Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The way to Korpo Island in the vast Finnish archipelago begins with a flight into Turku. Roughly the equivalent of say, Providence, Rhode Island, Turku has an equally faded if a far more glorious past. A cursory 45-minute stroll in grey summer drizzle, the cheap Swedish brands in the tired shops clustered around the main square, the desperate-looking stalls in the middle of the square, everything exudes that cranky, weighed-down feel of a minor provincial city, the people somehow more suspicious and unfriendly than in a place more cosmopolitan and sure of itself.

You can take a bus from downtown Turku to get to Korpo, or if you happen to be going to a wedding, you can hitch a ride with fellow wedding guests whom you've never met before, who were given a description of you by the bride and told to look out for you, which in fact one of them did, asking you to join them.

In the car, a trans-Atlantic mix of Spaniard, Brit, Canadian, Swede, it will take a ferry ride to Nagu Island, and then a second ferry ride before you'll reach Korpo, the occupants of the car pre-occupied with getting there on time and catching up on the details of what has happened in their lives since they last saw each other, some of them nearly a decade ago. You will listen politely, putting in a word here and there when appropriate.

Korpo itself will be far greener than you expected, farms and cows and cottages and the sea, side by side by side by side. The church on Korpo, stone and some 800 years old, is more ancient than you had imagined, the bride even more beautiful and the priest, your good friend, will be no longer nervous about getting everything perfect for her little sister the bride, which somehow then makes everything perfect even if the organist has surpassed the awfulness of the organist at a wedding you were at in Malaysia once, playing very badly an ugly Finnish march by an obscure Finnish composer called Melartin, a march that lasts some five minutes longer than it takes for the bride and groom to make it to the altar.

Afterwards, you will be charmed by the old manor house in which the reception takes place - pink on the outside and rough and elegant on the inside, the room in which you eat dinner sporting a column with a visible bullet hole from a long-past civil war, and at one time having been the scene of Jean Sibelius playing the piano. There will be no electric lights, only candles, giving the scene an impossibly romantic and painterly and antique air, though it gets no darker than early dusk at the darkest point of the evening, everyone's eyes glittering and cheeks flushed and outlines cast in deep shadow.

You will be exhausted by the length and number of the speeches, which make the dinner last some six hours, but your dinner companions make up for it - a young woman from Amsterdam on your left who makes your favorite speech of the evening, and on your right the aunt of the bride, a retired war correspondent from Prague who in the early seventies studied film for four years on a Fullbright Scholarship at your Alma Mater, New York University.

You'll marvel at the crowd, a curious mix of upper-middle class Swedes - lawyers and bankers and high-level political advisors like the bride - and upper-middle class Finland-Svensk Finns of a certain left-ish, idiosyncratic and intellectual bent. Plus a bunch of upper-middle class foreigners like yourself.

You will drink too much red wine, and talk about what it is to live in a country that is not really your own, how no place is home anymore, how difficult it is to maintain a social welfare state. You'll laugh as your little goddaughter waves down the table at you, everyone thinking she's waving to them but you alone knowing that it's you and no one else.

Then you'll dance with great fervor and laugh at the bride doing her famous Britney Spears dance routine (danced not with her husband, but with your friend the Policeman). You dance so much and talk with so many interesting people that you'll somehow manage, through bad luck mostly and by 4:30 a.m. now in a decidedly foul mood, to end up sleeping beside the bride's other sister in her messy room at the family compound of the bride's family rather than in the best room at a lovely seaside hotel - painted wooden floors, windows onto the tiny harbor - on Nagu, an island away.

You'll wake up two hours later in your suit, sweaty and greasy and cold all at the same time, unable to see because you took out your contact lenses before passing out, and your friend the priest walks you up to the road where you can catch a bus back to the hotel, and she fills you in on all sorts of family gossip that helps to make sense of some of the night before.

The bus will take you back, and after a shower and a change of clothes, the whole dreamlike ending of the night before will no longer be annoying but rather, you're sure, become a great story to tell, especially after the hotel gives you a discount on account of you didn't mess up the beds.

After the brunch with the rest of the pale and hungover guests at the family compound (which, with your contact lenses in you can now see is unsurpassingly beautiful, a whole bay they have to themselves, somehow more melancholy, more full of soul than the islands off Stockholm, which are what make it more beautiful), and all the driving back and forth on roads and ferries into Korpo, and then back again to Nagu and finally into Turku, and the plane ride home - a propeller plane, your first in years and years and years - you will be happy to be home, to your own bed and your own husband.

The way to and from Korpo is long and complicated, but it is well worth every second.

The Swedish word for the day is äventyr. It means, of course, adventure.

- by Francis S.

No comments: