My Private Scandinavia, or: As Usual, Don Stayed Behind (GQ ’93)

This is the original unabridged draft of an article I wrote for GQ Magazine about a trip I made to Helsinki and Stockholm with my friend Don Davis in the spring of 1993. Originally entitled “My Private Scandinavia,” this offbeat account of Don and my’s rakehill progress across Scandinavia way, and I still believe is my best travel piece, per se. It also helms to explain why I am still so fond of that part of the world.

I. EXTREMELY, HELSINKI

“I won’t let a pig to my table
Not for dinner and not to eat
They’re all so fuckin’ sorry
But they just want to do
Encores in the heat…”

– from “Pornography,” No. 1. Finnish rock song by Ismo Alanko

I awaken to bedlam.

It is 10 p.m., May Day’s Eve, and from where I stand in the lobby of the Hotel Marski on Mannerheimintie, Helsinki’s main street, the entire city seems to have lost its collective mind. On any given evening Helsinki is probably one of the safest capitals in the world — as well as one of the quietest — but on May Day’s Eve, Midsummer’s and New Year’s Eve, it turns into one of the wildest.

This year’s May Day’s Eve blow-out, marking the end of the dark, long, wet Finnish winter, I had been warned, would be particularly insane. “I’m afraid my students will drink too much this evening,” my old friend Risto Ihamuatila, the tall, sad-looking rector of Helsinki University had sighed that afternoon over lampmm kyljyksia valkosipulin ja herkkusienten kera (lamb chops with garlic and mushrooms) at the Alexander Nevski, a Russian restaurant near the market square.

Still, I hadn’t been quite prepared for the hurricane of debauchery that greeted me when I ventured out onto Mannerheimintie. Directly in front of me thousands of hysterical, mostly young Finnish men and women were lurching and careening past.

“BAH-DAH! BAH-DAH!” An ambulance whizzed by, speeding off to tend to the victims of the roaring crowd. Several police cars followed close by. Even the hotel lobby offered no refuge from the passing storm.

Suddenly an invisible ember of craziness landed in the hotel lobby, sparking a catfight between two otherwise attractive, peacable-looking women, who started pulling each other’s hair. One, breaking away, pushed me roughly aside and rushed outside; the other, shrieking, followed close behind. A little shaken, I decide to call it a night and retired to my room. It is a little strange to see an entire city overshoot the mark.

I began the next day with a sauna. Facing me, outside the sauna window, was a huge photo mural of a sailing race. I focused on the picture. It reminded me a little of Åland.

The breakfast table at the Marski was expectedly lavish — breakfast is my favorite meal in Finland. I revelled in it, priming myself with a stout mixture of herring, reindeer meat and crisp breads, washing this down with several sorts of fruit juices and a pot full of high-octane Finnish kaavi. It was eight o’clock, but already the klieg-like northern sun was glinting off the trolley tracks below.

A seagull swooped by my window. Upstairs, there was a loud knock on the door. Don D., a tall 30-year old architect from Los Angeles and an old friend who was joining me for this particular rake’s-cum-inquiring reporter’s progress through Scandinavia, had arrived, fresh off the ferry from Germany, where he had been previously vacationing, and rarin’ to go.

After a brief reunion we strode off in the direction of Kaivosto Park, site of the day’s main event, the traditional May Day be-in. I couldn’t help but notice how clean the streets already were. Something else: people were smiling. It’s rare to see the repressed Finns smiling, in public, but nearly everyone we passed as we walked past the colorful market square toward Embassy Row was positively beaming.

A beatific scene awaited us. There must have been twenty or thirty thousand people hanging out in the park that afternoon, lying on blankets, strumming guitars, making out, munching on kavapihi. Here and there taking nips from champagne bottles. There wasn’t a policeman in sight, nor were any needed. Helsinki had purged itself of its demons, at least for the day. “It’s like a Finnish Woodstock,” Don amicably declared. Nearby a survivor from the previous night, painted up like Emmett Kelly, quietly walked in to a tree, and stayed there murmuring sweet nothings to himself.

