A Funeral

DSC 0048 300x200 A Funeral (Tornio Valley, Finland, July 2003)

She was heavy, with the nose of a pig. Her arms were like bread loaves. She pushed chocolaty buttercups into her mouth with her pinkie finger and apologized each time she left the toilet – which must have been at least two dozen times in the hours I was there. Her shirt announced “I’m a peach”. Her cell phone sat in a cradle of pink, plastic hearts. Her name was Marja – Berry in English.

The old man hated her. I got the impression he hated everybody. He called her “that swine.”

His dwarf hated her too.

“Can I eat?” I asked.

The restaurant was in shadow. A solitary large pine grew in the yard and the street was lined with birch. The grass was neatly clipped and dark green. In white plastic pots she grew Cambridge-blue lobelia. It was everywhere. She also had one ceramic pot of black-eyed-susan. The inside was sterile, like a hospital. There was a dog too. A large, sad retriever kept his head on the old man’s lap and drooled on his starched pants.

I was the only customer.

I had walked the river bank north from Turtola. I went only at night, fishing for salmon along the way. River rules are strict. One can only fish from 7pm – 7am; and only from Wednesday to Sunday. You can’t start before the 15th of June and must end on the 15th of August. At 6:59pm the river can be empty, its shores bare. By 7:01 there are hundreds of men and a few dozen women either trawling the stiff current with narrow, flat-bottomed boats or casting from the bank. They appear as if shades from the trees and grass: knee high rubber boots, baggy trousers, button-up flannel, vest and mosquito hat. The predominate color is army green. Half the men are drunk. Most days I slept in the forest. Some days I found a restaurant where I could eat and read for a few hours. This was one of those days.

“We have a very good dish today.” Marja said. I didn’t bother to listen, knowing she was lying. She had to be lying. This was a Finnish restaurant.

I paid eight euros to self-serve low-quality cafeteria food. The choices were stale fish sticks and old French-fries, a tepid spaghetti-hamburger goulash, or a breaded, non-descript meat with a bland, sticky gravy. Salad amounted to pickles, cold pasta with canned peas and pickled hearing. Only the bread was good. The rest was just to fill the belly. There was a large sign requesting that the customers clear and stack their own dishes.

“I had a gun once.” The old man spoke up. “I had it in my pocket.” He promised. I nodded to him and smiled, afraid he was looking for a new friend. “Isnt that right?” he spoke to empty space to the right side of his wheel chair. Then he reached out and jerked his hand back as if he were pulling on a leash or a chain. The dog whimpered. “Stupid dwarf.” The old man hissed.

He followed me to a table and waited patiently as I sat down and began to eat. He slapped his hand weakly on the retriever’s head. The dog sighed. He jerked the dwarf’s chain. He told me that he had spent nearly his whole adult life as a custom’s agent. The only break was the three years he served in the army during the Continuation War. He knew everything that had passed between Turtola and Pello. “I even knew where the Colonel was hiding out.” He had been assigned a horse – a large bay mare – and issued a pistol. “I had it in my pocket,” and he glared at me with one bulbous eye.

The old man sat, watching me eat. Then he said that he’d won a medal in the war.

“Really.”

“Yes.”

Mannerheim himself had given the medal and there had been a letter too.

“For what?” I asked.

“For capturing this damn spy.” He said and pointed to the empty space to his right.

“But Uffe stole them. He sold them to some American collector, then bought vodka.”’

He growled and then desperately padded his pockets looking for his gun. Then he calmed and seemed sad. “I shot people, you know.”

I heard a toilet flush. Marja came from the restroom with a glass of water. She apologized, to no one in particular, and set the glass in front of me. I suddenly didn’t feel so thirsty.

“The only one he ever shot,” she said “was his first cousin, Uffe.” She stood over me eating her chocolate treats. The old man looked at her with disgust.

“He deserved it,” he said.

“He shot him in the arm. Nearly drowned in the river, poor boy. They finally pulled him out of the river at Haaparanta. Ten days later.” He had survived the rapids of Kukolankoski wrapped around a barrel of butter. “He was an incredible man.” She said. Her eyes lit up.

