“Have you heard, “ Gunnar, my amiable guide and contact person from the Aland Tourist Board asked me, as he was driving me to the very deluxe—and very isolated—house in the district of Bjorko, in the center of the main island of the archipelago which he had found for me, “Your President Bush and Mr. Gorbachev have decided to have a summit meeting in Helsinki on Thursday.” It was now Monday.
You must be joking, I replied.
“No, I’m quite serious,” he said, as we bumped along the dirt road.
A call to Helsinki and my old friend Matti Koivo of Finn Facts confirmed it. “My” president, the right honorable George Bush, then in the midst of preparing the American response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait had indeed decided to have a meeting with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, in order to clear signals with the Russian leader for the anticipated action, soon to be known as The Gulf War.
Matti seemed very excited about the affair on the phone. “It’s really a big deal for us,” he said. “I must say,” he added with a laugh, “you really have timed your return to Finland very well!”
I’ll be damned, I said to myself, putting down the receiver. My knack for being in Finland when a news story of international import took place—not something that occurred every day—had struck yet again. Thirteen years before, I had happened to be in Helsinki during Finland’s first airplane hijacking. Now I had arrived just in time for Finland’s first superpower summit.
A summit. The leaders of the world’s two most powerful countries under the same roof.
For his part, Gunnar was rather indifferent about the affair—as if the bilateral confabulation was something taking place in a different universe, rather than in the capital of the country to which this anomalous, self-governing, Swedish speaking “province” putatively belonged, and but a hop, skip and jump away from Mariehamn. But then again, as I had already gathered during the two days I had spent blissfully wandering around the archipelago, that was very much the way the 20,000 some odd inhabitants perceived anything–particularly anything that happened on the Finnish-speaking mainland.
Aland, to use one of the Alanders’ favorite words, was away. And that’s the way they wanted to keep it. In fact, Alanders were so proud of their distance from Helsinki in every way shape and form that lately they had spawned their own nascent independence movement, a phenomenon I had hoped to investigate during the leisurely week I had planned traversing this quixotic world within a world. There would be no time for that now.
Obviously, I would have to go. It wasn’t every day, after all, that I had a chance to attend a summit.
First, however, I intended to enjoy myself. As it happened, I also wished to be away. After years of toiling on my first book, a very difficult unauthorized biography of Rod Serling, the creator of the cult American tv show, “The Twilight Zone”—a project which at one point had been so stressful that I had had to make a visit to the emergency room of Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles with a nascent heart attack, and which had only just been accepted for publication—I had decided to get as far away from the United States and The Twilight Zone and all that by rewarding myself with a two week working vacation to Finland, beginning with a long sortie in those same, mysterious, far flung islands I had flown over on my last trip to Finland in 1977.
Then I could return to the mainland at my leisure and see what the Finns were up to these days.
The summit changed that. After all, a story is a story…
And so 72 hours later, after my all too short Bjorko respite–during which I nearly drowned myself after I impetuously decided to row to the small island opposite my house, forgot which side of the island I had left my boat, and, in the leafy hall of mirrors that is Bjorko, started swimming in the wrong direction (but that is another story)—I found myself rising, along with the nine hundred other journalists in attendance at Finlandia Hall as the sober-faced American and Soviet foreign ministers, Baker and Shevardnadze, respectively took the stage, followed by a grinning George Bush and a somewhat more subdued Mikhail Gorbachev, to answer questions about their epochal pow wow.
Behind them, on guidons on each side of the stage, were arrayed two sets of flags, the American stars and stripes and the Soviet hammer and sickle on the outside, and in the middle, the proud white and blue banner of Finland.
To be sure, the Finnish hosts of this extraordinary “emergency” summit—the second that Bush and Gorbachev had held since the onset of the Iraqi crisis–could not have been more pleased, or pleased with themselves. With only three days to prepare, the shortest time ever for such an event, and the first time since the 1975 Helsinki Accords that Finland had played host to a meeting of such magnitiude, the government had clearly done a spot on job of getting ready for the Big Show. Every journalist who attended the summit had a contact person from the Foreign Ministry assigned to him or her; a perfectly stacked bunch of literature about the summit, as well as Finland; invitations to attend an array of briefings, and a brand new map of Helsinki. This was Finland’s chance to shine, the government knew it, and so it did.
