Sax on the Streets
Chapter 15:
Helsinki, Finland


© Dan Gordon, 2003

Arrival in Finland proper begs a discussion of the nation’s identity. Contrary to popular belief, Finland is not Scandinavia. By the strictest geographical definition, Scandinavia is the peninsula surrounded by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Baltic Sea to the east. This definition excludes Finland as well as Denmark. A more historically oriented definition that considers Scandinavia as the land of the Vikings sets Finland apart as well. Vikings inhabited Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, while few ever lived in the land that is now Finland. The most unequivocal term incorporating Finland with its neighboring nations in Northern Europe is “Nordic countries.” This group consists of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland, and affords its citizens reciprocal work and travel agreements much like the countries in the European Economic Community.

Still, Finland has several distinctions which set it apart even from the other Nordic countries. Foremost among them is its language. Finnish is completely unrelated to the Germanic-based languages of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. The only other major language to which it is at all related is Hungarian. The two languages share common roots but diverged early in their evolution, making them so distant today that they are mutually incomprehensible. About the only characteristic that has remained in common to the two languages is their accentuation pattern. In both languages the stress of the word invariably falls on the first syllable.

Even if you can’t understand Finnish, it is enchanting to listen to. The predominance of the letters P, T, and K give the language a staccato lilt, particularly when these letters are doubled. Finnish is phonetic; that is, pronunciation systematically follows written form. Therefore, a single letter in a word is pronounced differently than if the letter is doubled. The common male name Pekka, for instance, requires a short lingering on the two K’s. The anglicized “Pecka” will not do. Instead, “Peck-ga.”

Further fascination with Finnish comes from its capacity to form nouns by stringing several words together. This creates enormously long words that seem to go on forever. By far my favorite Finnish word is kolmivaihekilowattituntimittari, translating roughly to “three-phase electricity meter.” Wow! That is a mouthful!

Irma was happy to be able to put this language to use again when we arrived in Helsinki. “You native English speakers are so lucky,” she said as we disembarked from the floating hotel. “You can speak your own language everywhere you go and everyone understands you. Nobody outside of Finland speaks Finnish.” She proceeded to the information desk and proudly asked in Finnish when the next bus out to her place was.

“Listen to that, will you?” I said. “So what if no one understands it, Irma, your language is beautiful! It’s like music to my ears!”

“Kiitos,” she said, drawing out the two I’s nice and long. “I like your music, too.”

Our music was not going to be so easy to play in Helsinki. Irma was worried about those strict Finnish police, so before she left to meet us in Copenhagen she had applied for a busking permit. She had a scheduled list of times and places for us to play. Gary and I didn’t like the idea of busking by appointment; it was contrary to our style. But we had to either live with it or face the notorious Finnish police. We figured we’d at least give the schedule a try. Before we could play anywhere, we had to go to the police station, show our passports, and pay a 20FM ($5) fee for the permit.

“They sure have enough regulations for all of this,” Gary said as he signed the registration book and coughed up his money at the station. “I can’t believe I have to sign my life away to play music on the street.”

I scribbled my name and pitched in 10FM. The woman behind the desk checked my passport to make sure the signatures matched. “And you did more of this before we even got here, Irma?” I asked. “Yes, I chose your spots from the list this lady gave me,” she said, showing me the form with the legal pitches. “I was only allowed to choose three places, and then I had to find a time when they weren’t taken by someone else. It’s a good thing I did it a few weeks ago—everything is taken now.”

Before I even saw the form, my ears rang with those warnings we had heard about Finnish police. If all the pitches were taken weeks beforehand, that meant no busker could come into town and find a legal place to play right away. When I looked at the form, the ringing in my ears grew louder. I saw a bunch of instructions followed by a list of sites to play around the city. In Finnish. How was any foreigner supposed to understand that? He wasn’t. The fewer people who could figure out all the regulations, the fewer buskers there would be for the cops to deal with. The police had set up a veritable obstacle course. We had to sign up weeks in advance, decipher the forms, and then take a wild guess at which pitches might be profitable. If Irma hadn’t done it all for us, we never would have been able to busk. That was the whole idea.

The woman behind the counter handed us our official permit. We wondered if it would have been easier just to play and risk the consequences.