Don’s head swivelled like those on the little dolls you see on the backs of cars, as one shy white-blond beauty ambled by after another. Most of the women, I noticed, were wearing pink lipstick.

After a while of this, I decided to return to my hotel. Don decided to stay behind. On the way back to my hotel I passed Senate Square, where the crowd of two thousand had gathered to hear a group of Finnish students belt ou the “Internationale.”

Ten years ago, or even five, such a gathering would have had a very different feeling about it. After all, this is the country which had, until recently, the largest Communist party beyond the Iron Curtain.

This fall, I had been informed, there is a chance that Finland, hard hit by a recession caused largely by the fall-off of trade with the Soviets, will experience a general strike, something that hasn’t happened in Suomi for nearly 40 years. If it occurs, the strike, like most major political eruptions, would begin here, in the flagstone-lined amphitheater of Senate Square, Helsinki’s Trafalgar, before the steps of the august Cathedral. However, on this goblet-like spring Saturday, with the gulls swooping above and couples embracing below, such a fearsome prospect seems remote.

Don was anxious to sample Helsinki’s curious architectural stew, so that evening we took a lazy stroll up Mannerheimintie, the city’ s main drag. Virtually every architectural style of the last two hundred years is showcased here, from neo-gothic to social realist to ultra-modern. Somehow it all hangs together.

On we sauntered, past the yellow neo-modern Post Office, past the stiff-looking, oxidized statue of Marshal Mannerheim, the great hero of the 1939-40 Winter Weir with the Soviet Union, in which the absurdly outnumbered Finnish army skiied rings around Stalin ‘s invading legions, still considered the country’s finest hour; past the glowering eduskuntel, or parliament house, a Reichstag-looking relic of the interwar period, when Finland was under strong Germanic influence; past the multi-colored gothic birthday cake of the National Museum.

A yellow and green trolley car rumbled by, its windows a blur of white, expressionless faces. There are only white people in Finland, perhaps the most homogeneous country in Europe.

Now we stood in front of Alvar Aalto’s masterpiece, the Finlandia conference helll, site of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, as well as the quixotic ’90 Bush-Gorbachev summit. Memories. How well I remember the synchronized, theatrical entrances of the two foreign ministers, Baker and Shevardnadze, entering from the wings of the ultra-modern conference hall to the loud, formal applause of the 2200 journalists gathered there. Another era. Don walked twice around the pterodactyl-like building, admiring its soaring lines.

Afterwards we took a mellow walk through linden-lined Tooloo Park. There were swans in the park. Some old men were playing chess with life-sized pieces.

Something was missing: I didn’t see any homeless people. Finland has nearly 1.9% unemployed, however thus far it has managed to keep its redundant housed and fed. You will not be solicited in Helsinki.

That’s not to say that some besotted female berserker will not grab your crotch.

That’s what happened to Don that evening at Fennia, a new nightclub that had been recommended to us by the hotel desk clerk. May Day fever prevailed that night. The huge club, carved out of an old Art Deco building in the city center, was packed with young buttoned-down types, most of whom were quite blotto, and swaying in the aisles. A well-coiffed brunette in pants and suit took a sudden hankering to my tall, handsome blond friend.

“What kind of bullet do you carry?” the liberated woman slurred, as she grabbed my friend’s member.

Strangely Don, who is used to these situations, was at a loss for words. Above us artifical smoke came pouring down from the ceiling of the four-story, futuristic club. Nearby a gypsy girl, incongruously dressed in black, walked by, selling roses. It was a tender scene.

Eventually, the woman unloosed her grip, allowing us to continue on our way. Soon we, too, were staggering out of the club, with two Finnish women mysteriously under tow — a sultry waitress from the Intercontinental (Don’s) and a furniture manager from Lahti (mine).

From there we repaired, against the better instincts of our new-found distaff friends, to Nylon, a new club — there are always new clubs opening in Helsinki — that Don had heard about across the street from the city railroad station. Down an alley, up a narrow neon-lit staircase, and we were there — a small, dark room which was about 40′ by 60′ . This club was simply laid out: a bar along one side, a small dance floor on the other.

