Dispatch #8 Forests, rocks, lakes
‘You don’t see them that often.’
We were driving south in a rare November day of crystal sunlight, on a wide road rolling through forest and lakes. We’d passed the warning triangle containing the silhouette of a running elk.
‘But you do see them.’ The studded tyres rumbled under us. The road was clear of snow. There was little left dusting higher ground here and there. ‘Their legs are so long.’ He made a gesture over the steering wheel, rolling his forearm as if a wave were breaking into the car. ‘They trip on the car and come into the windscreen and then on top of you.’ He paused. ‘It’s quite dangerous.’
The only elk I’d seen was a stuffed one in the Museum of Central Finland. It was frozen forever in a balletic act of dying, struck down by a neolithic arrow. But you could see that having one land in your lap while driving would be tricky. Someone had told me that when walking in the forest you should sometimes clap your hands. Elks, especially females with calves, could be dangerous, and the clapping was enough to move them away. I had an un-Finn-like image of figures pacing straightbacked and graceful through the trees, heads erect, clapping complex flamenco rhythms to the wildlife.
‘People can get permission and they shoot them. They have a limited number they can shoot. The meat is very expensive.’
We stopped at the village of Korpilahti and had food. There was no elk on the menu in the Satama Kapteeni – the Harbour Captain - next to the moorings on Lake Päijänne. I had delicious chicken soup in which slices of peach floated. The place was pristine. Perhaps the unreal clarity of the light added to the feeling that Korpilahti, a village of a few hundred people, and especially the oddly quiet stretch round the moorings and jetties, had all just been laundered and pressed into perfect creases. The water of the lake glittered in tiny silver flashes among hard dark blues and blacks. We didn’t see any boats. Cruises were mainly for summer. In a couple of months the lot would be deeply frozen, enough to drive a car on it. For now there was this eerie perfection.
I knew that ‘lahti’ meant bay. My companion struggled to explain ‘korpi’. Something to do with the deep forest. Later, the dictionary told me both ‘woods’ and ‘wilderness’. The idea of ‘forest’ as true wilderness in temperate zones feels alien, perhaps phoney, in English, or Welsh for that matter. So it meant something like ‘Wildwood Bay’ – but that sounds twee somehow, a collective half-memory that’s reduced what almost all of northern Europe once was to a quaintness. The words drew out something about landscape. In Wales, largely, what ‘wild’ areas we have are surrounded by the tame. They’ve actually been tamed by this, long become parks, or reservations. But here, for a little while yet there’s a sense at least that real wilderness is still out there, where an elk can occasionally crunch through the glass into someone who’d just been reading a message – in English – about the level of the screen-wash from the onboard computer. Though it always seems a little further off than the place you’ve just reached.
This village itself didn’t seem that wild. It had wide well-made roads and two supermarkets, which is two more than any village this size in Wales would have. Maybe the summer tourists on the lake made the difference. In fact, I was told, places around here were shrinking, some of them dying. There were abandoned houses. A little further off. This didn’t mean the wilderness was growing but that cities elsewhere were.
A little later we went and stood on a newish cable-stayed bridge over Päijänne, spanning a narrowish neck in the long waterway. It was a piece of abstract sculpture in a strange landscape. The bright air was too icy to stand there long, but in this passage of the lake lozenges of reed-fringed islands each crowded with trees almost to the water’s edge swam like clouds and above them clouds were set like islands.
From there we went to see my companion’s summer home in an inlet on the western shore. Suddenly from a wide modern road we were on an unmade track through forest, passing a house here and there. The houses were all wooden. We passed a barn and a field, pleated with recent ploughing, fringed with forest. The peat soil was steely grey, almost the colour of the tidal mud at the mouth of the Usk, but polished slate-hard and smooth by the share and the cold. The track got smaller and we came to a small chalet among trees on a slope to the water’s edge. This turned out to be the sauna, wood-fired, with a makeshift wooden walkway where you could get into the lake. There was nothing like it, my companion said, to come out of the sauna, have a beer and sit and look on this. A track of intense white sunlight gleamed across the inlet through the dark trees. It was utterly peaceful.
A few tens of metres further up a steep unmade path was the summer house itself. It had no electricity or running water, nothing serious in the way of insulation. There was electricity nearby but they chose not to connect it. It was built of roughly squared timber notched and interlocking at the coins. You’ve seen the cowboy films. One gable had been bashed by a falling birch but it was over the verandah and didn’t let any weather in so hadn’t been fixed yet. It was furnished simply, with a beautiful old pull-out bed and a rocking chair. There was a brick chimneystack in the centre with a small fireplace open on two sides. There were Tilley lamps on the mantelpiece.