At the same time, and even more importantly, this fortuitous event also provided the recognition and validation for Finland’s much-vaunted policy of “active neutrality,” and thus help Helsinki banish the ghost of Finlandization. In fact, it was at the summit that the Soviet leader first explicitly endorsed Finnish neutrality. This in itself was a watershed event for the “special relationship.” Hallelujah! Little wonder that the Finnish diplomats I met at Finlandia Hall looked pleased with themselves. Was this not what they had been working for all these years?
Privately, however, many if not most of those same palpably upbeat officials were very worried. The Soviet Union, thanks in considerable part to the ministrations of Gorbachev was now in an active state of dissolution, and with it both the Soviet economy and the special economic relationship with Finland. Russia was still Finland’s most favored customer, but the customer had palpably less money to spend.
Already, by the time I had checked back into the Klaus Kurki, the same place that had been my first base thirteen years before, the amount of trade the Russians transacted with the Finns had dwindled to less than 10% of Finnish exports, and, in light of the increasing chaos on the other side of the Iron Curtain, there didn’t appear to be much prospect of that increasing. Much was made of Gorbachev’s querulous visage during the summit, as well as the amount of time he spent hidden away at the Russian embassy, presumably dealing with his mounting domestic troubles which would shortly lead to the outright break-up of the USSR.
All well and good that Gorbachev endorsed Finnish neutrality, but how much good did that do, Finns wondered, if he was not in charge of his own government and people?
Rumors circulated of an impending invasion from the East, not by the Red Army, but by the impoverished Russian peoples themselves…
However, as anyone who is familiar with the history of Berlin during the 1920s knows, an uncertain time can also be an exhilarating time, especially for an inquiring cultural journalist. Finland’s mental and cultural boundaries were becoming blurred, but many people, especially artists and young people, less concerned than their elders with putting bread on the table—and less frightened about the Russian hordes putatively about to descend on them—found that suddenly Helsinki was an interesting place to be. The terra firma beneath Finland was palpably cracking open, and through those cracks there now emerged an arresting and enticing skein of art forms, new thinking and new phenomena.
Other developments, such as the loosening-up of Finland’s alcohol licensing laws and procedures, the legacy of the once powerful Finnish temperance movement—which had formerly required purchasers of alcohol to carry around a tiresome “alcohol card” on which every purchase was stamped and had had inhibited the growth of Helsinki nightlife, contributed to the new “liberated” atmosphere.
Finland, I could see was freeing up and breaking away. Suddenly, Helsinki, the same, rather dour place that Bertolt Brecht had once derided as “a city that was silent in two languages”—was a cool place. That I discovered, was the real story. And I had arrived just in time to cover it. It also didn’t hurt that I liked to hang out. Indeed, you might say that I had an advanced degree in that subject, having already “taught” a course in this nebulous activity ten years before.
And here you will permit me a slight autobiographical digression into my own nocturnal back pages.
To be sure, ten years before I had parlayed my affinity for hanging out into a subcareer of sorts, when I “taught” a course in this recondite subject under the auspices of an adult education “school,” or at least an American version of the same called the Network for Learning, whose instructors “taught” their courses, which ranged from the serious, e.g., “Introductory Non Fiction Writing” to the not so serious, e.g., “How to Meet Manhattan Singles,” and which were advertised via the school’s free catalog, which was distributed via curbside newsstands. The aspiring adult educator wrote the description himself. In return the “school,” agreed to advertise the course and collect the stated fee, which it split with its “faculty,” who ranged from bona fide academics to aspiring Martha Stewarts to outright charlatans. Here was adult education, do it yourself style.