Five or six people were frenetically dancing to the sound of their own drummer and several looked like they were on Ecstasy. Our dates immediately looked bored and began scrutinizing their watches. This was too wild for them.

Denim prevailed here, although a few of the men wore suits. I recognized one of them: Christian Moustgaard, the hip, poker-faced manager at Radio City, the city’s biggest pop station. Turns out that Moustgaard was part-owner of the joint. Helsinki is a small town.

Moustgaard, one of the godfathers of the fertile and wacky Finnish pop scene, was anxious to tell me about one of his newest, inspired productions: an upcoming Radio City-sponsored performance in Senate Square featuring the Leningrad Cowboys — the celebrated Fenno-Russo country rock band who Finnish filmic bad boy Aki Kaurismaki made famous in the cracked road epic Leningrad Cowboys Go America — and, Moustgaard smiled, “the former Red Army Chorus.”

“Oh. Cool.” And would they be singing the Internationale?

The joint was still jumping at four, when I left.

Don, as usual, stayed behind.

“You can’t imagine how difficult the winters are here,” Leena Lander, novelist and rising star of Finnish letters was saying, over paistettua siikaa korvasienimuhennosta (fried whitefish with creamy leek sauce) at the Elite, the cozy, jugenstil-styled watering hole in the Tooloo district favored by the intellectual set.

We were talking about the suicide, this past winter, of Lander’s colleague, the odd, brilliant Arto Kytohonka, a pioneer of Finnish computer literature and postal art. He hung himself last November.

It’s a truism, of course, but Lander agreed the weather was definitely a factor in Finland’s high suicide rate. “Every winter I say to myself, this will be my last winter,” the delicate-featured, Colette-like-looking writer said, with a shiver. “Every summer I sit with my friends in our cottage and we say, this will be our last summer.”

Lander herself has much to live for. Her most recent novel, Dark Butterflies, a literary murder-mystery set at a home for juvenile delinquents, was recently optioned by Hollywood.

The country may be going through a recession, but its art scene is more fertile than ever. Clearly, the anti-podean climate, combined with the exigency of living politically on the edge, has been healthy for the country’s afflatus. Today, Finns are pushing back the envelope in literature, film, design and other fields — and, increasingly, their work is being discovered and championed elsewhere.

“I went to do everything,” design sensation Stefan Lindfors said quite matter-of-factly the next day, at the Kosmos, the Finnish Elaine’s. The 29-year-old artist was wearing a Red Army capl on his chest he sported a three-inch gold lizard, one of his renowned series of insect and-small reptile-inspired jewelry. Lindfors, who the Times of London has likened to a “one-man creative hurricane,” has also brought his feral, da Vinci-like genius to restaurant and store interiors (he designed the new otherworldly Helsinki headquarters for Marimekko), lamps, chairs, posters, record covers, news station copy readers, you name it. He is in demand all over town: he has even been hired to redesign the hallway of the Kosmos. When I left him, after a hurried lunch, he was gesticulating wildly to the befuddled doorman (and don’t forget to give him a markka when you leave, or else you’ll never get back in — a quaint Finnish custom still enforced at several watering holes).

Lindfors is also in demand in the U.S. The Kansas City Art Institute recently hired the whirling dervish to head its design department.

Matti Pellonpaa, though, is staying put.

In fact, the walrus-looking actor, who was recently acclaimed best actor at the Berlin Film Festival for his work in Aki Kaurismaki’s La Vie Boheme, was stationed at the same table in the front of the Elite where I had left him last year — and the year before that.

For me, no trip to Helsinki is complete without a few woozy words with the bearded flower child of Finnish cinema, who holds court nightly with a revolving set of amused and deferential friends and fans.

“I am a Communist because I am not a Communist,” the tipsy thespian boomed. He was drinking near beer — his doctor and girlfriend no longer allowed him his standard daily quart of vodka — but he made no sense, nevertheless.

