FA Cup and the life of Brian
It's the FA cup final and I'm sitting in front of the telly in a Youth Hostel in Helsinki. Hardly an inspiring opening ten minutes. Come on the Chelsea. The door to the kitchen opens and a small man with cropped hair and a jolly demeanour enters the room. "what's the score" he asks. His voice is loud, with an accent from the North east of England- between Darlington and Middlesbrough he tells me later- and a rhythm in his language that suggests that he is used to speaking to people whose native tongue is not English. Not so much slow as enunciating every word as though the listener is an idiot. It is a method of speech I have often found myself engaged in when addressing people in foreign countries. Lindsey always tells me off for it. "still no score" I tell him, 'dreadful game so far" I add.
He cracks open a beer. "all you get on the telly round here is bloody Liverpool" he tells me. "Couple of Finns play for Liverpool and that's all we get. Good to see other teams. Course I'm not bothered who wins...." I am, but I am not about to ask him to be quiet because he seems so happy to be talking to someone from his country of birth. Not that he had been there for a while. Brian, as he introduced himself, is one of those people who go where the wind blows them, following a simple goal of happiness, wherever that may be found. He is forty and looks ten years younger. I think of people I know at home, locked into the pursuit of career ambition and making their fortune, working all hours for the corporate master and it ages them.
Brian worked in Cyprus for seven years, doing what he didn't say, but he enjoyed the good life. And it was there that he met his future Finnish wife. They had four children and moved to a small village in Finland. "Oooo, it gets very cold in my village" he says, clicking with his mouth at the beginning of the sentence. He does this a lot as he talks, 'In the cold these turn to frozen hamburgers" he says pointing to his unfeasibly large ears that jut out the sides of his narrow face. He points to his mobile phone. "My friend is a clown. We used to work together on those big boats. I'm a comedian" he pauses, "sometimes". "He's from Helsinki. Today he rings me and he is in my village and I'm am in Helsinki." He takes a large swig of beer and goes off on a tangent. "For my first Christmas in my village they didn't have a turkey. A big meal on Christmas eve, but it is a ham they are all eating and I ask them 'where is the turkey' but they don't understand. And they don't even have a Christmas dinner on Christmas day. I was thinking the Christmas eve meal was a big do and Christmas day would be even bigger but it didn't happen like that".
And then like so many people who have spent long periods of time away from home he starts talking about food he misses. "Sunday roast... and fish and chips". I tend to agree with him about the fish and chips, and had made a point of trying to have a large cod and chips before we left. But all the chippies were closed on that Sunday evening so we ended up with a take away curry instead.
Chelsea 0 Arsenal 2
Brian's wife enters the kitchen with the two youngest children. She prepares ready meals for them in the microwave, but cannot find the plates. She is asking Brian but he is not listening, he is talking to me and watching the football, "she doesn't understand the FA cup." He turns to her and suggests she goes to get a plate from reception. She walks out and Arsenal score. Bollocks. She is back with a plate, it cost her ten cents. "ten cents" booms Brian, "that should be no sense."
She disappears again, this time to go to reception to find a spoon. Arsenal score again. "that'll be that then." His wife returns, "better not go out again or we'll have another goal." His children stop running about and start eating. "they've been up since 5am this morning. We've come to Helsinki for them to go to this amusement park. It was good wasn't it Billy" he rubs his youngest child's head, "eaten well today haven't you Billy, two big bags of sweets and a MacDonald's and..." no wonder they were so hyperactive Lindsey tells me later.
The full time whistle blows, and we all leave the Kitchen. It has been refreshing talking to Brian. One of the joys of travel is meeting different characters, the weird, the wonderful and I reflect on how many more people we will meet over the forthcoming months.
I pop down to reception to get a bottle of water. A vending machine stands in the corner. ?2.5 for a small bottle, but ho hum, there is nothing worse than waking up in the middle of the night with a crying thirst and nothing to quench it. I assume this machine gives change so I stick three one euro coins in and press the button for water. 'sold out' flashes the display. Great. I press the coin reject button to get my money back. And it is as though I have won the jack pot. The machine starts spitting coins out at me. They re overflowing and falling onto the floor. I had always assumed you get the same money out that you put in when you press the reject money lever. not on this machine. thirty gold ten cent coins are returned to me - the euros have not yet had time to get dirty yet. And what do I want this shrapnel for? So I walk over to reception and in front of me an English girls is hunched over the counter in despair. She is visibly shaking. "Are you sure that today is the 4th, it must be the third....? " she is asking..... "is there no way we can get to the airport any quicker?"
When you are travelling the days of the week cease to matter. Everyday can be a Saturday. You never have a Monday morning. One of the problems with this however is that you can quite easily loose track of the days. Like the girl in front of me who is supposed to be on a plane flying to Bali. It leaves Helsinki airport in forty minutes. She asks the receptionist to book a taxi, "I've got to pack," her voice trembling with fear of the present moment. ' How can this have happened?' I smile to myself, I know that stomach wrenching feeling from past, bitter experience.