My “course,” a nocturnal walking tour of New York, was based in part on an acid trip I took in 1970 with some of my fellow spaced-out Cornellians in which I used the my innate leadership skills to lead them safely across Cornell’s Bavarian-like campus and culminated with the survivors, i.e., those who didn’t fall into the school’s scenic gorges, massed on the top bench of the school’s football stadium waiting for the sun to rise.*
“Hanging Out: A Nighthawk’s Guide to New York,” I hopefully called my offering.
Not that I actually expected to offer it: the deal was that at least ten “students” had to register for a course before the “school” greenlit.
In truth, as I told the vice president of the Network when I met him one night at Trax, a once great now defunct New York underground movie theater-turned-nightclub owned by a friend of mine where I spent a great deal of the late 1970s practicing my advanced skills in hanging out, I was interested in teaching something along the lines of “Introduction to Non-Fiction.” Sorry, the NFL official informed me, the school’s roster of writing instructors was full. However, he offered, there was room for someone to help conduct a tour of the Upper East Side’s better restaurants. “Restaurant hopping,” he called it (I think). Right, I sighed, as if I knew anything about restaurants. Just my cup of tea. Of course, he said, I was free to embellish the course description.
*In the event, as my fellow tripsters and I belatedly discovered after sitting on the same bench until past noon, and wondering where the sun had gone, it rose behind the stadium.
And so I did. What if, it occurred to me the next morning in a moment of caffeinated
Inspiration at my favorite Upper East Side coffee shop, if I turned the “hopping” part of the Network’s rather pedestrian “restaurant hopping” concept into a kind of all night “trip tour” of New York—but without the hallucinogens: a guided walk on the wild side, as it were (and in the crack-infested, pre-Giuliani New York City of 1980 the word wild still very much applied)? Nay, a veritable course in hanging out, as it were?
Anyway, here is the imaginative description I wound up with—- arguably the most inspired paragraph I have ever invented:
HANGING OUT: A NIGHTHAWK’S GUIDE TO NEW YORK
You don’t have to be rich or in love to enjoy the late evening or early morning hours in New York. All you need is a little expertise in hanging out. Learn the newest advances in this noctural metropolitan art and meet up with a fellow flock of nighthawks for a Fellinesque evening on the town.
Our moveable feast tentatively includes a get together cocktail party at a Village loft; flocking to a midnight flick; catching the late act at a major New York rock club…
–and now I began to reach…
breakfast at dawn with a mystery celebrity guest and..
Here comes the old acid trip part.
watching the sunrise over the East River. Bring a friend! $40.
Cool idea, eh? Needless to say, after I sent my blurb off to the Network for Learning offices, I didn’t think anything would come of it. And even in the extreme unlikelihood that ten Manhattanites actually registered for this thing, I thought, where would I find a celebrity, or even a quasi-one to have breakfast at dawn with a bunch of complete strangers.
Wrong. Several days later I got a frantic call from the downtown offices of Network for Learning (which I personally was never able to find).
“Guess what Gordon?,” the excited voice on the other end of the line said. “Over three hundred and sixty people have signed up for Hanging Out!”
The power of advertising! Somehow my hyper-suggestive catalog description had struck a nerve with the general pubic. Turns out that there were a lot of people out there in neon wilderness who had an urge to hang out. They just wanted someone to do it with. Much to my delight and astonishment, I had converted my proclivity for and “expertise” in hanging out, as it were, into a job opportunity.
My God, I thought, I really have to do this.
And so I did. To make a long story short, because after all this book is about Helsinki, not New York every other Friday for the following six months I met up with a motley, ifenthusiastic group of twenty five to thirty strangers between the ages of 25 and 75 at a Village loft (kindly lent to me by the open-minded artist father of a friend of mine) at ten o’clock in the evening and shepherded them across the breadth and width of Manhattan island, for a wild and wooly nocturnal odyssey that culminated with the dozen or so hardiest “nighthawks” watching the sunrise over the East River.
And wound up making a nice extra income to boot.
