! And teenage girls in passionate lip locks! The bizarre happens right from the entrance itself as a transvestite plants a peck on my right cheek, the red lip mark starkly prominent. The lip mark, I later discover, is your entrance pass, just like a fluorescent band tied around your wrist when you enter a night club in Delhi.
There is a Batman, a Superman, a Penguin and a punk as well. Man, I need a shot to clear my mind. I hit the bar, slip four Euros and down a tequila. Yes, what I see is what it is. The boys on the floor are completely naked now, imitating animal moves to the pulsating beats of, hold your breath, A.R. Rehman’s Jai Ho! The girls get more intimate, no not with the boys, but with each other. I am tempted to take out my cam, but hey, someone might thrash it.
As the quadraphonic boom boxes belt out the decibels, what better place for a farewell party than in The Bee Bop disco in Sokos Seurahoune hotel, the most happening discotheque in entire Finland? And if these students of a local Polytechnic institute are getting wild and emotional, well, they may not see each other again…
Seriously, I don’t expect this in this small, quiet and pretty Finnish city/town called Kotka that looks like an abandoned town even by day. Streets are mostly empty, shops shut by 6 pm, and at times you have this eerie feeling that you are the only person in the city. Where are all the people gone?
To answer the question, you must know that with a population of just 5 million and an average population density of 17 inhabitants per sqkm, Finland is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. And unlike us, the Finns don’t believe in creating mayhem in public spaces like streets and markets. Rather, they choose to celebrate life indoors in private pockets. Or so I discover as I go looking for people with a magnifying glass: A small group getting tipsy in a pavement bar; guests mingling around with champagne flutes in a first floor apartment as is visible to me through the large windowpanes; a lone man in a park in flirtatious whispers on his cell.
Even in my first port of call, Helsinki (where people are easier to find), indoors is where life is. Being a week day, the throbbing bodies may be missing at Tiger, the biggest nightclub in the Finnish capital, but the bars are packed. I climb up to a rooftop bar in what is one of the tallest buildings in Helsinki, the city shining bright below. “How many floors is this?” I ask my escort. “I am sorry, we are not like Delhi or Mumbai,” she says apologetically, “At 13 floors, it’s one of our tallest.”
Next we go to a lounge bar with an interesting concept. You have to push a calling bell and wait for someone to open the door. “It is to give you the feel that you are visiting someone’s home,” says the young owner of the cozy bar. Two American tourists flirt with the Finnish waitress. And then I see them: A cute couple completely immersed in a very animated conversation. Totally oblivious to their surroundings, they seem to be having a really good time, as they double up in laughter. Nothing abnormal except that there is not a single word exchanged between the two: The couple is deaf and dumb.
Of course, Helsinki, founded by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550 and spread across a number of bays and peninsulas and over a number of islands, is definitely more pulsating than Kotka. There are crowds, but no chaos. Standing outside my hotel (Sokos) under the warm September sun, I look at the cars, the cycles, the pedestrians – all on the move like a PT drill in a school. No rush, no noise, no queues, no horns and definitely no buffaloes on the streets. I step into a mall – fur coats, caps and hats on the hangers. I walk around to explore and take an underground corridor. And when I emerge, well, where am I? Am I not supposed to be in the mall? Unfortunately no, as I discover disoriented. I am at a railway station!
Best explored by foot, I walk past the neo classical architecture, often used as a backdrop for scenes set to take place in the Soviet Union in many Cold War era Hollywood movies. Some of the streetscapes look exactly like that of Leningrad and Moscow. I mingle with shoppers, workers returning home from offices, tourists. I also hop onto a tram — colourful trams that snake their way and change the city’s canvas ever so often. You can walk around in Helsinki and never get tired – clean air, disciplined traffic, lovely architecture, nice people. Parks are green, roads are cobbled, no, dirt, no dust, no smog. I would love to settle down here. How much do I need to earn here to make a decent living? “If you earn two thousand euros a month,” my escort tells me, “you will be able to buy a car and a house.’
Fair enough, but now is not quite the right time to look for a job in Finland. The country that gave us Nokia and Finlandia vodka is still reeling under recession. The paper industry is in pulp with thousands getting pink slips.
