July 29, 2008


It looks like I'm not the only one who has devoted some thought to one of summer's ultimate phenomena: flip-flops. Run a Wikipedia search, and you'll get a lengthy article with a brief history on the flip-flop, and even some health-related concerns about the flip-flop. For me, this it the first summer I have truly got used to wearing them. Before, I used to always find the idea of something rubbery between my toes somewhat skin-crawling, but since getting a pair in Italy a month ago, I don't really feel like wearing anything else.

It's not always easy, though: it took me a while to learn how to walk down stairs without that constant, well - flip-flopping banging all over the stairway. For some reason, the one on my right foot often tends to simply decide to tag along and I find myself taking a few steps back to retrieve it. This can sometimes be dangerous, as I learned during an incident while walking in Damascus. If I had needed one more second to get the damned thing back on my foot in the middle of Malki street I probably would have been run over instantly by the furiously honking cars.

But talking about summer, wouldn't it be so easy to just get used to this pace of life? My last days have followed a very loose routine consisting of waking up, walking to the park with my book, having lunch when I'm hungry, going out again, taking a look at something work-related (but often not), visiting the library, seeing friends in the evening, and going back to sleep past midnight. I think I've looked at my watch about twice during the last week. Yesterday, I had something scheduled for five o'clock. I had written it out on my calendar and all, but when I got a confused phone call some time after five, it took me a while to even understand what was going on.

I opened the suitcase with my old clothes. While some of the things went straight to UFF, quite many of the t-shirts inside were simply indispensable. Like the Cantores Minores American tour '98 -shirt. Or the fantastic "Zivi im Dienst" -shirt Annika gave me when I was working at DSH. It smells a little weird, but that's no surprise considering where it's been. One of the shirts was a Christmas gift from my grandmother many years ago. We all opened our packages to find these shirts with printed pictures of a volcano erupting. It's no surprise that, while the rest of Quito's population flocked inside with their gas masks to escape the rain of ash, my grandmother ran outside with her legendary Minolta camera, cursing because she couldn't get closer to the action. The picture on my shirt is already quite faded.

After reading so many fantastic books in English (Ian McEwan's Atonement was reread in two days and I instantly rented the movie and jumped on the bus to Pauli's and Iina's, who were so surprised by my spontaneous visit they weren't even at home yet when I arrived in Siltamäki, clutching the dvd), I thought I'd try something Finnish for a change. The book I took out looked promising enough but when I started reading it, it took me a while to get used to reading in Finnish - and what's more, the story was about a man who finds a troll and takes him in to live with him. A spectacular adventure highlighting the conflicts between man-made society and nature ensues... that's if you believe the back cover. What's the opposite of "page-turning"?

While my parents are working in Middle Finland, Dea is on some international cultural youth camp in Russia. We all thought she'd be in Nizhnyi Novgorod, but apparently the delegations were picked up from the train station and taken on a four-hour bus ride in some direction. It all sounds a little bit like our trip to Yuzhno Sakhalinsk back in 2003. Even the cities sound alike, with that sexy zhhhh blowing through one's teeth when one pronounces them.

Our temporary flatmate Johanna, who seems to be unable to decide whether she wants to work in the UN or at Stockmann's underwear department, was supposed to leave only tomorrow. However, I arrived home yesterday to find our corridor looking very empty without her shoes, and a handwritten note on the table next to the keys. And so the flat is all mine for a while now. I've been spending some time in front of the mirror examining some sort of strange bite on my neck. It doesn't look bad, but all these stories about tics swimming all the way to mess up your brain are enough to send me flying to Marianne so she can have a look at it. On the other hand, she probably has her hands full examining Markus's finger. Apparently he lost a nail yesterday during a night out. How do you do that? Mikko and him tried to explain it to me at lunch today, but it sounded like a complicated story.

The sound of rubber slapping against your heels is so addictive I now wish I had a reason to go out tonight wearing my flip-flops and one of my outgrown t-shirts with a faded picture on it. But maybe that's a reason in itself to go out?

July 24, 2008

Limited issue

I need a new frying pan. The one I own is an old one from my parents, and I wouldn't be surprised if they told me it's the one they used to fry eggs during their student years in the Soviet Union - probably with that nostalgic expression they get when they talk about queueing for toilet paper on the streets of Moscow. However, my temporary flatmate told me today it's a perfect frying pan, so what's the point in getting new stuff when most of our things are anyway going to outlive us all.

Isn't it worth thinking about, though? Where all our things end up. Or, for that matter, how they have ended up here in my room. Open your mind, and every thing seems to have a story. Like the KLM World Business Class cosmetics box I was given in 2003 for taking care of an abandoned child. When My Favourite Lithuanian Person began singing in choirs as a child, she hardly would have known that in ten years she would give the black file binder she was holding to her friend while leaving Bologna. Could Cecil Robert E. have imagined that his complete set of Dickens would end up in his great-grandson's bookshelf in Finland?

Sometimes, we even give stuff to ourselves. I opened a stowed-away suitcase at my parents' place today. It was labelled "DANI'S STUFF 23.9.2006" and full of- well, my stuff! But where will my books be after a hundred years? Or, for that matter, my diaries? I really need to think about this, since my diaries have become so personal in the last years that even I'm not allowed to read everything.

