The weekend I was in Helsinki turned out to be quite an eventful one for the usually quiet city. Susanna had warned me that on Saturday I would see a lot of people walking around wearing white, ceremonious caps, and a lot of teenagers drinking in the park. I had arrived in Finland at the end of the last week of school before the summer holidays began, and for the teenagers that were finishing high school, it was the day of their official graduation ceremonies. It was such a beautiful sunny day that I had decided to talk the 45 minute walk into the city instead of catching the train, and on the way I saw white caps on many of the teenagers I passed, laughing with their friends and fidgeting as their parents tried to get them to stand still for photos. However, the parks didn’t seem quite so full of young boozers, I had noticed as I myself laid in one of the city parks, soaking up some rays and using my new favourite human right to Skype some of my friends. That would all change later.
Susanna’s brother was coming to stay with her on Saturday – she’d been able to let me stay there for a couple of nights, but I’d had to find somewhere else to stay after that. “I’m really sorry, but… well, I don’t even know how the two of us are going to manage, the space is small enough as it is.” Which I totally understood, and was still completely grateful – two nights free accommodation is better than zero. Yet I hadn’t been able to find a host on Couchsurfing – Susanna put it down to the fact that a lot of people in Helsinki live in small apartments like hers, and therefore don’t really have room to host people – so in the afternoon I checked into the city’s student accommodation, which becomes a hostel in the summer months. From there, Susanna and I went to dinner – it was the birthday of one of the girls in her group of Finnish friends, and she had invited me to come along and join the crowd. Always keen to meet the locals, I was quick to accept.
Dinner was at a Turkish restaurant, and I sat with Susanna and listened to a few of the conversations of some of her friends, and chatted to a few of them about my travels, where I’d come from and where I was going. At one point, in a break from all the other conversations, I had to lean over and quietly ask Susanna, “Are all of these people Finnish?”
“Yeah, they’re all from Finland,” she said, “but I’m pretty sure most of them know each other from a school or something where they all spoke English, so that’s why they mainly talk to each other in English, I think.”
But she had misunderstood my confusion. “Oh… No, I didn’t even think of that.” English is so widespread in Scandinavia you would have a very hard time finding anyone who didn’t speak it. “I mean, it’s just that a lot of them sound American.”
She had a good laugh at that. “Yeah, it happens a lot here. When they’re taught English by Americans, or American resources, then that’s how they learn to speak it, accent and all.” It was strange to see someone who could so easily pass as an American with a native English tongue to slip seamlessly into the long, low tones of the Nordic language. Finland actually has quite a complicated history with languages – Swedish and Finnish are both official languages, and there are small minorities of Finnish people whose mother tongue is actually Swedish. Politically, Finland’s history has been somewhat of a wrestling match for control and influence between Russia and Sweden, and there’s a whole range of other factors that basically mean all Finnish people seem to speak a minimum of three languages – the two official ones and English – with spikes Russian, Norwegian, Danish and German thrown in for good measure,
After dinner, we were to move onto the park to have some drinks. I was a little shocked when Susanna told me that – I hadn’t gotten drunk in a park since I was underage, and now for me drinking in a park refers to finishing the bourbon and Coke that I poured into a plastic bottle at pre-drinks while I’m walking through Hyde Park on the way to Oxford St. However, once I arrived I realised that it was quite a different environment. Well, I guess there were a lot of school kids getting drunk in celebration of the graduation, but we sat on the other side of the park, away from the throng of drinking youths. One of Susanna’s friends had some decent speakers for playing some music, and a few more produced towels or blankets from their bags to sit on, and we all sat around in the park having a little alcoholic picnic of beer, wine and cider. It was obvious that this was quite a popular and common thing to do in the summer months, making the absolute most of the outdoors and the sunshine after the months of long winter and seemingly endless darkness. It lasted for a a couple of hours through the evening sunshine and into the twilight. At one point the police arrived – while this kind of thing is commonplace during the summer months, at some point it became necessary to break up the crowd of teens as they grew too rowdy. Eventually the sprinklers came on, and we all and a bit of a chuckle as we watched them flee… until the sprinklers near us came on too, and we scattered, though only to relocate a few metres away, out of the reach of the water.
As we looked out over the now nearly deserted park, I saw a few people walking around picking up cans and bottles. “For every can or bottle you return to the supermarket, you get about twenty euro cents,” Susanna explained to me. “So all throughout these nights of drinking in the park, you have bottle collectors who go around picking them all up so they can make some money out of it”. I thought that was nice – even though it came with a financial incentive, it meant that people were still looking after the environment and cleaning up the local parks. But I was mistaken – as the collectors moved away, standing on the sidelines of the park and waiting for us to be finished with our beer and cider cans, I noticed that there were still a bunch of other cans still left on the grass. “Yeah, not all of the cans come with a refund, so they don’t bother picking them up.” That was a little disheartening, to learn that care for the environment, or even a desire just to keep the city clean, was completely lacking – it was all about making a few quick bucks. When the time came for us to move on from the park and onto one of the bars, I stood up and threw my can as far as I could to the other side of the park, and watched all the can collectors scurry to be the first to snatch up what was essentially a twenty cent coin. At least that way they were working for the money.
After the park, our party moved through the small, cobbled streets of Helsinki to one of the popular bars called Corona Bar. It was a large, dimly lit hall full of snooker and billiard tables, which seemed to be the main focus and attraction of the venue. The chatter and banter between the patrons was almost louder than the music, and there was a really authentic feeling about it that was a combination of American roadhouse and alternative grunge bar. Beer and wine was relatively cheap, and Susanna and I played a game of pool against two of her Finnish friends. Despite the two of us insisting that we were terrible players, I remembered back to the tips and tricks that Sana had taught me on our Cambodian date night, and with a few extra pointers from some of her other friends, both Susanna and I managed to sink a few balls with shots that I would never have believed I was capable of and ended up winning the game, representing Australia and proving that sometimes skills really do get better with booze.
One kind of cool thing that happened was that nearly everyone in the bar commented on my shirt. Tom of Finland is an artist that creates a lot of hyper-masculine and erotic cartoons, most of which are very graphic and detailed. Back at my old place of work, we sold t-shirts and singlets with some of the less explicit designs – some of the cartoons and artworks go as far as to essentially be pornography. Whenever I wore my Tom of Finland shirt back at home, it would usually get a lot of comments from people laughing and loving the fact I was adorning a picture of a naked muscle man on my shirt. However, here no one seemed that amazed by the content of my shirt, save for the fact that it was Tom of Finland – as in, they were actually familiar with the work of Tom of Finland. I have to admit I got a little kick out of wearing the Tom of Finland shirt in Finland, but I didn’t realise that there was actually such a strong connection to the country in the name, or that so many people, including heterosexual males, would know anything about it. One of the guys even mentioned that Tom, the artist behind the artworks, used to live not too far from the park where we’d been drinking earlier. What I had intended to be an outfit with a slightly meta undertone had turned into a relevant cultural tribute.