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A Tammisaari Story

I didn’t even remember what this kid looked like. I mean, I could’ve picked him out of a police line-up, probably. But I didn’t have a clear image of him in my head. He had that funky haircut with the ponytail on top though – I remembered that much.

I got off the train and headed for the exit. It was a tiny little platform, mostly empty. Only a couple of others had gotten off with me. I lugged my bag up the long, dark flight of stairs, and heard a voice come from the top.

“What’s up, man?”

I could only see a shadow, the sun blindingly behind it, but I knew it was him.

“Hey. What’s up.”

Kasper and I had met about ten days earlier, in Estonia. I’d walked into an empty Mexican cafe, and he was sitting there alone by the window. I got thrown an Estonian menu by the barman, and as I walked past, looking puzzled, he said hi and offered to translate it for me. I knew right away he was a backpacker. What other creature sits alone in a restaurant and says hi to a complete stranger? Only we do that. It’s like our secret handshake.

I ended up sitting and eating with him that night, and we talked a bit about our travels and shared a few beers before going our separate ways.

“If you’re ever in Finland, hit me up. You can visit my town, I’ll show you around the south.”

Ten days on, I was in Finland, and I hit him up. He invited me to his town, to show me around the south.

I threw my bag into the trunk. He was driving a white BMW. I would’ve picked him more for a nineties hatchback, boom stereo, hot box in the backseat kind of guy. But you never quite know on the road – it’s a time of stripped identity for many. Oftentimes, the version you meet is completely different to the one they are back home.

It was a short drive from the train station to his hometown. Tammisaari, they called it. A small Swedish-Finnish town, by the southern archipelago, population 15,000.

My head was on a swivel as we drove through. Empty streets, lined with small shops, polished and neat, unmarked roads and large wooden houses with big backyards. I loved it. I’d always been enamoured by small towns – so many stories and characters and small town secrets hiding behind every park bench, every schoolyard. All I wanted to do was knock on some old person’s door and ask about all the different legends and scandals and hometown heroes, like when the town jock breaks up with the town sweetheart, and then a new kid arrives in town and gets in the mix and there’s a big standoff at the soccer game on Friday. Then they end up becoming best friends and the girl ends up marrying the town nerd. I could listen to such tales for days.

We pulled up to Kasper’s house and his mother greeted me at the door. She appeared very homely and sweet, smiling a country smile, apron on, obviously cooking something. I felt like an old family friend, being welcomed home for the holidays.

Kasper showed me to my room. I grinned a huge grin inside. The bed was huge. A bazillion pillows, fresh towels, three layers of sheets. After months of bunk beds and couches, I’d never been so excited to sleep.

And then came the tour of the rest of the house. I’d guessed from the BMW his family probably had a bit of money, but the place was a damn palace. Three huge flat screens, massive garden, apple trees, Michelin kitchen, dining table fit for royalty. When we first met, I’d never pictured him as a rich kid. His temperament didn’t show it, nor his clothes, nor his attitude, nor his outlook on life. He just seemed like a regular humble dude. Like most Finnish people, I guess.

Once we’d settled in, I changed into some shorts and flip flops and we walked down to the beach. They lived only a few hundred metres from the water, and there was a nice pocket of sand where we lay out and chilled in the sun. It was a little strange being there alone with him. I didn’t know the guy well at all, we’d only talked for an hour or so that night in Estonia. I got more familiar with his story; where he was heading in his life, his newly bloomed travel career. As he was only starting university, I felt like I was playing elder brother, in a way.

“Anyway, tonight my friends and I are going to play volleyball, if you want to go.”

“Volleyball?”

“Yeah we started doing that every Sunnnnday. We needed to fiiiind something to dooo around here, you know.”

His words had that Nordic drawl, where they hold certain syllables just a little longer than usual.

But I dunno, my friends are kinda scared.”

“Scared?”

“Yeah, of you.”

I looked at him, semi laughing.

“Me!? What did I do?”

“Maybe because you’re from New Zealand. I dunno, Finnish people are scared of new things. New people. New anything.”

When we got back to the house, Kasper’s mother had cooked up a huge pot of lasagne, with a garden salad, fresh bread and homemade juice. She didn’t even serve it in the house; they had some stand-alone dining cottage thing out in the garden, decked out with a fridge and dishwasher and everything. I don’t even think there’s a name for it. A garden house, let’s say. It would’ve been lavish on any day, but after months on the road, I felt like a Finnish prince dining in a private cottage in the middle of my castle orchid.

