Old Oct 12, 06, 3:51 am
Join Date: Sep 2003
Location: Terra Australis Cognita
Posts: 5,344
Helsinki, Tampere

I think it was the air that did it to me again: cold, whipped by the wind, with a hint of salt from the sea and the undertone of dead and decaying vegetation. I used to love the fall in Finland, but now I can't fathom why; all the smell reminds me of anymore is digging ditches in some godforsaken swamp while the acrid smells of gunpowder, napalm, tear gas and a battalion that hasn't taken a shower for a week waft in the background. It was 15 degrees Celsius at midday, less at night, and for the next nine months it would be cold and getting colder. And people still wonder why Finland has the highest suicide rate in Europe (well, at least if you exclude the Russians, who certainly aren't any better off in the weather department).

But, with only a week to spend and a lot of people to see, there wasn't no time to get into a funk, there was only time to get funky. On Friday night, I was treated to a "The Very Worst of Helsinki Nightlife" tour by some suitably drunk friends -- this involves dancing on tables to bad Finnish pop at Kaarle "Kalle" XII, being jostled in a drunk mob on Lady Moon's dancefloor, shuffling to (or against) Swedish trance tunes telling the tender story of Anna the IRC bot, and (of course!) copious alcoholic refreshments including the classic lonkero (lit. "tentacle"), a mix of grapefruit soda and gin, and the rather less classic Exxon Valdez, a mix of Pernod and Salmiakki-Kossu, the latter being a Finnish vodka laced with ammonium chloride. (Yes, really.) Contrary to my expectations I not only survived but had fun.

The next day was the start of the Asia-Europe Meeting or ASEM, which had thrown Helsinki into a tizzy, with blue-suited cops standing guard at every major government building, intersection, hotel, hot dog stand etc and a couple of demonstrations planned against it. I went to take pictures of the bigger one, where a motley band of socialists, communists, Greens, gays, Burmese, Tibetans, anarchists, punks and little old ladies wearing ducks on their heads were protesting against capitalism, multinationals, NATO, the EU, China, Burma, nuclear power, depleted-uranium ammunition, meat-eating, cruelty to animals, rain on your wedding day and that "ew" feeling you get when you try to open a can of yogurt but the cover rips and your finger slips inside instead. It wasn't all doom and gloom, though, since they were also protesting in favor of human rights, animal rights, independence, labor unions, sexual equality, vegetarianism, the Iraqi Communist Party, kittens and high-fiber breakfast cereal for well-regulated bowel movements. But I skedaddled out before the later pre-planned riot of "Smash ASEM", which in rather Singaporean style (maybe they were getting style tips from visiting PM Lee Hsien Loong?) was pre-smashed by 300 riot cops before the punks got around to anything more threatening to the social order than applying hair gel to their mohawks.

In the evening, I slipped on a long-sleeved collared shirt, borrowed one of my dad's trenchcoats and snuck into Hotel Kämp, the only five-star hotel in the Nordics and at the time playing residence to, among others, His Wealthiness Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei. There was a squad of cops deployed to stand around the front door, but my disguise worked so well that I was not merely allowed through unmolested, but greeted with a Guut iivening söör. After meeting my date and sipping at a refined drink suitable for the chandelierosity of our surroundings, namely a kossuvissy, we headed to Kosmos, the only self-proclaimed Helsinkian restaurant in all of Helsinki. Up and running since the 1920s, they haven't changed a thing since and tonight, too, it was packed with people chomping on 23e wienerschnitzels and Sylvester Sandwich au gratins. But I was here for the one and only Vorschmack, one of those dishes that makes you wonder at how many vodka shots were need to come up with it: it consists of finely chopped lamb and herring, mashed together and cooked in an oven until it achieves a brown, fluffy consistency. It's served with a few squirts of mashed potatoes and little dishes of pickled cucumber, pickled beetroot and sour cream, and I'm gettig hungry just thinking about it now. Two thumbs up -- and the "Finnish antipasto" wasn't half bad either.

For the weekend I zipped over to Finland's second city Tampere, taking the opportunity to finally sample the pride of VR (formerly known as Finnish State Railways), the S220 "Pendolino" tilting train. The tilting action is kinda cool (although it's so smooth that you need to pay attention to notice it), there was a power socket next to my seat and the trip took just over 1:20. After hobnobbing with long-unseen relatives for a few days and drinking approximately 700 cups of bad coffee, my cousin introduced me to the sole restaurant in Tampere serving Tamperese (Tamperean? Tamperite? Tamperoid?) cuisine. This is, of course, limited to one dish: mustamakkara ("black sausage"), which is pitch black 'coz it's made from pig blood and, as a Japanese friend of mine once cheerily remarked, "looks just like black penis". The orthodox way to eat this is early on a drizzly morning at the market square, wrapped in wax paper and washed down with a pint of milk, but alas, the markets were already closed so we made do with restaurant seating. But it was the Real Thing alright, grilled until the skin becomes crispy and served with a mix of cranberry sauce and mustard, just the way it should be.

On the last night, I headed over to a rave organized by the crew at my ex-alma mater, and for the first time in years had the pleasure of refreshing my memory of things like carrying around bass speakers the size and weight of small cars and watching first-year engineering students perform classical, pirouette-heavy ballet numbers like "I'm Very Drunk and Trying To Put On My Sneakers" and "I'm Holding a Beer in My Hand But I've Forgotten How To Drink It". As this was organized at an oceanside sauna, in addition to the usual wannabe DJs and groupies there were considerable numbers of party people traipsing around naked and occasionally jumping into the sea with blood-curdling screams. At 5:30 AM, my prearranged taxi arrived and I headed off to the airport, not having slept a wink.
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