Joensuu Blues

It wasn’t that the hostel was hostile. In fact, it seemed to be fairly well managed.

It’s just that I didn’t sleep a wink.

This wasn’t because a couple of my young Finnish friends half-jokingly warned me of the dangers of hostels. They referred me to some slasher movie they had seen.

More on my sleepless night later and the reason for it later.

When the friend I am staying with at the moment here in Finland asked if I wanted to tag along a car trip her and her husband and child were making to Joensuu, 200 km north of us, I jumped at the chance. This is one Finnish city I had never seend and had always wanted to visit.

Joensuu is the capital of North Karelia, and I have been something of a Kareliophile for about 20 years. I did an area study in graduate school of this region, which straddles the Finnish-Russian border.

I currently am on my second tour working and living in South Karelia. However, I knew Joensuu was more of a place to learn about all things Karelian.

It was a nice sunny, late afternoon when we arrived in the city. My friend’s husband dropped me off at the hostel, and I was in business -so I thought.

A young man took me to my room, which I was to share with three others. Their was junk on all four beds and on the “picnic table”.

“Hmm, it looks like someone has taken some extra space”, my host said. He tossed it aside and presented me with a clear bunk.

I thought,”Great. I am going to have a fight with some teed off foreigner later tonight.”

In the hubub of making my bed, I sat on my glasses. When I put them on, they were tilted to the right.

I should have known better.  I do things to my glasses when I get distracted. It happened right before I flew over here from America.

Oh, well. I just tossed my ancient specs on and walked into town. It was about 20 minutes back to the center on foot.

I wondered over to what Joensuu calls a harbor and sat down. I visit the harbor in my town on Lake Saimaa a lot, and I was disappointed with Joensuu’s.

I shouldn’t have been, as Joensuu is just a different city, that’s all. It’s name literally means “mouth of the river”.  It was built by decree as a trading center in the mid 18th century on the Pielisjoki River,

Thus, unlike my home city of Lappeenranta, where I see ferry boats come and go on a wide lake out to islands and a lock to the Saimaa Canal, I was staring at a small river area with one little tourist boat. In my mind, compared to the wide expanses of the Saimaa, it seemed paltry and unimpressive.

The open air restaurant/bar next to the river had a few scattered visitors. On the other side of the counter and restaurant was a bandstand and seating area.

I decided I wasn’t interested and walked over to a bench and watched the ferry boat leave on its 6 pm float. From the distance came the sound of the rockers on stage.

The lyrics “My maybe she wrote me a letter…” echoed from a gritty sound system.. Sigh. Scratch checking out the band on my itinerary.

I sat on the bench and tried to come up with a plan for the weekend. I had two must-sees: Carelicum, the museum area in the center of town, and the Bunker museum, a representation of strong fortifications built near Joensuu to fend off the Russians during World War II.

The latter place was 8 km away from the center. It would be a bit of a challenge to get over there.

I was building myself into a bad mood. This was perhaps because I was already wondering if the hostel had been a good idea. 

I really had no choice though if I wanted to visit Joensuu because I couldn’t afford a decent hotel. My sournesss got worse as I thought of my glasses and what else I could do all weekend by myself.

I went to a grocery store to buy a snack and walked over to the market square, a large central area, and just sat there across from a gambling establismnet to see what the are was like as night approached. I saw mostly families, students, and individuals walking to and fro.

I expected the drunks to start coming out. Either it was too early, or Joensuu is a different place than other Finnish cities I know of at this hour.

Finally, I went back to the hostel about 9:30 and got ready for bed. There were people milling around the common room, where there was a large TV.

In that room were some beds. I stayed around the corner, paying 3 euros more for the privilege of having less clientele and the same gender in my room.

When I walked in my rooom, there was a desk lamp blaring and a young guy stirring. He wasn’t really awake, so I didn’t engage him in conversation.

I crawled in my bunk and tried to sleep, but couldn’t really. There were some Russians making a lot of noise from the common room, and it would be 11 pm before they would have to submit to the hostel’s quiet hour.

I also knew the two other beds would be occupied at some later hour. I expected to be awoken when my roommates came in, so it made it difficult to go to the land of the sandman (He is called “nykkumatti” in Finnish.)

