Friday, January 28, 2005

January 2005

Although I had been in Helsinki less than a month previously, on the 26th January I was in the Vanhan Kellari as soon as it opened at 4 in the afternoon. I danced a few times with Eine-Liisa and Hilkka and returned to my seat to refresh myself with Lapin Kulta (Lappish Gold) beer, when I became aware of someone looking at me.

In the dance places of Buenos Aires, they have a peculiar custom which they call the cabaceo. Someone who wishes to dance will fix their gaze on a potential partner. The other person will accept the invitation by returning the gaze, or refuse it by looking away. The custom is unknown in Europe (so I thought) but nevertheless this attractive dark-haired woman was looking at me. I looked at her. We both got up and walked towards each other. The cabaceo comes to Helsinki.
My partner's name was Helinä. She said she came from Porvoo and had come to Helsinki on a shopping expedition. I asked what she had bought and got a long list, of which I remember precisely nothing. She was married but her husband didn't like dancing. I asked if she had been to Buenos Aires and she hadn't.

Helinä and I were getting on very well. I was feeling quite pleased with myself that I was able to conduct a fairly prolonged conversation in Finnish. We danced together a number of times. She invited me to lunch, but I pretended not to understand.
"I think you understand perfectly well" she said. "In fact, I think I've fallen in love with you."
I felt an icy hand grip my heart. I almost screamed in terror. Helinä looked at my face and laughed.
"So you do understand!" she said gaily. "Let's meet on Friday."
"I've got a date on Friday at five" I said, "and I daren't be late." This was a lie.
"That's all right" she said. "I've got to work in the afternoon. Do you know the Omenapuu?"
Omenapuu means apple tree. There is a pub called the Apple Tree in Bristol, where cider is served, but presumably that wasn't what Helinä meant.
"They serve lunches here, at the Vanhan Kellari" said Helinä. I felt compelled to agree. The situation seemed to have taken on a life of its own.

When Ailamari came on I was waiting in front of the stage. Helinä remained with me. Ailamari recognised me and greeted me in a very friendly manner. She gave a brilliant performance, including waltzes, foxtrots, humppas and tangos. Helinä clung to my arm in a proprietorial manner as if we had been married twenty years.

I was able to speak to Ailamari after her first spot and say how brilliant I thought she was. She said she was giving the entertainment on the Turku/Stockholm boat in March. I said I would love to see her then, but I don't really know if I'll be able to. Helinä announced she was getting the bus back to Porvoo. She gave me a goodbye kiss on the lips. When we came up for air, I said that as we were both in relationships, we really shouldn’t kiss like that. She said it was all right if we kept our mouths closed. I wasn't so sure, particularly as we hadn't.

I stayed on for Ailamari’s second spot and eventually crawled exhausted out of the Kellari at 1 o’clock. The doorman was taking down Ailamari's posters and he let me have one of them.
Next day I called on Kaisa. Her daughter has now been christened and it is safe to make her name public. She is Raili Caitlin Coogan. Raili is a Finnish name; Caitlin is Irish. Ian, now 3, is in his element playing in the snow. He climbed an eight-foot pile of snow (and, as Kaisa sourly observed, dogshit and cigarette ends) left by highway maintenance men when they cleared the street. He chattered away, never making a mistake with the partitives, adessives, allatives, and other cases which give me so much trouble. Garth asked me to bring some Grape-Nuts next time I came. These are an American breakfast cereal, sold in England but not Finland. I hadn't eaten them since the 1950's. I remembered them as being rather like sand.

Friday lunchtime it was snowing hard and I was waiting for Helinä outside the Vanhan Kellari. It crossed my mind to sneak away, but that would have been dishonourable and unBritish. Helinä turned up at exactly the time she said and greeted me with a kiss (on the cheek this time).
I needn't have worried. We talked chastely about tango, our relationships, and Ailamari Vehviläinen.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Christmas 2004

I couldn't get a direct flight to Helsinki. I had to change at Copenhagen on the way there and Oslo on the way back. Denmark is not in the Eurozone and though you can spend euros in the airport shops and bars, you get your change in Danish crowns, which of course are no use anywhere else. I stocked up on Danish salmiakki. On one of the packets was the slogan "Välj Haribo för Gött!" Could this mean "Choose Haribo for God's sake"? A young woman approached me and asked what I was doing in Copenhagen. I said I was on my way to Helsinki, and she said she was conducting a balance of payments survey and asked if I had spent any money. I showed her my salmiakki purchases and said that salmiakki was unobtainable in England and these were brands I had not seen in Finland. She informed me the Danish for salmiakki is salmiak, and asked if I intended to spend any more money. I said I would try some Danish beer.