We rolled up to the volleyball pit just before sunset. It was nestled in the corner of their old school courtyard, a lone sandpit, not far from the roadside. A couple of his friends, Ville and Ida, were already there, knocking the ball around. Ida smiled a bubbly smile and shook my hand. She had long, dark blonde hair, blue eyes, and full, rosy cheeks, which gave her a certain small town charm. Ville was a little more reserved, but gave me a friendly nod and introduced himself. He was of the famed Nordic gene pool – blue eyes, blonde hair, a sharp nose and jawline, and I suppose the famed Finnish temperament too; passive and poker faced. But even though Kasper had made it sound like they were going to scatter and hide behind trees when I arrived, they introduced themselves with smiles and handshakes like ordinary human beings. I felt stupid for expecting anything different.

Car by car, his friends showed up, and I sat back and watched them come together with familiar smiles. It was like a small town eighties movie. The girls arrived in groups, and sat on the bench gossiping, snuggled up, sipping on bottles of Coca Cola. The boys stood around, brooding, joking, kicking the ball at each other.

Andreas was the first to chat to me, halfway through one of the games. He was tall, with glasses, a thick combover. He had a gentle, well mannered way about him, and although he appeared the quiet type, he made small talk with me whenever there was a break in the game, like when someone ran off to fetch the ball from the trees or across the carpark. He was chatty, curious. I guessed he was probably the smart kid, who smoked all these other guys when exam time rolled around.

Volleyball carried on well into darkness. Some games, some chit chat, some goofing around. For them it was just another Sunday, but for me, it was an interesting first peek into their life, their friendship, into this little town I didn’t even know existed a week earlier. I had seen my first glimmer of the real Tammisaari.

We got home around 11 and I headed straight for the shower. It was pitch black in his enormous bathroom. I found the light switch and stared at it for a moment. It wasn’t a light switch. It was some Star Trek shit with a quartet of neon buttons, sitting on a touch pad. I tapped each of them, in different combinations, even clapped in front of them, like in the movies.

“Yo Kasper, how the fuck do you turn on the lights in here.”

He came over, laughing, and pressed the top right button at some funny angle. The lights blinked on. The bathroom was long and tiled black, a sauna on one side, a double rain shower big enough to sleep three on the other. I looked up at the shower head, laughing. It was the size of a dinner plate. I stripped down and stepped in, excitedly, fiddling with the tap – a little colder, a little warmer, until I got it just right. And then I stood there, in bliss, grinning as it rained down on me, washing away every ounce of road weariness from all the months before.

The next day Kasper and I were on a mission. While at the beach the day before he’d mentioned that a big “crab party” was going down in a few days. Of course the obvious question for me was, “What the hell is a crab party?”

Crab Party [krab pahr-tee]
Noun

1. An occassion where people gather and eat crabs, sing Swedish songs and consume large amounts of alcohol. Usually celebrated at the end of the short Swedish summer, before the long and harsh winter arrives. Dangerous. Avoid if possible.

Fun. But I’d be long gone by the time that shindig rolled around. So I just thought out loud:

“Why don’t we have our own? You and me.”

Kasper hesitated for a moment, furrowing, and then nodded with approval.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. We’ll go buy some crabs tomorrow.”

Only things had changed since yesterday. A few casual invitations thrown around at volleyball, some text messages, and now his whole crew had decided they were up for a crab party with the guy from New Zealand. We had some shopping to do.

By the time we got home that afternoon we had crab plates, crab hats, crab tablecloth, crab decorations, and of course, the crabs themselves (which, lost in translation, were actually small crayfish). I’m sure if they were selling crab ice cream we would’ve bought that too. We unloaded it all into his garden cottage, ready to kick things off, but it was only early afternoon; we still had several hours to kill before party time. Wondering what to do, Kasper texted Ville, who offered to take us out on his boat for a few hours, to visit his family’s island.

Say what?

A little history lesson for you: In Finland you have Finnish Finns, and you have Finnish Swedes. And the Finnish Swedes are the minority for sure. And they don’t really speak Finnish, they speak Swedish, and I guess they just kinda hung around after the Swedes left Finland back in the day. So you’ve got all these Swedish speaking people living in Finland, and they’re all kind of loaded for some reason. So I ask Kasper one day while we’re walking around, “Yo Kasper, straight up, everyone in this town looks loaded as hell. Where did all this money come from?”

And he just shrugs, and says “I don’t know.”

But he guesses it’s all generational, passed down from some rich great grandfathers or something. So not only do they have nice cars and houses down this side of the archipelago, they own islands too. It’s normal; you own a bike, you own a toaster, you own an island. And I guess they own them because their grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather owned them. But I have no idea how all that started.

Anyway.

We jumped in the BMW and went to pick up Andreas. He was chatty when he jumped in the car, like the day before. We’d only talked for maybe ten minutes that day, but we greeted each other like old friends.

“What’s up homie,” I said as he jumped in, giving him a little fist bump.

