Carry on, Kallio

The bar attracts a diverse crowd and I’m always entertained by the drunkenness of the clientele and their wild behavior.

– Jason Wright,, July 2011

This week I accidently stumbled upon a few Aki Kaurismäki films on YouTube. I wish I could remember how or why I ended up on that particular channel, but I can’t. We were a few bottles of vino deep by this time. That said, I ended up watching Calamari Union and The Man Without a Past. Both were fantastic and it’s on my list to finish (still funny!) the other two parts of Kaurismäki’s Finland trilogy by the end of the summer. Fortunately, they’re both on that same YouTube channel. You’ve gotta love free content.

All of this adds to the feeling of nostalgia I’ve been feeling for Helsinki recently, in spite of being only a half year removed from its icy cold clutches. Of course, there were moments I downright hated, but there were just too many that I loved. And that’s not to say I felt homesick for Canada and wanted to go back home; I just wanted to be someone warmer than Finland. And that list is longer than John Holmes’ gizmo.

But even in the bad (see: cold and sunless) times in Helsinki, one thing always remained fascinating to me. And that was the fact that I found myself fucking living in Helsinki at the relatively young age of 23. My first stop after graduation, as it were.

And even on those unpleasantly cold nights I could still walk around the streets of Kallio or the city centre and be blown away by their subtle differences and, above all, the sheer knowledge that I was a long, long way from home.

I’ve tried to go into great detail a seemingly infinite number of times about the subtleties that captured my excitement night in and out. But I am nowhere near as a strong a writer as that task demands. But, in a cop-out of a nutshell, the best way I could describe it was this: even the most banal and menial of tasks blew me away, if only for the sheer fact that they were done in a very foreign land and oftentimes surrounded by a very foreign language. You’d be surprised at how interesting this can make your day-to-day … if you’re up for it.

There were things in Finland that I would not expect anyone else to even raise a single eyebrow of interest upon hearing, but these same things produce in me a feeling of warm nostalgia when I watch a Kaurismäki film (or Night on Earth or any Dome Karukoski). Something as simple as the glowing white numbered cubes in front of a Finnish flat, or the familiar blue-and-yellow awning of an R-Kioski can elicit in me a great affection. And I dig that. If anything, I’ll always have that, regardless of if I ever step foot in Suomi again.

My time there was always an interesting trip. I could be sitting at a table surrounded by the chattering of Finns all around, not understanding the rapid-fire flow of the conversation (save for a few scattered vittus) and not have a problem with it. It was just kind of cool.

I think fondly of those ridiculous nights where we’d decide to stroll two blocks to Roskapankki, our local pub – our Moe’s, our Cheers, our MacLaren’s – for “just one round” … Which would habitually turn into “we each buy one round” … which would effortlessly transition into an all night affair, where we’d be there until the lights came on. And – holy shit – do I ever think warmly on those evenings.

The place had some of the cheapest beer in town (which in a town that charges 5 Euros for less than a pint, quickly becomes worth its weight in gold). However, to enjoy it you needed to possess a disposition that won’t get too worked up over drunk, and occasionally sketchy, FUBAR Finns. It was a brilliant and unintentional little method of filtering out those who couldn’t handle such places – which usually meant those who can’t handle their drink in a civilized manner anyhow. And those who couldn’t handle the way the place looked from the outside simply stayed away.

The interior would almost certainly combust instantly if ever set aflame. The pews, bar, and stools were all made of wood, and a “smoking room” sat situated in the far corner by the door. If you left your pint outside, you could enjoy the smooth flavor of a drunken Marlboro without having to stand outside in the Finnish winter.

The clientele was an eclectic mix of young and old, professionals and borderline-homeless, but overall mostly local. Except for me. Which, on more than one occasion, I would use to make a few new friends and drink a few free drinks. More times than I care to remember, a loaded Finn would wander by the booth, hear English, and sit down … eager to speak English to a genuine native. Now, if I was on my first round, I wouldn’t be all that keen on new mates that evening. But, if I happened to have had my elbows on the wood for a few hours – well – those were the greatest summits.

Things would quickly escalate when they’d find out I hailed from the Great White North. Finns, you see, are really into hockey. So when given an opportunity to drunkenly debate the greatest game with an authentic Canadian hockey fan … they would waste no time. Beers, shots, whatever … so long as I was willing to go tête-à-tête on the finer points of the NHL, Vancouver Olympics, or Gretzky-to-Kurri. For me – that’s like getting free drinks for breathing.

