"Europe 2004-05" story # 10

Kemi, Finland           July 24, 2004

A curly-haired Australian guy stayed in my room at the hostel this week. He had been hitchhiking around Sweden like me, and he'd also been having a tough time of it. He'd accepted one ride that dropped him off on a small side road. Here, some cars passed him but none stopped. It took him two miserable days and FORTY-EIGHT kilometers of walking before he could get himself somewhere that he could take a bus.

In Umea, I hung out Tuesday night with the gang of crazy girls who'd tried to get me addicted to "snus." Nina is the name of the crazy girl who was hosting this get-together. Her hair color is a vanilla frosting shade of blonde, and it's cut like a shag. She has a sunny disposition and a nice little, happy-as-a-clown face and gravelly-blue eyes.
     The crazy girls wore towels and got themselves ready, drank beer and white wine, and danced to Swedish techno music. Vegetarian Nina introduced me to a political rap CD made by a bearded, white, American guy who is shown running through the forest on his CD; he's anti-Bush. (A lot of "underground" American music is popular among young Swedes.) The crazy girls are intelligent and fun. But, when we went out to a full nightclub that night, my friends dispersed to go talk to guys. It was a "pick-up" kind of nightclub, and I'm not really a "pick-up" kind of guy. I called it a night.

The next night, I was out again. After the bars closed, two young guys on bicycle came by and so nicely inquired if I wouldn't read to them from my Pippy Longstalking book. I said, "Why, of course."
     In the white light night of Umea, we had Story-Time. With the skills and confidence of a Swedish fourth-grader, I narrated the wondrous adventures of Pippi Langstrump. "Annika kom hit, sa Pippi." I read fairly fluidly for half a page. When I reached the word "sjaravare" (pirate), the guys laughed and stopped me. This was a tough word.
     "Sj" is pronounced like an English "Sh," but voiceless, so it sounds like "Hk." "A" is a difficult blend of English "Ah" and "O", and sjaravare had two damned a vowels in a row. One of the bicycle guys and I took turns comparing "sjaravare" pronunciations for a moment. I think we all got a brief kick out of Story-Time.

