with bourdain and my new helsinki friends

BEFORE I MET BOURDAIN, I used to live somewhere else. Where exactly that was is not important to this story. Okay, it was in Estonia. But for various reasons I had to leave that country. That was when I hightailed it across the Gulf of Finland on the Tallink Megastar, and walked down into my new adopted home of Helsinki. That same night I met Bourdain at a burger restaurant on Lönnrotinkatu. That was how I fell in with Bourdain and his crew of Finnish degenerates. Gutter punks. Motorcycle gang rejects. Venture capitalists and angel investors. Tony always rolls with his crew, you see. Even if he hates people, even if he detests them, Bourdain needs to surround himself with a circus. Most of my free nights after that were spent right there in that madcap company, with Bourdain and my new Helsinki friends. 

***

Obviously, there is a problem with this story. Bourdain is dead, so they say. He hung himself in some provincial French town a few years ago. His last known meal was a Choucroute Garnie dish, which contained sauerkraut, sausages, and roasted ham. They said Bourdain was in low spirits when he took his own life. He hated his celebrity, his fame, and his relationships were struggling, especially one with a younger Italian actress who shall not be named. All of which is very true. However, if you hate everyone in your life and your life itself, there is actually no reason to commit suicide. Bourdain did not need to hang himself to get away from these pressures. He just needed to disappear to a place where nobody cares if you’re alive or dead. Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Bourdain recalled a newspaper story about an accountant named Otto Nieminen, aged 64, who had died at his desk in his office from a heart attack and had been left sitting there for days because nobody could tell if he was alive or dead. Nieminen was in the same position as always. That, Bourdain thought, is where I need to be.

*** 

If you have ever read Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential, you know that when Bourdain was young he worked in Provincetown, the bohemian enclave at the tip of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. You may also recall that some rival chefs in 1970s Provincetown had affected an 18th century buccaneer swagger, and that Bourdain watched them with elements of terror and awe. This was exactly the new persona Bourdain took on with his new Helsinki friends at the burger restaurant. He even kept a colorful parrot, called Papukaija, or Papu for short, who would sit peacefully on Bourdain’s shoulder while he fed it crumbs of Gruyere cheese from his pocket. Then he would announce, in a pirate captain voice, “Seppo, Pasi, me thinks we should go to the A-Plus Karaoke Bar tonight and set us up with some buxom wenches. And fetch me my rum!”

Bourdain and his Helsinki friends had numerous scrapes with the law. Such as that time that they punched out an R-Kioski cashier because he put too much mustard on the kabanossi. Another cashier who worked at Aleppa was tarred, feathered, and forced to drink Lapin Kulta. All because the karjalanpiirakka or Karelian pies were a little undercooked. The Finnish police came around the burger joint on Lönnrotinkatu that night. I was seated with my favorite chef, a young Finnish woman who wore a t-shirt that read, “count orgasms, not calories.” I was having the double burger when they questioned me, while Bourdain fed Papu some fries with pesto aioli. But when it came down to it, I lied. I felt uncomfortable about Bourdain and his Finnish convenience store ultraviolence antics, but I valued our new-born friendship even more. When you are in with Bourdain’s gang, you’re in. There is no turning back.

***

This is all just background information, because what I am about to tell you might seem a little unbelievable. You might even be shocked. Even though Bourdain was hiding in plain sight in Helsinki, a cold city where he was free to indulge all of the sinister elements of his dark side, he was still Bourdain of course, which meant he loved to eat. Often, we would go to Mr. Lee’s Great Wall Kitchen across from the A-Plus Karaoke Bar, enjoying hot bowls of beef or chicken noodles, heavy on the chili. Bourdain swore by the broth, claiming it to be as rich and satisfying as the homemade stuff he had tasted in villages along the Yellow River. Whenever Bourdain tasted the broth, he would start quoting Lao-tzu and rambling on about Wu-Wei. “When your body is not aligned, the inner power will not come. When you are not tranquil within, your mind will not be well ordered.” And so on and so on, etc.

There was a little TV on in the corner of Mr. Lee’s and it showed an image of the surface of the Baltic Sea frothing white as the methane from the Nord Stream pipeline made its way up into the atmosphere. Swedish investigators had concluded that the explosions were caused by sabotage, the report said, but they did not name the perpetrators.

Bourdain watched the news report quietly, spearing out some noodles with a pair of chopsticks. He sucked the noodles down and licked his lips. Then he said to me, in a very quiet voice. “Do you remember a few weeks ago when Pasi and Seppo and I went on that booze cruise to Mariehamn in the Åland Islands with Henna and her girlfriends?” 

“Yes, of course,” I told him. 

“Well,” he said. “The thing is, we didn’t actually go to the Åland Islands.”

“Really? Where did you go?” 

