Most of us will agree that democracy, in whatever broken shape or form, is preferable to other ideologies that have been promulgated over the past few hundred years. There is a point though, where the noble narrative of the empowerment of every eligible citizen can be taken a step too far. We’ve just seen a bawdy Christmas party spree called ‘pikkujoulu’ in the vernacular, in which it has once more been demonstrated that not all elected officials are worthy of the trust imbued in them. Take for example Teuvo Hakkarainen, the truest Finn of the Finn Party formerly the True Finn Party, who has once again demonstrated his complete lack of self control and good manners. The Parliament of Finland joins in on the jollifications of the festive season by throwing a party. What should he do but grab no less than former Taekwondo Olympic athlete and MP Veera Ruoho of the National Coalition Party to firmly plant a French kiss on her. Needless to say, alcohol was the driving force behind his passion. This incident was and probably will not be the only one that can be blamed on the odd tipple too much. Two weeks before this, his expensive Audi came to blows with the barricading pillars at the entrance of the parking hall to Parliament House. He claims they ‘suddenly rose up and lifted the front of the car’.
Seriously, who votes for people like this? And he’s not the only one. The buffoonery that is politics has become the laughing stock in more than one country. Surely some basic education should at least be a premise for adding your name to a ballot? Teuvo Hakkarainen was first elected in 2011 which means that he’s not been elected once, but twice!
The few drops of rain falling from Helsinki’s heaven couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd gathered for the roof wetting of the appropriately named Löyly (sauna steam), the sauna on the shores of this Nordic city. Neither did it penetrate the roof of the steel/concrete/wooden construction aimed to blend into the Baltic coastline.
The ‘organic space ship’ (see New Sauna for Helsinki), is emerging bit by bit with the help of construction company Jussit Oy with Jukka Klang at the helm as Project Manager and Markku Mäkilä as Site Manager.
I spoke to the intrepid architects, Anu Puustinen and Ville Hara from Avanto Architects who are passionate about this building. They have to be. They’ve been involved in it from the very beginning, a process that started 5 years ago, has undergone 3 ownership changes as well as some site shifting and design manipulation.
“Antero Vartia (MP/actor/restaurateur) and Jasper Pääkönen (actor and passionate salmon protector) are the third set of clients we’ve been dealing with. It has taken some real sweat and struggle to get this off the ground and to this stage of the game.”
“What challenges have you had to face?”
“First and foremost the weather. It’s always a problem here in Finland and being so close to the sea poses even more obstacles. The framework has to be made out of steel and concrete to withstand storms and other adverse conditions like ice. When the sea freezes over it pushes and shoves everything in its way.”
“And the wood? Would it be affected?”
“Finland has a long history of building wooden structures next to the Baltic and hence, besides perhaps changing colour, it shouldn’t harm it. We’ve used Nextimber, wood glued and heat treated, then pressed to make it more dense, more like teak.”
“What kind of wood have you used?”
“On the outside pine, inside a kind of birch waste wood, like plywood, thin but creating a lovely veneer. It’s a really ecological way of using timber.”
“According to the operators, Royal Restaurants, end of May. And the construction company is giving its thumbs up to it, so hopefully. We’ll be proud when it’s finally done after so many years of planning and negotiating.”
The sauna will house electric, wooden and smoke saunas, a huge restaurant and terrace and a place to go for a dip in the Baltic. These will be open every day from 1 to 10 pm.
Royal Restaurants will manage the entire building and the menu will include everything Finnish and fishy (homage to Jasper) with the ubiquitous hamburger thrown in for good measure. It’s not a dining place, more a relaxation joint with partying reserved for Fridays and Saturdays.
I, a South African, always dreamt of living in a pink building and although this one’s more salmon than pink, it’s Jugend Style, has masses of character and is run by a fantastic housing company who keep it looking good. It’s when I look out my window that I see the fairy lights adorning the doorway across the road where sex is plentiful and dreams are short lived. So while my building is upmarket, the surroundings suggest something different.