“There are no small roles! There are only small actors!”

Pellonpaa was moving up in the world. Finland’s most famous actor and most well-known face now, finally, earned enough to afford his own apartment. However, he still didn’t have an agent; there aren’t any agents in Finland — yet. And Pellonpaa, for one, wished to keep it that way.

“To be, that is the question,” he insisted. I didn’t understand. “To BE — THAT is the question.”

All together, we had spent a week in Helsinki.

We had drunk our fill of its strange brew. It was time for the chaser.

It was time for Åland.

II. IN THE ÅLAND ZONE

There is a scene in the recent German movie Das Boot, a thriller about a military journalist assigned to an embattled U-boat, that especially resomltes with me. In this scene the boat is enduring an intense depth charge attack. The man needs to think about something else or he will go mad; he takes a postcard depicting a soothing Bavarian forest scene and focuses on it with all his imagination, wishing himself into the picture.

There is a photo on the wall of my New York apartment that serves something of the same function, during depth charge attacks by the deadly forces of modern urban life. The photo is of a daily scene in the life of the Åland archipelago: specifically, it depicts a small ferry picking up a few passengers and cars to go from the “inner archipelago,” as the main part of this Baltic topographical wonder is called, to Foglo, one of the few inhabited islands of the outer archipelago. When things get too intense, that’s where I want to be, that’s where I wish myself — on the ferry to Foglo, the boat from nowhere to nowhere.

And now, I delightedly realized as I strolled the sun deck of the luxury cruise ship taking me and Don to Mariehamn, the “capital” of Ahvenamnaa — or Ålands, as the Swedish-speaking natives call the place (better listen to them) — now, I was going back into that picture; I was going back to Shangri-la. Would you believe… The Twilight Zone?

Don was grinning too, as a solitary chunk of island floated by; and then another; and then another. “Hey, if you lived here, you’d be home by now!” An elderly Finnish couple frowned their disapproval of the wise-cracking Americans.

Our generous host, the sun, continued to shine. The wind whipped by. Wild swans whipped by. Time itself whipped by…

“Hey, it doesn’t get much better than this,” boomed Don. No, it doesn’t. At least not in the northern hemisphere, as far as I am concerned.

In point of fact Ahvenamnaa, or the Ålands, consist of no less than 6,500 islands, shoals and skerries spread out over 6,700 square kilometers of land and sea, making them Europe’s largest and most numerous archipelago. Yet few outside of Finland and Sweden are aware of these delicious islands, which suits most Finns and Swedes — as well as me — just fine.

I was only dimly aware of the lands myself until I flew over them on my first trip to Finland, 13 years ago, and instantly became enamored of them. It was then that I made a vow to visit the Ålands someday, a promise I first fulfilled in 1990. I’ve returned twice since to this, my personal island preserve. I would have bought my own island by now — an acre-large skerry goes for as little as $10,000 — but only an Ålander can buy an island. That’s one of the odd things about the archipelago. It also happens to be Europe’s only officially demilitarized zone, by international covenant. Finland is responsible for the defense of the islands, which were still considered to be of strategic naval value when the League of Nations adjudicated the bilateral case between Finland and Sweden over the archipelago in 1921. However the mother country is enjoined from placing any military installation there.

What better place to get some peace and quiet, than in an official Peace and Quiet Zone?

If you visit the Ålands, I advise you to bring a compass as well as a good map: it’s easy to get lost, even on the smaller, symmetrically shaped islands.

That’s what happened to me during my first visit, after renting a bungalow on the secluded neck of the “inner archipelago. ” Opposite my customized bungalow lay a wide bay, in the middle of which lay a small — or what looked like a small — island, which, to my landlubber’s eyes, looked ripe for a personal amphibious invasion.
The bungalow came with a boat.

I saw; I landed; I got lost. Foolishly I began to make a swim for it…

Anyway, we didn’t need our compasses this time. We would be sticking to Mariehamn, the sleepy capital of Ålands, during our two-day layover.