Ville was already there when we got to the docks. We parked beside him. By now, I’d started to figure these guys out somewhat. Kasper was the free spirit of the group. The thinker, the idealist. He was the guy who would read the book and be inspired, who would dream beyond the town. Andreas; he was more of a follow the script, study hard, put a smoke alarm in every room kind of guy. You wouldn’t see him put life on pause to go volunteer in Guatemala for a year. He was more the ‘become a hotshot engineer and start your own firm’ type. And you just knew he’d end up with a mega hot wife too, since those sensible dudes always seem to. And then Ville was like the poster boy of the group. Blue eyed blondie, crisp clothes, classic good looks. If they filmed a McDonald’s commercial in Tammisaari, Ville would’ve been the guy holding up the Big Mac at the end looking all dapper and Hollywood cheese. And he’d probably be your regular douchebag if he was from the big city. But as a Tammisaari kid he was cool, and level headed, like the rest of them.

The four of us jumped in the speedboat. Ville threw the gas down and just legged it. We zoomed through the inlet, past endless clusters of little islands with little cottages on them. I wondered how the hell this guy knew where he was going. Everything looked the same to me. But after twenty minutes we pulled up to a little jetty in the middle of nowhere, and the three of them tied the boat up, as if they’d done it a hundred times before.

We jumped out onto the grass, one by one. As we started walking, Ville just turned to me and threw it out there;

“So, uhh, welcome to my island.”

It wasn’t a small island; the size of a pair of football fields, at least. There were a couple of holiday cottages on it, and a boat shed, but most of it was covered in tall, straight trees and fallen logs, grass growing wild, terrain uneven. As we wandered around, they started unleashing the legends of the place.

“Hey Kasper, remember when you passed out in that toilet over there and nobody knew where you were, hahahahaha. Remember when the boat broke and we paddled for like two hours, hahahahaha.”

I could see it in their eyes, their smiles, the memories. It was those coming of age experiences, the kind that bonded people together forever. In New Zealand we had the gullies, the big Pohutakawa trees. In Tammisaari, they had the islands.

“Man, I used to hate coming out here,” Ville started, gazing over the water. He was more talkative today, more out of his shell.

“My parents would force me to stay out here in the summer holidays, and all my friends were having fun in the city. It was the worst…”

His voice trailed off, as he seemed to recollect some old memories. The other two kicked around in the dirt behind us, nodding, as if they’d heard all this before.

“But now I come out here, relax, drink a few beers. I love it here now.”

When we finally got back to Kasper’s place the little garden house had been turned into Crab Disneyland. There were crab banners stretched across the ceiling and crab hats with crab bibs and crab songs printed out for us to sing.

His friends arrived, one by one, two by two, until there were eight or nine of us crammed around the table. Kasper’s ex girlfriend showed up, and I giggled at the it’s-cool-but-it’s-not-that-cool friendly thing they had going on. I sat beside Ville, and Dennis. Dennis was this lanky 9 foot tall rascal who was all about the good times. If you needed your party to pop off, you invited Dennis. If you opened a beer and took one sip, Dennis threw another one in front of you with a “Hey, your beer’s almost finished, here’s another one.” And he himself could throw back beer like mineral water. I guess every group needed a Dennis.

With my drinks sorted, Ville started teaching me how to eat the crayfish. They were piled in front of us, raw and still shelled. He threw a couple on his plate, and showed me how to crack them open and surgically pull all the meat out. I felt like a child earning wings – busting my own shells at my first crab party – like getting taught to use chopsticks for the first time. Once I fumbled through the first couple, I started tearing through them, piling shells up on my plate. And then I looked at the girls. They were doing some fancy thing where they put mayonnaise salad on toast and piled little crayfish bits on top, eating it all neat and civilised. It just looked like way too much effort. I stuck with the Chinese caveman style I knew so well.

Then the vodka came out. It was Dennis who fetched it, of course. It was Koskenkorva; a big deal, apparently. No other vodka was worthy to be crab party vodka.

Now when you drink with the Swedes, you have to drink a shot every time someone yells skål. So Dennis, being a Dennis, starts pouring shots for the table, and is skål’ing me every five minutes. Then the songs come out. You eat your crabs, sing a song, skål. That’s how you crab party. So the girls egg me on to sing, because they’ve got all the words printed out on these crab party sheets, but of course I don’t know the melody. Ville and Dennis to the rescue. They put together some quality Finnish beatboxing, and I blow up their Swedish crab songs like an MC Jin freestyle. And we skål all night until I can skål no more.

I woke up early the next morning, unsure of what time, or how, I had gotten to bed. Only vague memories of Swedish songs and falling off a skateboard. Kasper would later tell me I had an early night. Those crazy kids had knocked me out before midnight. But there was no time for hangovers. I was due to leave Tammisaari in a few short hours.