I love it. Right next door to the massage parlour called Amatsoonit (draw your own conclusions), there’s Dionysus Film Studio. On the other corner there’s Refugee Law. Down the road, some Jordanian guys are busily snipping away at men’s hair at Newroz the cheapest charge in town, only €12 and across from there there’s HumHum (details below). It’s owned by a young Egyptian student who has big dreams and makes even bigger shwarma sandwiches which are stuffed to overflowing. Everything, except the lettuce, is made by him. He opens at 1 pm not because he sleeps late but because he attends college in the mornings. His spirit will not be quenched by red tape, questioning authorities or health inspectors. Like the Jordanians, he’s determined to survive in these cold climes.
Vaasankatu is the closest you’ll come to a red light district and sex shops, dancers and masseuse abound. At last count there were 11 bars along the same street. But then, there are these special gems stuck in amongst the rough diamonds like Café Pequeño. The guy from Argentina shares the space with a beauty parlour and a hairdresser and they all work side by side in an atmosphere of cutesy calm. His contribution to the usual cinnamon buns and croissants are seriously delicious carrot cup cakes and empanadas, a delightful little meat pie from his home country. The music swings too. Solmu pub has its own special brand of beer; Molotov bar is filled with students and lovely people from across the globe. And there’s a thing, the drinks are cheap, for Helsinki that is.
While town is full of Thai restaurants, one as mediocre as the other, there are two that catch my fancy, Tuk-Tuk on Vaasankatu and Pinto B’Staurant on Vilhovuorenkatu. Fresh is the password, spicy and crisp, every dish is distinct and both have authentic Thai chefs in the kitchen. Then there’s Kombo run by a friendly Spaniard and his Finnish partner. They serve tapas made with care and heart and really good wines.
The sauna on Harjukatu is from times gone by. Heated the old fashioned way, by wood, makes the löyly (steam) soft and healing, the dressing room is well, retro. You can even find a lady who will wash you, men and women alike, although the facilities are separate. At Arla Sauna, cupping or the release of bad blood by small incisions in the skin, is a draw card.
Talk about rich, this area is as rich as it gets when it comes to people of different cultures all rubbing shoulders together. What makes it different is that we all feel that we’re in the same boat together and that survival is our only hope in this cold country. Survival with a good dollop of cream on top, that is.
HumHum – Helsinginkatu 4 a, 00500 Helsinki; +358 44 2511292
He’s seen the inside of kitchens, packed wine on cellar shelves, taken stock, paid his dues in some of the most renowned restaurants in town and now Samuil Angelov is a highly regarded sommelier and wine educator in Helsinki. I want to know his views on wine trends.
“Less is more,” he says. “People, especially Finns are becoming more and more health conscious. They want to eat well and exercise, drink less. This is evident in the sales of hard liquor which have gone down not only in Finland but I’d venture to say in the rest of Europe, especially in restaurants.”
“Today it’s not unusual to find say two gentlemen going out for a meal ordering champagne or sparkling as an aperitif. In the past it would automatically have been a dry Martini or a Vodka Polar. Wine and bubbles have become the order of the day, so to speak.”
“So you mean to say Finns have changed their drinking habits?”
“Definitely. The long lunch is out. Life is too hectic and demanding. It’s possible to have a glass of wine at lunch time without it affecting your work load in the afternoon. You can’t do that with a good dose of heavy liquor under your belt.”
“What would you say is the fastest growing beverage?”
“Champagne and sparkling wine. We have one of the world’s most highly acclaimed champagne specialists and Masters of Wine, Essi Avellan as well as Alko’s Communication and Marketing Director and Master of Wine, Taina Vilkuna, right in our midst. Needless to say they have had a great influence on the consumption of wine in general and especially bubbles.”
“Finns are quick learners and early adopters. As a sommelier, can you see this in your restaurants?”
“When I started working the floor in the late 90’s, wine knowledge was pretty limited. Today, my customers keep me on my toes. They’ve become so aware and know so much and it pleases me when I see a young couple coming in for a meal who know what they want in both categories of food and drink.”
“What about the style of wine? Are the heavy, in-your-face types still popular?”