Mind, the novelty aspect of the experience tended to tail off after the first dozen of these all night expeditions, especially once I realized how much plain work was involved in organized hanging out—and believe me, finding ten cabs on a Friday night in New York in order to convey my “students” uptown from the midnight flick to the aforementioned rock club (yes, the one my friend owned), and then another fleet to ferry them across town to the breakfast at dawn with the promised “mystery celebrity guest” is work.
But is was fun. In this way, you might say, I earned my Master’s degree in Hanging Out.
Oh yes, about the mystery celebrity guest. Yes, that was hard. Fortunately, by the time my merry tripsters arrived at the Upper East Side restaurant, conveniently named Rainbow’s End, for our “breakfast at dawn,” along with a number of bemused partiers they had recruited at the rock club, they were having so much fun that they didn’t care so much about that part.
Which was just as well, because oftentimes that part had to go unfilled. Mind I managed to come up with a few “guests” who were open-minded (or insane) enough to show up at 5 A.M. to breakfast with my motley crew, although whether they qualified as celebrities is arguable. For example, there was the ex-girlfriend of mine who was a professional dancer-cum-performance artist with the stage name of “Kat of the Nile” who was good enough to come by one morning and hold forth on her feverish life and times.
Then there were the ones I was able to snag at the rock club, for example the drummer from John Belushi’s house band. He was interesting.
Of course, I didn’t know Matti Pellonpaa yet. Now, he would have been perfect. If ever there was a celebrity who suffered fools gladly, it was Pellonpaa.
Flash forward ten years to September 1990 to the main dining room of the fabled Kosmos, where your intrepid correspondent is attempting to conduct an interview with the aforementioned Pellonpaa for The International Herald Tribune.
A few weeks before, as the summit winding to a close and I was looking for a journalistic reason to extend my stay in Helsinki and get a handle of this dramatically changed and fascinating city, I had queried the feature editor of the Paris-based paper with an idea to do a feature story about Aki Kaurismaki, the much-talked about, if reclusive filmmaker whose penultimate film, “Ariel,” had been the sensation of the 1989 Cannes Film Festival.
The editor herself hadn’t heard of Kaurismaki yet—he was still very much under the international radar—but why not? As best as she could recall the paper hadn’t run carried anything about Finnish film since the days of Edvin Laine, and it was time to update her readers.
Loyal Fennophile and Nordic cinema buff that I was, I had already made a point of seeing “Ariel,” the Finnish auteur’s first film to be released in America when it was shown at the Quad, the same Greenwich Village art house where ten years earlier I had taken “my” nighthawks to see the aforementioned “midnight flick.” I believe there were about a dozen people in attendance: the Kaurismaki phenomenon, as such, had yet to catch on (indeed, my attendance at the movie was considered so extraordinary that afterwards I was flagged down by a breathless reporter from Apu for my reaction to the film.)
I loved “Ariel,” with its weird plot about a miner trying to escape his mundane life and the adventures and misadventures that subsequently. There was something very dada about Kaurismaki, and as an old dada hand that was bound to hit in my right spot. I was bemused by the way the director ended his film with his anti-hero, played by the deathless Taisto Kasurinen, fleeing to Mexico, of all places, while an off screen songstress delivered a heartfelt rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Clearly, a man after my own heart.
Too, I was intrigued by Kaurismaki’s depiction of the Kallio district of Helsinki and other areas of the city which were not represented in the literature of the Finnish tourist board.
He also happened to know how to make a film: the editing and photography were spot on. And didn’t he elicit some great performances from his motley crew, including the walrus-faced Pellonpaa? (Who can forget Pellonpaa’s death scene in that film?) Although, as a veteran cineaste and sometime film reviewer I could detect traces of Bresson and Melville in Kaurismaki’s work, clearly he was sui generis.
Clearly, someone worth knowing more about. Someone worth writing about.
But how to get to him? I had been told that Kaurismaki was notoriously mediaphobic. There was no way I could get to talk to him. No way.
What to do? Talk to Pellonpaa, I was told. Then maybe if he likes you.
That appeared easy enough to do—or at least finding Pellonpaa, who had just returned from filming his latest cracked cinematic venture with his boyhood pal, “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” (which personally I had yet to see, but had heard great—and strange—things about).