Here, owning a second home isn’t a political act as it is in Wales. The electric charge of anxiety and disapproval that comes with the Welsh words tŷ haf just isn’t there. It’s ordinary, a consequence simply of the culture and the fact that space and materials are plentiful. Several people have invited me back to Finland to stay at their places, and I’ve looked into their faces and known this wasn’t idle politeness; they meant it.
On the uphill side of the little house the forest was piled. I’d seen when cycling, stopping to walk along forest tracks, that the floor is often strewn with rounded glacial boulders, some of them huge, most often shaggy with mosses which, when the grainy autumnal grey gives way to sun, light up in astonishing shafts of colour. In places the granite bedrock erupts through the forest floor.
On our way back up the unmade road we stopped to call in on my friend’s mother-in-law. The wooden houses near the barn and farm buildings were permanent homes. These houses are often built up above ground-level, as this one was, on a concrete pad. I’d noticed older ones around the Kirjailijatalo were mounted on massive blocks of dressed almost black granite.
The old lady’s home was immaculate, comfortable and warm, with a ‘Tervetuloa’ (‘Welcome’) sign next to the front door, and inside the family photos and decor you’d expect from a lifetime spent almost anywhere in Europe. The livingroom was dominated by a large brick bread oven, still releasing warmth days after the last baking.
The old woman’s husband was out. They were in their eighties and he still drove.
As we drove back, my friend and I pondered the future of such places.
A couple of days later, I went to an art opening in the Galleria Becker, next door to the Kirjailijatalo.
The work was a series of constructions mainly made from the detritus of abandoned rural places. One was a spirit level that sprouted branches at one end and roots at the other. Another was a wooden agricultural shovel. When you looked closely you saw tiny roots bursting through the metal edge fixed onto the blade. The most striking was four wooden crutches arranged in a circle, their rubber-ferruled ends pointing outward vertically and horizontally. It reminded me immediately of a propeller. It seemed to me an ironic joining of notions of lameness and flight that set off a small explosion in my head.
It turned out that the title of this piece was ‘Under the North Star’. I still felt I’d been in the right territory with my first reaction. Under the North Star is the title of Väinö Linna’s trilogy, Täällä Pohjantähden alla, a seminal series of Finnish novels I’ve yet to get hold of and which several people had recommended to me.
I told the artist, Pekka Suomäki, that I found this striking. He asked me if I didn’t think it was ‘too Finnish’.
I had to admit to myself that there was some stuff here I didn’t get. I thought of the warm weekends when roads fill with Finns driving long hours on wide roads to their summer houses, quiet, dream places, sometimes furnished simply with old sticks of furniture, and of the quietly emptying real homes. I thought of the word ‘nostalgia’, ugly and negative. Yet when you broke it down it came from two Greek words for ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain’. It seemed to me that there was little or nothing of nostalgia in the negative sense in these neglected sticks he’d nailed to the white walls.
I considered as we stood under his north star. ‘No,’ I said.
Dispatch #7 Stopping to drink, stopping drinking
I detected subtle indications that Matti had been drinking.
There was the way in which he pointed his face at mine but had his eyes focused on a point several yards behind me. There was the way he waved his almost full glass of beer around uncontrollably, tilted forward as if it were a torch, the beer seeming to hover momentarily in mid-air sometimes then somehow land, most of it anyway, back in the glass. There was his tendency to sway and almost fall over, suddenly sticking out a wobbly leg which would brace at the last second. At these moments he would take a steadying bow over the straightened leg and swing his torch round as if looking for burglars. There was his constant semi-coherent gabbling.
Yes, I was almost certain.
I’d been shopping. It was 6.30 on a Saturday evening. For days I’d been promising myself half an hour in the brand new Old English Pub, with its brand new buttoned red leather and beef-red mahogany-stained woodwork and brass. I’d come out of a standard north European shopping mall with disorientating landings, stairwells, escalators and mezzanines, like an Escher drawing with retail outlets, and rewarded myself here by posing on a high stool, my notebook impressively open and a very small glass of good, very very expensive beer in front of me. Some nice man had started to chat with me about my notebook when Matti (you pronounce both the t’s) lurched along on his own personal piece of stormtossed floor.
‘Hey, you guys peakin – speaking English?’ He bowed and torched. ‘What are you. Who’re you.’
The nice man melted away into a safe corner.
‘Where you. Where you.’ Matti looked at the place somewhere behind me and took another run at the question. ‘Where you from? ... Wales? No kid. No kidding. Wales?’
I asked him his name and he told me and explained about the t’s. When he did a demonstration pronunciation he teetered over the braced leg during the double-t an age. I moved my notebook out from under the torchbeam. This distracted him.
‘What you writing? You a writer?’ His head hovered, swaying, over my notes.
I’d been writing in Welsh, so I felt a chance to show I too could work in two languages. But though Matti had his face pointed at my notes, his eyes were focused on some point through the floor beneath them.
Yes, I was a writer. And what did he do?