Sure enough, about an hour after I went to bed I heard somebody come in and take the top bunk above me.

Not long after, it began. I am talking about the snoring.

It went on for hour after hour. The emissions from this fellow’s breathing apparatus varied in loudness and style. However, they rarely stopped.

There may have been a 5 minute reprieve. That was it.

I thought this ironic  because if anyone was going to be the problem snorer, it would have been me. Indeed, I had expressed my worries on this to my friend on the way to Joensuu.

  Finally, I had had enough. I walked out in the hallway, went to my locker and got dressed. It was 4:1o am.

I sat on the bench by the office reading a tourist brochure for about 2o minutes. Then, I walked to the market square.

This is no big deal because at this hour in August, it is already fairly light in Finland.  I sat on a bench at the square to watch the market spring up. Except it didn’t.

It was 5 am and only a loud street-sweeping truck plowed through the area. There were three older folks sitting on the banstand. (Older folks are notorious for not being able to sleep).

There were a few loosely dressed woman out and about, too. One of them said good by to a middle-aged fellow and walked across the square to the taxi stand.

On the way, the driver of the street sweeper stopped his truck in front of her. She stopped abruptly and he cackled at her. The man soundled like a female witch.

Finnish women are pros at ignoring male pests. She went on her way and hopped in a taxi.

At 5:30 the first vendor arrived.  They were in a large van pulling a sizeable trailer.

In the meantime, loud noises came from a closed kiosk across the square. A man was sweeping up and scraping the pavement as he did so.

By 6 am, I was cold (it may be August, but it’s Finland), sleepy and cranky. The market square didn’t look like it was going to come to life anytime soon.

At that point, I was thinking two things: “Maybe I’ll leave today” and “I gotta get these glasses fixed”.

I walked to the train station, about a 10 minute jaunt and checked the timetables. I figured if things didn’t work out I could leave at 6:15 pm.

There was some lady snoozing on a bench across the lobby, so I decided to do the same. I stretched out on a bench. While my sleep was light, I “got the worst off”, as my wife likes to say.

About 7:15 I journeyed back to the market. By this time I was able to buy a cup of coffee and a Karjalan pirakka (Karelian pie), a pastry made of potato with egg butter on top.

It was time for the restroom. It’s 80 cents to use it at the market square, which is a bargain. Usually, it’s a euro in most places.

I recall that the guy who wrote and filmed the “Europe Through the Back Door” series admonishing those reluctant to spend a euro on the bathroom. His thoughts have stuck with me over the years, so I guiltlessly spend the money. When ya gotta go, ya gotta go.

Before the Carelicum opened at 10, I managed to walk down the street and look at the University of Eastern Finland and the sports arena. It is the largest wooden building in Finland.

I was thinking about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and how big a deal this place was. For a country covered by forest, to be the largest wooden anything is something.

I also got my glasses adjusted. I told the girl at the eyeglass shop that they were old. With a slight look of disgust and normal Finnish reserve she replied,”I can see that.”

I learned some things at the Carelicum, which is why one visits such places. Unfortunately, one of the things I garnered was that the Bunker Museum was closed for the season.

However, I was able to discern in Carelicum what exactly held my interest toward Karelia these days. As I walked through the exhibits, I found myself unimpressed.

I couldn’t detemine why this to be the case, since I was such a nut for Karelia in the past. Of course, my tedium could have just been the result of not having slept in over 24 hours.

I knew going in that  I am not a museum goer. I am the fellow that was bored at the Hermitage, one of the worlds’ great exhibits and winter palace of the Czar  in St. Petersburg when I was a young man.

With the Karelia exhibits, I knew the history already. I was not that interested in the history of Joensuu.

I am not much for looking at old sabers and muskets. I could care less for stuffed wolves and moose.

On the other hand, I was intrigued by the stories of the rune singers. These are the people made famous by Elias Lonnrot in the 19th century. They were the keepers of Finnish oral traditions and folklore.

I was able to recall why I wanted to go see a noted Finnish anthropologist at the University of Helsinki who was an expert on Karelia at the beginning of the new century. These mystics were a source of mystery to me and I wanted to learn about them.