“He was a smuggler.”

She said that everyone in the family smuggled and that it had never made a difference to him. “He was the only one you shot.” She said she even knew that the old man had always managed to have an extra meal of beef in a week – even during the rationing. At this the old man seethed. “Maybe there was a little double standard.” She said. After all, Uffe had gone and married the old man’s girl on the Swedish side and moved to Sweden, avoiding military service during the war and getting rich on his Finnish relation’s need for butter and beef and gasoline.

During the war and for a few years after, the Finns were only allowed to have one kilogram of butter, one kilogram of meat, one liter of heating fuel, per family and so on. On the Swedish side there were no rationing and the Swedes had endless stocks of anything and everything and the Germans hadn’t burned down their homes. Smuggling was a brisk business. Uffe’s new Swedish family held him up as a hero. The Finns reviled him.

“He deserved what he got.”

“Well, there’s no use in it now. He’s dead. Monday. Lived to be ninety. He was a tough old man. Wonderful man.”

“Good riddance.”

“Today’s his funeral. They had it in Sweden. Then the whole family will be coming here after the services. That’s why the restaurant is closed.”

“Closed? I didn’t see a sign….I don’t mean to bother…”

“Ei hättää.” She said. “No worries. It’s more to protect the customers than the family.”

An hour later they poured through the door, thirty to forty of them. The women were all fat, every last one of them. They wore stretch pants or jeans that were much too tight. They were also all blond and their hair tended to stand high, in stiff waves. The men looked worn and haggard. They were pale and smoking. They too all wore the same thing: two-colored jogging suits, cheap gold chains, white socks, patent leather dress shoes and black leather coats. A few wore sunglasses. All had some sort of grease in their hair. The teenage girls were thin and sexy and also wore tight fitting clothes. They were overconfident and outrageously flirtatious. The boys were nervous, awkward and persecuted. Their mothers pulled at their clothes and they looked painfully uncomfortable. They flashed each other dirty looks and shuffled around the restaurant, hands in pockets. No one spoke.

Marja showed everyone to the table. It was next to the window. On it there was a ceramic pot full of forks, one of knives and one with napkins. There was a large shuffling of chairs, a cluster of confused bodies crashing into each other, harsh whispers, girlish giggles and the growl of men being told what to do by their wives. When they sat, they were enveloped by an uncomfortable silence.

They were mostly idiots, the old man told me. The Swedes were the worst, but, he had to admit, the Finns weren’t much better. Antti was the only one with anything even resembling brains. He pointed to a sullen young man, about thirty years old, who sat at the far end of the table smoking a cigarette and considering a fork. He wore an American T-shirt that said “I’M WITCH STOOPID”. A giant arrow hung below the words, pointing to the man on his right, who was clearly his father.

Marja ordered the old man to the table. “I am speak English!” He shouted, in English, and leaned close to me as if we were whispering.

“Where are you coming from?” A bearded man asked me in English. He had a bald head and unbelievably large mutton chop whiskers that ended in a thin mustache. The attention was just what I wasn’t interested in; but now the whole table was looking at me.

“The United States.” I answered in Finnish.

“I am speak English!”

“Come to join us.” He waved me over. The old man waved him away and tried to grab my arm. “I am speak English!”

My protestations met with a general groan from the funeral procession. Nearly everyone waved me over. Marja sat across from me and pulled another chocolate from her pocket.

“How many of those are you going to eat?!?” Shouted the old man. “How many of those things is she going to eat?!” He shouted to the dwarf. The dog whimpered.

“As many as I want to eat.” She stared him down until he looked away and defiantly pushed another chocolate into her mouth.

I was introduced to a varying array of Niilas, Ismos, Fredriks, Outis, Anttis, Aartos, Helis, Pirjos, Eskos, Sakaris and one Nestori. The mix of sweet perfume, cologne, hair grease and cigarette smoke made my eyes water. The teenage boys flashed me looks that could kill. I pulled my chair to the table while the old man protested, assuring me that I didn’t want to go anywhere near “those people”.