‘Me? Me?’ He reeled backwards from me and did an impressive backward-stepping brace. ‘I’m a post. I’m a post. I’m a postman.’
On my bike sometimes I’d seen the postmen trundling their little mail barrows round the blocks of flats.
Matti was a small man, dark-haired, neatly dressed in a pressed shirt, youngish. Definitely not one of the characters I’d just occasionally seen on the streets looking crumpled, clutching plastic bags, going through the bins.
‘I have no work until. Until. Not Yesterday either. Not work yesterday. No kidding. Wales? Not until Monday.’ He’d managed to drop anchor with one foot. The other dabbed around experimentally, looking for a piece of floor that wasn’t moving. ‘Not until Monday.’
He had a long weekend off?
‘Yes! That’s it. A looong weekend. So I start yesterday.’
He started drinking yesterday?
‘Yes.’ He gave one violent nod but impressively kept on his feet. ‘Terday. And I stop tomorrow. Night.’
A group of women at a nearby table, starting their Saturday evening early, were doing a good job of glancing our way discreetly.
Yes, I said. That sounded like a long weekend.
‘No kid. No kidding. See, my English teacher, he explained. So, hey, if I fly to Manchester can I catch a train to Wales from there?... Yes? See, I wanna go. I wanna go to the studio. Cardiff, right? Cardiff, right? I wanna go to the studio where Zed. Where Led Wep.’ He did some strange ululations and then got it back. ‘Sorry. Sorrysorrysorry. My English. Ah! Where Led Zeppelin went.’
He meant Rockfield Studios?
‘Lockfield. Rockfield. Yeah. Yeahyeahyeah. Rockfield.’
I told him I knew someone who used to live there. He looked at me, maybe checking if I was Robert Plant. Even he could see that I wasn’t.
‘See, my English teacher, he explained English to me. He said, “I am stopping to smoke.”’ Matti grew suddenly still then catwalked a few imperious steps, stopped, and drew in smoke from an imaginary cigarette. ‘But. But, but, “I am stopping smoking.”’ He hurled the cigarette away and was forced to a sudden brace and torch. ‘See? See? Stopping to smoke, but stopping smoking. See? That’s English.’
I was beginning to feel seasick, but I was also impressed. He’d pointed out something about English I’d never noticed.
‘My mother said to me, she said, “Why you learning English?” She said “Why you learn English?”’ He wagged a finger at himself then smiled, then frowned. ‘I said. Know what I said? I said, “Fuck off, bitch!”’ He smiled again, frowned again. ‘Yeah. I said, “Fuck off, bitch!” Yeah.’
The nice man in the safe corner, half hidden among brand new glass panels and fake mahogany, watched us curiously. The table of women looked round and made wrong guesses about Matti and me.
I’d been considering ringing my bank to see if I could afford another drink but I decided not to. I had to go home and eat, I told Matti. I picked up my shopping, slipped on my coat. I got him to spell his name for me. He got me to write my name on a slip of paper. I handed it to him. He held it speculatively at various distances from his face, but he would probably have needed to stand twenty metres away and use binoculars to read it. He leant further and further forward towards the scrap of paper, which retreated from him at the same speed. Eventually he was leaning forward at angle that broke several laws of physics, then somehow he righted himself. His glass was still fairly full.
We clapped each other on the shoulder like the old friends we were, said goodnight. A look of concentration came into his face and he lurched past me in the direction of whichever point in space his eyes might be focused on, waving his torch. I went the opposite way. The women moved their bags from my feet and made minimal turning away movements. The nice man gave me a sympathetic nod.
I felt some obscure shame about my notebook and the small glass and the high stool. What a fraud I was. Even hammered into the middle of next month, Matti more or less made himself understood in his second or probably his third language, knew a bit about Wales, was curious about the world. I liked him.
About twelve seconds later, near the door, I bumped into him again. I’d gone round the bar one way, he the other. Somewhere in his voyage he’d abandoned his glass. I laughed and clapped his shoulder and said goodnight again. Matti, still concentrating, looked at me suspiciously and rubbed the back of a hand across his mouth. He said nothing and lurched onward. I was just one of those idiots you got in pubs sometimes.
Dispatch #6 Pictures, tongues, cities
After the seminar, I had a cup of tea with the Polish post-grad who’d given the paper.
The Café Libre in the university library is lightfilled, done in white with touches of bright yellow here and there. Signs around the library are bilingual, not in Finnish and Swedish as you might expect, as major roadsigns are, but with Finnish prominent and English discreetly but clearly underneath. The atrium of the library, to one side of which the cafe sits, gives an airy perspective up through the floors above, galleried with bookshelves and tables where students quietly toil. A mass of dark green rubber plants with their heartshaped scalloped leaves drapes the white parapets, breaking the geometry a little and warming the space.