In those days, Pellonpaa was about as easy to find as Mannerheim’s statue. Everyday I was told, he could be found at the that venerable pillar of the Helsinki intelligentsia, the Kosmos.
“I hope you like to drink,” I was told by my source.
And so there I was several days later at the Kosmos—which struck me as a kind of Finnish version of Elaine’s, the famed Manhattan celebrity hang out, but with palm trees—seated alongside the walrus-faced actor as he whooped it up with a group of his friends and admirers at the famed eatery, guzzling shots of vodka with Pellonpaa, while trying to elicit some memorable quotes from him. Which wasn’t hard at all.
“I am a Communist because I am not a Communist,” the tipsy thespian boomed, to the mixed bemusement and annoyance of the other near by diners, while receiving a steady stream of female fans.
I asked Pellonpaa about his role in “Ariel,” which memorable though it was, was still relatively small, to which the actor responded with feigned outrage. “There are no small roles,” he declaimed, as the studiously-businesslike waiter-cum-monitor assigned to his table deposited another bottle of vodka in front of him. “There are only small actors!”
he continued, turning to me.
During the dangling and increasingly delirious conversation that followed I learned that the 39 year old actor (the same age as me), was seriously devoted to his craft, to Kaurismaki, and to Finland, in about that order. He told me that he attributed that he attributed the his success, as such, to his dual training as an actor and cameraman. “You know, I started off a key grip,” he said.
Nevertheless Pellonpaa assigned the greatest part of his success to Aki’s faith in him. “Who would have thought that I could become a star with this face,” he exclaimed, smiling and pointing at his grizzled visage. Overhearing this, a female admirer seated near by chirped up, “But we love that face!”
Pellonpaa admitted that his success was a relative thing. He still couldn’t afford his own apartment: he was living with a female friend somewhere in an apartment in Tooloo at the moment. That was one of the reasons why he spent so much time hanging out.
Not that he minded the attention. Withal, being with Pellonpaa reminded me a bit of the scene backstage at Trax, my friend’s rock club, when a rock or folk star of high voltage dropped by his office, whereupon clouds of fawning of groupies suddenly appeared.
Clearly, in 1990 Helsinki, Pellonpaa was a rock star, a status that would increase over the next few years as Kaurismaki’s parade of cracked cinematic hits, each featuring Pellonpaa, kept coming.
However, unlike his American counterparts, Pellonpaa put on no airs, nor was capable of the same. Anyway, the management wouldn’t have allowed it.
In short, the interview was a success, witness the fact that following our bibulous te-te-te at the Kosmos, Pellonpaa invited me to tag along with him to his alternate watering hole—cum—hang out, the Elite, where, after being seated at his preferred table at the head of the room, he carried on in much the same vein with another coterie until closing time, consuming several more bottles of vodka in the process.
Thus began a beautiful friendship, and a routine that would last for five years until Pellonpaa’s untimely death in 1995. The first thing I would do after awakening from my post-transatlantic flight coma would be to head to the Kosmos to have a few with Pellonpaa, who often would be seated alone in the foyer, and usually was well into cups when I arrived. Pellonpaa became the Helsinki equivalent of the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign. He was always there, he was always on—or sort of on—and after that, well, all off.
Indeed, one could say, Pellonpaa was the quintessential mystery celebrity guest. Sometimes after a night of traveling with him on his little two stop railroad line, I would walk him home to the apartment in Toolo where he was staying. He preferred to say his leave at the corner. Then he would stagger off into the gloaming, a character in his own movie. That was Pellonpaa.
What about Kaurismaki?
Oh yes, I got to him, too, eventually, although I had to wait until I was back in New York later that year to actually interview him. Kaurismaki was in town to promote “Leningrad Cowboys,” as well as to present a pair of his older films, “Match Factory Girl” and “I Hired a Contract Killer” at the New York Film Festiva. I got the word from the Finnish Consulate that he had agreed to a short sit down session with me. Apparently the good word that Pellonpaa put in for me also helped.
