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Coffee and Cigarettes in Helsinki #1: Kappeli
by Juliette Roques
2007-12-05 09:53:13
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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.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Fabio and I decide to meet for coffee late on a Sunday afternoon when there’s not much else to do, when the choice given is either stay at home and be bored (that’s if you have no TV or internet access and even then that’s not necessarily a given) or meet someone for coffee. After a night of venue hopping, cheap Lebanese pizza and half an hour of cigarettes by the railway station because we’d both managed to miss our buses we became friends.

Fabio’s been here since April. Like me, he still finds things fascinating enough to be entranced by them such as the way people finish their coffee in ten minutes and then go about their daily tasks. Every bar owner’s dream I guess. We’ve been in there for over an hour already, just sitting by the window, looking out over the harbor, watching the dark. Inside the lights have been dimmed, evoking a sense of Christmas spirit and light. Soft jazz is playing adding to the atmosphere, detached, relaxed, people sitting at their tables, talking amongst themselves, not taking in who’s going in or out.

In the summer my friends and I always ended up at some point during the day at Esplanadi, sitting on the grass sipping our ciders and beer, looking at passers-by. Now even the tourists are gone. A few diehards are still walking around, or perhaps they are hurrying somewhere, home to their wife and kids or to secretly meet up with loved ones. Do people have as many affairs here as they seem to have in Southern countries or is that just another cliché in a sea of many clichés waiting to be proven wrong?

There aren’t that many people inside given that it’s Sunday afternoon and it’s already dark. Who comes here, I wonder, what kind of people? In Finland, I’ve learned – and witnessed – you can be a celebrity and hang out virtually anywhere. I like this system, this not invading other people’s privacy, letting them be. The girl at the next table looks slightly familiar and when I look again I recognize her from a picture someone showed me, pointing out that she was the girlfriend of a Finnish celebrity. I can’t remember the name now, just that, on a blog my friend had shown me, when she had mentioned the celebrity’s girlfriend, now ex, someone had said she wasn’t a hanger-on, she was doing her own thing. A Finnish or Scandinavian equality that doesn’t always manifest itself as such in Southern countries.

Despite myself and the fact that I’ve been around those exposed to the limelight my whole life, my people-watching obsession gets the better of me. I’m interested in people, doesn’t matter if they’re famous or just someone from down the street. I never used to play that game where you go around the room and create stories for random people but I will pick out someone and then focus on them – all night. The girl sitting there might not be the celebrity’s ex but she’s interesting to me because she looks different.

The typical Finn, male or female, to me is about my height, which is to say short with the occasional tall specimen – remnants of some conquering Viking or border-hopping Soviet  – thrown in, hair either any shade of blonde or brown. The girl looks tall with red hair. To me she appears Irish, then again, appearances can be deceptive and she might even be Brazilian or French. The people she’s with are all animatedly talking, so very un-Finnish, the casual observer might say, although I have many friends here who are Finnish and talk a mile a minute. They seem to know each other quite well, the people at the table, the way they sit and talk over each other, cutting off each other’s sentences. No one seems to be deferring to her, not anymore than they do to each other. They laugh a lot, which too seems strange in this sophisticated establishment.

In the summer my friend Laura and I were taken to the little stage on Esplanadi by Laura’s boyfriend to see a band from Lapland. Now all is quiet, the opposite of this group here. Was she like that when she was dating the celebrity whose name, try as I might, I just can’t remember? Or does she feel free now that she is no longer on display, just doing her own thing? Do they still speak? If he walked in there that very moment, would she get up and leave, ignore him or would they simply nod to each other and go about their separate ways? There’s no real way for me to reference that, most of my Scandinavian friends have been together since they were seventeen or eighteen and the ones that did break up always had foreign boyfriends. Of course that’s nothing to base an assumption on, no matter how vague.

The crowd here consists mainly of people in their mid-twenties with a few older ones thrown in for good measure. If I remember correctly, her ex would have been the same age as her. I’m trying to remember what my observations were about Scandinavian relationships, to the extent that they differ from I have noticed though is that with Scandinavian couples the guys and the girls both have equal skills when it comes to cleaning and cooking and the domestic day-to-day. The girl, as if drawn to me by my thoughts suddenly looks at me and shakes her head. Does that mean not all Scandinavian couples are alike? I remember a Cuban friend telling me that he didn’t know how to pack because always in that situation it had been either his girlfriend or his mom who’d immediately offered help. I met him when we were doing a study exchange in Berlin and he had been keeping all of us alive with his cooking skills.

The girl looks around the table and makes the universal gesture for smoking a cigarette. Three out of the five present get up and follow her, relief written all over their faces.

Fabio catches my eye and motions out, framing it as a question, eyebrows raised even though he’s been sitting with his back to their table the whole time. Relieved, I get up and follow him outside. As I zip up my coat so I can light up, I notice, the girl and her group standing outside. She is watching me, the same look of interest on her face that I must have been projecting. She’s probably wondering where we’re from and whether Fabio’s my boyfriend though in Finland I’ve heard that a guy and a girl can hang out without the implication of a potential romantic adventure hanging there over your heads. As I light up and turn to leave, I catch her eye.

‘It’s freezing,’ she says directly at me though at the same time the statement is so general, it could be directed at anyone. Perhaps, she meant it like that, even though judging by past experience, it’s the kind of statement a British person would make. And maybe she is, maybe she’s half and half, she seemed to be talking Finnish just fine. And chances are she’s never heard of that celebrity, whatever his name was, in her life.

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Simon2007-12-06 00:16:18
Damn, and I thought you were looking at me!

Fudge2011-11-18 23:40:34
Is this a God Dam? Ya know, God damn?

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