“It depends on the weather. If it’s cold, Amarone and Barolo are the ones that’ll warm you up. But the lighter styles are in, with German wines doing really well at the moment. Riesling, Spätburgunder, Pinot Noir, cool climate wines with less alcohol are flying off the shelves. Personally, I’d like to see more consumption of the new style of USA and South African Chardonnay which is more acidic, fruity and elegant than the over-oaked stuff they used to make. It’s still oaked but balance is everything.”
According to Samuil, wine is here to stay. The demographic is changing to include the millenials who are taking a deep interest in the subject. This is evident from the attendees of wine tastings, of which he does a lot.
“We still have a long way to go to educate the entire population of Finland. There are a few wine drinking pockets mostly in the big cities but the countryside is going to take some doing. On the other hand, Alko is providing a good service in that you can find almost every grape varietal available in their shops from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, if not on the shelves then to order.”
We enter this very hot room and they whip out a birch whisk, slapping me all over with the branches that let out this strange lovely smell.
“These Finns are crazy,” I think to myself, “suckers for punishment and really into flagelation.”
I learn my first Finnish phrase that night,
“Saanko heitä löylyä?” i.e. “Can I make steam by throwing even more water on the sauna rocks and heating this sweat box to unbreathable levels.”
And then the washing lady. Egged on by my sauna buddies I pay a small fee and the 65 year-old superwoman orders me to lie down and washes me with such force and vehemence that it turns out to be more of a massage than anything else.
Now for a swim in the cool water where bathing suits are not required kit. Post-sauna requires a light snack and even a glass of sparkling wine goes down really well but most Finns would disagree. It’s the sauna beer that does the trick for them. Whichever way, we’re all sitting around in the café area of this remarkable bath house architecture preserved since 1928. When I walk outside into the freezing Finnish winter, I feel a strange sensation. Warmth. And not only that but a sense of relief and calm that I’ve forgotten about if ever I’ve felt it at all.
There are more saunas in Finland than cars, 3 million at last count. But that wouldn’t stop the Finns from coming up with new ideas for the most innovative. The telephone booth obviously doesn’t cut it, neither does the ski lift at Ylläs, nor the yurt floating on Töölö Bay. In the meanwhile, while they’re racking their brains, we have plenty of opportunities in Helsinki to enjoy the benefits of heat, steam, cold followed by beer. Kulttuurisauna (€15) on the shoreline of Merihaka, offers you that body shocking experience of warming up and then dipping yourself in the ice cold Baltic Sea. Now there’s a jolt to the ole ticker but they say the benefits are enormous, even anti-ageing. The classic old-fashioned Kotiharju Sauna (€12) in Kallio prides itself on being the biggest wood-burning sauna in Finland. The original furniture has been kept even the lockers reminiscent of art deco. Arla Sauna is cosy and cute and slightly cheaper than the others at €10 a go for as long as you like.
Sauna is a great stress reliever and cure for all kinds of ills, both mental and physical. But it’s also a political and economic hot spot, please excuse the pun. President Kekkonen was well versed in the effects of sauna, so much so that he was known to keep his political guests in the heat until an agreement had been reached. The ‘Cold War’ didn’t stand a chance in the Kekkonen sauna. Our Russian neighbours were like putty in his hands after a good, long session. Even Khrushchev enjoyed his host’s hospitality until 5 am culminating in him agreeing to Finland opening up its trade doors to the West.
President Ahtisaari followed in his predecessors footsteps using the sauna as a cooling down method for hot headed opponents determined not to agree with one another. Talk, meet, sauna, more talk, and the problem seems to well, disappear like steam.
President Halonen, a woman and oh dear, the past seems to point at sauna diplomacy reserved for her male counterparts only. But fortunately enough, the Finnish parliament now boasts a majority of female MP’s making it possible for her to have company whenever a serious issue needs to be thrashed out.
Reams of stories have been written about it and with good reason since its role in the culture is so embedded and covers the whole lifecycle from giving birth to preparing food to hammering out deals. Ultimately, however, and this is the best part, turning a women into the most beautiful she will ever be as she emerges from this simple ritual of sweating, whipping herself and plunging into ice cold water or snow. Or so they say….