While I was thinking about coming home from the long trip, I realised I was really thinking about this street and this district, which really is a city inside a city like they say. I actually missed the view from my window, down half of Kustaankatu towards the main street where the trams rattle towards Töölö; the cheap bars with their ridiculous names (Garbage Bank, anyone? Or how about a drink at Evening School?), pizzerias and kebab eateries, the red brick apartment blocks, the Thai massage parlours, all the single people just passing their time on the streets (or passing out).

I'll be happy to stay in this part of town for a while. There is something about it that suits me well. And when I feel like it, I can escape the noise and walk to the park with my book and an ice cream, take the tram to Töölönlahti and put my feet in the water, or take the bus to the northern suburbs and watch a movie with my friends. I did all of these things today and can't wait to see what I'll do tomorrow. When you're young, on holiday, and have a charged Travel Card, there are no limits!

July 10, 2008

Syria's view

For me, Syria is the Land of the Aunties. There’s Auntie Diala, my real aunt. There are Aunties Huda and Hiam, my grandfather’s sisters – one sweeter than the other and each competing for title of shortest woman on the planet. It makes you want to pick them up and cuddle them while they tell you stories about childhood summers on a Baghdad farm in the late thirties.

And then of course there’s Auntie Hind, who isn’t really my aunt: she’s my mother’s very best childhood friend. Her Auntie-ness is, however, official, since we’re listed as family members even on Facebook. My sister and I sometimes contemplate running for cover when she approaches, but eventually realise there is no escaping her very strong displays of affection. The key is to just relax and let your body go limp, because no part of the body is spared when Auntie Hind makes her attack. We are left with our shirts the other way around and our hair in a complete mess.

Auntie Hind shuttles between Syria and Canada, and her house in Damascus is in the middle of the oldest part of town. Lunch or dinner there with all our family is always one of the highlights of our trip, and the invitations qualify as events themselves:
“Come for dinner on Sunday!”
To which my sister and I: “But Auntie Hind, on Sunday we’ve promised to…”
“Stop! Halas (that’s Arabic for “enough”)! Cancel everything! See you on Sunday!” A couple of crushing hugs and demands to my mother about adopting us, and Hind always gets her way in the end.

Driving in Syria is like a voyage on another spectacular planet. The only colours you see are different shades of brown, a little bit of green here and there, and the huge blue cloudless sky above. Once you approach a city, the first thing you’ll probably see are half-finished apartment blocks which were probably started on years ago but have now been abandonded because of lack of money. The traffic gets more chaotic, and eventually you arrive to the centre of town, which is usually marked by a clocktower. There is hardly any water, and if there ever was any, it’s anyway nearly all dried up in the midsummer.

The region around Damascus is full of majestic hills rising from the desert, and many of them have ancient Christian convents on the summit. Further inland, there is nothing but desert, with few main roads crisscrossing it. Here, the saddest thing you’ll see is all the rubbish which has accumulated over the years and lies all over the place as an ugly reminder of all the cars which have passed through over decades. Once you get your eyes off that, you’ll see whole ancient ruined cities rising out of nowhere. Roman, Byzantine and Muslim sites, Crusader castles… it’s like driving through a history lesson where everything is empty, waiting to be explored.

Even more fascinating are the people living here: some days ago, we visited a single mother with four children, living in an ancient house that looked like a beehive and was all in all not that much bigger than my room. The house was in a tiny village on a road that led to nowhere. The mattresses were all piled up, ready to be taken down at night, and there was a very old black and white television set in one corner. The children were transfixed by having foreigners over. The boys proudly demonstrated their skills like writing and making cart-wheels. The girls just couldn’t have enough of having their pictures taken, rearranging their shawls and dresses with serious expressions before giving us the green light to press the button.

Of course, life in the capital city couldn’t be more different. Iraqi refugees are still arriving and Damascus keeps growing. The latest news on the political scene is the alleged nuclear reactor Syria was building in the northeast of the country before Israel bombed it to the ground. And then there’s always the US accusing Syria of not controlling the Iraqi border against insurgents. “It’s five hundred kilometres of sand!” my grandmother screamed at the television while we were watching a CNN exclusive report called “Syria’s view”. “I’d like to see them trying to control it!”

However, most people don’t really seem that interested. There are other things to do than worry about politics! Like the new shops which keep opening up: Miss Sixty, Mango, Villeroy & Boch to name a few. Or how to bypass the tight internet censorship which doesn’t let Syrians access their Facebook accounts or read blogs like this one. Most people use invisible Chinese servers, but even these tend to clog up. As for entertainment, a Turkish soap opera called Noor is all the rage.

This new arrival might not have caused a revolution in Turkey, but its dubbed version is certainly THE programme to watch in the Arabic countries today. A friend told me that in Jordan, 70% of newborn babies are being named after the main characters. Episodes are screened several times a day, but like my grandmother says, it’s one of those series which you can miss ten episodes of and still be able to follow without problems. We’d been home from the airport only for some hours, and already my twelve-year old cousin Rama was bringing me up to date with the storyline. “The man loves the woman who is married, and the woman who is married to another man loves him, but then the first man ties up the woman who is married and tells her he won’t let her go before she agrees to divorce the man she is married to.” Without having seen one episode yet, I was instantly hooked.

Neighbouring countries go up in flames, the world’s greatest super-power keeps coming up with new synonyms to “terrorist state” and an Israeli bomb drops in the middle of the desert, but people here shrug the dust off and keep being more hospitable and friendlier than ever. The people in these lands have been the same for thousands of years, and to keep up with tradition, we’ll be knocking on Auntie Hind’s door in the Christian Quarter after some days.