On my first evening in Helsinki, my young Finnish friend Andreas took me to, of all things, a game of salibandy. Otherwise known as floor hockey, this is a sure-fire cure for the blues. It’s played in an indoor rink with a small plastic ball with holes, and is easily the fastest game I’ve experienced. The action zoomed back and forth at breakneck speed. This is true. Take me, I came home with a sore neck. And all I did was watch.
Not many countries play floor hockey (though, after my return, Andreas wrote to tell me there is apparently an Indian federation for the game—in Lucknow). Finland has some of the world’s best players. Andreas, a serious amateur himself, tells me that a friend’s team just won the world junior championship in Prague.
That kind of success fuels the phenomenal popularity the game enjoys in Finland: 500,000 flying Finns are registered as players. Mull over that: 10% of the population, as many players as there are soldiers in the army. All competing in professional, semi-professional and amateur leagues, playing a minimum of a gamea week, performances meticulously documented and statistics analysed on dozens of websites. Check www.salibandy.net, but brush up on your Finnish before you do.
We watched the Helsinki HIFK team play the Vantaa HaKi (this is not a fortuitous corruption of “hockey”, but a fortunate acronym of Hakunilan Kisa, the team’s full name). And, as far as this Finnish-challenged spectator from India was concerned, HIFK is an even more fortunate acronym. It expands into—ready for this?—Helsingfors Idrotts Foreningen Kamraterna, and at least one of those innumerable vowels has a slash through it, or two dots on top, or something like that. Try putting that on your game wear.
The long and winding name notwithstanding, HIFK was clearly the quicker and more organized team on the day. Though they conceded a goal within a couple of minutes, they dominated thereafter and won by 7-4. After the game, a young beauty handed out prizes to the three best players, all of whom were agonizingly tongue-tied when asked to say a word or two. Was that because of the strenuous game? Or the unnervingly tight clothes the beauty had poured herself into? I don’t know, but instead of speaking, one of the awardees pulled her into a too-long, too-tight hug. Not too tired, after all. Does the Indian federation promote such post-game festivities? If so, hey: I’m willing to spectate. Play, even.
When not playing salibandy, Andreas studies archaeology (it strikes me that I can probably count the salibandy-playing archaeologists on this planet on one hand). He took me to a recent dig on the outskirts of Helsinki. The site is on a gentle hillside in a rolling farm landscape. It’s also close to the junction between two arterial roads and, curiously, those roads made the dig possible.
What happened here is a controversial fallout of Finland joining the European Union (EU). As I understand it, EU requires Helsinki to upgrade its port facilities, in effect build a new port altogether. Part of that process is that the road leading to the port—one of the two arterial roads—must be widened into a multilane highway. This is controversial because many homeowners live quiet, semi-rural lives here, on both sides of the road. They are not persuaded that Helsinki needs this fancified port, or the highway, or even the EU. They are fighting the move tooth and nail.
However as that conflict unfolds, one small side effect of a big project such as this is a bonanza for student archaeologists. A firm that wins a major construction contract—such as this highway project—is required to fund excavations at historical sites in the path of the construction. Such as this site, near this road. So it was that Andreas and his girlfriend Riina were part of a university team that went over this windswept patch of land with shovels and an eagle eye.
There’s something to be said for specialized training. Where I would have seen only rocks scattered randomly over the hillside, these students saw evidence of huts, private and communal ovens, and more. They found several rusted keys and buttons, and a large metal object around which an entire tree trunk had grown. Historical records suggest a small settlement here—it appears on old maps—that was burnt down by invading marauders some centuries ago. Again, where I would have seen only black soil, Andreas and Riina found proof of this ancient conflagration. Andreas edits Fibula, his department’s morbidly titled newsletter. At least while we were there, this razed settlement did not offer up any artefacts to fit that name. I’m not complaining.
So: salibandy and an archaeological dig—two not-quite-usual tourist attractions. To me, this was almost a statement about the city, the country: We take our history seriously, but dammit, we play hard. And, one evening in downtown Helsinki, that got nicely rounded out when we went to see My Fair Lady translated into Swedish. Yes, a Swedish version of the quintessentially English drama, on stage in Finland.
Why Swedish? The legacy of years of Swedish domination, nearly one-tenth of Finland is Swedish-speaking (almost as many as those who play floor hockey. Wonder what the overlap is). Finnish Swedes have their own newspapers, political party—and theatres and translated musicals. Makes you think, how have other countries coped with linguistic minorities? Sri Lanka comes to mind, not very encouragingly.
And I have to say this: Never have I enjoyed a performance as much in which I understood as little. This was two-and-a-half hours of utter incomprehension, apart from the occasional “Henry Higgins”, “Doolittle” and “America”. The story, the characters, the tunes of the songs, they’re all the same—but it’s all in a guttural, throaty Scandinavian tongue. Two-and-a-half hours of utter unintelligible delight.
The “America”, of course, came during the Higgins song at the beginning, Why Can’t The English? He makes this rapier observation about the English language: “In America, they haven’t spoken it for years!” Sounds just as emphatic and supercilious in Swedish. And when proud, untamed Eliza sings Venta ba, Henry Higgins! you don’t need a translator to tell you that it’s Just you wait, Henry Higgins!
As the show progressed, I found myself wondering how they would translate The Rain in Spain. After all, the music in that song makes a transition into flamenco rhythm and tune, and this Swedish version was scrupulously faithful to the original score. So, some Spanish connection would have to remain. What would it be? Later, my Finnish hosts explained that the words are about a fox in Spain. The song’s play on Eliza’s accent—her cockney “Rine in Spine” turning, under Higgins’ linguistic tutelage, into a cultured “Rain in Spain”—has been translated into a play on differing pronunciations of “A” in Swedish. “Fox” in Swedish is “rav”, which some Swedish speakers pronounce “rev”.
No, I don’t know which of those is the cultured way of saying “fox”. But: small difference, you think? Well, you try translating “rine” versus “rain” into anything, ensure it has some Spanish angle, and then write the rest of the song around it. See what you come up with.
Me, I’m not attempting any such challenge. I’m waiting to hear from the Indian salibandy federation about post-game award ceremonies involving tight clothes.
How to go
Visas: A Schengen visa works for Finland. Apply at the Embassy of Finland, E-3, Nyaya Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi-21 (41497570), or at any European Union embassy. Visas cost Rs3,200.
Flights: FinnAir connects Helsinki directly with Delhi and Mumbai (economy round-trip fares, including taxes, from Rs31,276).
Where to stay
Helsinki is a big European city, with the usual complement of major hotels, but also plenty of smaller budget options. The Radisson SAS Plaza (‘www.radissonsas.com’) is located at the heart of the city. Standard double rooms cost upwards of €130 (around Rs8,000). Doubles at the Skandic Marski, also in the city centre, come for €110 and above. The Hilton Helsinki (‘www1.hilton.com’) has rooms for upwards of €110.
What to do
There’s plenty to see in Helsinki. One recommendation is the island of Suomenlinna, a short ferry ride from the downtown harbour. This is a fort, and the military has a presence here. But it’s a good place for walks and views, especially if you read up a bit of the local history. Some openings in the wall look right on to the channel through which the sea ferries to Stockholm ply; if you happen to be there at the right time to see one, you’ll be startled by the size of these beasts and how close you are to them.
Just next to the Tikkurila station is the superb Heureka Science Centre (‘www.heureka.fi’). Don’t miss the larger-than-you dining table and chairs as soon as you enter. It also has a planetarium and an Imax theatre.
Oh yes, take the trains and trams. Fast and efficient, they are the best way to get around the city.
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