Some photos from a secondhand store in Tartu. The owner scolded me and asked me why I was taking pictures, as if I was a spy from a rival secondhand operation. “Art,” I told her. She looked confused.
HELSINKI, FINLAND, beautiful and baffling. Whenever the hulking ship ports and I wobble off in the direction of Aleksanterinkatu, whenever I hear the words spoken in the tram lines and outside the bars, I get that sensation that perhaps every Estonian knows — How is it possible that there is a country of five million people whose language sounds like some hick South Estonian dialect?
Yet even though they sound like country people, they have built this magnificent city. They have organized the Nordic Business Forum and flown in talent to address thousands of attendees, most of the speakers coming from my country. That’s right, this American traveled to Helsinki to write about other Americans who were flown into Helsinki to speak. Skateboarding godfather Tony Hawk was even in Helsinki. There was a half pipe in the exhibition hall. That’s how impressive Finland is.
After a day working as a reporter at the forum, I met my Estonian friends who invited me out to drinks — at the Estonian House. There we could drink Estonian beverages and listen to a band made up solely of Estonians. When I mentioned this to Niina, a Finnish colleague at the conference, she frowned and said, “That’s right, the Estonians always insist on having their own separate event.”
That depressed me. If there was anything I wanted to do in Finland, it was socialize with the locals. I found something both peculiar and enchanting in their special looks, those beautifully flabby cheeks, the strange slope to their eyes. I loved the lush roll of their ‘r’s. Some were from Helsinki, others from Jyväskylä, others from Vaasa. They were wonderful characters and I wanted to hear their stories. But not the Estonians. Oh no. They wanted to sequester themselves in their own special house!
You know why, don’t you? It’s because the Estonians and Finns are sibling nations, and, like all brothers or sisters, they can put up with each other at family gatherings, but sometimes it’s just more comfortable to sit in opposite corners of the room, ignoring each other. This is what was going on that night in Helsinki. This is what I had stumbled upon. A classic sibling relationship.
If you ask the Estonians, they will tell you that Finland is “boring” for them. This isn’t the case. Siblings are never boring. They are alarming, distressing. They make you feel weird inside. They remind you of private things that you would much rather forget. Better to be among other Estonians in a controlled, safe environment. I was frustrated there in the Estonian House though. I searched the crowd for a familiar face, Juhan Parts perhaps, but he wasn’t there. Then I noticed beautiful people descending from the antique staircase and went up, hoping that there might be something interesting going on, a bordello perhaps, but no, there were just more Estonians drinking. It was like a bad dream.
At last, I left the Estonian party and went out into the streets in search of my real Finnish party. Surely, I would find some pretty Finnish girl named Virpi or Marjukka and tell her my life story. “And it all started here, in Helsinki.” By that time it was 1 AM, and after drinking and dancing with the Estonians all evening, I was too tired for adventures.
I went to my room to sleep instead.
I WAS NEVER THE PERSON to take offense in the name of good taste. Rather, I enjoyed the idea of a world where experiences rose and fell on their own merits.
There are those days though. Those days when even the most jaded intellect can be stirred. This was me not too long ago in a parking lot in Estonia. This was me holding our youngest daughter as we got out of our car and saw a poster for a bicycle shop.
Six, sun-bronzed ladies in string bikinis, each one in a row, each straddling a bicycle on a beach. The bicycle wheels, yellow, matched the color of their neon swimwear. Their round buttocks stood at attention above the seats, bringing to mind the delicious baked color of hot cross buns straight from the oven.
I see these kinds of sexy signs all the time. Once, when I was standing outside of Seppälä admiring the Finnish models in the storefront advertisements, our eldest daughter asked me how I felt about the smiling women in lingerie. “It does make me feel good, when I see them,” I admitted. “Like a breath of fresh air.”
But this advertisement bothered me. Was it ridiculous with its bikes and bikinis? Its taut hindquarters roasting in the sun like hams? Something about the scene troubled me. I think it was this: I have reached the point where I feel responsible for the world.
I understood that somewhere, some men devised this poster. Sex sells, they thought. It makes you look. I imagined the photo shoot, how the director set it up, told them what to do. “Okay, everybody has their string bikini on now? Good. You over there, could you tighten your butt muscles just a little bit? No, a bit tighter. Clench, clench, beautiful! Hey, could you spray their butts with some oil? We need shiny butts. Shiny. Terrific. Action!”
Then I wondered how could I ever justify such a grotesque image to Maria, a four-year-old girl with bangs who likes ponies and rainbows, whose face I turned quickly away from those shiny buttocks for fear that she might ask me some strange questions. But I couldn’t justify it. Not for the sale of more bicycles. Not for the sale of more anything.
I am still not offended. But I am disappointed in my fellow man. So much of the discussion over these uncomfortable experiences is dominated by women. It is women, we are told, who are most offended. It is women therefore, we are told, who must speak out. I am part of a Facebook group called Virginia Woolf Sind Ei Karda, where I read women’s opinions, and sometimes see that men have shared their thoughts, too, in a context set by women.
But where are the men? We are the target market, are we not? We are supposed to see those butts and spend thousands on new bikes. Are we really so cowardly that not a soul will stand up and tell the world for once and for all that we are really not so stupid?
In the end, I took my daughter into another shop, and my moment of distress soon passed. That advertisement did make me worry about her future, though, and all the other things she might see. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being responsible for it either, knowing that all of it had supposedly been created for me.