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Coffee and Cigarettes in Helsinki #2: Ruiskumestari Coffee and Cigarettes in Helsinki #2: Ruiskumestari
by Juliette Roques
2007-12-12 09:20:26
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Author’s introduction

How do you engage with a culture when you don’t speak the language? In
Coffee and Cigarettes in Helsinki, the author describes different people as they try to make sense of their surroundings, based solely on observations in cafés and bars or the city’s other cultural places.

With the possibility of direct communication taken away, due to the language barrier, these people’s insights and deductions may not always be accurate but they show how foreigners perceive Finnish society, ranging from idle interest in the group sitting at the next table to a downright desire to get into people’s minds.

The author is currently in Helsinki to research the subject of her Ph.D., focusing on Finnish society. She has previously lived in France, Germany, U.S.A., Hungary, Canada and U.K., where she has engaged in collaborations with artists and is now splitting her time between Helsinki and Berlin.

* * * * * * * * * * *

My roommate works late night shifts. Usually, she’ll bring something home from work, a salad, some Moussaka, or more importantly cigarettes. It’s been a handy system, knowing that late at night there will always be cigarettes to be had. This time though, halfway through the door, I hear her curse in Finnish.

‘I forgot my cigarettes, at work,’ she explains in English for my benefit. Then, just as I’m thinking, it’s okay, I’m really more of a social smoker, I mean I don’t exactly wake up with a cigarette dangling from my lips the way some of my friends do, she adds, ‘there’s a pub here, they might have one. And if that one’s closed, there’s one further down the road.’

It sounds like a plan, especially since I love spontaneous jaunts down random city streets, I don’t even mean this in the ironic sense. I can live in a new place without having taken in any of the sights but if I haven’t at least been on a long and extended walk somewhere I don’t feel I’ve really lived there. And I haven’t lived in Herttoniemi long enough to have indulged in any walking.

The first pub, just up the street, less than a 10-second walk, is, to no surprise, closed. Eliso looks at me and tells me we can go to the next place, a ten-minute walk from where we are.

‘I’ve never been there,’ she warns, ‘it might be shit.’

I shrug. The prospect of a walk still seems appealing. It’s not that cold yet. Any day now, these walks will have to cease, people will be wrapped up in their winter best, worn only to make a desperate run to the store.

‘It’s called Ruiskumestari,’ Eliso explains and proceeds to translate the name for me. Something about Hosemaster or as Eliso explains, ‘the thing that firemen use to put out a fire.’

The Hosemaster, funny name, providing I understood correctly. I don’t know to what extent the Finns do irony, the ones I met, both here and abroad, were pretty good at it. But the name seems apt, in a sad Night-On-Earth kind of way. Lone place of broken dreams that can only be recovered with the repeated and steady intake of alcohol.

That image is the first thing that hits me as we enter the place, dodging the few desperate drunks out front on what can pass as a makeshift porch, the kind your childhood friend will make on account that when he was nine he ‘helped dad build a shelf,’ never mind that help in his case consisted of merely holding the tool kit and watching. Immediately the first thing I think of is a small village pub in the middle of nowhere. My brother used to live in a small village to the north of Budapest. They had a room in the front of a house that constituted the village pub where the lady of the house served dinner, lunch and breakfast, which was always the same thing, a salami sandwich with pickles but they did make you coffee at the ungodly hour of 8.30 a.m.

This place in the east of Helsinki, doesn’t look like it would serve coffee, and in fact the bar only has a small selection of peanuts but they do manage to round up a ginger ale. I’m not much for downing an alcoholic beverage in five minutes tops, guess the French background does rear its head once in a while. Images of firemen putting out fires implant themselves on my brain as I look around. Not much to go by here. A few drunks spread across the room, eyes fixed on their drinks at random tables, each one of them a lonely isolated island in and of itself. Over in the corner furthest away from the bar, a lone voice is doing karaoke, some Finnish number, a song I haven’t heard before.

‘It’s ancient,’ Eliso explains. ‘Really popular with the karaoke crowd. I didn’t know it either until a few weeks ago.’