I had made reservations at the plushest hotel in Mariehamn, the Arkipelag, whicn boasts a full-dress nightclub and casino. I made little use of either. Mostly, I must confess, I slept. I highly recommend the beds at the Arkipelag. I also ate.

Don, the more ambitious of us two, did rent some bicycles, which we put to use on our first afternoon in the archipelago. Off we pedaled, from one end of the slender Mariehamn peninsula to another. A starter’s pistol went off just as we made the hill overlooking the “inner” harbor, whence we had arrived; a covey of sailboats made off and began tacking.

I had a sense of deja vu: weren’t those the same sailboats I had seen in the sauna room of the Marski? The Alands are that kind of place. Very weird. And quite relaxing. I don’t remember much else about our visit to the archipelago, although I seem to have a distinct memory of repairing with Don to the open-air Mariehamn Zoo with a bottle of cloudberry snapps and trying to speak the local dialect to one of the resident peacocks there.

But I could be mistaken. Åland is that sort of place. After you leave it, it seems like a mirage.

III. STOCKHOLM DELUXE

So, you ask, which city do I prefer: Helsinki or Stockholm?

That’s not a fair question, really, or a germane one, since the sophisticated traveller who is familiar with the two Scandic capitals comes to each expecting a very different experience. Helsinki and Stockholm are related, in a manner of speaking — they share the same latitude, roughly, and therefore the same weather which, in this case, continued to be superb. Both cities embody Scandinavian social democratic values; both run smoothly. Both are relatively free of crime. They are, indeed, cousins, but distant ones.

The two cities have very different histories. HeIsinki is less than two hundred years old. Stockholm is over 700. Helsinki is the seat of a republic, which has endured crisis after crisis, including three wars involving the Russian bear. Stockholm is the home of a thousand year-old kingdom which has managed to stay neutral and prosperous during every European war since Napoleon’s day, a subject of some guilt, particularly as far as World War II is concerned.

The Swedes, after all, used to have an empire: they owned Scandinavia, which included Finland — not to mention Norway and Denmark — and to judge from some Stockholmers’ imperious manners, they still think they do.

One can’t really blame them. Stockholmers grow up amidst the legacy of empire. There are two royal palaces in Stockholm, each more magnificent than the other. There are no royal palaces in Helsinki (although there is an ultra-modern presidential palace going up which is the subject of some cortroversy because of its insane expense).

Then there is the matter of topography. Helsinki fronts on the Baltic sea; Stockholm is tucked into its own archipelago. Helsinki feels plebian and democratic, and a little insecure. Stockholm feels royal. Helsinki feels exotic and dangerous. Stockholm feels safe. You go to Helsinki expecting to be challenged, and shaken. You arrive in Stockholm expecting to be spoiled. To be sure it is possible to have a wild time in Stockholm, too. In fact, the memory of my first evening in the city, with Don riding shotgun, is something of a blur.

I do recall arriving at the Grand, of course. How could I not? This was a fantasy come true. I’d always wanted to stay at the Grand. There are other five-star hotels in Stockholm, of course, including several smaller luxurious hostelries across the way in Gamla Stan, the island heart of the city. But there is only one place to stay in Stockholm if you are anybody, and if you can afford it (doubles start at $300, and there are suites that cost upwclrds of several thousands), and that is the Grand. Henry Kissinger stays at the Grand when he is in town. “There was a period in 1973 when Kissinger lived here,” said Peter Wallenberg, the current general manager, over drinks several days later. Bruce Springsteen stays at the Grand, and so does Liza Minelli. And so do all the Wlnners of the Nobel Prlze, who are housed, feted, and serenaded by the winged agents of Lucia tree every November.

I looked out from my room. The management had decided to spoil me: I had the best view in the house. I was on the harbor side three floors up, fclcing the old town. Several hundred yards away the late-setting sun glinted in the windows of the Royal Palace. Directly beneath me, in the Malaren, or moat-like river, the small white boats that tour the Stockholm archipelago lay at anchorage. Several fishermen were casting their lines; the water here is clean enough to fish in (as well as to swim in). I didn’t have much time to linger over the view, however. There was a message on my tv screen: Pelle Unger, the manager of the Cafe Opera, was expecting me for dinner. I was the guest of honor.

