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Coffee and Cigarettes in Helsinki #3: Sightseeing in Kallio
by Juliette Roques
2008-01-01 10:26:42
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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.

* * * * * * * * * * *


Hanging out with boys as the token Californian has its benefits, not in the least because you end up in some pretty obscure places. The Sunday before my 18th birthday being one such case in point. We’re walking around Bulevardi, we being my Finnish friend Otso and Mike, his Canadian buddy, for no reason than the fact I happened to mention I like old buildings and art when suddenly Otso, Helsinki born and bred, decides that I need to familiarize myself with my new surroundings and brings up the program for the following day, Aikuisten Lelukauppa.

‘It’s a sex shop,’ he explains, then translates the name into English in a rough estimate. Toys for adults.

I nod, not thinking anything of it when suddenly, our group becomes really quiet and the two guys are looking at me. Before I can make the universal hand gesture for ‘well, tell me what the hell’s going on,’ Mike opens his mouth and out comes, ‘you wouldn’t dare.’

They’re both busy looking anywhere but at each other. Clearly, this has been planned thoroughly, premeditated and discussed in meticulous, painstaking detail. So I ask when and before I can finish the sentence, they jump right to it.

‘We could go there tomorrow,’ Otso suggests, not looking at Mike. ‘Since it’s your birthday and all.’

Mike is standing there, shifting his weight from his right foot to the left and back, trying unsuccessfully to hide an escaping grin and the first thought to come to my mind, immediately comes out of my mouth.

‘Sure, if you’re buying.’

I can see their eyes light up and their minds frantically racing to construct mental notes of previous conversations, any references to sex shops I might have made and their face almost immediately drop. It’s true, we never discussed religion or where we stand on the issue of free love and the 60s, which, judging by certain movies and musical covers, are set to make a comeback.

‘If you make it inside,’ Mike announces, ‘we’ll buy you a present. Anything you want. Within reasonable limit.’

This is actually turning into a pretty good day after all. Although I am worried about my age, considering I won’t wake up and suddenly look all grown up in the next 24 hours. But plans are already being made by Otso as to where to meet and at what time, going about it with his usual Finnish precision, which means that we actually manage to arrange a time and place in less than it takes us to walk back from Annankatu to Kamppi. Three drinks later, we say our goodbyes, each of us wondering if the other will show up, which we all do, bright, early and freshly scrubbed at the ungodly hour of 1 p.m. at ‘K-Extra, opposite the smaller metro entrance of Hakaniemi’ – Otso’s words, not mine. I don’t know who looks more surprised, the guys or myself but I make them stop for coffee just to draw out the moment of suspense, even if it is only for a few extra minutes. Though it’s true I haven’t had any coffee today and I usually need two and a cigarette just to function. Cigarettes, as a History teacher explained, are good for your mind, providing you smoke just two or three before class, firing up your neurons so you can study. The coffee’s just to keep awake.

The guys are eager to go, seeing how far we can get before one of us chickens out and their money of course is on that someone being me. They’re older than me by three years and I’m sure that when they were my age someone did something similar to them. Of course the main reason they’re hoping that even at the last minute I turn around and beg out, is that sex toys are expensive and it being the end of the month, neither of us has much if any money left worth mentioning. Still, a bet is a bet and I know I’m on sturdy ground with this one. Of course they’re thinking the same. As we follow the upward slope of Porthaninkatu my conscience kicks in and I have second thoughts.

‘Let’s not do this,’ I say suddenly because I feel bad at walking into a place just to prove a point although I’m not even sure what point that would be.

Immediately the two of them start smirking and I can see, in my mind’s eye, money passing hands or at least one of their alcohol consumptions being paid for that evening, so I decide to walk in. The deal, if Mike’s comment is anything to go by, is I get to pick a present inside if I walk through that door. All previous dares have worked on this principle. The winner gets free drinks of his or her choice for the night or as long as the budget lasts. Still, I hesitate as we approach and I’m not sure why. Hoping the guys won’t notice is a vain hope if ever there was one. Mike even makes a crack about my Catholic upbringing, which I’m quick to remind him has been nonexistent.

Three steps away from the entrance, a mental image of the interior arises in my mind’s eye. A vast space, lots of old men swarming around while the owner, a pot-bellied guy with greasy hair swigging beer, barely looks up from the porn magazine he’s been reading since the first customer walked through the door. Taking a sip of my coffee, I look at the guys and motion them to follow me in. I wouldn’t bet this month’s drinking budget on it but I could swear that it’s taking them longer than the three nanoseconds it should take to get through that door.


