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From Cafe Esplanad, Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia

I’m feeling a bit weak after a night out experiencing the dark side of Finland, the side that drinks to excess and then keeps on drinking.

Cafe Esplanad is the other side of Finland. People eating salads, drinking coffee, reading newspapers, two people holding what looks like a business meeting: a woman sits at a laptop and types as a man speaks.

When the beer isn’t getting you drunk fast enough you order a round of fisherman’s friends: shots which smell and taste like the sweets but are made from vodka. A deep dark red colour. You touch glasses and say skol then knock it back in one.

A drunken Finn stands outside a taxi. The driver winds down his window and says something in Finnish. The drunk looks at him. I think he’s asking where you want to go. I want to go home, he says. I think you have to tell him where home is. He says home, and gets into the taxi. It drives off.

A waitress clears the tables in the cafe. I go for another cup of coffee, my third. Refills are free here. It’s more of a cold than a hangover that I have. It’s still sunny outside but the weather feels cooler than it has over the past few days.

It was 20 degrees in Rome. I went for a beer with an Italian who’d just arrived at the hostel. He really wanted cannabis rather than beer and he thought I might be able to help him find some. I told him I wouldn’t. I hadn’t noticed anyone smoking while I’d been here. I said I thought this was more of a drinking culture.

They seem to like drinking coffee almost as much as they like drinking beer. It’s weak coffee though, American style.

A couple of guys with skateboards choose cakes.

There’s an academic bookshop next door with a large range of English language titles. It’s a very good bookshop. As good as any in London. One of the best in Europe, the Finn said. He had a lot to say about books before the fisherman’s friends arrived. After the second round of friends all he could do was shake hands and ask for more. He got angry when I said, after the first round of friends, now I understood why I’d seen so many Finns lying on the ground. A couple of nights before someone standing in front of me had lent back and fallen into me. I’d pushed him away and he’s gone down on the ground, somehow managing to keep his beer upright. No one bothered helping him as he struggled to get up.

Last nights Finn was actually half Finnish, half Irish and half English. He’d grown up in England but when he first spoke neither me nor Il Italiano (who was half Mexican) understood what he was saying. It took three repetitions before I understood that he was asking us to join him at his table. I asked him why he didn’t join us sitting at the bar but he wouldn’t. At the time he didn’t come across as drunk, but seeing how he got later I think by then he must already have had a few.

The fourth and final cup of coffee has just been poured. It’s my last day in Finland. I’d like to go out and see a church made of stone that I’ve heard about but not yet got around to going to. I’ve not been to many places. I’ve spent most of my time here in front of the computer, either in the hostel or in cafes, and then I’ve been to various bars. I’ve also had a look round some bookshops and been to supermarkets. Just day to day living. Not a lot of sight seeing, apart from the christening I saw at the Uspensky Cathedral and the wander around the park.

It’s getting crowded again in the cafe as people get their late afternoon cakes.

In the stone church a saxophonist and a pianist rehearse. Some tourists listen and take photos. The pianist switches to the organ. When the music stops and the musicians leave, the church is quiet, apart from the sound of tourists whispering. The baby that was crying during the music now left.

I sneeze quite suddenly and quite loudly. That seems to be the cue for some camera flashes to go off. A man in a dark suit lights some candles and sets up a microphone. A brightly coloured woman dressed like a model from Millets crouches down in the aisle. At first I think she’s praying but then the flash goes off. An elderly lady looks like she might be praying, but she might also be sleeping. A woman with noisy heels walks in and sits down.

I often feel like slapping people who use flash photography in public places. The Irish Finn from London said he felt like slapping French people because when he was there and he spoke French they answered him in English. They’re another nation of arseholes, he said. I can’t remember what the first nation of arseholes was. England perhaps.

The church is starting to fill up. Some people look like they’re dressed for church so I guess a service is about to begin. I should probably get out of here before the singing starts. The black suit is putting numbers up on a rack on the rocks: 71, 73, 65. An old lady in black says something to him. She sounds angry. Perhaps she doesn’t approve of his selection. She goes off and speaks to a couple in the congregation then takes her seat on the front row. The saxophonist comes in with the pianist and they get ready to start. I get up and leave.

