Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Boat Trip

My next destination after Sound of Music was Finland’s ancient capital, Turku.

I read in the gossip columns that Susanna Gärdström is embarking on a new career as a pinup girl. There were pictures of her wearing nothing but a lacy white basque. She was quoted as saying: "My fans are mostly men of 60 and over. One of them was standing right in front of the stage during my entire set." Could she have meant me? That is what I did when she was at the Vanhan Kellari in December 2004! She went on: "He told me he was hoping my tits would fall out of my low-cut top." No, definitely not me. I never said that. At least not out loud. Not loud enough that she would hear, at any rate. She also spoke about Ailamari Vehviläinen, a fellow finalist at the 2004 Tangomarkkinat: "It is not right to humiliate competitors for the sake of TV drama . . . it reduces the singing competition to the level of reality TV."

In the evening I went to the Galax. This is a very swish place with elegant decor and dancing on two floors. It doesn’t open till 21:00, and even then there were very few customers and the band was still setting up downstairs. Upstairs records were playing, but nobody was dancing. I noticed a nice-looking young blonde and asked her to dance. Immediately several other people followed my example. The place filled up by 22:30 and by midnight was packed solid. Upstairs was ballroom-type music (including of course tangos) provided by Ari Klem; downstairs was headbanging. The two bands did not interfere with each other at all.

I returned to my hotel at 2 and was up at 6 in order to catch the Viking Line boat to Stockholm. I didn't actually want to go to Stockholm; I was interested in the all-day dancing on the boat. This started with records at 9:30. Later live music was provided by Ari Klem and others.
This boat trip is more interesting than most because there are thousands of little islands between Finland and Sweden, giving the passengers something more interesting to look at than a lot of water. There are large windows in the ballroom so you can see them without going up on deck.

About halfway across is a settled area called Ahvenenmaa, where the boat stops and a lot of people get on and off. Some of my favourite partners got off at this point. Everything seemed to go rather Swedish after this. All the songs seemed to be sung in Swedish. A crowd of attractive ladies got on and I immediately made a beeline for them. None of them could speak English or Finnish but we seemed to get along OK all the same. One was extremely lively and enthusiastic and had no sense of rhythm whatsoever. By ignoring the music completely and following her movements I managed to have a good dance with her.

A small dark-haired woman of distinctly non-Swedish appearance asked me to dance. She told me, in English, that she was Italian and lived in Sweden. "Never marry a Scandinavian, particularly a Swede or a Finn," she said. "They try to control everything you do. Don't put your hand there, put it in the small of my back. Don't break up the rhythm like that, keep it slow slow quick quick. An Italian woman will let you be boss in your own home. Get nearer the middle of the floor".

We remained together until she got off at Stockholm. I stayed on the boat. Records continued to be played in the ballroom while it was in harbour; then the live music started again. By 23:30 I started to feel tired. I shouldn't be tired, I thought, I've kept going till long past midnight before. But I had been at it for 14 hours and was soon forced to retire to my cabin.

I woke at 6:30 and had breakfast, which was porridge. The boat docked at Turku at 7:35. I noticed Ari Klem trundling a trolley of Duty-Frees. I checked into the hotel, which was right opposite the terminal, and set off to look round the town. I could describe the Pharmacy Museum and the castle, but I won't as they are not tango-related, and will instead go straight to the events of the evening.

It was a Sunday and I didn't think there would be any dancing. But in the Turun Sanomat there was an advertisement for a dance at the Uittamo pavilion. I asked the receptionist where this was. She said about 3 kilometres distant. This is easy walking distance but I decided to book a taxi and was glad I did, as it seemed a hell of a lot longer than that. The pavilion is a wooden building like the one in Onnen maa and Iskelmä prinssi, which I have described before. It is surrounded by birch trees, and I remembered the first chapter of "Tango is my Passion", where Virtanen has to dash out of country dance halls and grab a handful of birch twigs to curb his unruly organ before going back for another tango.

I arrived shortly after 19:00 and the band (not records!) was already playing. What's more, they were playing Satumaa. Men were lined up down one side of the room, women on the other. There was an illuminated sign saying Miesten haku or Naisten haku so nobody would be in any doubt. A second floor was outside so you could dance under the stars. A kiosk was nearby where you could buy coffee, soft drinks, and cakes. Absolutely delightful.

I danced pretty much every number and wasn't refused once. The singer was Jaana Pöllänen, whom I had seen on Jos sais kerran on tv. She was Tango Princess in 2000, coming second to Mira Kunnasluoto, but never gained the coveted title herself. She gave me a signed photograph and said "thank you for enjoying it". The dance ended at 23:30. I hadn't booked a taxi back, but the security guard ordered one on his mobile.

Next day I took the train back to Helsinki and arrived about 11:00. My flight was at 16:50 which meant I would have to get the airport bus in about 3 hours. I saw in the Helsingin Sanomat that a "senior dance" would be held in Aleksanderinkatu at 13:00. Admission free. It would be worth trying to catch the first hour of that, I thought; but first I went to Hilve's shop in Fredrikinkatu.

Hilve greeted me effusively, introduced me to the customer who was already in the shop, and offered me coffee, ice-cream, and biscuits. These were described as "Lappish biscuits" and looked like, but presumably weren't, communion wafers. The shop was crammed with decorative objects, and Hilve insisted on showing me each one. She makes all the ceramics herself. Eventually I escaped having spent only 30 euros, but it was too late to go to the senior dance. That will have to wait for my next visit.