Kasper and I spent the morning cleaning up the dining cottage. We opened the door and laughed at the aroma. It smelled like a dying toilet, filled with beer and crab shells. We hustled, making quick work of it, and then I cooked us a couple of omelettes in his five star kitchen. The pepper grinder alone made me feel like a professional chef. It was battery powered, you didn’t even twist it. Just hold the button down and off it went. Nrrrrrrrrrr.

As we lounged in his kitchen afterward, we decided there was just one thing left to do before I took off; the most Finnish thing ever.

Sauna.

The sauna was tucked in the corner of their downstairs bathroom. It was the traditional wood burning kind, and large, you could have fit five or six people in there easily. I watched Kasper stoke a little fire in the furnace and then throw on a bunch of firewood. After an hour it was ready.

“We usually go in naked,” he said. “But I think…we should wear swim shorts.”

We both changed and climbed in. It was nice and roasty, like sitting by the fireplace. Then he threw a cup of water on the stones. The steam hit my face and I collapsed forward in pain, clutching my ears. It was like being doused with a flame thrower. I grimaced hard, then looked at Kasper, who laughed, and then I grimaced again. What the hell kind of kinky ass Finnish tradition is this? Then the steam found my airways, and every breath I took cut short, as if all the oxygen had melted away too. I cupped my mouth with my hands, trying to breathe through my fingers, sip, sip, sip, seconds away from jumping out and rescuing what was left of my face. But then the heat dissipated suddenly, and I started to feel good, fresh. I sat up and breathed a little life back into me. Mmmmm. I understood now. No pain no gain. It was like the Finnish version of a Thai massage.

“So you always come in here naked? Even with like, Ville and Dennis and stuff?”

“Yeah.”

He threw another cup on the stones. Psshhhh….

I was ready for it this time, and zenned through it, breathing in sips until I could talk again.

“Really? Like totally naked? Even with your Mum and Dad?”

“Yeah.”

“Like not even a towel?”

“It’s just normal here. We grow up doing it.”

Hmm. Weird. Although I guessed it wasn’t that weird. It’s just…bodies. Right?

Either way, it didn’t feel real anymore. I was too proud, too purist, to enjoy it like this.

“Alright. I need to get naked then. I feel like a fraud.”

Kasper laughed. I pulled my shorts off and dumped them beside me. He did the same. And then we just sat there, talking about bullshit, naked, faces melting, sweating out all the sins from the night before.

Kasper offered to drive me to Turku – my next stop – later that afternoon. Dennis, Ville and Ida decided to come along for the drive. I spent most of the way in silence, window gazing, making sense of the pieces of Tammisaari I was taking with me. Between thoughts I listened to them bicker with each other, laugh, tell each other stories, like brothers and sisters. I found myself admiring, even jealous, of their friendship. It was real, genuine, lifelong. And suddenly I realised, the lesson I was taking wasn’t in Tammisaari. It was here, sitting in the seats beside me. It wasn’t the crabs or the islands that had left me enchanted with their small town. It was their bond, and kinship, so effortless and apparent. Once childhood friends, they now sat together in this car, decades later as adults, still going through life together, still coming home each summer to walk the same streets they had as children. I thought about all my closest childhood friends, now all distant strangers, out there living a life I knew nothing about. It was different here. Tammisaari didn’t have the sporty schools where all the jocks went, and the preppy schools where all the geeks went, where everyone drifted apart, withdrawing into their own groups of similar tunes and waves. Here you all went through life together because you didn’t have anyone, or anywhere else. It didn’t matter that they were all different; Dennis, the joker, Ville, the posterboy, Andreas, the bookworm, Kasper the dreamer. They all fit together now, like a jigsaw puzzle. And as much as they took digs at their boring town – the boring town where everyone knew your business and there was nothing to do – it was the town that bonded them. One would guess, as different as they were, that they all had different hobbies, goals, loves and dreams, and anywhere else, in any big city, life would have pulled them apart. But Tammisaari held them together.

I said goodbye to my new friends that afternoon in Turku’s central plaza, with handshakes and smiles, no different to the times I’d farewelled the hundreds of characters before them. But they didn’t know, as they drove away in the white BMW, that their story, and their town, as plain as it would seem, had inspired me, to cherish the important things we often take for granted: your roots, old friendship, family, the unique bond you share with the place you call home. The road leaves you many lessons, in many unexpected ways and places, but when I’d been welcomed into Tammisaari just 48 hours earlier, I’d never expected to take so much from their unassuming town in Finland’s unassuming south.

I can only hope, I left something behind as well.

To the place, and people, we call home,

Bren

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