“Actually, we went to Bornholm, that island in Denmark. Then we took a boat out into the Baltic Sea and blew up the Nord Stream pipeline.”

***

It was just Bourdain, Pasi, and Seppo that carried out the mission, as far as I understand it. They put on their diving gear, synchronized watches, swam down, and laid the explosives. By the time they were detonated, they were back in bed with Henna & Co. at a quaint B&B.

“But why did you synchronize watches?” I asked Bourdain.

“That’s what you do when you blow shit up.”

I stared at the TV, then back at the world-famous undead chef.

“I must admit, I am a little hurt,” I said.

“Hurt? It’s not like you were benefitting from those pipelines.”

“No, no. It’s just. I thought I was one of your new Helsinki friends.”

“That’s why I am telling you this! Do you think I told anyone else?”

“Then how come you didn’t take me along!”

“Have you ever blown up a pipeline before, kid?”

“No.”

“Well, I have. At least now I have,” Tony said. He pinched his nose. I suppose it all bothered him, just a little bit. The faked death, the escape to Helsinki, and now this, international espionage and acts of terrorism. No matter where he went in this world, Bourdain just couldn’t stay out of trouble. If there was a red button, he pushed it. If there was a hot sausage, he ate it. If there was an explosive, then he dove to the bottom of the sea and nestled it nicely alongside concrete-coated steel pipes. Bourdain reached into his pocket with his gnarled chef’s hands and pulled out a few crumbs of savory Kaltbach. Papu the parrot dipped his head down and Bourdain fed him some of the cheese. Then Papu did something unexpected. He hopped on my shoulder. I could feel his claws and adjusted to the weight of the bird. 

“He’s warming to you. Papu doesn’t just sit on anybody’s shoulders. You have to be in the gang, be one of Tony Bourdain’s Helsinki Wild Ones.”

I said nothing but beamed with pride.

“Here, here, feed him some of the Kaltbach.”

“I thought Papu only ate Gruyere.”

“Papu’s like me. He’ll eat anything.” 

I held my hand up and Papu pecked at the chunks of Kaltbach.

“Tell you what,” said Bourdain. “I’m sorry we didn’t invite you. Next time we blow up a Russian gas pipeline, I’ll make sure you come along. They have other pipelines, you know. We’re planning a Turkish holiday.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. “It’s nothing really.” I smiled at Bourdain then, and he gave me a weird look. Bourdain doesn’t like being smiled at, you know. He hates people, detests them really, and honestly only likes parrots and food and vintage horror movies. And karoake sometimes.

“Why are you looking at me like that? Are you happy I blew it up?”

“I don’t care about the pipeline,” I said. “I’m just happy you’re still alive.”

the game of hockey

AFTER SHE HAD finally purged her life of her husband, Céleste invited me over. I wasn’t surprised they had gone their separate ways, but Céleste had often spoken lovingly of Georges, a man of business, a man of ideas, a man she could depend on. It was a relationship consecrated in a cathedral, celebrated at a manor, formalized with the necessary paperwork.

They also had a child.

Then, just like that, in a matter of eighteen months or so, there had been a crumbling, a dissolution, a reversing of the course. Everything she loved about Georges she now despised. She disliked the way he drove, especially. I wasn’t sure if infidelity was involved. I never dared to ask, but I had my suspicions. If anything, Georges was more married to Pierre on his hockey team than he was to his wife Céleste. As soon as she had banished him from the home, she invited me over to dinner. I went there accordingly. I had no idea what to wear or to expect.

When I arrived at their house, the door was open. I knocked and rang the bell and when no one answered, I went in. I could hear that someone was in the shower downstairs, and then Céleste’s mother came out from the kitchen, holding little Antoine in her arms. She invited me in, and I saw that Georges was very much still in the house, eating dinner together with Pierre. They said they were both going to play ice hockey, and then asked if I’d like to come along.

Naturally, I thought they were plotting to kill me. Georges must have known there was something going on between me and Céleste. Perhaps he had even read our erotically charged letters? Or seen some of the photos she had sent in her more vulnerable, early morning moments? I studied him as he walked toward the rink. He was no doubt regarded as handsome, I thought but at the same time, a rather stale, dry kind of character, the kind who breezes through life into positions of power, even ascends to the presidency, or who collects great wealth, but in person is rather a bore. Such a character is the very epitome of manhood by all metrics, yet lacks anything that would distinguish him as a man. The only thing that defined Georges was his love for hockey. He knew statistics associated with all of the players. He played hockey. He watched hockey. He was hockey. During that solemn walk, I did not dare mention his failed marriage, but the man never mentioned it. Instead he spoke of the game with Pierre, and they recalled with great accuracy different plays from the season. His only lament was a sore shoulder that was taking too much time to heal. I suggested he take some time to recuperate. Georges sneered at me as if I knew nothing and said one word: “Never.”