Our first pitch on the docket was that afternoon in a small esplanade park near the center of the city. Parks were not a normal pitch for us; we only busked in them if there were no other viable alternatives. In fact, the last time we had played in a park was way back in Barcelona in our first day of public busking. We didn’t have quite the response this time as we had then—no gaping stares or intimations of Pied Pipers—but people seemed to enjoy the musical accompaniment to their walk in the park. For us, the park was a welcome change of pace. The muted thudding of passing footsteps fell more softly on our ears than the usual clop, clop, clop of heels on concrete. The sparse population in the park didn’t accumulate much change in the hat, but our scheduled half hour brought in enough to keep us afloat until we could play again a few hours later.

This second pitch was a busy, open patio on a street corner beside the biggest department store in Helsinki. An array of coffee tables covered one area of the patio while pedestrians skittered around the rest of it. We pitched below a statue surrounded by flowers. The automobiles and trolley cars that whizzed back and forth as we played didn’t prevent anybody from paying attention to us. The traffic, normally a deterrent to busking, worked to our advantage here. It created the sensation of being in the middle of all the action. We didn’t feel like we fought the whirring engines and honking horns, but instead offered a pleasant alternative for the nearby coffee sippers to listen to. The music mixed with the sounds of the city as the hat filled up steadily. We even found a 50FM bill ($12.50) among the coins. The hour of busking cranked in a bundle.

Success continued the next day when we played at the evening market at the harbor. Overlooking the waterfront full of enormous ships coming and going, the open marketplace abounded with color and activity. The rhythmic lapping of the sea against the docks provided a gentle counterpoint to our music. The anchored boats bobbed and swayed as if they were dancing to the duets. Cheery tourists whistled along with us and offered plenty of coins as they disembarked from sightseeing boats. Merchants applauded us between every number. After two hours of such busking bliss, we were not surprised to find over $50 in the hat. With those funds, we took advantage of the benefits of marketplace busking. The three of us picked and chose our dinners from among the fresh food in the stalls. Some of the merchants recognized us and thanked us for the entertainment.

Our recent busking fortune suggested that the summer season had finally arrived. Apart from the park in Helsinki and the one day in the Åland Islands—where one couldn’t expect to earn much anyway—we’d had regular busking success ever since Stockholm. That all-important factor, the weather, made the difference. Summer arrived, the weather was nice, the tourists were out, people were in a good mood, they appreciated the music, they tossed more money. Everything finally clicked. It was about time, too, because in those previous few weeks, everything had been at the other extreme—lousy weather, everyone in a lousy mood, lousy results. The mighty busking pendulum had swung. Gary and I were determined to suspend the fleeting instant at the height of the pendulum’s arc for as long as possible.

We had no scheduled times to play over the weekend, which was now upon us, so instead of being greedy and busking at illegal times, we took our abundance of previous earnings and enjoyed it Finnish style. That meant a visit to Irma’s parents countryside house, a small place on a lake front with a killer sauna in the basement. This sauna was the real thing, complete with a wood-burning stove—not like the half-baked electric stove on that boat—and we enjoyed it to the fullest. The sauna is one example of a national stereotype that is absolutely true. Americans have a lot of ideas about Europeans that are completely bogus: The Dutch do not run around in wooden shoes and Dutch-boy haircuts sticking their fingers in the dyke; most Spaniards do not like bullfights and haven’t got the slightest idea how to dance flamenco; and I never met a Swiss person who could yodel. But the Finns love their saunas.

Just one session in a real Finnish sauna makes it easy to see why. Sauna strips things down to the bare essentials: your body, some water, a lot of heat, and not much else. The heat brings on an altered state of consciousness. Some of the greatest philosophical, political, and social discussions take place here. Finland’s former president Urho Kekkonen frequently held cabinet meetings in the sauna.

The true sauna experience involves more than just sitting in a hot room. Before you even go in, the sauna’s got to be at least 65° or 70° Celsius (around 160° F), and that’s on the low end of the scale. You go in, sit on the bench, and work up a good sweat. Then you take a bundle of birch twigs and thrash yourself all over with it. This not only stimulates your skin and brings the blood to the surface, it fills the room with a fragrant woody aroma as well. In order to really feel the heat of the sauna, you have to throw ladelfuls of water over the rocks on the stove. The steamy wave of heat or löyly (roughly pronounced LOWloo) that follows can be so intense that you often have to cover your face to bear it. These heat waves are the essence of the sauna. The Finns, after all, judge a sauna by the quality of its löyly s. They do not speak of “good saunas,” but rather, “good löyly s.”