Jani Leinonen’s School of Disobedience will teach you a thing or two
To call him an artist sounds mediocre, a pop artist weak, an activist warmer, a revolutionary– now we’re getting there. Huge colourful, playful-looking slogans, dolls and objects deck the walls of Kiasma on the 5th floor where the School of Disobedience is located. It’s a real school, there’s a classroom with a videos made by several of Jani’s cohorts whom he has chosen from all walks of life. As in the title, yes, but also a politican, a street artist and some TV presenters, all young, all hungry with a passion to pass on their provoking ideas to the public. Gone are the days of A for apple, B for bear. Now it’s A for anarchy, B for beggar. Slide into a desk and listen!
After your strong dose of how to change the world to be a better place, how to stage your own revolution, how to delve deep to understand who you’re obeying and why, go to the other end of the hall that looks out on Mannerheimintie and you’ll see an enormous slogan so big that it can be seen from the street below, that looks oh so familiar and even more shocking.
The life size dolls in the same room look tired and weary while they’re still campaigning to pollute the minds of children and young adults persuading them to buy their particular brand of goods.
Now for the main exhibition. The real life Romanian beggars sit at the foot of framed signs all bought by Leinonen from beggars, underscored by brass plaques stating the name of the country, all beautifully framed. Anything Helps is a monument for beggars but it is also an analogy for commodification – cheap production, refinement resulting in a work of art/product that can be sold at a hefty profit.
You’re drawn to the cardboard boxes of your childhood with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes printed on them. Come closer and you’re confronted with the Choice is Yours. Real or Fake, Problem or Solution, Family or Career, taking the C and N out of Corn and leaving you with a big OR.
Could it be? It’s the Hunger King booth, a red carpet for the Rich and another lane for the Poor, an experiment Leinonen launched in Hungary ironically so, after a law criminalising homelessness had been passed. He opened this burger restaurant in a vacant office space where the Rich could line up and buy his burger art while the Poor would get a burger box containing 3,400 forints, minimum wage for a day’s work. Even though the media were all over it, not only locally but also internationally, the law was still not repudiated and hence he considered the whole project a failure.
The most pervasive character in the entire exhibition is Ronald MacDonald, a character with whom the artist seems to have a special connection. The clown who can cry and laugh at the same time, who parodies fun and playfulness yet emerges tragic and sacrificial. He’s crucified, hung, even guillotined in a YouTube video grimly depicted as an Isis victim catching the attention of Fox TV and other global media, a stunt for which Leinonen and his co-conspirators were fined. Mac Donalds could’ve saved their beloved Ronald but failed to respond to the ‘Food Liberation Army’s’ questions re the health effects of their food.
One big question going through my mind – how does he get away with it? He’s using blatant, recognisable logos, lampooning them, mocking them, deliberately provoking the onlooker and violating the products. Scare tactics used by Raisio in the form of a letter to sue him for changing their pure, Finnish trademark maiden into a whore and more, is framed and accompanies the distorted package display. This ‘open source artist’ leads the way in disturbing our obsessive consumerism and pushes us to think of what we buy, where we buy it from and whose pockets we’re ultimately lining. If only this were all we are prodded into thinking, there’s so much more in this exhibition that to walk out of there untouched would mean that you didn’t get it at all.
Humbled to be in the presence of such a talented young man and not only is he talented, his unassuming manner is without even a smattering of false modesty. He gives himself credit where it’s due and leaves the rest up to you to figure out.
And credit is due! The list of artists he’s performed with reach way beyond your arm. I ask him who stood out most.
“Hard question but I have to say it’s probably Kenny Wheeler, renowned trumpeter, Canadian born but lived most of his life in the UK. I sent a demo to him and he called me back. Never forget the day. I was on my snowboard when the call came through. The conversation went something like this,
“Hi Jan, I’ve listened to your sound and I’d like to work with you but it’s gonna cost you.”
“How many digits are we talking?” (I blocked my ears while the answer came.)
“Sure no problem!”