I left the two players at the rink and walked back to the house for my dinner with Céleste. The evening had just begun and yet had already taken a strange turn. Even the trees down the boulevard looked sinister. In a nearby park, a man tossed some breadcrumbs to some pigeons.

At the house, Céleste was waiting for me. She had put on a red dress, and draped herself in a white shawl. Her blonde hair was pulled back. She held a glass of red wine before her and stared at it in contemplation. I knew she wanted something from me, but did she want it all, and tonight? The grandmother had apparently left, and Antoine was sitting in his high chair.

“Well,” said Céleste. “At least you came.”

Dinner was nice. Afterward, she told me she wanted to show me the cellar. We came down an iron staircase to a series of underground rooms, full of antiques, magazines, and a plush bed in the corner beneath a ground floor window, through which shone some early evening sun. The child held to its mother. When she set him down on the ground, he started to scream.

“Please kiss me now,” said Céleste. I obliged and kissed her. She fumbled with my pants, grasping at my underwear. “Now I want you to make love to me,” she said. “Would you?”

Of course I said yes. “Please do it. Here, like this. Take me from behind.” I complied. Antoine kept sobbing. Then, from outside the window, I could see a shadowy figure approaching us.

“Don’t stop, ” Céleste said. “Whatever you do, do not stop.” “I am not stopping,” I told her. 

The figure put his face to the window and began to speak through it in hurried French. 

It was Georges! He had returned to the house to fetch a hockey stick. That was all he said. Céleste put her face up to the window and began to pelt him with obscenities. I tried to make myself invisible, but this was impossible. How do you make yourself invisible when you are servicing another man’s wife in a messy basement with a screaming child on the floor? I was wrapped up tight, deep inside the lady of the house. There was no way back or out of this thing. “Céleste, please come to your senses,” I heard Georges say through the small window.

“No, I want you to watch,” Céleste responded. “I want you to watch this all, Georges. This is how I feel now. This is exactly how I feel about you, and us, and about the game of hockey.”

honey

IT WAS SUMMER and splendidly hot. The white tower of the town hall looked like one of those old colonial administrative buildings in the Danish West Indies. If you’ve ever heard that old Muddy Waters tune, “Good Morning Little School Girl,” then you have heard this story. But I actually didn’t know she was a school girl, I swear. I thought she looked interesting. In retrospect, the skirt should have tipped me off. It looked like it had been stitched together from old curtains. And then the worn red blouse, the messy blonde hair. She was not one of those bank clerks. She was holding something in her hands too, bearing it in front of her, but whatever it was, I couldn’t see. I decided to follow her but to keep my distance, as if I just happened to be headed in the same direction. If she looked back, I could inspect a hedge, or stroke the little dog of a passerby. Pretend to be a legitimate pedestrian. She walked through the park and then down Hollow Street. At one of the old houses, she paused to chat with a young man who was sipping his coffee in the doorway. She laughed at his joke. Then she came up Trench Street and arrived to the intersection with the main road. It was here that I caught up to her. I felt guilty for following her. I should have just glanced her and let her go. Yet she waited for me there. It was as if she had known I had been following her. We stood there and she looked forward and then turned and cleared her throat, but said nothing. Instead, she showed me what was in her hands. A small container enclosing a honeycomb. “Would you like some of my honey?” the girl asked. She had such a pleasant air, and I said, “Of course, I’ll have some of your honey.” She smiled at me and pulled a dripping hunk from the container and handed it over. She took a separate chunk and slipped it in her mouth. “It is good, isn’t it?” said the girl. A touch of golden honey was on her lips. From the crest of the hill looking down the road, I could see the lake in the distance. I could see the beach and the pines. “It is,” I said. The youth said nothing and we crossed the street. The wind blew and toyed with her sunshine hair. It was that kind of day. Disarming. Innocent. Bluesy. Honeysweet.

the traffic incident

AN ODD DREAM, involving a) driving through a city while Ukrainians and Russians shoot at each other, with bullets visible as almost lightning bug-like glowing orbs of light; b) somehow surviving this unscathed; c) driving a car down an icy road to escape a rather ferocious musk ox-like creature; d) parking my car in a field to allow another vehicle to pass; e) from which exits Woman No. 1, who informs me that it is illegal to park your car in a field in Estonia, and that she has to wait for the police to arrive; f) following Woman No. 1 into her office, the entry way of which is littered with shoes, while we await the arrival of the police; and g) passing through a kitchen, wherein a Sicilian dwarf is making dinner. I try to summon romantic feelings for Woman No. 1, but it comes to nothing. An ice queen, business type, her only vice is apparently the impartial and ruthless enforcement of the law. The relationship is never consummated.