When you’re good and hot after a few löyly s and a flogging or two with the twigs, you run out of the sauna and jump into a lake. This may seem like utter insanity, and admittedly it is a shock to the senses, but it is unbelievably refreshing. If the sudden change in temperature doesn’t give you a heart attack, it’s actually healthy. The sauna process thoroughly cleanses your skin. The heat opens up your pores and the lake water washes them right out. After the lake, you go right back into the sauna and start all over again. Repeat until all stress, worries, and tensions have melted away or until you’re ready to drop from exhaustion.

Gary and I sat in there, sweating like crazy, beating ourselves with the birch twigs, occasionally throwing some water over the rocks, and thinking we were pretty good at this when Irma walked in. “What’s going on in here? It’s not hot enough!” she said before the door even shut behind her. “You need to throw some water.” She grabbed the bucket and dumped at least three ladelfuls on the rocks, rapid fire.

“Irma, are you crazy?!” I yelled. “We’re going to die in here!”

The wave of heat hit, crushing us with the unrelenting weight and force of a steamroller. I charged out of the sauna with my hands over my face, screaming, “This is too much! I can’t stand it!!”

A few minutes later I met Irma in the lake. “Irma,” I laughed, “you are a sauna animal.”

She grinned as her steaming pink body sank into the water. “Good löyly s.”

How did anyone ever get the peculiar idea to voluntarily roast himself in an oven and then jump in a frigid lake? If you think about the circumstances, it’s not really so strange at all. Winters in Finland are extremely cold, so naturally the Finns want somewhere warm to relax. The abundance of forests in the country makes the wood-burning stoves in the saunas practical. A common tree among these forests is the birch, so the origin of the birch twig tradition is obvious. Even jumping in the lake makes sense, because you need something to cool you off after all that heat. With the thousands of lakes throughout Finland, one is always nearby. So the sauna is pre-eminently Finnish, no matter how much anyone tries to imitate it.

We spent the better part of the afternoon going from sauna to lake and back again. When we finally finished, we had a cookout in the back yard, where we roasted Finnish sausages and even whipped up a batch of sangría.

“This is paradise,” Gary said as he sipped his sangría and lay back exhausted yet invigorated in a lounge chair.

“Sauna and sangría,” I sighed. “Now that’s doing justice to the finest elements of two countries.”

This was Finland at its best: sauna, shimmering trees, fresh air, sparkling lakes. The unspoiled countryside around us offered a soft, serene beauty that soothed rather than overwhelmed. Now Gary and I understood why Finns had so much respect for their nature.

The surroundings provided an idyllic setting for our music as well, which we gladly provided at Irma’s request. Somehow the duets sounded just a little bit better echoing over the lakes and forests than amid the bustling commotion of the city. Our light-headedness added an element of reverie to the music. It didn’t soar; it floated, lingered, delicately dissipated. We played and drank and dreamed the afternoon away.

The following day, Sunday, with still no times scheduled to play, Irma took us to a Finnish baseball game. Yes, the Finns play baseball. The Finnish game, pesäpallo, is related to American baseball: nine players per team, nine innings per game, three outs per inning, four bases, and a bat and ball. The field is roughly triangular in shape, with the four bases arranged in a Z-pattern. The pitcher stands beside the batter and tosses the ball up in the air underhand, trying to make it land on a round wooden disc which is home plate. The batter has three chances to hit the ball within the boundaries of the field, and can take his choice of when he will try to run around the bases.

The game proceeds similarly to its American counterpart. Batters try to advance runners around the bases to score. Runners, however, can be “wounded,” or eliminated from the base paths without registering an out. Strange to American eyes is that when a batter starts to run around the bases, he goes off to the left, or what would be third base in the American game. It also looks odd that a ball hit beyond the farthest boundary, a home run in the American game, is like a foul ball and is out of play in the Finnish version. Watching this hybrid game in such a faraway place is both fascinating and amusing; even more surprising is that Finns play American football, the identical game, and have been European champions at it.

Back on the busking front in Helsinki, we encountered bad weather in our remaining days’ efforts. Some of our schedules pitches were interrupted by rain, others were washed out entirely. It started drizzling one afternoon while we played beside the big department store; instead of packing up, we moved under an overhang and proceeded there. But the wind, the cold, and the dampness made it difficult to play and lowered people’s spirits, so even though we could continue, the busking wasn’t the same that way.

After finishing our pitch in the rain, we packed up and went inside a nearby shopping mall. There we found a flutist and bassoonist playing duets in an atrium-like area, enclosed in glass but open to several store fronts. We listened for a while, tossed a few coins in their case, and marveled at how good they sounded with the acoustics in there. Gary and I were jealous of how they were protected from the elements. We agreed to try this pitch if the bad weather kept up.