Antti quickly fell under pressure from the women. They wanted to know about his love life and why he hadn’t married yet. They thought that his job as a librarian in Pello was eminently knapsu and turned the available women off. He responded with a sneer, commenting that he hadn’t been lucky enough to find a woman of such passionate beauty and high quality as the ones arrayed before him and that when he did, he would surely snatch her up and then call around to make sure everyone knew of his success. At this the women blushed and mumbled pleasantly to themselves. A Pirjo with long orange finger nails sighed. Whispered conversation began to ripple up and down the table.

I asked what knapsu meant and was told that it was a word particular to the valley. It meant ‘whimpy’ or ‘unmanly’ and was reserved for ‘girly-men’, like Antti. These were the cupcakes that worked in libraries or listened to music; those who had email or wrote stories. I told them that I was a writer. The comment was met with a series of gasps and shaking heads from the men who assured me that I should stop writing. It was not something real men do. But what about Hemingway? Was he knapsu? This set off a raucous debate between the men. Some claimed that he was a knapsu trying to hide behind macho pursuits while others felt he was a true man, writing only because it was an easy way to pick up women; which made him even manlier. The one thing they could agree on was that not one of them had ever read Hemingway, nor much else – reading itself was knapsu. Being that half of the men counted themselves as engineers, I found this bizarre.

An argument erupted from the other end of the table. At this, Marja squealed and bounded to the kitchen, returning with a bottle of vodka and a stack of shot glasses. There was a palpable grown of relief from the table.

Two rounds later, everyone relaxed. The women served themselves food and the men took advantage of Marja’s toilet visits to clear the bar of all the beer they could find. The teenage girls grouped together for a giggle while the boys slowly began to speak to one another. All this in a thick pall of cigarette smoke. Marja began to relax.

As the foreigner, I was to be the target of an exegesis on the ins and outs of Finnish, Swedish and Tornio Valley culture. But did I know that Finland and Sweden were the same country for seven hundred years? Yes, I did. Did I know that the Tornio Valley was one of the most beautiful places in the world? Yes, I could see that. Did I know that a German prince had traveled; disguised as a tailor, through the valley in the 18th Century impregnating every woman he could get his hands on? No, I didn’t know that, I said.

“Does that mean some of you might have royal blood?” I asked, directing my question to all of them. Well, of course. Nearly every person at the table could directly trace their ancestry back to some hapless maid who had been left pregnant by the traveling prince.

Did I know that Finns love the sauna? Of course I knew that. “We’re all Finns”, said Ismo, “just some of us live in Sweden”. The Finns laughed. From the Swedish side came a claim that it was the Sámi was actually invented the sauna. But what did the Swedes really know about the sauna, asked a Finnish Fredrik. The Finns assured me that all Swedish men, even the Finnish-speaking ones but especially the ones from southern Sweden, were homosexuals. They couldn’t handle the heat and always ran from the sauna, squealing like children, when the löyly got too heavy. The whole Finnish side nodded in agreement.

With equal confidence, the Swedes affirmed that Finnish men were not much more than hairy, drooling brutes who ran at each other with knives called pukko and that all murders in Finland were done with an ax. The old man howled in agreement, assuring both parties they were correct. “You’re all idiots!” He hooted. “They’re all idiots!” He said to the dwarf. The dog whimpered.

“The Finns would have nothing without the Swedes.” A woman told me. She spoke in halting Finnish and had the accent of a native Swedish speaker from Skåne. “We gave them all their culture, religion, education. Without us, the Finns would still be living in caves.”

This, somehow, led to a discussion of architecture and the Swedes wondered why Finnish cities were so pathetically ugly. The immediate answer was that the Germans had burned all the Finnish cities during the Lapland War but the Swedes wouldn’t know anything about that since they were too busy selling iron to the Nazis and playing tiddlywinks with the Finnish refugee children. Ismo brushed aside the comment about the children and said that there were plenty of Finnish cities that the Germans didn’t burn and they still looked like Eastern European ghettos and why was that?

