Finns Aren’t What They Used To Be
It was one of those beautiful Finnish spring days. A day of such pristine beauty that it almost seemed a crime to press my foot harder on the accelerator and hurry back from the north of the country to Helsinki. There wasn’t another car on the road, which is just as well when I am driving, and the forests looked particularly lush and inviting. I was half tempted to pull over and picnic under a tree, only a fear of bears stopped me. Finland, I thought a few hundred kilometers later, really agrees with me.
To kill time, I made a mental list of things I loved about the country. It wasn’t difficult. The people were a real joy to work with, the country itself was beautiful; winters were snowy and great for sitting in bars drinking endless cups of coffee (Finns are always proud to tell you that they drink more coffee than any other nation) whilst summers were long and, apart from mosquitoes, idyllic; there was always something exciting going on (I had just been to the World Wife Carrying Championship) and the food was consistently excellent – the previous night I had dined on Arctic cod and fillet of brown bear. I also cherished the fact that each time I got back home from Finland I could walk in the door, toss my keys on the table, pour myself a large vodka (someone always gave me a bottle every time I was there) and say to the GHG, rather wistfully, “Finns just aren’t what they used to be…”
My first visit was memorable. I had given a presentation to a group of rather eminent medical doctors. It had been, by my own low standards, a cracking presentation. The Finns looked impressed but when I asked if there were any questions the head honcho raised his hand and said:
“Thanks Philip, cough?”
How strange, I thought. I coughed for the audience. The Finns looked a bit stunned and exchanged perplexed looks.
“No. I mean cough!”
Oh dear, I thought, if he comes over and attempts to get anywhere near my balls I will scream. But, the contract I was pitching for was important so I gave a gut-wrenching cough that anyone who smokes 120 Camels, or more, a day would have been proud of. This produced ever more perplexed looks from the Finns.
It was only later, whilst driving back to Helsinki, that my colleague explained to me that Koff was the local beer.
Several months later a client asked me if I wanted to go out and get some fanny at lunchtime with him. But by this time I was worldly-wise and knew that he meant the local strawberry flavored yogurt drink. Or at least I hope he did…
When I arrived back at the hotel (another thing I liked about Finland was that the hotels were always excellent) the concierge rushed over, waving a piece of paper at me.
“Finally,” he beamed, “finally I have managed to get you a table at Ira Babuska.”
I had been told about Ira Babuska’s restaurant by the guy who invented that clever margarine that really does lower your cholesterol and the concierge had been trying every week for the last ten weeks to get me a table. He told me he felt that a special effort was required on his part to redeem himself for not telling me about the World Sitting in a Sauna Championship which had been held the previous week somewhere just outside Helsinki. Personally, I thought he was just about breaking even after getting me a front row ticket for the finals of the national ice hockey league the previous winter. But, dinner at Finland’s best Russian restaurant had been on my “best way to ramp up the expenses” list for sometime.
An hour later I was sitting in an over-stuffed armchair in what looked like someone’s front room – the front room of a person who had been inspired, probably, by ingesting large amounts of vodka and drain-cleaner, to decorate it in the style of a Victorian brothel on acid. Amongst all the kitsch, chandeliers and gilded mirrors (smoky with age) there was room for only five tables. The menu, being a Russian restaurant, was whatever the chef decided would suit you.
Babuska Ira herself, resplendent in a crushed velvet evening dress, seated me and returned a few minutes later with a bottle of Russian beer. With much gesturing and miming I managed to explain that I was actually after a bottle of Khvanchkara, the award winning Georgian wine that Mr. Cholesterol Reducing Margarine had recommended. A flustered Babuska Ira stomped off, and after much shouting and banging of pots and pans in the kitchen returned with a very dusty bottle of wine. The wine was uncorked and poured into two glasses, one of which was conveyed back into the kitchen. Babuska Ira ruffled my hair, gave an impassioned speech in Russian to all the diners, whipped my menu from the table and returned to the kitchen. One of the group of slightly drunk businessmen leaned over and explained that she had said that the wine was from the chef’s own personal stock that his mother sent over each spring from Tibillisi. He didn’t know if the chef was happy or not that an English man had ordered it but he was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt – just this once. I tried to sink further into my armchair and look like I was really enjoying the wine.
After that things went downhill rapidly. A shot of chilled vodka appeared, a toast was drunk, a bowl of caviar appeared and was rapidly consumed. More caviar was requested (Babuska Ira shook her head at this), a bowl of okroshka soup followed whilst the chef stood at the door to the kitchen watching, rather mournfully, as the level in the wine bottle dropped. The main course was pike-perch, which is one of the few things I really don’t like. It has a nasty tough texture that always reminds me of tractor tyres. But I forced myself to eat it as I had become something of a sideshow to the other diners and everyone was watching me. When no one was looking I tried to hide bits of it down the side of the armchair or in my pockets.
I wanted to end my meal with a nice Armenian Nairi Brandy but Babuska Ira didn’t think it would round of my meal in a suitable manner. Instead she bought me a cup of weak tea and stood over me whilst I drank it. I didn’t want to tell her that I hate tea. As I left I saw the chef rush over and grab the almost-empty wine bottle. He carried it, like one would carry a newborn baby, back to the kitchen, where I imagined him squeezing the dregs from the bottle whilst singing a lament for his homeland.
I walked back to the hotel feeling content with life. It was close to midnight and the sun still hadn’t quite set. Beautiful people were going from bar to bar whilst couples strolled hand-in-hand along the harbour. I stopped to throw the few scraps of pike-perch that I had managed to hide in my pocket to some unsuspecting sea-gulls and thought: I must go back and eat there again one day. But, I’ve never been able to get a table since.