The feverish feeling I had earlier having subsided and the hour sat on the runway because of the obligatory awful Summer weather now consigned to that part of my memory reserved only for dull travel anecdotes, I was rather banking on a (by comparison) uneventful flight. It was not to be. First of all, the front page of my complimentary Grauniad records the demise of Henri Cartier-Bresson, just about the epitome of artistic integrity, and long-term photographic hero of mine. Still, as pointed out by my perceptive associate Mr. "dark image" Clarke, at least the pictures editor had an easy morning of it. Inside, the news only gets gloomier. Juergen Groebler is chopping and changing an olympic rowing team beset by illness, injury and jealousy. His prediction of success is described by the cynical hack as reminiscent of a polotician half-heartedly defending some ropey and unscrupulous party policy. On the previous page, concerns about the cleanliness ot the Thames are raised. And before you all wet your cordurouys laughing with oxymoronic cynicism, I should point out that these concerns are in the context of a potential re-occurrence of the "Great Stink" of 1858, during which the condition of London's great sewer outlet- sorry, the Thames - deteriorated so badly that community-minded MPs were forced to consider legging it to Oxford. Never short of a few well-placed words, Disraeli apparently called it a "Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror'', before advuising the House to, "give it ten minutes if I were you" and leaving the Thames flood barrier open a bit to try and let it disperse.To beef up the credibility ofthis scaremongering the paper claims that excess sewage killed 10,000 fish on Tuesday.. environmentalists are not sure whether to blame the flash flooding or the two for one deal on phaal at the Clapham Tandoori.
Well, after a read like that I should have been prepared for anything but when dinner arrived, things got positively surreal. First of all it was cold chicken with couscous. I mean, really. There is scant excuse for couscous at the best of times, but on a two hour evening flight it'sjust plain rude. What's next? Cold turkey sandwiches? QUICHE?? Anyone would think James Bond was doing the catering. The most bizarre thing, though, was the legend on the condiment packet. Almost earnestly bohemian, it reads on one side, ''The color of snow, the taste of tears, the enormity of oceans." On the other? "Pepper has been called 'the gift of the East'. Though 'gift' means 'poison' in Swedish, don't let that put you off." It's just bizarre. You could make it up, but you would be locked up. Or employed to write food packet slogans for SAS. Either way, it's not natural.
I should point out, as we are currently landing, that all of the above has been written on my Sony Clie and a most agreeable experience it has been. The trick - and you'll have to excuse a little Douglas Adamsy techno-preaching here - is to swap from the awful G raffitti system, which requires you to write some letters in upper case and others in lower, to the rather neat Decuma system, which actually looks at the shapes you manage to make on the screen, rather than attempting to decipher the component movements of your (well, my) infantile scrawl. You also get to brush up any mistakes in a word before it is actually posted to the work area, which helps if your writing is as scrappy as mine. It's not quite good enough to use during landing but then again, what is? It's probably too loud for voice recognition so stop that one before you say it!
Sweden is obvious as soon as you get off the plane. Where else would you notice that all the emergency vehicles are resprayed Volvos? Who else would be so loathe to let go the innocent wonder of the jet age that they call their capital's airport, "Sky City"? At passport control, a moustachioed Viking chef - probably - asks me how long I am staying. "Just overnight," I say. "I'm going to Finland.
"Fine" he says, handing back my passport with a miserable scowl. "Go to Finland." Innocent wonder, my arse. Maybe I do have the 'flu and I'm delirious.
Right now I'm on a deserted subterranean train platform, trying to guess whether SEK90 is a good deal for getting to town, and whether I'm going to find the hotel without the GPS part of my nav unit. Honestly.. 46Mb of map to navigate about a mile through central Stockholm. Sad, really. At least it allows me to locate the nearest tube station to the hotel, which is, I hope and pray, going to get me to bed before I have to get up again. Thanks to unforeseen thunder at LHR it is now half eleven at night.
Showered and changed, not without waking up the owner unnecessarily, I let my body know that illness isn't an option via the subtle hint that only a half of breathtakingly strong Swedish lager can deliver. It's all gravy. Back at the Spartan but modern hostel, where shoes are as forbidden as smoking and unmoustachioed guests (I made that last one up) they have digital door locks and beautiful pine floors. Shame about the communal shower but this is easily countered by the FREE SAUNA every morning. Alas, the men's session begins as my flight departs.. I consider sneaking into the ladies' session but am suddenly arrested by a small sign on the wall. "Free bus" it advertises. "To Ikea". Oh dear. Time to sleep, then leave.
The morning after, and I sleep in. Not too badly, just half an hour, but enough to be galling, especially as I recall waking before the alarm, and switching it off. Honestly.