Eliso is sensitive to things like that being Latvian. She’s been living in Finland for the past five years, which, to me makes her the perfect host. She knows Finnish and the culture enough to be a native but still remembers what it was like to come here, not speaking the language and knowing important parts of the culture, such as the fact that when speaking to a Finn you present your request straight out without making any small talk. And you don’t smile at guys when their girlfriends are present.

‘Wanna stay,’ Eliso asks meaning have drinks here or down them quickly before heading out and home. I nod. This could be fun. Drunk guys in various states of inebriation and I still haven’t seen the singer. We take our drinks and make for a table. Neither of us is dressed up since I was at home not planning on going out and Eliso just came in from work. Even so it takes us about two minutes of sitting at the table before we get company. And it arrives in the shape of a middle-aged man, making his way to our table in a sailor’s sway.

I try to ignore him, which is probably a wise move since I don’t speak a word of Finnish. But Eliso is talking to him which means that she is trying not to laugh. Most people, in order to avoid peels of inappropriate laughter cough or sneeze, Eliso makes conversation. How she manages that she herself doesn’t know but there it is. I look a question at her and she shrugs. The guy is talking at me now so I have to tell him that I don’t speak any Finnish. Predictably he switches to English. Why is that when you want people, need people, to speak English, say on the bus, they never do but when you don’t want them to, they’re always ready to talk?

He asks me where I’m from and I tell him Alabama even though I’ve never been to that state in my life. My dad’s best friend has though, he was born there. Now’s not the time to try and come up with the stories of his youth. I need all my energy for this drunk, who’ s now holding forth about how alcohol is essentially medication and how its healing qualities should be appreciated by all. Next he’ll be talking about mind control. Every other drunk I ever met started on that subject earlier or later. I look at Eliso, make a gesture towards the door with my eyes and we hop off our bar stools.

The middle-aged woman behind the bar agrees to watch our drinks providing we place them in the corner and we go out. Why is it that these places in the middle of nowhere with their random collection of drunks, always have middle-aged barmaids? Because the young girls would be constantly hit on and wouldn’t know what to do or because they would rather move to Antarctica than spend a night working behind the bar working here?

Outside, we soon get company, seems like the whole place suddenly decided to take a cigarette break. The med guy comes out as well and grabs a chair at the table closest to mine, guess it got lonely inside. A group of 18-year-old boys is smoking in a faraway corner. I wonder how many accidents there would be if people were allowed to bring their drinks outside, lawsuits galore with people tripping over their and other people’s glasses and feet. The med guy soon gets distracted by a woman his age sitting off to the other side. He strikes up a conversation with her as Eliso and I finish our drags and bolt inside. A cigarette break never lasted this short.

I finally get a glimpse of the karaoke guy as we reclaim our glasses. He’s been singing all this time. Fifteen minutes of fleeting fame, every Saturday night before the pub closes at midnight. The same repetition, I’m guessing the same songs and the same drinks. Eliso translates what the DJ just said to the singer, ‘wrap it up after this number. We’re closing down.’

I take him in, the singer not the DJ, who is too obscured behind his record and CD collection and the massive amplifiers. He’s a smallish guy, early to late fifties, tufts of hair sticking out over his ears. Does he live for the weekends when he can come here and sing even though no one, not even the DJ, seems to be listening? Performing the same music every Saturday night on a wooden plank stage he has made all his own, with no one listening, paying him any heed or thought. Perhaps they are all immersed in their own little dramas, their own separate worlds, each of them spinning his or her own thoughts as they look wistfully into their drinks, where their dreams, along with the decreasing alcohol, slowly begin to fade out and die.


   
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Emanuel Paparella2007-12-12 13:45:35
Assuming, as most linguists do, that a language is the very soul of a people which incarnates itself in their language. I am curious, how does one study the culture of a particular people and even write a Ph.D. dissertation on that culture without learning their language?


Asa2007-12-12 14:41:06
Juliette, is the Ruiskumestari bar in Roihuvuori? Isn't it the one with the fireman looking down the hose?

I used to live near there if it is... and the karaoke wasn't too bad ;)


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