Outside it was freezing. The snowy pavements had turned to ice and it was as grey as a November in Brynmawr.
We loosened our scarves and wiped our noses. She touched her glasses into place and told me more about the filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, the subject of her thesis.
She’d learnt her Finnish in Warsaw and Poznan; now she was continuing her PhD here in Jyväskylä, through the medium of English. I’d been invited to the seminar by kindly, thoughtful Professor Tuomo Lahdelma of the Department of Art and Culture Studies. He’d joked with me that all his students spoke better English than he did. Ordinarily the paper would have been given in English and the discussion afterwards would have been in Finnish. This time the whole thing was in English for my benefit. It’s an extraordinary courtesy that those of us brought up with English as a first language are scarcely ever able to afford to others. A little earlier I’d talked to another student about her creative writing, a fascinating project for a novel. She was Finnish, the novel would be set largely in what’s now the Czech Republic with Czech and Finnish characters, and she was writing it in English. It all brought home to me in the gut what I already knew for a fact – English has become the lingua franca and is becoming a modern kind of Latin for academic discourse.
As I get older I spend more and more time plumbing the depths of my own ignorance. One bit of this is how little I know of languages, and now there was this filmmaker. In the seminar we’d watched a couple of clips of the work of this man of whom I knew nothing. It was clear he’s a major force and often very funny.
He was controversial. He stirred people up. An auteur with a talent for being provoking, steeped in cinema. His films were strong on tight focus on a few ensemble actors, very Finnish. Often his dialogue was in a very non-street kind of Finnish.
Like, say, Hoch Deutsch?
Yes, sort of. Not always, though.
The 1999 film Juha, silent, in black and white with stagy subtitles, was an outrageous exercise in simplified storytelling that juxtaposed rural and urban as much as it did light and dark. The parodic quality of the simplification and the use of a century’s worth of recognisable cinematic conventions undercut the whole thing with a sense of irony.
Both the irony, it seemed to me, and the submerged anxiety about the relationship between urban and rural were recognisably Finnish matters. And ones that are familiar in Wales. We could learn from this man.
Now of course, she said, he lived in Portugal.
By coincidence she was going to Portugal in a day or two to a conference, where she would speak in English.
Would she meet him?
No, she was interested in the work, not the man.
This, I reflected, was smart. It doesn’t do to meet your heroes.
So how was Jyväskylä after Warsaw, Poznan?
She sighed and pinched her hankie round her nose again. Some people here thought Poland was a backward country. In Jyväskylä they’d only had education like this a little while. They didn’t teach in Finnish till the 19th century. The university wasn’t that old. Not like Poland.
I thought of Cracow University, six hundred years old, of Copernicus, speaking German and Polish day to day, Latin with his masters and fellow students, then presumably Italian, as well as learning Greek when he crossed the Alps to the even older centres, Padua and the rest.
And she missed the bakers’ shops too. The energy. And in winter, the light. You must remember, she said, the ‘kylä’ in Jyväskylä means ‘village’. This was a small place.
Everything’s relative. Coming from Warsaw, population maybe two million, this place seems small. If you come from Brecon, population maybe 9,000...
Just over a year ago I was in Cairo briefly, dealing shakily with the bomb blast of that culture shock. Cairo was taking a short break from its revolution and still full of the electricity of new freedom. Mubarak’s compound was in darkness and under guard till his trial was done. The huge tenement of the National Democratic Party building was burned out, the winddragged smokemarks above its glassless windows giving it an appalled look. The crowds were still in Tahrir Square, just hanging out, one Cairene told me. But what struck me most was the fragility, the improbability of a city on this scale. The city’s daytime population is twenty million, and most of them seem to be in vast traffic jams on the enormous laneless roads. Sometimes bread sellers walk among the crawling, bumping cars, their circular loaves hooped like bangles on their arms, selling from window to window. It’s only on Saturday that the city’s quiet enough to see the elegant hieroglyphs of Egyptian magpies, come to pick over the rubbish. I remembered walking down a street on the lurching, uneven pavements of Zumalik and thinking there was thin, warm rain. Impossible in that dusty heat. When I looked up, the buildings on each side seemed to lean in and hanging crazily on rusting girders that looked just about to snap were hundreds of antiquated air-con units. They spat their warm drizzle on me. You wonder how long this can go on, not just in Cairo, but anywhere, bringing food, power and water in on this scale and taking the waste out.
The ‘village’ outside in the darkening November cold was a different, surely. Was the peatfired power station on the lakeshore, burning the ground from under us, really renewable as they claimed? A few hundred metres away the cobbled road outside gave way to tarmac and dual carriageways, where people drove not in a chaotic mass but in orderly lanes, but plenty of them, fast, with headlights on. Not all that long ago this village had eight or nine thousand people, the same size as the town where I live. Now there were 133,000. Living decently, it’s true, and well spread mostly in treed, parklike sub-suburbs among lakes, shopping parks and roads. Land is something they have plenty of in this country; Wales is more than eight times as densely populated. Maybe, in northern Europe, we’ll just be more efficient at helping cities grow to breaking point.