Meanwhile, my restaurant construction job hasn't had much use for a skill-less American worker; so, I began a new hitchhiking trip this Thursday. Hopefully, I won't have any two-day-long waits for rides.
     I headed to the Arctic Circle.
     Hostel-owners Anders and Victoria drove me to the end of Umea. I needed seven hours and six rides to reach the next large city (278 km away) on Sweden's low, watery coast. The sixth ride was from Ulv, a small and kind, clean-blond-haired forty-year-old. Ulv and I conversed in mostly Swedish, which I was very excited about. He told me he was a "forsaljare" (salesman), that his daughters were "nio" (nine) and "fjorton" (fourteen) years old, and that he was stopping one time to "pissa" (pee).
     Later on, Rinar stopped for me. He was a tan-skinned guy with black features. He had on a gold, caramel, and brown dress-shirt and black slacks that were too big for him but were held up by silly black suspenders. He was twenty-two. He came from Finland, but the only language we could both somewhat speak was Swedish.
     "Ar du kristen?" he soon asked me. (Are you Christian?)
     I told Rinar I wasn't. He looked at me disapprovingly.
     Nevertheless, the ride with Rinar was kind of festive, fun. Rinar told me he was a Mormon, that he'd been doing missionary work in Sweden and other countries. I asked him if people in Finland were nice, or if any of the other Scandinavian countries he'd visited had had nice people. He said no, not really any countries have nice people. He said, "All kristna man ar snall." (All Christians are nice.) I could've introduced him to a few exceptions.
     He asked if I was "hungrig" (hungry). I said that I was, but that I had lots of food in my backpack. He stopped the car, grabbed his food out of the backseat, and then made me eat a ton of it. "At, at!" he said. (Eat, eat!) I feasted on three hot dogs, meatballs, and juice. Rinar seemed like a nice, generous Christian. (Most Christians - like most non-Christians - wouldn't share their cars with a hitchhiker.) But, observing the way he commanded me to take what he offered, I suspected an ulterior motive to his charity. I wondered if Rinar didn't relish indicating the power he held, or the dependence which he thought I had.
     Once I'd finished eating, I checked a map and realized we'd missed the turn-off point to Sweden's Arctic Circle. Rats, I didn't want to backtrack now. Instead, I figured, "What the heck?" I'd continue past the Finnish border and check out Finland.
     At the Finnish border, Rinar and his silly black suspenders and I got out and took pictures. Twenty minutes later, Rinar dropped me off as he passed the town of Kemi. He insisted I take a furry black cap of his. He said some parting words on Jesus Christ and his God (not Buddha, not Allah, but the true God), and I thanked him for everything.
     It was now eleven p.m.: precisely time to party.
     Kemi's half-mile-square downtown and a little factory lied upon where the northern Baltic Sea slipped into land. The town was modern, made of concrete, square-edged, plaster-white buildings with green or red signs. I exchanged Swedish kronur for Euro's. I went to Nightlife nightclub and left my bags with coat-check. I ordered a Koff beer.
     I quickly noticed the guys were very broad-shouldered. Many guys were short, shaven-headed, and broad. But, two guys there were tall like giants, each with black hair and in black clothes.
     Short, black-haired Uunjur was the first Finnish guy I spoke with. Another guy almost started a fight with Uunjur while I was talking to him. Uunjur told me Finns (much unlike Swedes) like to fight. While Uunjur conversed with me in English, a shaven-headed friend of his interrupted us with barely-Finnish grunts that Uunjur called ugly and incomprehensible. Omenously, this shaven-headed guy would later start a fight with me.
     Soon, it became evident that the people surrounding me were crazy dancers. Girls threw their fists in the air and shook their heads around like Diana Ross. Guys made emotional gesticulations like Madonna, jumped up and down, and played air-guitar.
     The craziest dancer swung her limbs in creative and sassy loops, as if she thought she was a hired dancer in a New York City electronic club. She was a pettite girl, dressed in pink-and-black-striped stockings, a blue skirt, and an orange blouse. She had short, black, pointing-around bits of hair like Wynona Rider.
     This craziest dancer often invited me up to the high corner of the dance floor, where rainbow shafts of light highlighted whoever danced there. I'll admit, I danced with this craziest dancer. When in Finland ...
     She had a shy, white face and little, unsure, black eyes and eyebrows. Her name was Kia. She was a doll Finn. A lot of the guys liked Kia, and these guys could get pushy with her at times.
     The aforementioned, shaven-headed grunter guy danced in front of Kia, mouthed things to her, and uglily eyed her. It must have frustrating for him that I was dancing with Kia. Eventually, he grabbed my wrists and pulled me off-stage. For eight seconds, we engaged in a pushing/pulling struggle around the bar. Nobody even tried to break us up. Probably, they just thought we were doing some crazy Finnish dance.
     This guy was giving me the Finn grr. Door-men finally showed up and kicked him out.
     I returned to enjoying Finland, which had included enjoying that guy's knee to my stomach. (It hadn't hurt.) Most people in the nightclub were quite fond of me, especially those who I had photographed dancing. A tourist in Kemi, Finland was a big deal.
     Kia and I slow-danced to Guns'N'Roses' "Don't Cry," which was a great end to the night.
     I'd befriended one of the big, giant, black-haired guys, so I asked him to escort me outside for protection. The last thing I needed was to get jumped while carrying my bags.
     The coast was clear. I said good-bye to the Finns of Kemi. I had plenty of energy, and it was of course light out at this high latitude, so I tried to hitch a four a.m. ride.
     Beside an empty highway, I entertained myself juggling a tennis ball with my feet. A bearded Finnish man named Duomo drove me back over the Swedish border. I hadn't meant to come to Finland - when people in the nightclub asked me why I came to their country, I said, "Somebody drove me here" - but I'm glad I did.

later, Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Woller; Erish; Richard; Par; Johan; Ulv; Stina & Jemst; Rinar; and Duomo for the rides!

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