Stockholm is clearly worth more than this flying stopover. Last night I had a couple in a local bar before taking a 1am wander past a rather pleasant square with an absolutely stunning fountain and endless queues of new-looking Volvo taxis.. the streets are as wide, attractive and spotlessly clean as the smiles on the teenagers weaving home from hip-looking bars and I'm almost tempted to sack Finland and hang out here. But this morning, some billboard ads have made me glad I did not.
I think some nations have a counterpart - often a neighbour - whose residents they see as artistic, interesting, totally nuts of course but tolerable nontheless - perhaps a little envied for having more fun - and a stock ingredient of middle class advertising. In England it's the French; in Sweden it appears to be the Finns. TV ads for some financial service show two suits brawling in a childish, hair-pulling style, one of whom has a large supply of used Coke tins in his car boot. All good fun, if totally insane to the organised, almost Germanic Swedes. The slogan has the word 'Finns' in it so it's probably akin to, 'when we see a market, we corner it with Finnish enthusiasm - even if it's just recycling cans.' At the station a bill board advertises flavoured water with a fruit-filled table jug strapped to a fast-moving bike frame.. and again some strapline about Finns - probably, 'As healthy as Finnish picnic catering but more convenient.' I cannot wait to meet these lunatics!
At the airport the SAS check-in queue stretches half the length of the terminal. It winds past a construction hoarding which bears the legend, "We're hiding something new.. faster check-in." Thanks for rubbing my nose in it, asspirates!
The plane to Turku is a prop, claustrophobically tiny inside. The seats are three abreast, labelled A, D and F - for reasons probably best left unexplained. In flight I read the dull magazine and learn that the world sauna endurance championships are being held in Finland this weekend. Sadly not in Turku however. I am worried now that it's going to be cold; the bride-to-be has arranged a mass canoeing expedition for tomorrow. All fears are calmed when I step out into basking 25°C sunshine and into what is proudly billed as the "official Moominworld airport". Well, even the Groke has to go on holiday sometimes!
I am beginning to think that those Swedish advertisers might have a point.
Turku, it turns out, is actually very proud of its famous residents of uncertain species. Even my hotel has a giant wall poster featuring a Tarzan moomin swinging in from vine right to deliver tidings of some special offer or other. It's strange; I want to say that you can feel the collision of East and West here but in fact, despite having Russia on her doorstep, and despite the very DDR industrial site I passed on my way from the airport, only a very few things mark this city out as at all different from even London. I suppose the expectation is borne of being an Eighties child; I know there's nothing pernicious or contagious about Russian culture.. but I have my suspicions, all the same! There are a few interesting things; more bicycles than Oxford and an obsession with huge one-way roads to rival Pretoria stick out. The hotel is modern and comfortable, despite the disappointing lack of svelte Baltic lovelies waitingin my room to dish out some "executive massage". I think I'll survive. A chance meetiny with other guests clues me in on the transport scene and now all that remains is to snaffle this steak and change into my heinously crumpled suit. Sigh.
By the time I reach the meeting point - not without asking for directions at the shop NEXT DOOR (sigh) - I am already sweating freely into my suit. Luckily the taxis are air conditioned so we arrive somewhat fresher, i f not exactly cold, which is more what I would have expected. The wedding venue is a sailing club; old wooden frames and flags up the walls inside. The ceremony, however, is outside and while the lucky man frets about absolutely nothing, the rest of us try not to point out just how late his fiancee is. Of course, he is quite right and when the jolly four piece band break into the wedding march, it's closer to schedule than, say, almost any British train. The service is short, funny and touching. According to tradition, apparently, the priest makes a gift to the newlyweds of a Bible. " It is in Finnish," he tells Matt. "And what better way to learn the language can there be?"
The guests are a jovial, friendly crowd, mixing well despite the language barrier. Contrary to my fears, about half of the party are in fact English and I even recognise two young ladies who were Matt's flatmates in Brighton. I get chatting with his father; apparently he raised concern that I might have trouble arriving alone in a strange country but Matt's retort was, "Don't be silly. Carl can be relied on to find the girls." I am unsure how to take this. Is there now some tangible onus on me to dash off with the bridesmaids?
It seems as if everybody has a digital camera; the pro stands out only because his is an SLR. Matt is amazed that he has seen his own wedding photos before eating the cake but happy with the results. We mill randomly until organised into several group shots; apparently it is Finnish tradition only to keep one photograph but this does not stop the British tradition of taking a couple of hundred rolls' worth from being honoured also. Eventually, the bride's sister and chief organiser calls us to lunch, where a somewhat disappointingly porportined buffet, consisting largely of pickled fish, is ravaged by each table in turn. My table, the social dog-ends, consists of a British couple, two Finns, one of the aforementioned ex-flatmates, a young German woman and myself. Unsurprisingly, this eclectic mix gives us plenty to talk about and when we miss our turn to go to the buffet, it takes some industrial-grade glaring from the tables waiting for us to make us realise.