But it was strange to think of Poland as the warm south.
How was winter here?
You had to adjust. You had trouble with energy. You saw people jogging, getting on skis to go for a walk. You took vitamin D. There was that sound the cars made when it started to snow. The rumble on the roads. She thought it was the kind of grit they used.
I recognised the rumbling sound. I realised later it was the metal studs on the winter tyres. When cars slow down at junctions you can hear the rumble resolve into a decelerating tack-tack-tack. The rumble’s a kind of auditory pointillism. The studs cut tracks in the roads. The cobbled stretch just outside, if you looked closely, was scraped with shallow grooves as if, like the landscape, it had been glaciated.
That sound, and also the sound of the nylon overtrousers people wore in the cold. The sound of it rubbing as they walked.
I’d noticed that too. A whewing noise.
Yes, that. Those were the sounds of winter and the sounds of daylight shrinking. Then in summer everyone went crazy for two months.
I asked the question I’d asked many people. What should I not miss seeing while I’m here, this time of the year?
She thought briefly. She said something that showed she’d been here long enough to be as proudly self-deprecating as any Finn. Oh, forget it, stay in the sauna as much as you can and wait for spring.
A few days later, sitting in the same café on my own writing postcards home, I overheard two students speaking English. One, a Finn, was wrapped in the sort of plaid shawl you’d find on a Welsh doll. She was making notes. The other did most of the talking. As I wrote addresses and selected Moomin stamps I heard Italian...German...regions...dialects...identities. She seemed keen for everyone to hear. Maybe she wanted everyone to pick out that it was fluent English.
Out of the rumble of half-heard talk I gradually got an impression that she spoke a small language and was giving a picture of this to the woman in the shawl. It was her turn of phrase that stood out most, though.
But, hey, let’s get this straight. Look, you got to understand that. Like, this is kinda tricky, right?
She didn’t have an American accent. Perhaps it was Romansch she was talking about. That seemed the mostly likely. She reeled off a list of areas where it was spoken – I didn’t quite catch them - talked about generations and numbers. Small numbers. Smaller than the number of people in this town. She spoke loudly, leaning forwards, choreographing the words with un-Finn-like expressive hand gestures.
You got to appreciate, it’s like, not that easy. Let me tell you, it’s. Him? Yeah, he’s a nice guy, sort of, but sometimes, well, you know, he’s kind of a jerk. You get where I’m coming from?
Yes, where was she coming from?
I looked at the heartshaped leaves of the rubber plants climbing, abseiling and bifurcating from landing to landing of the library.
This was the modern Latin at work between two students. A sort of great, bland linguistic bus station that kept on growing, whose architecture didn’t matter so long as it more or less functioned, where ideas half met, where some of us attempted briefly to renegotiate a shifting journey through identities and sometimes ended up living, while, far off, outside, the chimneys smoked.
Also now available at The Literary Explorer
Dispatch #5 How to pronounce Jyväskylä
It was while eating a pizza that I worked out the best way to explain how to pronounce Jyväskylä.
I was dining alone in Maria’s Pizzeria in the main street, a few hundred metres from the Writers’ House. It’s an unassuming place, mainly used by students. Great value. The pizza was brought to me on a very large plate which you couldn’t see because of the very very large pizza. I don’t like pizza much, but after a holiday in some swanky places in Italy where pizza was the only thing I could afford I’d got resigned to them. I’d already helped myself to the help-yourself salad and coffee, twice. This thing, the area of a collapsed circus tent, had me worried.
For a popular place, Maria’s can be surprisingly quiet in the evenings. I supposed that regular customers could only call every couple of months because after eating one of these and rolling home it would be that long before they could get out of the chair again. Luckily there were only a couple of students waiting for their takeaway to witness me staring at the pizza and the pizza staring balefully back.
With the grim systematic logic of Finnish grammar I began carving it into segments and rolling them up. Imagining that it was the pie-chart of the workloads model for a university department made me feel happier about demolishing it, but even then I was daunted. About half way through it occurred to me that it would be quicker if I rolled pellets of dough and cheese into pencils, made incisions in strategic parts of my body and slid the material directly into my arteries.
It was this that brought me the great insight that the key to pronouncing the name of this town was in the word ‘cardio-vascular’.