The place is tiny, everything within easy visibility and even easier reach. The owner glances up from his position behind the counter and makes eye contact with us. He’s standing not sitting and there is no sight of any magazine, porn or otherwise. But he is looking at us. This, of course, is normal; after all, he’s running a shop. The idea is to get customers in. But he seems to be looking at me for an uncomfortably long time. What goes on in these people’s minds, I wonder as I take another sip of my coffee. Surely they must get any number of bizarre customers, predominantly male. A guy who is Otso and Mike’s age, presumably a customer, walks up to the owner and they start talking about a DVD the guy is holding in his hands. I can’t make out whether he’s buying or selling, I heard that these places sometimes do both and that people bring in their stuff for whatever reason; maybe their girlfriends, once they decide to go steady, make them get rid of what to them must be junk.

Otso and Mike are glued to the display. It’s the same one they’ve been eyeing for the past three minutes, while I’ve been trying to figure out the story between the owner and the guy, the writer in me (or the neurons fired up earlier) spinning the story out full force. They’re still concentrating on the same item while the customer or pseudo-customer is leaving (in my mind’s plot for the unwritten story he has become a lonely guy on vacation from another country or somewhere up north, who wants to find his ex girlfriend of whom it is rumored that she is now a porn star). I can hear them omitting the occasional stifled giggle and I suddenly realize, not without glee, that they are embarrassed. I mentally high-five myself and try to hide my joy in my coffee when I look up and notice that the owner is looking straight at me.

My first instinct is to look away but not before having taken him in, a man in his late fifties, jeans and a black shirt with the logo of a band on it. I can ‘t make out what it says but it’s probably metal or hard rock, everybody in Finland listens to metal or hard rock. He seems friendly enough and I like to imagine that he’d actually talk to us if we managed to get past the language barrier. Which makes me feel all the more bad about going in there just for a laugh or to prove a point, as I still like to kid myself.

Knowing that there will be no present coming from my two friends, who are doing a Beavis and Butthead in the corner – the same corner they made for when we entered – I make my way to the counter, thinking that I should buy something, even if it’s a crappy something for a friend of mine who financed her studies by working in a sex shop back in L.A. I should have brought Eloise here instead of these two. But things never go according to the perfect scenario or plan.

What I really want to do is apologize to him, let him know that we’re not in there to make fun of him or because we had nothing better to do that afternoon but I can’t find the words or the gesture and there’s always the fact that at this moment in time I don’t even speak Finnish other than the two swear words Otso has taught me and the phrase, ‘your place, mine or our separate ways.’

On my way to the counter, after having proclaimed my intention to buy in English, I happen to make eye contact with the owner again and realize with a shock that he’s been following me with his eyes. Impossible to say if he’s been doing that continuously or if he just occasionally glances my way. He seems to be shaking his head at me and, contrary to what the guys have been saying before, it’s not my Catholic upbringing projecting images of guilt, hellfire and damnation. He really is looking at me. The gesture reminds me of someone trying to tell you across a busy street that this is the wrong way to go, you should take the next turn if you want to get where you said you were heading. I keep stealing glances at the owner, alternating between looking at the display and looking surreptitiously at him. I can’t make out the color of his eyes and since I don’t speak Finnish (yet) I can’t strike up a conversation with him. Beavis and Butthead in the corner are of course totally useless since they’re still giggling their asses off. He seems like a nice guy, so I really don’t understand. Unless of course he knows that I’m not yet eighteen. Technically, I’m still illegal as I was born in the late afternoon and it’s now something past two at best. But he has no way of knowing that.

In desperation I turn to the guys but they have, at this precise moment, miraculously managed to pry themselves away from what constituted their security blanket and are now looking at the DVDs slightly to my right. I chance a second glance in the direction of the counter, where the owner is still standing. And this time it’s clear, the owner’s eyes are definitely on me, following me around. I don’t think he’s mad at me for bringing them in, he must get tons of customers like that; giggling 18-year-old or even underage boys trying to act all mature and suave while their buddies – who breathed a collective sigh of relief when the coin dropped on heads as they’d called instead of tails as their loser friends had wagered – remained sitting on the other side of the street, giggling and alternating between relief that they hadn’t been forced to go in and slight regret, a sense of losing out.

Maybe he’s just curious as to the setup, wondering which of the two guys is my boyfriend. Does he get girls in there I wonder, and if so do they come with their partners or do they go it alone? There can’t be many girls venturing in there, if any at all. He’s probably married, must be. He looks like your cool uncle, the one that knows which guitar to get you when you ask for one and the right concert ticket to go with it, the guy you can talk to about girls, music and career choices, who won’t force you into something like all the other adults in your family or at school.

Maybe he’s thinking that I’m here on a dare. Americans are known to be uptight about certain things that are natural in Finland, like going to the sauna naked or running around in the nude in your summer cottage and he can tell from my accent that I’m from the U.S. I try to tell him with my eyes that I’m sorry about this whole thing, we didn’t mean any harm, it wasn’t our intention to make fun of him or his shop, and we’re not doing it again. But even as I take another sip of my coffee, I can’t find the words to go up to a stranger and open a dialogue based on a hunch. Instead I follow Otso, who, together with Mike, has slowly been inching his way to the door and we all go.

Picture used with kind permission by Kari Valo


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