“Very short,” the consulate added.
“Fine,” I replied, “I’ll take it.”
In the meantime, the fall of the Iron Curtain was in an advanced state. The interview took place the same day that the Berlin Wall came down. A television was broadcasting live images from the epochal event near by as several consulate officials gathered around.
Kaurismaki, dressed in his trademark leather jacket, himself didn’t seem to be overly excited about the development. Then again, the laconic director, the polar opposite of his voluble leading man, wasn’t the type to get very worked up about anything. In his short—indeed very short—conversation with me, he confessed to having a strong nostalgia for Urho Kekkonen.
Did this explain why there was a picture of Kekkonen in virtually of all of his pictures?
“Yes,” he said, taking a slow Bogart-like drag from his cigarette.
“Because he was a man.” Another drag. “And because every since he”—Kekkonen—had gone—“everything has gone downhill.”
But if that were so then why make films in Finland?
“Because I am Finnish,” he shrugged.
Right, I murmured, dutifully scribbling.
And what would he do if had more money, I asked, dutifully soldiering on.
He thought for a second, took a drag from his cigarette.
“I would make worse films.”
End of interview.
Two months later, my article about Kaurismaki and Pellonpaa, the first article about the Kaurismaki phenomenon to appear in the “Western press” (as it was then called), was published in “The International Herald Tribune.” This in turn led to other assignments from the “Tribune” and other newspapers and magazines to write about the emerging Finnish scene. In this way I stumbled into my new found role as a kind of “broker” for what was new, up and coming, and otherwise of interest in the eastern Baltic. In many ways, it would turn out to be the best job I would ever have in my life.
Assisting me in this role were two key players on the scene, Christian Moustgaard, the managing director and grand poo-pah of Radio City, Helsinki’s leading alternative radio station and long-time pillar of the Helsinki underground scene, and his fellow soldier of the night and budding scene maker, Erkki Kallunki, the wild-eyed former bartender and owner of a strange new place on Uudenmaankatu which he had given the generic name of “Baari.”
Then in his 40s, Moustgaard, the son of a Dane who had come to Finland in 1940 to fight in the Talvisota, was already something of a local legend by the time I met him in December, 1990 during my follow on trip to Finland, when I was hot on the beat of the “new” Helsinki.
Actually, it turned out that there had already been an interesting alternative scene in Helsinki at the time of my original visit in 1977. Now Moustgaard helped bring me up to speed. A one-time political radical turned self-styled cultural radical-cum-entrepeneur, Moustgaard had burnished his underground credentials in the early 70s as a lighting director for a group of artistic agents provocateur called the Sperm, whose lead singer, Matti Juhani Kapunen, was jailed for reading “Howl” naked but for the psychedelic images Moustgaard puckishly projected on him. (Shortly afterwards, Kapunen was jailed by the city authorities because of rumors that he had performed sexual intercourse on a piano at Vanha, a venue I would soon become familiar with.)
A decade later, in 1975, the mischievous, music-mad Moustgaard helped found the Live Music Foundation, also known as ELMU, a due-paying organization that sponsored rock concerts and assorted Sperm-like happenings around Helsinki and generally kept the revolutionary flame flickering. What Moustgaard’s camp followers lacked was a proper alternative radio station.
“We had a cause,” Moustgaard somberly told at one of our first meetings. “We felt that we were liberating the air.” Hence Radio City, the city’s first proper rock ‘roll station. Founded as an alternative to the audial strangehold of YLE, none of the major players involved in the Kafkaesque process of obtaining a license had opposed him and his comrades on the assumption that ELMU would produce a punk radio station with but narrow appeal.
They were wrong. Moustgaard’s well-disguised ambition was to create a full-fledged, full-service emporium of the air, somewhat along the lines of New York’s famed WBAI, offering both music, talk and news—only crazier. Within a few months the upstart radio station had over 350,000 listeners. Amongst Moustgaard’s inspired moves was hiring Sake and Mato, the lead singers of the Leningrad Cowboys, formerly known as the Sleepy Sleepers, as hosts of his flagship show, “Pullakuskit,” which the two tended to when they weren’t busy with their new found cinematic duties.