Listen and learn. Say ‘cardio-vascular’ without the ‘card’. ‘Io-vascular’. Don’t sound the ‘r’ at the end. Make sure the ‘J’ (or the ‘i’) is a good ‘y’ sound, as in ‘your’. For the two y’s in Jyväskylä, think of the French ‘eu’, as in ‘feu’ and then of the French ‘u’, as in ‘aperçu’. To my ear, the ‘y’ sound is midway between these two. The ä’s are short, but nothing like as close to an ‘e’ as the ä you get in German. Now say ‘io-vascular’ again with those changes. There. Jyväskylä. With intensive practice I mastered this in under a week.
Now get me a crane.
Dispatch #4 Finns are Very Polite People
Finns are very polite people. My host Vesa found me putting toast in the oven to grill it. ‘Hope this is okay,’ I said. ‘There’s no toaster here.’
A couple of hours later a new toaster had materialised in the kitchen. It looked expensive. I daren’t mention the iron and ironing-board.
The other day I met Tero, the poet who’s been moved out of his room in the Kirjailijatalo – the Writers’ House – for a month to make space for me. I apologised for this and for reading his English language books before he had. ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘And help yourself to my green tea from the cupboard.’
In a bread shop I asked the young woman on the counter if she could speak English.
She said, ‘A little.’
I asked her to tell me about the different kinds of bread.
‘What kind of grain is this?’ I asked.
She said, ‘It’s...’ Then she said, ‘I’m sorry. It’s...’ She rubbed her fingertips together to conjure the word. ‘I’m so sorry. In Finnish I know this...’ She reddened.
‘It’s not rye, is it?’ I said.
She said, ‘It’s not rye. Oh! I’m so sorry!’ She did the fingers again and did a little jump to loosen the word from her brain. ‘It’s...Oh.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said.
‘I’m very sorry,’ she said.
‘It’s okay don’t worry.’
‘I know it in Finnish.’
‘Honestly, it’s fine.’
‘I can find this out for you.’
‘No don’t worry.’
‘It’s okay. I’ll take it.’
She worked the till, her face twisted in pain. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said.
If I go back I’m wearing a hat as a disguise and pretending to be a deaf-mute.
I’m going to give up offering people strong black tea from the pot I’ve always just made because I can’t bear the look of anxiety that comes into their faces when they wonder how they can find a way to refuse. They look desperately at the wall. One person muttered, ‘Maybe later’ in a hoarse whisper. But I’ll go on offering it to Vesa, who likes my strong black tea. Or is he just saying that?
When I asked Tero and his partner Anna (you pronounce both n’s) if there was anything they thought I really must not miss seeing while I’m staying in Jyväskylä they exchanged a look. There was a pause and Anna said, ‘Is it all right if I say “no”?’
Dispatch #3 Aaltitude by Christopher Meredith
When I got up on my first Friday here it was snowing softly. The larch in next door’s garden was dark and ridged against the white. The still green leaves of the deciduous trees around it occasionally floated down among the flakes. The road, which, unusually in this modern town, is cobbled just here, was white, and students made spiky black shapes on their bikes as they strained up the hill to the campus across the road from the Kirjailijatalo.
I’d been working on a long poem since Tuesday that wasn’t coming right, writing till mid afternoon then wandering round town realising that I really couldn’t understand any label on any product, or cycling round the lake, Jyväsjärvi. The poem had decided to be set in Spain. It’s a sod when your poems decide to move to a warmer country, just when you need something nipped and northerly. But this was the kind of snow you dream about.
Downstairs, Vesa Lahti told me how the snow came later nowadays every year. He’d come in to work in an older car because it had winter tyres. Outi, the young woman doing the publicity for a theatre company staging a Verdi opera in the town in the New Year and who has a temporary office in the centre, had cycled in. It was safer than walking, she said. She slipped when she walked but she didn’t fall off her bike. I told them how in Wales four centimetres of snow like this became the main thing on the television news. All the schools shut and people went panic-buying bread and milk.
Clearly writing poetry was impossible, due to snow.
In Finland the museums are free on Fridays and there are a lot of them here, so this was the morning for me to go to the Alvar Aalto Museum.
It was close by, down the cobbled hill, with the delicious fuzz of dry snow filling the air, the underfoot crunch. The whitened cobbled road curved out from the trees and the wooden buildings, magically becoming modern again, with pedestrian crossings and reassuringly nondescript concrete blocks of flats softened by snow.
Public buildings here seem shy. Like the people, they’re open and generous when you get to know them, but at first they’re a little elusive. The buildings’ entrances are discreet, the signs outside sometimes small and hard to spot. After enjoying my tame suburban blizzard for a while I found a sign the size of the timetable at a bus stop that led me down some snowy steps, and I was outside the Alvar Aalto Museum. It was 10.30 and it didn’t open till eleven. It wasn’t the sort of spot to wait for half an hour so I walked away. There was next week. I could find out more about Finland’s greatest architect then.
