May 29, 2009

The Arrival

Written last Sunday.

It’s a good thing my grandmother has switched to digital photography, because otherwise her film rolls would probably have been all used up by the time her airplane began approaching Helsinki-Vantaa airport (making the air traffic radars go crazy with their beeping noises and flashing lights) after her long trip from Quito. I can just picture my father, standing in the arrivals hall holding his camera. Mother and firstborn son reunited through two camera lenses pointed at each other at the very moment the doors slid open and the terminal was filled with the echoing voice of my grandmother letting out an exuberant ”Yoohoo!”

I have to imagine her arrival, because I myself was spending the weekend at the Vaasa Choir Festival with the Krysostomos Chamber Choir. We travelled six hours in a bus driven by one of our sopranos Maija, who had properly adorned the windshield with icons and the choir’s mascot, a ceramic chicken called Sylvi. We’re on our way back now, and have spent most of the time discussing pregnancy and the Muppet show, looking out for rainbows and fancy mansions across the Ostrobotnia region, and stopping for refreshments (our first stop at an ice cream kiosk came quite quickly – it was situated at Vaasa’s main square, 200 metres from our hotel).

On the way to Vaasa two days ago, we made an excursion to Eurohamsteri, one of the most curious stores I have ever been in. Just outside the town of Parkano, the store feels like a giant hall hosting some sort of jumble sale. About half a minute after setting foot inside it, I got lost from the rest of our group and found myself browsing shelves and shelves of vases (3€), t-shirts with Finland’s emblem printed on them (4,99€), dog leashes (19,99€), and cheap angel sculptures (I didn’t bother to look). There is no logic to the way things are piled up: fluffy soft toys are to be found next to rolls of duct tape, and right next to the hair-dye products is a collection of some really tempting sweets produced by ”Mr Willy”. We opted for the jelly balls, which were somewhat harder than your average jelly balls, but still very tasty.

There’s nothing more refreshing than a spontaneous shopping spree, and in this respect, Vaasa’s ”Rewell Center” mall provided. The Center, which brought rebels to my mind every time someone spoke its name, was also one of the venues of the festival – various groups, from barbershop ensembles to operatic choirs form Russia, took part in the ”non-stop choir marathon” right in the middle of the center. We listened for a while before hitting the shops. The downside of paying with cards has always been the fact you really have no idea how much money you are spending. This morning, I tried to log on to my bank account through the internet, but for some reason it was inaccessible. It’s maybe just as well, but when I get through again, I’m going to look out for suspicious-sounding transfers. Last time, I found a payment to ”Oriental Catering Express”, and unless this is a pseudonym for my local Alepa, I have no idea what that's all about!

May 13, 2009

A million sunglasses

”Please put these on”, says the woman who is always part of the team; typing numbers, adjusting lights, and mechanically repeating everything her colleague says. I am given a pair of huge adjustable sunglasses and lie down on a paper-covered chair, staring at the ceiling through my fancy new accessory. When was the last time I was at the dentist? Whenever it was, this certainly is the first time I’ve been made to look like an astronaut with a cramp in his jaw. Shit, one of my buttons is open – but I’m hardly going to start fumbling with my trousers now. On the radio, there’s a discussion going on about the fish-life in the Helsinki region. The interviewer sounds bored (”Em, so you were talking about this new species found in the Vantaanjoki river; what would you say was the most ideal environment for the fish to breed?”), but not as bored as the interviewee (”I’d say… Nurmijärvi”).

I’m concentrating hard on trying to make the dentist switch channels, but my telepathic skills obviously need brushing up (unlike my teeth, by the way, which get quite a vigorous brush twice a day – family members tend to rush behind the shower curtain to take cover whenever I put a toothbrush in my mouth). I wouldn’t mind listening, for example, to Finland’s entry for the Eurovision contest this year. When I realised even members of my choir were ”Losing Control” over the song, I decided to look it up on YouTube. ”It’s such a catchy tune this year”, gasps one of my sopranos, ”I think we really might have chances!”. Grudgingly, I return everyone back to Planet Earth and the task at hand: trying to finally master the alto part for ”Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. It’s just three weeks to Diafonia’s spring concert.