Another one of Moustgaard’s creative moves was siting Radio City in the large warehouse-like structure and one time alcoholics’ refuge on the outskirts of town known as lepakkohuola. I shall never forget my first visit to lepakko one dark December night. Several dozen Radio City staffers were hanging out in the station canteen, which struck me as a kind of cross between an avant garde student union and the bar in “Star Wars,” except that the patrons didn’t have antennae (at least I don’t think they did), immersed in pool, pinball, or smoky reverie.
“Midnight Cowboy,” the Stones’ stand by wafted out of an aged speaker. This was followed, after a prolonged, dramatic silence, by the mordant, Wolfman Jack-like voice of Nyassa, the veteran Radio City disk jockey. In the hallway, a group of local youth were making a ruckus: was that a gun I just heard go off? Or a bottle?
Presiding over this quirky cabaret of the air, ensconced in his small, cozy, poster-bedecked office, occasionally flashing a small, knowing, devilish smile, was Moustgaard.
Moustgaard, in turn, introduced me to fellow noctural entrepreneur, Erkki Kallunki, A native of Lappland, Kallunki had arrived on the scene via stints with the Finnish unit of the UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon and Namibia, where he seems to have distinguished himself by his flair for obtaining liquor and other recreational substances; and Corona, the raucous bar founded a few years back by the Kaurismaki brothers, where Kallunki had, with Moustgaard’s encouragement, gotten the notion of establishing his own bar-cum-scene.
He had the perfect place for it: Uudenmaankatu, a then uninteresting mostly residential avenue off Mannerheimintie. In the event, Kallunki’s bank had had difficulty seeing its way through to giving the aspiring bar owner a loan for his envisioned saloon, however the hidebound institution was willing to grant the tousle-haired Lapplander him a loan for a car. Kallunki took it.
In this way, Baari, also known as Ekin baari, came into being. “There is a very interesting place I would need to show you,” Moustgaard—who had come to assume the role of The Rabbit in my private Finnish version of “Alice in Wonderland”—said one snowbound evening after I popped by his office at lepakko (taking care to step over the comatose
fan lying outside his door). And so, after picking up Kallunki in Moustgaard’s MG, off we went.
As we entered, a man of indeterminate age was furiously reading what sounded like poetry in the window, while, further back in the dark of the crepuscular hideaway, various patrons were animatedly drinking and conversing, utterly oblivious to the performance taking place several feet away. Darting out from behind the bar, an obviously enthused Kallunki exclaimed, “Isn’t this cool?” “Isn’t this cool?” In the event, because of the exigencies of Helsinki’s still semi-liberated licensing laws, Baari only served beer and wine.
It was cool. In short order Kallunki would found two more establishments within fifty meters of Baari, Bahia and Number 9. In this way, what became known as the “Uudenmaankatu phenomenon” was born.
On subsequent visits Moustgaard turned me on to some of the other diverse scenes that had suddenly popped up. One night he whisked me off to Cantina West, a new spot on Kasarmikatu featuring Tex-Mex food and live bands of varying vintage and quality on each of its straw (and beer) covered floors. Later we ambled down the block to another very different scene that had emerged at a place called Kaarle XII, where would be preppies and yuppies partied it up amidst a scene of well-worn elegance. Suddenly Helsinki had a nightlife.
Or we might just wind up in Moustgaard’s large apartment in Toolo, listening to one of Moustgaard’s five thousand plus records over several tumblers of Jack Daniel’s. Although he liked rock n’ roll well enough, in quiet moments like these he preferred listening to music from the tropics. He was especially fond of bossa nova.
“There is nothing more modern,” he declared, early one morning after one of these customized hanging out sessions, as the last strains of “The Girl From Ipanema” drifted out into the night. “Nothing,” he emphasized.
I couldn’t but agree. Now Moustgaard was the chief nighthawk, and I was the student.