Back at the hostel I have an orange juice, an aspirin, a cup of Earl Grey tea and a couple of chocolate biscuits. I sit down with my book and as I shift my weight to get comfortable I feel a rip in my jeans. There was a small rip already between the legs but this one is much larger. I have another pair and should be able to get back to the dorm carrying my book behind my back without it looking strange. People often walk around carrying books.

I was talking to the women on night duty here the other night, showing her my photos of India. She said she runs a Vipassana meditation course here in Finland in June. I remember talking to people who’d done that in India. It’s ten days with no talking, no communication at all, not even eye contact nor smiling in acknowledgement of someone. No text messaging, emailing, blogging and no reading either. No computers… Pen ran out just now. (I’ve been writing this by hand.) I’ve borrowed one from the hostel. The woman on duty (a different woman) told me I could keep it. Apart from the building workers working on one of the shower rooms, I’ve only seen one male member of staff. He’s an Indian (or Pakistani) guy who sometimes does the night shift. I heard him watching cricket on TV once – that is, I heard the sound of cricket coming from the office, English language commentary, and thought it curious that a Finnish person should be interested in cricket, not realizing the shift had changed while I was sitting at my computer. The best wifi is transmitted from the office so I would sit just outside the office with my laptop to get the best reception.

There’d be no computers on Vipassana. No wifi. No alcohol, cigarettes or cannabis. Just 12 hours a day of meditation.

A Japanese guy who’s been here as long as I have, which is almost two weeks, walks past holding a tissue over his nose. Il Italiano comes in and sits down with his quantum mechanics text book. He’s a physics student here to see a mathematics professor at Helsinki University. I told him I studied physics 20 years ago. I have a look through his text book and a lot of it looks familiar: a particle in an infinite potential well, solving Schrodinger’s equation for a hydrogen atom etc. It’s an old book. The colour scheme on the cover looks familiar. It could be a book that I used. Wiley?

I gave Ms Vipassana the address of this blog and then remembered what I’d written about Finns on the ferry over here from Sweden and wondered whether I should edit it, but decided not to. Last night’s drunken Irish Finn got angry when I mentioned Finns’ reputation for being heavy drinkers. He thought it was racist. Irish people also had a reputation for being heavy drinkers, but he said the English were just as bad. I’d been keeping pace with him, though I’m sure he’s had a head start. But the reason I met him was because I was in a bar, and the reason I’d been able to describe loud drunken Finns on the ferry was because I was sitting in the bar on the ferry. If, like many people, I’d been going out sight seeing during the day, visiting churches and museums, and then going to bed before midnight instead of staying out in various bars until 3 or 4am, I would have very different impressions.

In quantum physics there’s no such thing as a passive observer.

The Vipassana website says Vipassana is about seeing things as they really are. That’s what the word means, it says. Il Italiano sits with his head in the Quantum Mechanics book. He was saying he needed cannabis because physics leads you into such a strange world, you need cannabis to make sense of it, to see the whole picture. In India Swami Dharmananda warned students to stay away from the chillum smoking babas who sat outside the ashram. The drunken Irish Finn thought it was all a load of crap, except for literature. Before the fisherman’s friends he was talking about Phillip Roth’s book on the plot to overthrow America. What’s it called? I asked. “The plot to overthrow America,” he answered. It was an alternative history, like a parallel universe.

On 21st May last year I was sitting in a restaurant in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India. I’d spent the day on the internet. 8 or 9 hours in front of my computer trying to transfer a load of websites from one web server to another, which had to be done before the 24th, the date I was due to leave India as well as the date on which the old web server would go offline, meaning whatever data hadn’t been copied to the new server would be lost. It’s hadn’t been a good day. The internet connection had been going down every half and hour or so. I needed at least an hour of uninterrupted connectivity and more likely two or three to do the backup. Each time the connection went I had to start again.

I gave up when the internet cafe closed at ten and now it was around midnight. I’d just finished eating pasta and mushroom sauce and was drinking a coffee. An English guy was standing at the counter next to me, paying off his tab. He was holding a joint. Do you want to finish this off, mate? It was a pure grass joint. I smoked some of it then offered him the rest. No no. You finish it. I’m going to roll another. I joined him and his Israeli friend at their table. We were the only ones left in the restaurant.

Before he’d finished rolling the next joint, which he was taking a long time over, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to smoke any more, but it would be rude to walk out now. Still, I needed to lie down for a while. I knew there was a covered terraced area with cushions on the floor just over the road that belonged to this restaurant. I told them I was just going to have a lie down, picked up my laptop bag and went out, wondering if they might be thinking I was untrusting not to leave my bag with them.