Not to get too hung up on the idea of Roskapankki hockey conversations, but by far the oddest thing I’d seen during my entire time in Finland took place in that pub one night during a conversation about hockey.

I found myself sitting in the smoking room, enjoying an Estonian Camel or two, and saw a kid in his 20s at the bar, wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater. Shit, I thought, I’ll have to say something to this man at some point. Before I could finish that thought he walked into the smoking room and sat down. As he turned, I noticed that on the back of the sweater, in big white block letters, was GILMOUR 93, as it would appear on a jersey. Well now I definitely gotta say something to this kid. I told him I liked the shirt, that Dougie was one of my all-time favorites growing up (as any early nineties Leaf fan will effortlessly admit) and that I’ve bled blue and white for damn near two decades. He just smiled, stood up, and looked me dead in the eye. You think that’s cool … check this out. And he proceeded to lift up the back of his sweater and show me his back …

Woah – this just took a turn for the weird. … I know right? … Stay with me here …

Tattooed on his back, in big blue block letters, was GILMOUR 93, as it would appear on a jersey. Shoulder blade to shoulder blade, with two big numbers inked down the length of his back.

JESUS CHRIST! I thought. That would be hardcore for even the most intense of Leafs fans … but for some dude from a small countryside town in the middle of further-than-nowhere, Finland … just … Wow.

And that, my friends, was one of the most intense things I saw during my time in Finland. But let’s get back on track here. I was waxing nostalgic about the pub, the entertaining drunkenness of its clientele, and all manner of wild behaviors.

Roskapankki was divine at times. It had the cheapest beer in town and was never a dull moment, simply due to those who filled the place on a nightly (and daily) basis to enjoy the cheapest beer in town. Put another way, the atmosphere was everything a pub fan would want from a pub. You never felt vulnerable to any sort of danger, in spite of the occasional drunken debauchery of the place. Most of that feeling of total safety was due to those behind the bar.

Janne – the short, broad shouldered, bald-headed King Solomon of Roskapankki. He’d serve you till you dropped, but if you fucked with the rules of the pub he’d not waste a moment in grabbing you by the collar and tossing you head first through the door and onto the cement. This alone kept order in the place. If you fucked around – got too drunk and started smashing pint glasses, talked trash to the bartenders, or disrespected any women in the joint – your ass would be bounced. And in spite of the sketchiness of the place, the douchebag factor within its walls was ridiculously low. It was a place you could go to throw back a few too many, but if you acted like an asshole you were gone. And not only that, but Janne would toss your ass out every time you returned … until your time-out was over.

There was a lot of Johnny Cash that came on over the jukebox. That, for some reason, is one of my more prominent memories of the place. I figure that’s because a lot of the other tunes were in Finnish …

Indeed … and everything else was in Finnish too. I learned many great lessons in Roskapankki, but none more valuable than this: If you’re too polluted to order another round … I mean the kind of sway where any bartender worth their opener would cut you off immediately upon hearing you speak … it’s especially valuable to be in a foreign land and know a few phrases of the local language. To wit, when I found myself in the aforementioned situation I would simply switch to Finnish. Since my accent is so naturally obscure, provided I can maintain a vertical gait, no bartender in the country can tell the difference between my self-consciousness from speaking a foreign language and my extreme drunkenness.

Not only that, but at a certain hour of the night, it wouldn’t be out of place for one of the new friends I’d met over the course of the evening to ask for my help in prolonging their bender. They’d be too lifted to order another round successfully, so the deal was: Okay English, you get the beer for me, and I give you money so you get one too.

Christ that place was fun.

It’s tough to have a bad night at Roskapankki and lord knows we tested this theory time and time again. From the neon green glow of the signs above the bar, to the eternally dormant clocks on the walls, to those magical mirrors that always reflected such a suave maniac at two in the morning – I enjoyed every inch of that place.

It was no more than a few blocks from home, but it could sometimes take an eternity to make it back after we’d finished our last pint. One reason was the Yö Grilli (Night Grill) across the street where one could wait ten minutes (which would feel like a lifetime) for a reindeer and pineapple pizza to take home. The other problem was an even greasier pub directly across the street from our flat, which would stay open for a good three or four hours after Roskapankki had already poured last call. And the sight of an open door and a clouded mind can often lead to:  Okay, we’ll just go for “one more round” before bed.

But that’s another long story for another day.

Roskapankki, Helsinki, Kallio


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