Meanwhile, I had also taken my first eye-opening trip across the Gulf of Finland and gotten an up close look at Mr. Gorbachev’s mounting troubles at the same time. “Don’t go,” my Finnish friends told me, when I told them that I wanted to check out what was happening in Eesti. “It’s dangerous over there.” To be sure, I had been curious about Estonia—as well as the complicated relationship between Finland and its linguistic cousin—ever since my first visit in 1977.
And it was dangerous. Recently a Swedish labor leader who had made the mistake of picking up an Estonian girl at a local bar had wound up being murdered.
I received further counsel from Robert Thompson, the highly-informed, if somewhat pompous Baltic correspondent for the Financial Times whom I met one night at the start of my next visit to Helsinki in August, 1991 at a liquid dinner hosted by Matti Koivo. “Oh, it’s not so bad,” Thompson, who liked to call the Baltic his “empire,” declared. “Just don’t stay at the Viru. All of the rooms are bugged.
Ultimately I decided that the best way to see what was happening “on the other side” was to take one of the so-called 24 hour “visa-free” boat trips to Tallinn that a number of shipping companies had begun offering over the past year, as relations with Estonia had loosened up. This arrangement was especially popular with Finnish companies and institutions whose officials or employees wished to combine an on board conference with a spot of Tallinn sightseeing.
“We’ll put you with a nice group of teachers,” the suspiciously glib travel agent I settled on told me “That way you won’t have to worry about finding a place to stay. And you’ll get a nice introduction to Estonia.”
And so I did.
The following day I found myself aboard an aging wooden steamer, nursing a beer and sharing smiles with a jovial group of middle school teachers from Turku, as our boat assiduously chugged its way across the Gulf. The following day, after a fitful night spent in Tallinn harbor, as our boat tossed up and down, we were finally allowed to go ashore, where a bus was waiting to take us to the Old Town.
First we had to pass through customs, where, somewhat unnervingly, the Soviet customs guard ordered us to surrender our passports. We would have them returned to us after our tour of the city, the Russian guard, who clearly would have liked to have been elsewhere, assured us in a robotic voice, which didn’t assure us at all.
Another surprise waited for us after I got off the bus in the center of the Old Town for the beginning of a walking tour. The moment we got off the bus we found ourselves walking by a long line of Estonians offering all manner of Soviet militaria—hats, medals, watches, plus, of course, Russian vodka. Near by, at the entrance to the Rigokatu, the Estonian legislature, we were confronted by another unsettling sight: several dozen massive boulders.
What were those boulders for? we asked our Estonian guide. She shrugged off the question so as not to frighten us. In fact, as we soon figured out, those boulders had been placed there in order to protect the legislature from a possible attack by some of the dozens of Soviet tanks stationed just outside of town. We had timed our day trip to Tallinn to coincide with the day that the legislature intended to declare full independence!
And thus, thoroughly spooked, we set out on our little walking tour of Tallinn, followed close by a desperate-looking young Estonian of ten or eleven brandishing a bottle of vodka and a handful of medals. Our group was also closely shadowed by an Estonian police car, evidently assigned to insure our security.
I recall walking across the main square, Raekoja plats, and seeing the patrons of a café staring at us with hungry eyes. The Raekoja plats of today, with its luxury good stores and teeming restaurants, was far in the future.
Later, we were taken to an auditorium where we supped on cups of thin Russian coffee as a local official nervously greeted our increasingly apprehensive group.
Reboarding the bus, we were taken on a short circumnavigation of Tallinn, as our guide blithely pointed out the varied sights, studiously ignoring a large group of Russian troops milling around.
A short while later–and not a moment too soon–after thankfully receiving our passports back, the boat and its shaken passengers were on their way back to Helsinki.
After we were underway, and as we entered Finnish waters, one of the teachers, clearly stricken with what he had seen, turned to me and said in a querulous voice, “Those are our brothers….we must help them.”
And so, as I would witness, and report, over the decade to come.
The next day the Helsingin Sanomat announced that Estonia had officially declared its independence.
Clearly, there was a lot more happening in this part of the world than I had bargained for.