June 29, 2008

Corking it

When I was thirteen years old, the world was rocked by a movie about a pair of doomed lovers on a sinking ship. At that time, a movie ticket in Helsinki cost about 30-35 Finnish marks, but when Titanic arrived, the price was raised to 50 marks - it was said this price made justice to the staggering length of the movie: over three hours. And we all loved it. Regardless of age, nationality, sex or nautical miles travelled, Titanic had us all gaping at the Ship that Sank, singing our on-going hearts out with Celine Dion, almost wetting our pants when the lights of the Titanic flickered and went out forever, and whooping out loud when Kate Winslet spat on the face of her husband-to-be.

Titanic is the movie which, possibly, for people of my generation, provided the first experience of bawling in a movie theatre and made it completely normal to go to watch the same movie five times. And even now, when listening to "My Heart will go on", we remember one of the highlights of the nineties, an event nobody could have missed. My mother once told me one of her friends living in Kuwait, who never had time to watch a single movie, watched Titanic - even though this meant she fast-forwarded through most of it.

I'm writing this in my father's aunt's house in Vienna, where I've been staying with my parents and my father's cousin for some days. Biologically speaking, she's not really his aunt, but it's a long story and I'll elaborate on it another time (if you've been familiar with my blog for a longer time, you'll know I say this frequently). Right now, my father's other cousin (who, biologically speaking, really IS his cousin) arrived with his wife and their adopted son, and we're getting ready for a barbecue in the garden.

It's boiling hot, but of course not as hot as in Damascus, where we'll travel tomorrow, and certainly not as hot as Venice, which was something of a disappointment with its infuriating masses of tourists and lousy customer service - some stretches of the city made you feel like you were in some freakily huge amusement park, while the calmer parts of the city were much nicer, especially if you found a street shady enough to prevent your sunburn from getting any worse. This presented some interesting challenges to our street-navigating ("We were supposed to cross that canal but we'll stay in the shade and turn left instead").

The 12 hour train trip from the Santa Luzia train station was uneventful. A blonde female tourist carrying a huge red rucksack, a black smart briefcase and a plastic bag stuffed with umbrellas approached me on the platform to ask how she would know how to find her wagon. I explained to her there would be plates with the carriage numbers hanging on the doors, and she seemed genuinely surprised when I corrected her and told her she didn't have a seat: she would be travelling in a bed ("Where do you see BED?" she asked, and I pointed at the Italian: Letto).

I assumed she was American, but a chain-ring hanging from her chaotic rucksack screamed CANADA! With an enthusiasm very characteristic of North American people on their first trip to Europe (I sometimes feel like they reply "Yes, I LOVE it" to whatever you ask), she suggested taking a picture with the two of us (I had known her for about two minutes) and when she started approaching one of the crazy Russian fans travelling to Austria for the football match, wanting to ask her if she would take a picture, I stopped her and suggested she go to the station to get herself some water, instead, because the trip would be long ("When will we arrive?" Honestly, I don't know how she had survived all the trip until now - and what was the meaning of all those UMBRELLAS? She looked like she had an allergy to rain, or maybe someone had told her umbrellas were hot merchandise in Italy).

The approaching train saved me from having to go through any more embarassing small talk ("I'm going to Syria in a week to see my grandmother", I said. "Serbia?" came the reply) and I quickly found my seating compartment, which was already occupied by a Malaysian man studying in Cork. "Kohk. You know, Ailan? Ailan? Kohk?" "Ireland", I translated to the arrogant Bolivian couple who couldn't stop staring at the guy and looked like they were ready to take the next plane back to La Paz. They got off pretty soon, but the guy from Kohk kept asking me for advice, even waking me up in the middle of the night in a fit of panic: "What time is it in Austria? Same as Italy????!?!???"

And so, these are just some of the things I'm remembering - Titanic, and the absurd people you meet on night trains - while I prepare myself for barbecue with my biological and non-biological relatives, as well as the football match and, finally, tomorrow morning's flight.

June 20, 2008

Verdi in Verona

I arrived in beautiful Verona some hours ago, rattling on the Regionale from Bologna Centrale with my pockets full of used handkerchiefs, my t-shirt wet from sweat and my bag stuffed with Mirga's fantastic pastries (recipe: empty fridge, throw everything in a pan, wrap it up in dough and shove it into the oven). Because I haven't slept last night due to a blocked nose, I almost fall asleep on the bus to the youth hostel, while the four-wheel suitcase of a Japanese tourist takes a life of its own. Summer has finally arrived to Italy, with today being the second hot day on the trip, which has just entered its third week.

Yesterday was Mirga's last day of her Erasmus year in Bologna, and we celebrated it by hiking out to the church of San Luca, on a beautiful meadowy hill outside the city. The half-nude couples (of mixed orientation) frolicking in the grass made our quartet look boringly innocent - we, however, kept our clothes firmly on and our eyes on the views, which reminded Mirga and me of the landscapes in Austria.

