"YOU GOTTA GO TO FINLAND"
by Irwin Hirsh
(First published in Larrikin 19, December 1988, edited by Irwin Hirsh and Perry Middlemiss)
Travelling around the Continent Wendy and I would often meet people, English speaking people, who were travelling by themselves. As George put it, "It is hard travelling by yourself in a country where English isn't the main language." George was a Canadian we met travelling from Amsterdam to Frankfurt, and I think he was relieved that he was sharing his last Eurail ride with people who spoke his language. It was the first time George had been to Europe, having made a last minute decision to spend his vacation across the Atlantic. He bought a fortnight Eurail ticket, had had a ball, but had also had enough and was leaving with four days still to run on his ticket. "Why?" I asked. "It is hard work, being by myself." Sounds fair to me, I thought.
We met Bob on the train from Turin to Lyon, about a month after arriving on Continental Europe. That morning we had been in Pisa, and we'd just experienced twelve days of meeting Italian culture. The train from Pisa to Turin had been 90 minutes late, so that on our last day in Italy we finally acquainted ourselves with the great Italian tradition of 'Timetable? What timetable?' Luckily we'd been forced to give ourselves a three hour change- over in Turin, so there was no worry about the possibility of not making our connection to Lyon.
Three hours into the trip I was out in the corridor, walking around and stretching my legs. Bob was in the next compartment along from us, and he and I got talking, comparing travel experiences and sharing travel tips. He was in his mid-thirties, stood just over 6 foot, spoke with a slow drawl and hailed from Boston. As Bob and I continued to chat Wendy was introduced into the conversation, at which point Bob was invited to come into our compartment and sit down.
Bob's travel experiences were quite different to that of George. This was the ninth time in ten years that Bob was spending his vacation on the Contintent. He loved the freedom which was attached to a Eurail ticket and he enjoyed experiencing and re-experiencing the different cultures of Western Europe. Then he told us he is the only person he knows who does this, "All my friends just holiday in other parts of the US or take package tours."
We told him about where we'd been so far in our travels. He nodded, "You've gone to some good places there." Then he stopped for a moment, his interest raised, "What made you go to Saarland? No one's ever heard of it, and it isn't really close to anywhere which people have heard of."
"It's right next to Luxembourg," Wendy reminded him.
"Oh yes, that's right," noted Bob.
It's not close to anything in Germany, I could sense him thinking. "And we went there," I added, "Because we had someone to stay with."
Bob was satified with my answer, and went on to ask us about the rest of our trip. "Well, we'll be in Lyon for three or four days. Then it is off to Switzerland for a week..."
"Switzerland is expensive, you know," Bob interupted.
"So we've been warned," I said and went to detail the rest of our plans.
Bob pondered over the places we'd listed. "What about other places? Spain? Or, up in Scandinavia? You should go to Finland."
"Why should we go to Finland?" Wendy asked.
"You could go up to the Artic Circle. Eat yak meat. How many people do you know who've done that. That would be something to tell your friends about, saying you've eaten yak meat. You could get there by going on the overnight ferry, which is covered by your ticket."
"But we aren't going anywhere close to the ferry," I explained. "It would take a day of solid travelling just to catch the ferry, and that assumes all the connections don't require much waiting time. And once we get off the ferry we'd still have to travel for a day to get to inside the Artic Circle."
"And we'd have to do that all over again to continue with our trip, as we're flying to London out of Paris," Wendy added. "That's four days and two nights of travel. Why should we do that when in two hours we could be in Switzerland."
"No, the prices there are ridiculous. A steak costs $25. I don't know how they can dare charge so much."
"It isn't a matter of them charging so much. The Swiss franc is just a strong currency."
Bob didn't even appear to have heard what I said. "You wanna know how I visit Switzerland?" he asked us, "I arrive in a city in the morning and wonder around for the day. That night I get on another train, and within a couple of hours I'm out of the country. For a whole week I do that, going in and out." There was a pause and then he added, "And when I'm there I don't buy a thing. Not a thing."
"Not even a snack or a drink."
"No!" He shook his head firmly. "There is no way I'm going to pay those prices. I just refuse." The way he spoke he made it seem like a conspiracy had been constructed to get him.
"Apart from the high prices, what is Switzerland like?" we asked. Bob's response was as positive as anyone else's, which is that the country has a lot to offer - great scenary, elegant cities, and a nice attention to detail. Bob added some acute personal observations, suggesting that the different languages don't necessary divide the country as he'd imagined would be the case. "The French Swiss have an affinity with the French, but the Germans don't seem to understand the Swiss Germans."
As the conversation continued it, well, didn't continue. For just a brief moment we'd managed to divert Bob from his main intent, and we went on to hear more praise for yakmeat and the cost of same in Switzerland. I began to tune out of the conversation and listened to Bob's tone of voice, which had slowed down and became firm in its commitment. Gone was the intial gentle exchange of travel experiences and in its place was a man telling us what we should do. The same phrases were used over and over, and in my mind I began to mimic Bob's accent. 'You gotta go to Finland' and 'I just refuse' I could hear myself saying.
Somewhere in there Bob told us that Finland is an expensive country. Almost as expensive as Switzerland.
"But you've been telling us not to go to Switzerland because it is expensive."
"Yes, but, er, you should go to Finland. Just to see what it's like."
"I agree," Wendy said, "But we haven't been to Switzerland, either. It's not that we don't want to visit Finland, we just don't have the time."
That put him off for a bit, but he returned to the line about being able to tell our friends that we've been to the Artic Circle and eaten yak. The cycle began again and for all intents and purposes we may as well have not been there. 'You should be listening to me, I've got ten years experience' he seemed to be saying. I looked over to Wendy, who was looking at me with a long blank face. "You gotta go to Finland" I mouthed, and Wendy smirked.
Bob eventually gave up on Finland, and gave us a bit of familiar advise on eating in France, "The French like their meat very rare, so be careful."
"So we've been told," I said, "But it doesn't matter as I prefer my steak very rare."
"You do?" He looked at me in amazement. He just couldn't believe it. "You like rare steak?!?"
"How could you?!?"
As I was about to respond it occured to me that as far as Bob was concerned I wasn't allowed to like rare meat. It was simply beyond his comprehension that someone from outside France would like such food. In the same way it was beyond his level of understanding that we didn't want to instantly go to Finland. While he seemed to have a healthy appreciation of different cultures - 'culture', I suspect, being defined by language - he just couldn't appreciate that people who speak his language can be different. "I just do," I said, giving a slight shrug of the shoulder. There didn't seem to be any reason for discussing the point.
By this time we were almost in Lyon, so Wendy and I excused ourselves to get ready for arrival. The last we saw of Bob was when he assisted Wendy as she climbed down to the platform. But it wasn't the last of Bob for our trip. "Bloody Americans", Wendy said as we walked down the platform. Years of meeting American tourists had left Wendy with no desire to go their country. It is a pity that after meeting a lot of nice Americans at Conspiracy the last American we would meet on this GUFF trip conjured up, in his own unique way, the atypical American Tourist.
The two hours we'd spent with Bob had left an indelible mark on us, and we were forever adopting his accent to repeat any one of his key phrases. "You gotta go to Finland."