I was done with the Carelicum in 90 minutes. After I had a coffee and pulla (a mildly sweetened roll) at the museum cafe  and strolled the gift shop, I was ready to go.

I had the whole day ahead of me and it was only noon. What to do?

I checked the Internet at the Carelicum to catch up on the news and Email. I went to the Hotel Karelia because I had heard that their restaurant had authentic Karelian fare. The restaurant, the clerk told me, was opened Monday-Friday.

I thought maybe I could go to a movie. There was nothing worth watching at the small multiplex on Kauppakatu (Shopping Street).

I went back to my most frequented location of the trip: the railway station. I asked the cost for a one-way ticket to Lappeenranta.

If I could get my money back for the Saturday night from the hostel, and even if I couldn’t, I was outta here. There was no way I was going to spend another night with the boy with the deviated septum.

Before making the long trek back to the hostel, I walked up KirkkoKatu (Church Steet) to visit the Orthodox Church and Culture Center. Everyone seemed to be engrossed in a baptism I saw through the window, so I wasn’t able to talk with anyone. Still, the church itself was a beautiful structure, inside and out.

Arriving at the hostel, I watched some beach volleyball tournament on TV as I waited for reception to open at 4 pm. I seemed to remember the female interviewer of the athletes from the time the tour came to Lappeenranta.

I have to say I was amused by a Finnish woman with less-than-fluent English trying to interview two Chinese women whose own English could best be described as “broken”.  The same insipid questions you can hear at any American sporting event were asked, and the same dull answers given.

However, the Chinese women were having a hard time getting out the appropriate language to express their responses. I felt sorry for them, but no so much for the interviewer. I wondered who she had to know to get her job.

Finally, I went to my room to roll up my stuff. The two guys were in there, at 4 in the afternoon. Not partiers, our tourists, or they had the same problems I did.

Finland at the end of August is out of summer mode. The danged season is over.

This is why the market was only about half full and lifeless. This is why I could find nothing of substance to do or visit.

I gave a different young fellow my keys and got my refund. We chatted as we did business.

I learned he had just had a reunion with a couple of old army buddies. It seems in Finland that the friends you make during your short term of service last for a lifetime.

I wandered back to town. I had about an hour and a half to kill.

However, as frugal as I was trying to be, I didn’t want to spend any money. I finally went to the train station and read my Grisham novel until I hopped on the train.

As I sat in my seat, I thought,”Ahhh. I can go home to my own bed and get a decent nights sleep. I can eat home food and watch a little TV in piece and quiet.”

I had imagined catching 40 winkks during the 2 1/2 hour train trip. No such luck.

As I sat there, it hit me. I had an image in my brain of a key.

I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out the locker key from the hostel. In my distraction talking to the young man at reception, I had given him my house key.

I thought,”What to do?”. I wasn’t leaving the train, that’s for sure. I had paid for my ticket and I wasn’t spending another night at that hostel.

I didn’t want to bother my friend, who had her own plans. I tried to think of ways I could break into the house.

I even thought I could sleep outside.  I even thought it might be doable when I saw an electonic sign from the train as we neared Lappeenranta saying it was 17. 

I had my sleeping bag and a jacket. Maybe I could pull it off. But there went the “Ahhh” factor.

When the train arrived in Lappeenranta, I walked over to the nearby McDonald’s to get a late dinner. This was the beginning of the restoration of my fortunes.

First, I met three American guys from the local semi-professional American football team, including their quarterback.  I noticed the signs of their “Americanness”, such as university sweatshirts and perfect English, and introduced myself.

It was cool talking “American” with these guys. One of them was from Danville, not too far from my own home in Virginia.

I wished them well on their return to the States and walked back to the train station to catch the bus home. Then my phone rang.

In my distaction, I had accidently rang up my friend’s husband. My friend called to see if everything was ok.

During our discussion I learned of their backup plan for lockouts. I would get my decent night’s sleep after all, even though it did eventually involve walking around in the dark looking for the spare key.

On the way home on the bus, Lake Saimaa sparkled like a crystal in the twilight. Later,  I saw a large half moon hanging over it. Even walking home, the stones glittered from the street lights. 

Lappeenranta isn’t my home, as my family is back in Virginia. However, all it took was 30 hours away trying to travel on the cheap to become glad I was back here.



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