In subsequent days, the damp weather persisted. Outdoor busking became an impossibility. Gary and I headed for the atrium in the mall.

The duets sounded like two birds chirping in a sanctuary. Unfortunately, a nearby shop owner, evidently not an ornithologist, didn’t think so. “Excuse me, do you have a permit to play here?” she asked with a sour look on her face.

“We have a permit to play our saxophones in Helsinki,” Gary replied with this quick-thinking half-truth.

“But do you have one to play right here?” she demanded.

“Well, uh, not exactly,” he answered hesitantly.

“No, I know you don’t. Because to play here you must have permission from both the police and all the shop owners, and you didn’t ask me.”

“Well then,” I said in the most polite tone of voice I could muster, “would you please be so kind as to give us the privilege of your permission to perform in this atrium before your fine establishment, madame?”

“No,” she said resolutely. “I insist that you stop making this noise immediately.”

Wouldn’t you know it—the first time we tried to play without a permit we got nailed for it. We couldn’t very well argue with the lady; we were dead wrong and she knew it. We had no choice but to obediently pack up and leave. No big deal, though. We had collected a few markka during the fifteen minutes before the lady came out, and we weren’t hurting for money at this point, anyway.

When the weather cleared, we hit the streets again. By this time, we had no more scheduled times left, so we took our chances every time we busked. Since we’d had our best showing at the marketplace by the port, Gary, Irma, and I headed there. And sure enough, without a permit, we got asked for one again. This time it was a policeman who spoiled our fun. Irma started sweet-talking the cop in Finnish, and before we knew it, the cop had left and Irma told us we could keep playing.

“What’d you say to him, Irma?” Gary asked.

“Well, he said you weren’t supposed to be playing in the afternoon without a permit. I just told him that everyone seemed to like your music and that it wasn’t bothering anybody, so it didn’t do any harm. He admitted that no one had complained about it, so he’s letting you play for another hour.”

“Nice work, Irma,” I smiled. “I think you’re beginning to understand this trade pretty well.”

We got a reprieve this time, but Gary and I were amazed at how everyone knew when we didn’t have a permit. We conveniently forgot that while these were new pitches for us, all those cops and shop owners had been around long before we ever arrived. They knew when and where playing was allowed. When they saw someone playing in a place where no one had done it before, they knew the busker had no permit. This was true everywhere, of course, but in Finland they did something about it. Gary and I had little chance to ever play without the proper paperwork. It looked like all that fuss over getting a permit to play in Finland had been necessary after all.

As time progresses, however, Finnish police are becoming more tolerant of street musicians. Finland is undergoing a campaign to “Europeanize” itself, in which authorities encourage activities that used to occur only at points further south on the continent. Street musicians, outdoor cafés, and bistros appear with greater regularity than they have before. As such, Helsinki is losing the reputation it once had as the “heaviest” place in Europe to busk. If this trend continues, future street musicians could find themselves, ironically enough, more welcome in Finland than anywhere in Europe.

Maybe this is what the cop at the marketplace was thinking when he agreed to let us play on. That extra hour put us in hearty financial shape for the rest of our stay in Helsinki. We only stayed in town for one more day; Irma flew to the USA the next day to begin her summer as a camp counselor, and after seeing her off at the airport, we had half a day to kill before taking the night boat back across to Sweden.

Without any touristic aspirations, we decided to play one more time to add to our funds. We chose the pitch by the department store again, because if we set up in the marketplace, the police officer would likely not be so kind the second time around. As we arrived, one of those Inca bands was packing up its act. We were lucky to get there as they were leaving—I’m sure they had been there for hours. We pitched in the spot they vacated. I was nervous about busking without a permit since we’d been caught without one twice in the previous two days.

I felt uneasy the whole time we played. In addition to concerns over the permit, there were a number of drunks and freaks roaming around that gave me the creeps. Some guy walked by, kicked our hatful of coins all over the street, and kept right on walking, the jerk. Either he was a waste case or he did it intentionally. We chased our rolling coins all over the patio and completely humiliated ourselves in the process. No one did ask for a permit the whole time, but I was glad to be done playing after an hour and a half.

Nonetheless, we made a load of money there, giving us a solid financial padding for travels ahead. No more worries about being totally broke any time in the near future. Without even fantasizing about it this time, we were headed back to “Sweden with more.”

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
Click here for next chapter.
All material copyright 2002 by WebMerchants and Dan Gordon.
Reprinting by permission only.


Dan Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630
Cambridge, MA 02140
Voice mail: (617) 320-6989