The performance is quite an event for two reasons: first of all, it’s the first time these 13 ladies from the Diakonia College are performing anywhere outside the walls of the institute. Second of all, the concert will be arranged in co-operation with the choir of the Helsinki Policewomen conducted by Airi. Needless to say, the concert requires a couple of joint rehearsals for preparing our grande finale. Timidly at first, but confidently, we arrive on time at the Malmi police station, which, I must say, isn’t the first place you’d imagine finding a choir rehearsing ”My favourite things”. Combining the efficient and crisp organisation of the Policewomen’s Choir with the inspired enthusiasm of Diafonia, the concert is bound to be a success!

Tuesdays are Kaamos-days as well, and from the music class of the Diakonia Institute it’s just a short drive to the concrete jungle of Pasila on bus number 23. I’m the only one with the key to the chapel, but today it looks like everyone would prefer to rehearse out in the sunshine. However, we decide it’s best to get sanctuary inside from the football-kicking hooligans who have also realised it’s a good day to be outside. I can’t believe we are all present (all except one, of course) and after a short discussion about last week’s concert and the subsequent review in Helsingin Sanomat, we get down to perfecting our program for the Tampereen Sävel vocal music festival in June. Our Danish might sound like Norwegian, but boy does it sound good (a very objective opinion, of course) when almost all of the choir is present. Rautavaara’s Credo gains an even more rhythmical quality through the banging of the football outside.

Next day, maybe inspired by my visit to the dentist, I decide to go shopping for sunglasses. And this time I don’t mean those clips you attach to your glasses – I tried those once, but if anyone ever saw me wearing them, you’re probably joking. They must be the most impractical things ever – impossible to get on straight, pressing down on your nose and dangling on one ear. A guy passed us recently looking like a pirate with the other lens covering his mouth. Exactly my point! Not to mention how they always get lost. As it turns out, I end up getting a new pair of regular glasses as well.

And now we come to something which has always bothered me – I try too much to see things through the eyes of others. Which practically means that I want to make quick decisions at the optician’s, because my worst fear is that the girl attending to me will start getting bored and frustrated at this fussy young man who just can’t bloody decide what sort of glasses would look best. Oh yes, she’s smiling, sure, and happily bringing me set after set of fancy frames she thinks would suit me, but I can see that she’ll only last for 10 minutes, or 12 at the most. ”I’m sorry, but could I just perhaps please try those once more, I just can’t seem to make up my mind…” I pathetically whimper, and she hands them over with a slightly more tensed smile, and am I just imagining it or is she glancing at her watch? ”Those certainly look elegant on you.” What’s her work like anyway? She must be bored with me already. Not really caring anymore that my choice will affect the way I look for quite a long time, I make a quick decision and almost run out to the street for a breath of fresh air.

Being a boring fish up in boring Nurmijärvi must be so much better than wandering aimlessly on Aleksanterinkatu, trying to get a grip on which way to go next, and having millions of sunglasses dancing in your head.

May 04, 2009

Undressing neighbours

Let’s face it: nothing lasts forever, and in my case this means my honeymoon with Vaasanhovi is coming to an end. I am, of course, talking about the house I live in and the surrounding neighbourhood, which certainly doesn’t live up to the whiff of aristocracy suggested by its name. When I moved here two years ago in September, all the hustle and bustle associated with the district of Kallio seemed like jolly good fun to me. Okay, my room is hardly big enough to accommodate anything bigger than my bed (which has started to feel pretty cramped lately), but the apartment was tidy, convenient for living with a flatmate and, at least according to Helsinki’s outrageous standards, cheap. The walls were beyond disgusting, and there were bullet-holes in the bigger room, but we cheerfully set to the task of tearing the crackling brownish wallpaper down, filling up the holes, and splashing some new paint around. Have I mentioned I signed the contract for this flat without ever having been in it? No matter! After returning from Austria with a Styrian hat on my head and an “Ich liebe dich” –card in my wallet (yes, it’s still there), spending two months without a speck of privacy at my parent’s place and taking a look at some really horrible flats all over the suburbs, I would probably have been ready to sign a contract for a live-in cupboard on the moon.