You will like the food
Well, okay, I am safer as a tourist. So let’s do the touristy things. Let’s sample Finnish food. I step into a restaurant called Sea Horse, a legendary no-nonsense restaurant founded in 1934, and popular with artists, intellectuals and celebrities alike. True to its name, a giant wall painting of a sea horse welcomes you in. With my tastebuds reluctant to go beyond the tried and tested, I am apprehensive, but to my delight, the trout dish turns out to be fabulous. Forgive my inability to go into the nuances of the food, but throughout my culinary journey in Finland, I couldn’t find one dish that wasn’t divine. Indians would have absolutely no problem. We have a trip planned for the famous Indian restaurant called Maharaja. “Drop it,” I say.
Women: They keep it simple
Next I look for visual delights. And what can be more delightful than women? Yes, women shopping, women at work, women walking back from work, woman cycling, women in clubs and women standing outside restaurants and smoking… I notice that they dress for comfort and not for style. They do not quite have the well groomed look of city slickers, rather their facial features are rustic, the jawline hardy as if they belong more to a dairy farm than to an urban womb. “Finnish woman have a fetish for Indian man,” a she-pal has mischievously said before I was leaving Delhi. If they have, well, they do not attract me. Not my type.
But they are sweet, softspoken and speak English. Enough reasons for me to chat up a girl sitting at the entrance of a cruise ship docked in the Kotka port, also home to the uniquely designed Maritime centre, a marine museum shaped like a sea wave. She tells me she works for a week at a stretch on board, the subsequent week is her time off during which she meets her boyfriend and goes disco hopping.
The reindeer skin I never bought
“No. 50 euros, that’s my best price,” says the mild-mannerd salesman as I haggle over a cotton-soft reindeer skin in the Helsinki harbour flea market. I also want to buy a Finsih hunting knife, but if I convert its price to rupees, it would cost me an absurd Rs 10,000. Also available are coats, hats and stoles made from the fur of blue fox.
At the end, I buy nothing except for a tiny pair of soft furry shoes for my toddler. But I make it a point to ask the price of reindeer skins at different shops elsewhere. The tag? Nothing less than 120 euroes. Tch, I should have bought it from the flea market…
For the design conscious, Helsinki is heaven. At the Design District, showrooms display furniture that look like spaceships; bags that look like bottles; necklace that also works as a waist belt; shoes that double as storage space, dining tables that can become beds. The concepts are so radical your idea of design will change forever. Certainly, be ready to shell out a hefty price for these.
The world gathers in Finland
“Can you take my picture, please?’ a man in his mid 40s tells me at the Helsinki cathedral Squaere. The place is swarming with tourists. “Where you from?” I ask as I take his digicam. He looks Asian, so I m surprised when he says that he is from Las Vegas. “Originally from Vegas?” I quiz. “No,” he says, “From Philippines.”
I meet an old couple who is from Barcelona. You can also hear Greman, French and English. People from all over the world converge in Finland. In this global melting pot, I mark my Indian presence.
Stuck in a luggage room
I check out of my Helsinki hotel, but decide to keep my strolly in the luggage room. I open the door with my room swipe card. Once in, the door locks itself shut. The small room, complete with steel walls, looks like a suffocating bank strong room. I push my bag into a rack and then yank at what looks like a handle-less door. I push and pull but it still doesn’t open. What the….! An old woman comes to my rescue. “The door is on this side, my dear,” she smiles, “the one you are pushing is the wall.”
Porovo and beyond
But all walls disappear once you step into the Finnish Countryside. I am on my way to Porvoo, a small trade town, about 50 km from Helsinki, famed for its ‘Old Town’, a dense mediaeval street pattern with predominantly wooden houses. It’s only beyond Helsinki that Finland unveils itself in all its fantastic glory. The air I breath in has an aroma as I glide on highways so neat that I can eat from them. A superbike whizzes past while on a roadside forest, a girl in a frock and a hat plucks mushrooms – mushroom grows everywhere in Finland and exported to Europe.