The Cafe Opera, of course — or simply the café, as habitues call it — is the place to hang in Stockholm. I didn’t have far to walk. The glamorous, multi-purpose restaurant-cum-cafe-cum-nightclub is the largest of four eateries housed in the turn-of-the-century Opera House, just down the quay a piece from the hotel. I could see its huge bevelled windows; at midnight they would be Iit by strobes as the outer cafe turned into a discotheque.

It was 10 p.m. Friday evening, the first true weekend of spring. Already a line of hopeful café-ites was forming outside the pleasure palace. I ambled off. Pelle really outdid himself that night. After drinks and filet mignon — and not a few gorgonized glances at the parade of beautiful women passing by my table — our Swedish emcee ushered Don and me off on a guided tour of the rest of Stockholm’s burgeoning nightlife.

First we hfld drinks at Felix, the new gay club in the Swedish World Trade Center; then we whizzed irto the Bistro Jarl, the bistro on Birger Jarlsgarten that is Stockholm’s top outdoor terrace. Anders Gunnarson, the balding, bespectacled founder of the Café Opera, and the godfather of Stockholm’s club scene, was waiting for us there. More drinks.

Gunnarson wanted to take us to another place, but I begged off, and stumbled back to the Grand.

Don, of course, stayed behind.

Stockholm definitely spoiled me this time clround.

I loved staying at the Grand: I thoroughly recommend it. The service was exquisite, as was the food. Of course, I expected that. Nights, I would wander over to the café. Later, after hanging out at my table (#82) and watching the evening hullabaloo, I would saunter or stumble back beneath the royal starry night. It became something of a routine. I did leave the sanctuary of my compound to meet with several special guests. One afternoon I had lunch with Eva Dahlgren, the mysterious Swedish pop singer, whose most recent album, Confessions of a Bleached Blonde (“En blekt blondins hjarta” in the original) has sold over half a million copies, a phenomenal number for a country with a population of eight million. She picked the restaurant, the Ulla Winbladh, on Djurgarden. I had the smorstekt piggivarsfile med pilgrimsmusslor, tiger rakor och kraftsas. Superb. Eva had the brackt laxf jaril med krassesa och sauterad ostronskivling. People recognized us, of course, but no one disturbed us, and no one gawked. Everything was very cool, very Swedish.

There is definitely a little Garbo in Dahlgren. She is very moody. She goes off to Thailand a lot, to be alone. After thirteen years in the music business Eva, who is in her mid-thirties, is writing a book. “Oh, I can hardly listen to my albums anymore,” she pouted.

I liked Eva, though, and I suppose she liked me. At least she offered to drive me to my next appointment, a meeting with Stig Larsson in the center of town. There was a delicious moment in her car, a Corvair, when I finally got her to laugh.

Was she a spontaneous person, I asked?

There was a long pause as she gave this considered thought. “No,” she finally said, and we both giggled.

Lisa Nilsson, the other reigning diva of Swedish pop, is all business. She met me for breakfast at the Grand. This was more complicated than I expected, mostly because the main dining room was closed for meals at the time — 11 a.m. — she had requested. For a moment I was in a dither as I sat in the vast marble lobby and contemplated what to do. Then, thank God, I saw Gisela Wallenberg, the sixty-six-year old woman who really runs the Grand. Of course Mrs. Wallenberg, who has been working at the Grand for thirty years, knew what to do. Why not order room service in the upstairs foyer, she suggested?

But, of course. And the meeting with Nilsson, with her manager in attendance, went off without a hitch.

As I said, Stockholm spoiled me.

And what about Don?

I didn’t see much of my friend during the last leg of our rake’s progress through Scandinavia. You see, one afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art he struck up a conversation with an attractive nurse. Of course, she was blonde. The last time I saw him he was standing with his fetching new companion on the quay beneath my window, waving up to me, showing off.

As usual, he stayed behind.

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