Last night was spent preparing the culinary delights mentioned above and cleaning up Mirga's room, which happened faster than we thought but still was no small task. While her Romanian-pop-on-full-volume-blasting flatmates snored in the other rooms, we were packing up an electronic piano and throwing unnecessary paperwork in the rubbish. Mirga continued this while I wrapped myself in my very pink sheets to begin an utterly sleepless night, enforced by the howling trains passing a few metres from our window on Via Masserenti.

And so now, I am alone for a couple of days, a feeling, I must say, not quite unwelcome after two weeks of meeting so many good friends from over a year ago. I plan on spending them by discovering this beautiful city (however, also steering clear of the Romeo & Juliet kitch-factor, which IS substantial here - Romeo bus tours anyone?), trying to create dams for all this liquid streaming out of me, and immersing myself further in John Irving's wonderful novel "A Prayer for Owen Meany". Tonight, I'll go to see Aida at the Verona amphitheatre with a group of Finnish girls I met in Bologna yesterday. No need to say we have quite a lot of mutual friends as they all are fans of choral music.

June 07, 2008


It's raining again. The drops started falling on my face as I was walking down Leonhardstrasse after helping Mirga carry her suitcase to where she's staying until Thursday, when we'll travel to Bologna together. On Merangasse, I almost instinctively turned to the left. The sun was beginning to set and Scandinavian Music Group's "Lopulta olemme kuitenkin yksin" was playing on my iPod. I am back in Graz.

I am now at home at Yvette's place and the rain is getting stronger by the minute. Right now, it has boiled to a raging downpour which sounds like it will crash through the glass roof of the balcony. I have agreed to meet a friend at Pastis which is only a few blocks away but if I leave now I'll arrive looking like my sponge does after I take a shower.

Which reminds me I just have to tell you about Yvette's shower! The handle has a crack in it, and as a result, the water shoots sideways instead of downwards. You should try cleaning yourself in such a shower some time, it's a blast. Just like being on candid camera! Right now, my Mexican friend is crawling over a huge poster of a satellite image of Graz. I picked it up today on Herrengasse, asked how much the poster cost and was offered one for free. was thrilled.

As I walk in this city's beautiful parks, browse the shops, meet friends with whom I share memories and make a beeline for the yoghurt department of Spar, I can't help thinking how lucky I am to have such a place where I feel so comfortable, such a home away from home where I know the people and the places and the way of life. One friend today told me that her best year in Austria has been the year when Thomas and I were exchange students in the Kunstuni because she used to go out much more. Nice words, which also made me miss Thomas a little bit.

The rain has stopped now, and I'm going for a drink in Pastis like I used to do.

June 01, 2008


After one of the most depressing winters in Finnish memory (there's nothing wrong with a rainy November - unless it lasts five months..) came the most exciting and surprising spring ever, but still nothing compares to the summer which finally arrived this week. Whether on a walk from Otaniemi to Lauttasaari, on the metro from Kamppi to Vuosaari, or on a tram from Kallio to Töölö, Helsinki looks beautiful when people spill out onto the terraces for a drink in the sun or into the parks for a picnic. And let's not forget the ever-increasing tourists who embark from their Scandinavian Special and Northern Delights cruises to roam around the city for a day, looking somewhat hopeless following their brisk and banner-waving guides.

Every day of this season seems so priceless that it would seem a shame not to celebrate it as much as one can with people who know how to have fun. Some weeks ago, a successful major exam of a wonderful friend and colleague was followed by an after-party which stretched well into the night and saw us riding from restaurant to bar to nightclub on taxi, feeling like the wealthiest citizens of one of the most expensive cities in the world. Next morning's communal pizza moment in Kaisaniemi was as therapeutic as it was fun. Some days later, an impromptu dinner and wine moment at the new home of friends in Kruununhaka.

Last Thursday, our school's summer party had students, teachers and even janitors celebrating in a boat, sipping wine and dancing to the beat of a band called Mykaboom. There was something wrong with the sound system settings and one could hardly make out the voices of the very enthusiastic singers. Somehow, the four last mohicans from this celebration ended up toasting the beginning of the summer in Manala, which is where all roads seem to lead for the after-party groups looking for reasonable food.

Throw in yesterday's picnic in Torkkelinmäki, Helsinki's perfect fairytale setting which seems even more special because it is surrounded by the chaos of Kallio's tram track renovations, and you've got the ingredients for a couple of days spent recovering in bed, with a light summer breeze and the drunken voices of Vaasankatu drifting through the open window.

As far as reading is concerned: after finishing one of the most compelling novels in a while, Ian McEwan's "On Chesil Beach" (instant rereading material), I seem to be specialising in books with strange titles. Patrick Gale's "The Aerodynamics of Pork" was not only one of the worst books in recent fictional memory, it neither had anything to do with aerodynamics nor did it feature a pig. Currently, "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" by Paul Torday seems much more promising. The only thing which bothers me is the use of the article before the name of the country, but that's just me as always.