At Porvoo and around, you almost feel as if you are intruding into natures as it sleeps. The waters in the lake are so still that you don’t want to dip your finger lest it gets disturbed. It is so quiet that you want to speak in whispers. Naah, you don’t wanna upset such a sleeping beauty.
With such abundant outdoors dotted with so many lakes, there is a lot you can do in the Finnish countryside: Angling and fishing, cycling and speed boating, sweating in a sauna or soaking in the sun, and if you like, spending time in a country cottage like most Fin’s do on weekends.
Every piece of Finland is a frame – you point your camera in anywhich direction and you are bound to get that picture perfect – you can’t go wrong. It’s a fairy tale book come alive as you become a butterfly, an explorer, an enchantress, a Cinderella, a queen, an imp or a goblin reliving your wonderful infantile fantasies.
Even Russian tsars who used to come here for fishing weekends couldn’t resist its charms. As a reminder, you have a large wooden fishing lodge at a place called Langinkoski. Here, we are greeted by a burly and bearded man with a handlebar moustache who looks exactly like the framed portrait of Tsar Nicolas on the wall. Well, he is actually the keeper of the house but often plays the role of the Tsar for special plays staged here by the lake.
I stop by a cute shop (by a lake, of course) selling home made chocolates. I buy some and enjoy my coffee. I also stop by at the sprawling Haikko Manor and Spa hotel where we spot couples – old, ancient and barely able to walk – getting together for lunch. I take their pictures – each line on their face a synopsis to wisdom accumulated over years. They belong to a retirement home, this outing a weekly routine. You grey gracefully in Finland – it’s silvers well taken care of. Leaving them behind, I finally arrive at Kotka and check into hotel Sokos – the venue of the Bee Bop disco where the young takes over.
All this has been on mainland. Now stories from an island. Just like we buy farmhouses in Delhi, the rich buy islands here. But instead of zipping in SUVs, they sail in turbo powered Honda speed boats to their retreats which sometimes double up as commercial resorts. To one such island called Rakinkotka, about 15 km from Hamina town I go. Run by a company called Vimpa Island Fishing Tours, this 60 acres island is popular with corpotaes for fishing tours, training sessions, team building and boardroom meetings.
We are in a boat on the Baltic sea, Pertti Illi, the cool dude of an owner in Aviators on the steering wheel, a GPS system next to him. The sun is in the process of setting. The foamy waters of the sea, the thrill of speed, rush of adrenaline, and then we suddenly come to a halt in the middle. A fishing net is cast and five minutes later it is out with the catch: Five huge salmons, each the size of a split AC. Sliced neatly later, wood fired to go with beer and wine, that’s our dinner for the night, as we sit around a bonfire on stools and benches cushioned by Reindeer skins. This, even as the caretaker plays a Finnish ballad on his accordion.
You aren’t finished with Finland yet if you haven’t done the sauna, a Finnish craze. Just like we have bathrooms, every house in Finland has a sauna – there are over two million saunas in the country. For the Finns, the sauna is a place to relax in with friends and family, and a place for physical and mental relaxation as well. It’s not a luxury, but a necessity. Before the rise of public health care and nursery facilities, almost all Finnish mothers gave birth in saunas. And as in a golf course, business negotiations are also done in a sauna.
So to sauna I go wrapped in a towel. The glass door opens out to waves crashing on the shore, the heat from wood fire building up a sweat on my body. And when I am done, I rush out to take a dip in the sea. It’s a sauna experience unlike any other in the world.
Pertti escorts me around the island, his two big dogs happy to show me around. I see several islands, but not all of them are inhabited. There are also dorms and dining tables for corporate meetings.
It is 10 pm now. The sea is dark. We move back to the shore. Sound of foaming water below, sea breeze on my hair. Such life.
Back in my hotel, I take a shower. It has been a long and interesting day. Time now to retire. Or is it? At the BePop disco, the night is about to begin.
For any assistance, contact the award winning Finnish Tourism Board office in Delhi.
Fly Fin Air from Delhi, Kolkata or Mumbai, the best way to go to Helsinki and Europe. It’s business class is easily one of the best, though I wished the air hostess are a little younger
Season: All year round