Sax on the Streets
Chapter 14:
Åland, Finland

© Dan Gordon, 2003

Early the next morning, we were on a boat crossing the Baltic Sea to Finland. Taking a cruise on a boat like that is an experience everyone should have at least once in his life. Those ships are floating hotels. The luxuries on board include discos, casinos, restaurants, saunas, jacuzzis, swimming pools, and penny arcades. We spent the entire six hour trip living it up, eating, sleeping, and going from sauna to jacuzzi and back again. That’s being on vacation.

Our boat passed through the Åland Islands, the archipelago between Sweden and Finland, and stopped in the principal city of Marienhamn. We disembarked to spend a day looking around.

The Åland Islands technically belong to Finland; they fall under Finnish government jurisdiction and use Finnish currency but are Swedish-speaking and have a semi-autonomous political status. They have their own flag and even their own postage stamps. The abundant displays of the red, yellow, and blue Åland colors manifest the proud separatist feelings of these islands’ people. Even Irma, a native Finn, didn’t feel at home there. She was disturbed when attendants at the port’s tourist information desk refused to answer her questions in Finnish.

Since tourism is the main summer industry of these islands and prices rise for the high season, it looked like we were going to have to part with a lot of money for the night’s lodging. But after a series of phone calls, Irma found us a place to stay in a biological station outside the town, where she had done part of her studies in ecology some years before. Irma’s sisu surfaced again. The accommodations cost us all of $1.25 apiece.

“You’re not really supposed to stay at this biological station if you’re not a biologist,” Irma said as we made our way out there, “so you have to at least pretend you are interested in nature.”

“Oh, we love nature, Irma, you know that,” I quipped. “Why, nature is one of our favorite things, isn’t it, Gary?”

“You bet. Look at that tree, Dan, isn’t it beautiful?”

“Incredible. And that bird--why, I believe it’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Am I right, Irma?”

“Very funny,” she smirked. “Here we are. Be respectable.”

A small, rickety wooden house, the biological station overlooked the Baltic on one side and was otherwise surrounded by forest. The laboratory inside was an intellectual clutter of papers, wildlife specimens, and scientific equipment. A Finnish couple and a student worked there. They greeted us warmly as we entered. At their suggestion, Gary, Irma, and I went for a walk on one of the nature trails in the surrounding woods.

Wandering through the forests of Marienhamn, I began to get a feel for the unspoiled beauty of the Finnish countryside. The absence of noise from passing traffic and tromping pedestrians was deafening. The swaying trees made the sun’s rays glisten as they shone through the leaves. A sweet, woodsy aroma pervaded our nostrils. Irma was in her element here. She identified every tree, plant, and bird that we came across. I could feel her respect and appreciation for nature just by watching her touch and examine the wildlife. For Irma, merely enjoying nature was not enough; she wanted to understand it. That pursuit of knowledge and quality was the characteristic I admired most in her.

The three of us meandered back to the biological station. “How was your walk?” the scientists asked.

“It’s peaceful out there,” I replied. “And Irma sure knows her nature.”

“It’s a refreshing change for us after playing in so many cities,” Gary added.

“Oh yes, Irma mentioned that you two are musicians who play on the street as you travel,” the man said.

“That’s right,” Gary said. “Can we offer you a concert?”

“A concert? Oh, please do. We don’t hear many concerts out here.”

Performances like these were among the many joys of busking. By playing for our hosts, Gary and I provided them with entertainment they would otherwise never have. And everybody loves to be given a private concert. It was the least we could do in return for their hospitality.

We pulled out the instruments and played through a few duets. As the music flowed, I couldn’t help but think how unlikely it was to end up performing in a place like this. With some imagination, I could fathom a Parisian penthouse, a German tennis club, even a Danish newspaper. But a remote cottage on an island in the Baltic, while surrounded by test tubes and dried up plant specimens? Never!

“Delightful,” applauded the man as we finished. “And you plan on playing in Marienhamn? I’m not sure that’s allowed. Don’t you need a permit?”

“We don’t know, actually,” I said. “But we don’t often bother finding out. If it’s illegal, we’re usually just asked to stop and there are no problems.”

“I’m not sure that’s wise in Finland,” the man said. “Finnish police are strict. Especially Åland police. You might be fined if you don’t have a permit. Maybe worse.”

“Yes,” his wife added, “Åland police are different.”

Hearing natives talk this way is unsettling, but Gary and I had heard such warnings dozens of times before. Everybody thinks the police in their country are different--stricter, crueler, and less tolerant--than anywhere else (except Amsterdam!). We’d had our brushes with the police in the past, but they were always brief, polite encounters. So we never worried about it.

Perhaps because it was her own country this time, Irma, too, insisted that we look into a permit before playing in Marienhamn. With everybody making all this fuss, Gary and I thought maybe Finnish police really were different. So the next day, we stopped in at the police station to see what the local regulations were and what acquiring a permit would entail. All the police officer did was write our names down on some list. No forms, no fee, no audition.

When we arrived at the center of town, Gary and I laughed out loud at how everyone had made such a big deal. The pedestrian zone was exactly one block long. A pair of kids on bicycles accounted for most of its activity. No more than 20 people walked around. It was almost as quiet as the woods we had walked through the day before. This was even too small for small-town phenomenon to apply. We had the permit and the time to kill before our boat left, so we had nothing to lose by playing. In forty minutes, about forty markka ($10) appeared in the hat, more than we expected for such unassuming surroundings. But hey, it covered the cost of the last night’s accommodations!

That afternoon we embarked on the boat again for the second leg of the trip across the Baltic to mainland Finland. This time we glutted ourselves on the smorgasbord dinner as soon as we got on and spent the rest of the ride recovering from it. By evening, we were in Helsinki.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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