I wandered back towards the town by a different road, passing through part of the university campus. It sits across a mound, part of the ridge running through the centre of Jyväskylä. The best of the campus buildings are massively proportioned, often severe but grand, some with bold friezes high under the overshooting eaves. I went on among wide snowy roads. Students on bikes creaked past on the wide pavements.
Eventually I was walking under a high, very steep slope, wooded with firs and all softened by the still-falling snow. Suddenly a huge ladder of wooden steps went up into the trees. I climbed them, ninety or so, I think. There was no one on the steep slope of the woods, no one on the steps apart from me. At the top I emerged onto the ridge, perhaps six yards wide. A path led away along it to right and left. In front of me almost immediately and almost as steeply as the slope I’d come up, the ridge fell away towards the town. Some grandiose stone steps lead down this side. Through the trees I could see some of the grid of buildings and beyond, the lake.
To my left, along the ridge and at its highest point, among the trees was a large building in red brick dominated by a square clock tower. Above the clockface were windows.
As I approached it through the snowfall, it did that shy thing. It seemed to turn away as I got nearer. It looked as if it could be a water pumping station. There were darkened windows. A few blocks of stone like chunky, low gravestones were ranged along one end. There were few cars in a whitened car park. A road ran up to the building from its far side. As I rounded the end with the tower it yielded up its secret. The discreet sign said, in Finnish and English, Natural History Museum of Central Finland. The things I’d thought were gravestones I later discovered were examples of local granites.
So I got my free hour in a museum after all. But most interesting was the tower. I climbed the hundred or so steps, passing the plush-looking, at this time deserted restaurant above the museum.
Though there was glass in the windows, the viewing floor at the top of the tower was cold. Some snow had fizzed in through the tiniest of gaps and collected like white brick-dust on ledges. In every direction you could see how this town has crept out among the lakes, with Palokkajärvi and Tuomiojärvi to the west and north-west, trees and oddly shaped buildings and towers on the shallow ridges around them, and Jyväsjärvi below me to the east, next to the town centre. A broad main road, white with snow, ran across town below me and arced over a suspension bridge across a narrow point in the lake. Through the grain of fine snow the view was forbiddingly monochrome and beautiful.
At the north end of Jyväsjärvi the tight steeple of the power station chimney blurred the air with its plume. It’s a sort of gigantic multi-fuel stove, burning wood, imported coal, and I was told, peat. About a quarter of Finland is peat.
I’d come here partly to work on poems about the damaged upland peat bogs in the Black Mountains in Wales. There the blanket bog is thin, just a couple of metres, easily damaged and in summer dries to a dust as fine as the invasive snow in the viewing room. The slathers of ploughed peatland I’ve seen here hardly seem the same element.
Later I made my way down the grand steps and went back to Spain.
Dispatch #2 Waterland
Jyväskylä, my home for a month, is bang in the middle of central southern Finland. Imagine a city the size of Newport built inland among lakes. Most of the city is new and it’s grown very fast over the last thirty years. There are some older wooden buildings, including the Kirjailijatalo, the Writers’ House, where I’m staying, but most of the town is new and often in the softened modernist style of its most famous local, the architect Alvar Aalto. Many of the buildings are his, and one, the theatre clad in ridged ceramic, actually bears his signature in bronze. The centre of the town fits between three lakes, lying under a ridge along the north-west shore of Jyväsjärvi, with the blunt south-easterly ends of Tuomiojärvi and Palokkajärvi prodding it from the other side. Järvi means lake.
I borrowed a gearless bike, courtesy of my host from the Writers’ Union, Vesa Lahti, and cycled round Jyväsjärvi a few times, once in snow and ice. He’s too polite to say it, but I think Vesa thinks I’m mad enough to be a Finn. Suffering joggers and leisurely walkers beat these bounds along with me. I passed one old man jogging with a fixed stare at the ground, looking as if he wouldn’t last 500 metres. Half an hour later he passed me again on the opposite shore, having run it at roughly the same speed I’d cycled, still going, still with the fixed stare. Or maybe he had a twin. On the same circuit I saw a jay in the thin birches among the houses, and a flock of waxwings whirred from the trees to their next stash of rowan berries.
It’s not very far, maybe 14 km, and mostly on safe paths. Jyväsjärvi is probably bigger than any natural lake in Wales, but at the northern end, not far past the plume of the power station, there’s a broad canal cut into another lake, Päijänne. It’s suddenly more rural there, and a few police launches are discreetly moored. Päijänne is immense, over 1,000 square kilometres and nearly 120 km long, curving round to the south. Another canal, cut just twenty years or so ago with huge locks and a hydro-electric generator to boot, connects Päijänne to the north with Lake Leppavesi. This creates a navigable waterway that snakes through the country for about 300 km. What isn’t forest or town round here is mostly open water. Pull back from the map a little and you see that the three lakes the town centre sits among are tiny puddles in this strange landscape of trees and water. Many of the lakes in central Finland run roughly north to south, but there’s a strangely consistent drag-mark pattern across these on the map running from the north-west to south-east, as if an enormous, clawed geological comb had been dragged across the picture from top left to bottom right before the paint was dry. It’s hard not to connect this scraped patterning with the elongated brindling you see on birchbark everywhere here.