I felt all chic and urbanised after spending nine months in a Central European town where the rent was paid in cash (and off the record), grocery shops shut their doors every time you blinked and frequent bank holidays meant an obligatory escape to the cow-filled hills. Kallio’s smelly cheap bars passed for alternative entertainment. Sure, white-cum-grayish was not all that beautiful, but the houses had their own gruff charm. Somebody smashing bottles in S-market was all part of a bigger adventure. Time flies by, and what used to feel “not all that bad” seems increasingly absurd now: tripping over drunk people on the way home and dodging exhibitionists who choose the neighbour’s tiny patch of grass to urinate on. Things on my street tend to change very quickly – yesterday’s fast food eatery is today’s Thai massage parlour, and instead of Turkish men promising salami in your pizza and delivering It with minced meat, you have oriental girls scurrying about in their skimpy and brightly-coloured garments. On the other side of the street, some made-up girl is taking a break from her own strip-tease show and having a cigarette. It’s getting a little embarrassing to give instructions to visitors: “Take a right turn at Hotgirls and you’ll find me right next to the sex megastore!”

Then, of course, there are the neighbours. Fortunately, they like to keep to themselves – our most significant contact with them was when they called the police to knock on our door at 11 pm on a Saturday night for disturbing their quiet with “uncontrolled partying” (it was the night of our housewarming party: okay, so we might have had one or two loud moments including Arabic pop competing with jazzy lounge-music, but by the time the police arrived – probably expecting to see a bunch of knife-waving heroin addicts - we were sipping wine, listening to The Real Group and discussing Brahms). There’s the red-haired woman who walks about with a constant worried look, just dying to find trouble she can report to someone (she looks at me with dismay every time I pass her cheerfully by and say hello). And let’s not forget the fat guy who likes to stroll about the stairway in his bathrobe (probably on his way to the sauna – or, more probably, out for a drink?). There is that one cheerful young bookish-looking girl who lives on the top floor – she must be the one who called the police and raised hell after catching unknown intruders having sex in our attic. I still feel sorry for the woman I accidentally caught stark naked while exploring our communal rooms one day. She let out a sort of squeal of fright and made a dash for the sauna before I could apologise. Still, we managed to have a casual chat about the new washing machine afterwards while hanging our clothes to dry – let’s just say it was sort of akward.

Call me unadventurous and boring, but it’s time to find some place not quite so lively. The first place to look, then, would be today’s special living section of the newspaper. The main article is all about Tallinn’s apartments having become affordable once again, but I don’t quite see the charm of crossing the sea just to get the day started. I get distracted, and start thinking about all the other stuff people have been talking about lately. It seems Helsinki’s residents have developed some sort of obsession towards rabbits, which do scurry about some more parklike areas outside downtown, but really I don’t see what the fuss is all about.
Then, of course, there’s our very own version of “Strictly Come Dancing” (Tanssii Tähtien Kanssa), which is all the rage. The couple of times I’ve been part of the studio audience have been quite a lot of fun – my favourite part is waving my empty glass about and trying to get the attention of the staff which runs all over the place pouring wine to an audience meant to be drunk and cheer their favourites towards stardom. We all left behind a huge pile of rubbish on the 1st of May, but on a brighter note, it looks like we’ve left the worst days of street dust behind us. Just having my window open made me want to go out and get some of those disposable breathing masks which seem to be making a comeback in fashion.

Be as it may, even if it would be easy to find a place to live here, where to find the time for looking around and eventually moving? My summer plans have got completely out of hand already, and with all the end-of-the-term performances coming up there’s hardly any time to get home in between to get the right music. There’ll be more on these choral activities in the next posts. It’s time for me to go put my bed back together. Good night!