The wine flows all too freely; we seem to be drinking roughly twice as fast as any other table and it's going down a treat. It turns out the other British chap is a tank-commanding second leiutenant and master mind-reader; his ability to score fresh bottles from waitresses on the other side of the room proves to be unparallelled. Suddenly the main course, a beef roast and vegetable pie, arrives to soak up some of the booze and it is by now a welcome break. Speeches of course ensue; Matt's is short but emotional - strangely so for a normally very reserved character - and the bride's Father is.. well.. honest about his daughter's idiosyncrasies. The party really gets going when the band move inside and, chased back from the terrace by killer mosquitoes, we all pile onto the dancefloor in a sweaty heap. I meet an architect, a nurse, an adult movie producer and a systems analyst; strangely, we all get on just fine. The ancient sea dog behind the bar jokes with the punters in stumbling English and pours out vaporous cocktails. As the clock approaches midnight, Matt makes a noble effort to extricate his wife from the proceedings but, unable to leave without checking everyone is alright, it is gone quarter past by the time they actually get in the car.
Taxis are called, and, en masse, we rock up at the City Bors nightclub, where everything goes decidedly haywire. It is gone four when I finally get back to my room - in the same building - and I don't wake up until nearly twelve.
Saturday's plans are somewhat undecided; by chance I run into some people who heard a rumour that a trip to Naantali, a nearby island, was afoot so I tag along in a taxi at about two. Naantali is stunning; a classic developed waterfront with bars and restaurants instead of fish markets but no less charming for it. We pull together vast numbers of chairs and tables and almost by default, a round of pints is ordered. I become agitated upon discovering that MoominWorld (Muuminmaila) is just around the corner and, four or five rounds down the line, decide that I have to visit Moominmamma's Doughnut House and the gift shop. In the gift shop, I get so excited I have to go for a quick pee (well, it might have been the beer). It's a Moomin lover's paradise of cuddly toys, clothing, accessories, books, videos and postcards. If you can fit an image of an overweight, bipedal albino cow onto it, it's in there. I sign away far too much of my money and then fail to see the point in trying to catch up the rest of the group, who have gone for a walk. Wandering back to the restaurant, I suddenly recall having an appointment to see an old flatmate who lives in Turku. I call him, he buys me lunch, we go to a band practice.
Band practice is on an industrial estate; Tom and the band rent the top floor of a warehouse - plumbed and electrified - for sixty pounds a month. Today, band practice consists largely of drinking, watching Spinal Tap and arguing about the Beatles. Tom gives me three CDs - it turns out his band Daisy have been signed while I was away, which explains the weapons-grade celebrating going on. Around eight I start flagging; I have now been unfit-to-drive inebriated for six hours straight. General consensus is that town is calling. We call a taxi, roar into town and hit the open mic night. 'Nuff said.
After even less sleep than the previous night, I decide to crawl out of my hotel room at 11, mistakenly thinking I am late for checking out. Downstairs I learn that I could have had another hour in bed, and cry briefly. Stumbling down the riverside, I happen across some enormous wooden barques but am not in the mood to pay a fistful of Euros to go on board. The boats, strangely, have been moored up longer than the very low road bridges have been around and are weirdly trapped. The museum shop has 'Cabin Boy' mugs; I consider a shortlist of people for whom to buy some and then reconsider. After all, I have fifty Euros worth of Moomin crap to give away already. Turku castle is brilliant; a real un-touched Medaeval timber and stone job, with overhanging galleries and precarious, low-ceilinged stairways. I queue for a tour but my hangover catches up with me so I go to the cafe and write postcards.
Lunch is at Ribs, a Dutch restaurant on the river, with Tom. Going on the theory that the house speciality is always the best, I have ribs and they are great. I make a tremendous mess. Eventually, I shuffle back to the hotel with an hour to waste before I have to get a bus to the airport. Weirdly, once again I run into people from the wedding so we have tomato juice and a recuperative chat about mayonnaise. The bus fails to come and it gets so late that the next scheduled one will arrive only ten minutes before departure. Suddenly, once again, fate intervenes and the tank commander and girlfriend get caught in traffic right in front of me. I dash down and jump into their taxi. Job done!
The flight back is much quicker and simpler; the two guys I'm with are on both of my flights so when we leave Stockholm I sit with them and swap tickets with (luckily) the lone traveller who had that seat. Everything is still coated in cotton wool; my head reels when the food arrives and my nose burns when I drink the cheap wine I stole from business class on the Turku flight through my Moomin straw. At Heathrow, I am accosted by an old family friend who is conducting surveys. Somehow, I am so hungover that it all seems perfectly normal. It has been a long and very, very strange weekend.
I mean, how could one not be?
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