The album ‘Answer’ was born.
Me: “How do you work? Do you give the musicians a score to follow?”
Jan: “Not really. If somebody gives me a score, I will play the notes on my bass but I always know that these notes were not written for a bass player. So I change it to suit the situation. I expect my fellow musicians to do the same.”
Me: “Playing and composing is not all you do. You’re also involved in production. What is your approach to that?”
Jan: “Networking. I talk to people all over the world, bring them to Finland and Sweden to play with people from here, they get to know each other, form working relationships and some are still working together after 10 years. I get a kick out of stories like that. Creating opportunities for everyone.”
Me: “Last year you were instrumental in bringing about a unique project. Can you tell me more?”
Jan: “Yes, I have done it for two years now. I brought together a group of amazing music artists and we travelled throughout Finland playing in various cities. We arranged a national singing contest combined with the tour. The contestants came from the local populations and they got to perform with us as part of the show. They of course brought their friends along to come and listen and we had an instant audience. The bands worked as juries, and our criteria for judging this was: If you’d have a gig tomorrow who would you bring? Once that was established, we knew who would make it to the finals in Helsinki.”
Me: “Great idea and I really congratulate you on this. Are you planning to do this elsewhere?”
Jan: “Absolutely. I’ve got a plan in mind for the USA and have started moving that project further, registered and all.”
Me: “Every year you arrange for bands to play at Carusel, here in Helsinki. Any big names amongst those besides the crème de la crème of Finland?”
Jan: “Sure. Every Wednesday during the summer months there’s jazz, blues, funk and beyond from 8 pm for an hour. We’ve had people like Jeanette Olsson whose sung with greats like Cher, Santana, Britney Spears, Celine Dion, the list goes on.”
Me: “What’s next?”
Jan: “Another album, this time with vocals, networking, finding A+ level musicians who are humble, who resonate with each other when their worlds’ collide and most of all, touching the hearts of listeners.”
I felt like I was walking on air when I left the bar where we had met. I got it. I knew why some of the best of the best would want to get to know him better and strum along to his tune. He, in his gentle, humble way, is the spiritual connection that makes his projects different from any other.
“Finns love dancing. I have yet to come across a society that indulges in couples dancing as much as the Finns do. There are ‘stages’ all over Finland where people go with the express intention of doing the waltz, foxtrot, jive, you name it. Why is it that boys are conspicuous in their absence at the ballet school?”
“Exactly. The Finns love dancing, I watch them from my office window doing the lindy-hop and whatever else in the amphitheatre down below. It’s the age group from about 10 to 16 that would rather be seen dead than doing a pirouette.”
“Does it have something to do with being perceived as gay?”
“Definitely. But that is based on a complete fallacy since I have never seen anyone become gay because of ballet. On the contrary, you have to be twice as masculine to be the only guy amongst twenty half-naked gorgeous women moving in the most fluid, beautiful way possible.”
“My children are adept at using mobile phones, iPads and computers. Getting them away from these immobile activities is a challenge. We are embarking on a new project called So You Think You Can Move? which we’re taking to the schools. We show the whole school a performance and then we invite the 6th graders to participate in the dance clinic. The others are excluded. Of course, it’s entirely voluntary whether they want to dance, they can just watch if they like. We teach them some moves, we film it and they can upload it from the website. In this way we marry dance with technology. The best performers win tickets to the ballet and some gear which they can use for dance practice thereby encouraging them to continue.”
“What kind of dance will you be promoting?”
“Both classical ballet and street dance since the latter is so popular in Finland. We’re doing something similar in another project called Dare to Dance for the slightly older people.”
It’s clear that in amongst all the premieres and returning ballets for this season as well as projects like Finnish National Ballet Youth Company’s R&J (Romeo and Juliet) and Dancing with Dancers, a club-like atmosphere that starts at 10 pm and finishes at 4 am, Kenneth Greve is going to be a busy man. But as I said, he’s no sissy, he’s a leader able to grab the challenge and lift the FNB to new heights.
Horečná-Godani-Robbins: Sara Saviola, Antti Keinänen