It hadn’t really registered much. I remembered that they had been plucky, like the Belgians – I’m sure the same association inspired the Monty Python song. I remembered a very drunk businessman in the bar of the National Hotel in Moscow in 1986, singing ‘lai-lai-lai’ on one flat note and repelling even the prostitutes. I remembered a fellow student from the Pushkin Institute with big doe eyes sitting opposite me in the Aragvi and assuring me that her name was Ulla Lå. That was it really.
I went to look at it in June 1998. It was wet, and thus not as light as had been promised. I wasn’t sure.
I arrived in Helsinki in September of that year, by ferry from Stockholm – the only way to arrive – and it began to work its charms. The archipelago, the two cathedrals clashing gently on the horizon, the strange sounds of a language I had foolishly promised to master. The (after Stockholm) slightly shabby streets. It was a milder Dublin to Stockholm’s grander London, a slightly chippy place, determined in its distinctiveness, anxious not to be Scandinavian, taciturn about the influence of another, more savage, neighbour.
People were astonishingly quiet, unless they were drunk. The food was, let us be blunt, bland. There was – and is – a state alcohol monopoly called Alko, full of leaflets about the evils of drink. It wasn’t flashy (but I am afraid it is becoming so – there’s a Bentley floating around Helsinki these days that I haven’t yet managed to scratch). But its tiny imperial heart was impressive; and its best kept secret was its Jugendstil. Katajanokka and Eira are jewels.
Where the forest did not encroach, the sea did. It was a young city. Driving out of it, on the road to Tampere – an altogether different kind of place, still then literally bolshie and none the worse for it – one felt that the straight road through the interminable trees might finally engulf one. And it did. The forest claimed me.
And all that went with it. The sauna, the stars, the snow and the sun.
But above all, the people. It was true. The Finns are true friends, when they decide to let you in. And we foreigners who love the Finns, yet grumble about them, are true allies. It has been exasperating and challenging and sometimes almost unbearable; but it has been the most exhilarating and rewarding thirteen years of my life. What on earth am I to do now?
[Become a translator, as it turned out.]