She misses her flight. I get my coins changed to something more manageable and return to our room and bed.
"Attention everybody," Euro voice booms out over the hostel Tannoy, "it is eleven o-clock. Silence has started at the Helsinki Euro hostel".
The sky is a drab grey, it is getting darker and it is going to rain (this is despite my watch- Casio G-Shock Riseman- with built in barometer, telling me that the pressure is currently rising and good weather may be predicted). The dreariness of the sky makes for a bad initial impression of Helsinki, and after a week of continual moving we have pretty much had enough of European cities. Bring on the Russia and beyond. The city does itself few favours architecturally. The formal neo-classical lines dominate, full of urban grandeur but becoming monotonous as we walk around the city. Unlike in Britain during the 19th century, where the dichotomy between the austerity and restraint of the classical and the passion mystique of the gothic battled it out in the construction of our civic buildings, in Helsinki the gothic never got beyond the first hurdle. So there is no frivolity and decadence in the architecture here.
We stroll down the narrow lanes and come to the vast open cobbled expanse of the Senate square. Rising above the square in front of us, sitting on a steep plinth of steps rises the Lutheran Cathedral. It is built in a grand neo-classical style. A large central dome, statues lining the roof and all whitewashed; it's luminance is striking in front of the dull grey sky. The magnificence of the outside is not however replicated in the inside. We had earlier visited a Russian orthodox church. Well, not so much visited as taken a peek inside- the congregation was lining up for communion- and this was full of iconography, religious clutter and a feeling of Church. The Lutheran Cathedral by contrast was Spartan, a simple chandelier hanging from the centre of the dome, a painting of Christ over the alter and an imposing sculpture of Luther watching from the sides. We sit on a pew towards the back of the cathedral. A choir of school boys are rehearsing. A simple hymn that even I learn the words of. "moy moy moy moy moy moy moy." Behind us a man is chatting away on his mobile phone. to my left a young teenager sits wearing the most enormous headphones on his head. Subtle they are not. His eyes are transfixed to the floor, as if he is deep in prayer. Only as we leave do I see that his prayer is in fact writing text messages on his mobile phone.
We walk away from the Cathedral and the square and look for new sights to see. But our hearts are not really set in sight seeing, a general lethargy has descended upon us and sensing it is going to rain we disappear into Stockmann Department Store, apparently Europe's largest department store, for a spot of retail therapy.
It may be Europe's biggest, but it is hardly differentiated from any other department store. Maybe slightly more expensive than most. We take the escalators to the top, aimlessly wandering with no particular purpose. Third floor and I'm looking at Kitchen appliances and Lindsey has wandered of to use the toilet facilities. Hmmm, they've got a wide range of food processors on display... WHAT ARE WE DOING?
We flea out of the store and dive into a bookshop opposite. It has a large English section. So I'm looking at the guide books for Helsinki, the Lonely Planet for Finland and trying to find things that we can see and do, but there just doesn't seem to be much here. It is one of those places that you just absorb the atmosphere, enjoy the buzz. But on this dull and dreary Sunday morning there is little of that about.
Ouch! The prices of the books are prohibitive, and despite flicking through the pages of several weighty tomes that look like they would be excellent reading material for the long journey across Russia on the Trans-Sib, I have to put them down and walk away. Besides, Lindsey tells me, we could hardly fit any more books into our packs, they practically take up all the space.
The book shop holds our attention for a good half an hour and then we venture back onto the streets. Towards the harbour, and beyond the hostel we are staying in.
The rain doesn't commence with a pitter-patter drizzle. There is no warning of the impending deluge. No, the skies just open and rain crashes down upon us. We are soaked before we can even get the umbrella out of the bag. We notice an upmarket cafe 50 meters away and hurry towards it. We have a coffee, tea and a single biscuit. Six euros. (Two euros for a tea? and I'm thinking roll on India and two rupees for a chai). How about a beer? I decide against a beer. ?4.80 for a Carlsberg. And that is not even for a pint. No wonder the ships that sail between Stockholm and Helsinki are packed full of Scandinavians cruising between the two cities enjoying the duty free shopping that takes up a whole deck of the enormous eight decked ferries.
The honest thief
The rain has changed from a downpour of monsoon proportions to a more manageable light shower. We get up to leave the cafe, and as we do so I spot a bundle of cash lying on the floor by the counter. No one has noticed it. It is a roll of twenties, probably four of them. That'll do nicely. In one clean swoop, I subtly bend down and swipe them up from the ground. No one has seen me. Nice one. And then a heavy feeling descends. I suppose it is guilt that comes over me, the result of a good, honest upbringing. I stop, look around for someone to give the money to. After all, it doesn't belong to me does it. But it sits quite comfortably in my pocket along with the rest of our money I have brought out today.... I feel around my pockets. They are empty. My hand darts into the back pockets. Nothing. Nada. What a prat. The cash on the floor was mine. Must've fallen out when I went to pay for the coffees. I can be bloody useless sometimes.