It seems to be worth reading the Helsingin Sanomat. It's a serious broadsheet paper, like the Times, and the language is rather too difficult for me. Also it costs 3 euros. I normally read the downmarket tabloids, which have easier Finnish and plenty of celebrity gossip. And they're cheaper. But the Helsingin Sanomat and the Turun Sanomat (which might or might not be a sister publication) directed me towards some wonderful dances that I would otherwise have missed.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Sound of Music

The Sound of Music contains no tangos, and is set in Austria. So why am I writing about it in a blog allegedly concerned with Finnish tango? Because Arja Koriseva is starring in it. As soon as I found out that she was taking on the role of Maria (this would have been last March), I logged on to the Seinäjoki City Theatre website. I soon discovered that tickets are not sold outside Finland. Nevertheless I contacted the theatre and a very helpful lady called Tuija Tunderberg sent me two tickets for the opening night, which was on 1st September. The theatre doesn't accept credit cards, at least not from abroad, and I had to pay by bank transfer. The bank charges came to the same as the cost of the tickets. This was Lloyds, the bank I worked for for 34 years. Retired employees don't get any perks.

I flew into Helsinki on 31st August. That evening I intended to go to my usual haunt, the Vanhan Kellari, but in the Helsingin Sanomat I noticed an advertisement, in very tiny type, for a dance in the Merimelojien Maja, Kesäkatu. This translates into Sea Canoeists' Hut, Summer Street. Clearly this needed checking out. It was quite easy to find: Summer Street is near the Opera tram stop, and it continues to the bay, where a wooden building, far to grand to be called a hut, is built over the water.

On the wall is a canoe from the 1948 Olympics. The clientele is rather older than the Vanhan Kellari: at 58 I was one of the youngest. No alcohol is sold, but you can buy coffee and home made cakes. Single men sit at one side of the room, and single women at the other. Couples sit where they like. What a brilliant idea, I thought. Sometimes one sees an attractive potential partner, but she is next to a man. Are they together, or simply occupying adjacent places? They aren’t talking, but they might be married. At the Merimelojien Maja there is no problem.

A fellow youngster was Marjatta. The only other Marjatta I had come across was the annoying virgin in the Kalevala who refused to ride in a sledge pulled by a male horse. Or a female horse which had had sex with a stallion. Only a virgin mare would do. Eventually she got pregnant through eating an enchanted cranberry. Nobody believed her.

I know nothing about this Marjatta's views on the subject. I know that she was lively, very pretty, and an excellent dancer. The music was provided by a live trio, whose combined ages probably totalled about 230. An interesting custom seems to be developing in Finland. For the first dance a lady will hold herself back a bit, but for the second will adopt a full-blooded close embrace. Sometimes she will practise a kind of foreplay: teasing her partner by breathing on his neck or brushing his cheek with her hair, but still keeping her distance until the second dance.
This was the last dance at the Merimelojien Maja. The season starts again in June next year. Apparently they get very few foreigners there. I was taken for an Italian.

The second half of the evening was naistenhaku (ladies' invitation). I was gratified that Marjatta asked me three times.

Next day I was on the train to Seinäjoki. According to the gossip column of the Ilta-Sanomat, Kati Fors, the recently-crowned Tango Queen, wants to appear on “Big Brother”. Presumably the Finnish version is more refined than ours, and the housemates sit around engaged in intellectual discussion of tango and other aspects of high culture.

Tuija Tunderberg had done me proud: my tickets were for the centre of the front row. When I bought them, I wasn’t sure who the second ticket would be for: at the last minute I asked the landlady, Seija, to come with me.

There are people who have watched the film of “Sound of Music” dozens of times and never get enough of it. I’m not one of them. I found it overlong, draggy, and unbelievable. This was a completely different experience. It was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I was laughing and crying by turns. I tried to wipe the tears away discreetly, so I wouldn’t appear too much of an idiot in front of Seija, and saw that she was doing the same thing.

I don’t want to be rude about Miss Andrews, but I never believed in her as Maria. Her Maria seemed an ideal nun: a little more attention to timekeeping, and she could have been the next abbess. Arja on the other hand was perfect. Oscar Hammerstein seems to have written the part for her (she was born in 1965, the year the film came out). The whole story makes perfect sense. Elsa, von Trapp’s long-term girlfriend, has to be less attractive than Maria for the story to work. In the film she is cold, stand-offish, and useless with children. It’s difficult to believe that von Trapp would ever have considered marriage with her. But Eija-Irmeli Lahti portrays Elsa as delightful, charming, an ideal wife and mother - yet it is still believable that von Trapp would prefer Arja’s Maria.

The play trots along at a good pace and never drags for a moment. Of course nothing with Arja in it could ever be too long. Also the order of the songs is different - presumably Hammerstein’s original order is used. For example in the film the “Lonely Goatherd” episode with the puppets gives the impression of being a tacked-on extra that sounds good but holds up the story: here it appears much earlier, during the scene when the children, frightened by the storm, take refuge in Maria’s bedroom. With Maria’s encouragement, they forget their fear by opening up the old toybox and acting out the Lonely Goatherd story. This scene also introduces a moment of sheer terror, at least for the people in the front row, when the boys trundle Maria’s bed, loaded with passengers, at high speed round the stage, coming dangerously close to the front.

After the show Seija announced that she intended to go and see it again. A reporter from the Ilkka newspaper interviewed me. Quite a long article, with a photograph, appeared on 3rd September.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this show. Get over there and see it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t understand Finnish - you know the story already. It’s an expensive trip - but mortgage your house or sell your grandmother on ebay. The experience of a lifetime. You will never regret it.