Dispatch #1 The Man on the Plane
The man next to me on the plane to Helsinki was big. He had the sort of elbows that look as if they need most of the seats either side. But he tucked one out of my way somehow and rolled his enormous old head in a polite nod. He had a grey ponytail and a cut-down Buffalo Bill beard and moustache. I didn't think to imagine that he was probably either Finnish or American, so it didn't seem particularly incongruous when he took out a packet of Fisherman's Friends, slid one in his mouth, and as a lugubrious afterthought offered me one.
I took it. That's how airflight friendships start.
When he muttered he'd had a throat thing for weeks, then it was a surprise to realise he was American. He was quietly spoken and didn't seem to say a lot, but in the next couple of hours somehow he did. The Fisherman's Friends had been introduced to him by some people he stayed with in Kent. I suspected that these people might also have perpetrated steak and kidney pies and Marmite on him, but I didn't ask. Between lulls during which we gazed at the Thunderbird-style outfits that the female Finnair flight attendants wear, he quietly told me how good it had been to sit in an English pub and talk to English people. His parents were originally Lithuanian. He'd been visiting Lithuania, so called to see friends in England. Now he was travelling back to O'Hare via Munich, with a change in Helsinki. His sister'd got the tickets and for some reason it was the best way for him to do it.
I stared at his shoes and imagined that his carbon footprint could even be as big as the real one.
So he wasn't visiting Finland then?
Just changing. And you?
I told him I was changing to go to Jyvaskyla, still in Finland. I was a writer. Going there to write. That's all. I couldn't think what else to say.
He did that surmising pause and look that people often do at that point, during which they wonder whether to ask a supplementary or not. He was cool enough not to.
He'd been a photographer.
Commercial. Mainly. You heard of Ansel Adams?
In fact I had.
A whole lot of us young photographers went to hear him speak. We thought we knew it all. We walked out. We knew nothing.
I quoted him the line from Mark Twain, the one about when I was fourteen my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around but when I got to be 21 I was astonished how much he'd learned.
The old photographer's face opened into a gentle smile. No he hadn't heard that one. The business had changed. Photography was different now.
I told him about my friend Ossie Jones, dead now. Quiet bloke who liked a pint, who photographed Raymond Williams and Robert Graves and Brendan Behan. Did he do portraits?
No not really. Not weddings either. Products mainly.
There was a Thunderbirds lull. People shuffled past to the toilet. The middle-aged woman in front got up and made a delicate display of stretching her stockinged feet and her calf muscles, leaning on the headrest in front of me as if it were the bar in a ballet school.
He started it in the army. The army got him into it. He still did some work for veterans.
So this was Vietnam?
He'd had an easier time this way.
I told him about Philip Jones Griffiths, the Welsh Magnum photographer in Vietnam.
He didn't know this man. Quietly he took out a notebook and wrote down the name.
So it was easier for him, this doing photography?
Yes, sort of. He went in and said he knew about all that stuff. Lied. Yes, he knew about lenses and developing. He felt sorry for these young people in Iraq now. But at least they didn't get spat on when they came back. We were spat on.
His voice was calm. A little lower perhaps.
Thunderbird suits served tea and coffee. A particularly old particularly kind flight attendant apologised to my friend that there was no ginger ale. She explained the reasons in perfect English.
So anyway, he was mainly hanging out of helicopters on re-con.
He pronounced it with almost equal stress on both syllables, like air-con.
That and mine incidents. The Viet-Cong left secret marks for one another, like boy scouts, you know? They snapped branches, things like that. He took the photos and then they used them for training.
How long was he there?
The second Fisherman's Friend rolled in his mouth. There was a long pause. He was staring at the buttoned-up flap of his plastic table.
The ballet woman was back on her feet, flipping through a Finnish newspaper and occasionally hyper-extending some bit of herself. It was quiet for a while.
Had he ever been back?
The three points of his Buffalo Bill moved forward a little, then back.
He had no interest. It was still. He. No. No. No he hadn't. Hadn't been back.
He sat back and unfocussed from the table-flap.
So then it was products mainly. The lingerie was good. Somebody had to do this stuff. He went from mine incidents to lingerie. He did some real stuff sometimes. His cousin in Lithuania wanted him to do an exhibition there. Maybe they'd do it. He had negs. Like my friend Ossie. In Vilnius it could be possible.
When the plane started to drop he closed his eyes.
His ears. Popping like crazy, he said. He never used to get this. Not back then.
I had to rush to make my connection and be a writer. We shook hands. His name was Ray.