As I lay on the cushions I dreamt that my right knee was in pain. I could feel the pain quite intensely but knew it was just a stoned dream and that all I had to do was open my eyes and wake up and then go back into the restaurant , or more likely just go back to my hotel, but that would mean walking through the woods in the dark so perhaps I’d better just lie here and continue with this dream for a bit longer. As the dream went on, there were a number of voices talking about controlling pain, how pain was imaginary and could be switched off if you had the willpower, but the pain itself became sharper and more intense until my own voice drowned out all of the others. I was saying: This is real pain! And I was being picked up off the street by the English guy, the Israeli and the Indian restaurant owner. Once I was on my feet and supported by one under each arm the remaining one of the, the restaurant owner I think, picked up my laptop bag that was lying on the rocky unpaved street next to where I had been.

Back in the restaurant I lay down on one of the benches but I kept my eyes open and made an effort to listen to the conversation. After a while I sat up. I wanted to check the laptop was okay. I’d dropped it once before and it had broken. I’d been lucky then that I could get it repaired without having to pay anything, but that was in Canada. Getting an Apple Mac repaired in India might not be so easy, and certainly wouldn’t happen within a few days, even if I was in one of the major cities, which I was. Delhi was a 12 hour bus ride today. That was something I had to do on the 23rd.

Before I’d gone outside the English guy had been talking to me about how terrible it was to be going back. I’d been away from England for almost a year, but in less than three days I’d be getting on a plane and as soon as I was on that plane it would be as if I was already back in England. Reality would hit me in the face, he said. He was dreading having to go back and having to face up to reality again, having to go back to work, pay bills, have all these responsibilities. It sounded like if he could he would stay in this restaurant indefinitely, chatting to whoever would listen and rolling joints very slowly. Eventually he lit up and after the Indian and the Israeli had had some it was passed to me but I declined.

There was a universe in which I’d made it to the other side of the road and was now lying on the cushions, but I’d chosen to exist in the reality I was now in. The lying on the cushions reality would have been an easier one, and in a way I envied the me who was now experiencing that reality, but I told myself the one I had chosen was more interesting. I’d witnessed the universe split into two universes, something that happens all the time but usually without us noticing it, and I’d realized that which universe I found myself in was down to me. If I was lying on the cushions I might now be dreaming what I was currently experiencing, but I’d probably forget all once I woke up, or if I did remember it I’d tell myself it was just a dream and not take it too seriously.

communing with goats

Two days previously there had been another turning point, where the universe had split into two. I couldn’t see why I had chosen the universe I had chosen. I’d spent the past two days trying to build a time machine.

On the boat to Tallinn, in the bar sitting on a wobbly bar stool at a wobbly table that a bunch of people at the other end keep wobbling. On the stage a band starts to plat soft music. Old people fill the dance floor.

gambling machine on the Helsinki to Tallinn ferry

They wouldn’t let the Irish Finn into Lost & Found, the late night bar / club in Helsinki we went to after the first bar. There was an exchange in Finnish. I asked what was going on. He’s not coming in, the doorman said. Why not? He’s caused too much trouble here before.

I might have told him to fuck off once, the Irish Finn says as we leave and go to a place up the road called Inferno, a heavy metal bar where we’re the only customers, though later a couple of bearded bikers come in and sit at the bar and two goth women sit at one of the other tables. Lost & Found is the place that seems to get virtually all of the late night business in this area.

Walking through Tallinn Old Town looking for the hostel where I’ve made a reservation I pass an old guy who says something to me in Estonian. I’m holding a map so I think maybe he’s offering to give me directions but then I notice he’s holding what looks like a small axe. As I walk on I look round to see him charge at the large wooden door he was standing in front of.

A bit further on I take a look at the map and realize I’ve gone too far. I’ll have to turn back, back past the guy with the axe. He’s now on the other side of the road shouting through a window. He crosses the road, back to his big wooden double door, a door that many horses and carts must have passed through. This town is said to be the best preserved old town in Northern Europe. It dates back to the 14th century. As I get closer I see that what I thought was an axe is actually a broken piece of pipe. He’s trying to lever one of the doors open. Some of the wood of the other door has been worn away, either by him or by someone doing something very similar to what he’s doing.