“The Russians.” The answer came in a slurred chorus from the Finnish side of the table and Marja appeared from the kitchen with another bottle of vodka. The Russians. Niila was incredulous and said that the Finns always had an excuse. The Russians. They couldn’t have dropped that many bombs, he said. Face it, Finns just prefer concrete boxes, it’s part of their simple, and slightly stupid, nature. It reminds them of their caves. From the Finnish side of the table rose a massive protest and a discourse on all the sufferings the God had laid on poor Finland in the Twentieth Century.

I asked about the dead man. Uffe. Wasn’t this his funeral?

Uffe was a crook. The old man said.

They took a round to the dead man. Uffe was, evidently, a legend in the valley. He was a man of daring feats: a tremendous lover, a solid family man, an unrivaled drinker and daring hunter.

They took another round to him.

It seemed that nearly everyone at the table was suddenly very, very drunk.

His widow, a bearded old biddy in a fake fox fur cap, said that when he had been shot “by that insane man” he had floated down the river for weeks. Again I heard the story how he had survived the rapids of Kukolankoski wrapped around a barrel of butter he had been trying to smuggle. He had caught a salmon with his bare hands and ate it raw. All of this in the middle of one of the coldest winters in memory.

“But, doesn’t the river freeze in the winter?” I asked.

This met with silence. Then a breathy comment like: ‘what could you know, you’re a foreigner’. I then received a discourse on the breakup of the ice in the spring. Uffe was left to the side. The breakup of the ice was something to see. The valley residents took bets on when the breakup would happen. The valley flooded. Entire islands were swept away. The sound of the cracking was like cannon shot, echoing up the valley. “Almost as loud as Outi’s farts.” One of the men sniggered. A napkin landed in his face and Outi stormed to the toilet. A Pirjo followed. The rest took a shot.

Marja kept the glasses full of alcohol. I could see weary concern reappear on her face. Keeping her family exceedingly sauced was the only way to avoid real conflict, it seemed. She concentrated on her task, never taking a drink herself.

The boys had loosened up with a few shots of the vodka. They compared war tales from Nintendo and talked about Laura Croft’s breasts. The girls looked bored. They flicked at their hair, chewed on their fingernails and sighed.

When I refused the vodka, it was proof I was knapsu. A foreigner. A writer. A man who won’t drink vodka. Shame was dished to me on an oversized platter. Suddenly, I was generally ignored. The family continued to harangue each other, the insults increasingly slurred and non-sensical.

The old man sat next to me in silence, nodding his head with every comment. The whole affair was proof to him of just how worthless his family really was. He looked to me; his face was pained with disgusted tedium. It was the look of: ‘I told you so.’

He called for Marja and demanded to use the toilet. Checking to make sure there was enough alcohol on the table, she pushed his wheelchair toward the bathroom. He jerked the dwarf along behind him. The dog left the old man and put his head on my lap, sighing heavily.

There was a teenage girl sitting next to me. She was very pretty and very drunk. The vodka had made her eyes so loose in her head that I also wanted to ask her if she was related to Marty Feldman; but I thought better of it.

She stared at me, shamelessly. I stared back. Then, she threw herself back in her chair and shook her head in disgust. Then she leaned forward again and said in English “I am moving Helsinki. I want get out of here. You have less than fifty? Is nothing in valley. No education. No jobs.” She went on but I stopped listening. I had grown weary of the drunken blather. The dog began to whine.

Marja left the toilet. “Excuse me,” she said, as if she had bumped into someone. Then she locked the door from the outside. I must have given her a quizzical look. “He fell asleep in there.” She said and came to sit beside me.

“Is he your father?”

“Yes. Well, kind of. My uncle really. I’m Uffe’s daughter.” She whispered. “Illegitimate. With his wife.” She pointed toward the toilet. “But we don’t talk about that.” And she beamed. And she pushed a buttercup into her mouth.

“How many of those things are you going to eat?” Ismo shouted from the far end of the table.

Marja stood, furious. “As many as I want to.” Then she turned and bounced into the kitchen – and never came back.

I left them and walked toward Pello, fishing the whole way. I came to a place where a broken TV hung from a pine. I cast for salmon there, but caught nothing. In the night, I slept in a grove of birch between the railroad tracks and the river.

I had the distinct feeling that I never wanted to meet another Finn in my life.