The bar sold a beer called Carl Jul. The barmaid told me that it was a special Christmas beer brewed by Carlsberg. She was a very attractive young woman, named Lilia, and I noticed that the more Carl Jul I drank the more attractive Lilia became. I asked how strong Carl Jul was, and she said 5.6% alcohol.

When I eventually arrived in Helsinki I booked into the Eurohostel, showered and changed and got to the Vanhan Kellari by 18:00. It had already been open two hours. Eine-Liisa was there as usual. She had two companions: one was the buxom lady who had crushed my right arm the previous May; the other I had danced with at the Kellari before but hasn't been mentioned in these ramblings. All were dressed in fetching red and black. They went off en masse in search of partners. Clearly they didn't find anyone of satisfactory standard because they were soon back; but Eine-Liisa asked me for a dance so presumably I was the best of a rather poor lot.

The singer that night was Susanna Gärdström, who had reached the finals at the Tangomarkkinat in July. She looked younger than she had then: in place of the old-fashioned ball gown, she was wearing a black trouser suit showing a nice bit of cleavage; and her hair was wild and loose, rather than tied back in a tight bun in the style sometimes referred to as a council-house facelift. I asked if she was going to try for the title again in 2005 and she said she hadn't made up her mind.

There is an internet terminal at the Eurohostel and when I got back there in the early hours I checked my email. There was a message from none other than Ailamari Vehviläinen: "Christmas greetings from the Playa del Inglesia in the Gran Canaries, where I am on holiday and also singing. See you at the Vanhan!" There aren't many pop stars who send individual greetings emails to their fans.

Next day I went to Stockmanns to see if there was anything new in the record department. There was: Anneli Saaristo, Saija Tuupanen, Johanna Pakonen and Anne Mattila had all released new solo albums. There was also an album of Christmas songs by Anne Mattila and her three sisters. I was reminded of the poem by Dr Seuss:

Did you ever hear
About Mrs McCave
Who had twenty-three sons
And she called them all Dave?
I knew about Anneli and Anitta Mattila, but here was another similarly-named sister: Anniina.
I bought all these records, and also some giant 70-cm sparklers. I wondered if I would be allowed to take these on the plane home but bought them anyway.

When I went to the men's room I thought at first I might have gone through the wrong door as an attractive young woman was in there. She was replenishing the roller towels. There isn't anything in the etiquette books about what to say in such a situation. I settled for "Hyvää joulua" (Merry Christmas) which seemed to be satisfactory.

Eine-Liisa wasn't at the Vanhan Kellari that night (22nd December), but I did get a few dances with Hilkka. I also danced with Sirpa, whom I had not seen before. We clasped one another close in an idyllic tango. Seated at the bar afterwards with my glass of Lapin Kulta and watching the dancers, I noticed that Sirpa kept her distance when dancing with other chaps.

Three Lapin Kultas later, I had worked it out. The dancers are instruments of the orchestra and the conductor plays on them in the same way as the other instruments. And if you are a Stradivarius, you will respond. You will fall in love with your partner and achieve a heavenly consummation. Afterwards you will return to your seat, weep over what might have been, and wait for the next tune so that you can return to the parquet and the same thing will happen again.

Bumtsibum is a music game show where the competitors (all well-known Finnish singers) identify popular songs from a few words extracted from the lyric: for example
Come * * listen * is from "Lullaby of Broadway". Most of the songs are Finnish, but there are a few English-language ones as well. In the Christmas edition all the songs were appropriate to the season. Arja is as good a comedienne as she is a singer. She struggled gallantly with "Mary's Boy Child", laughing at her mistakes, in spite of her fellow team members urging "sing it in Finnish".

I had discovered from the fansite that Arja Koriseva had played Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady" at the Turku Civic Theatre opposite Ismo Kallio as Henry Higgins in 2000. I would have loved to have seen it. I wonder how they would have dealt with Eliza's cockney accent in Finnish? Arja will be playing Maria in "Sound of Music" in Seinäjoki in August this year. Pity it doesn't coincide with the Tangomarkkinat; but I might be able to make it all the same.

There were two cat stories in the newspapers. One concerned Mingo, a Maine Coon from Helsinki, who held the world record for whisker length: 17.4 centimetres. The other concerned a Seinäjoki couple who bought a cat. When they split up, the man retained visiting rights to the cat. The woman acquired a new boyfriend and suggested to her ex that he get his own cat. He refused, and continued to come to the woman’s house to visit the cat. Violence broke out between the two men and the case ended up in court.

As I feared, I was not allowed to take my sparklers onto the aircraft, even in the hold; so I had to abandon them. I suppose they thought I might invade the cockpit and say: “Fly me to Cuba or I’ll sparkle you”. I had to change at Oslo on the flight home. Security was very strict there. A disabled woman had to get out of her wheelchair and walk through the gate. They even took her walking stick away and put it through the the X-ray machine.