I had just arrived in Helsinki when I witnessed my first Kaurismäki moment. I was sitting outside a bar near my hostel, just trying to get a feel for the city. Then a black man stops by, asks if I have a lighter. Sadly I don’t, so he walks off to ask the guy at the next table.
That guy has a light and as a token of gratitude the black man puts his fist forward for a fistbump. Their fists meet in a customary greeting, but there are three other people at the table and our friend feels it’s only right to give them a fistbump too. The first two comply, although those fistbumps are a bit more awkward. But then he turns to fourth one, an older gentleman, straight out of a Kaurismäki movie. He looks at the intruder blankly, his eyes inquiring: Why? And then, a silent stare – until both go their own way.
And so it goes. This was my first trip to Finland and there is probably not a film director in the universe that has conditioned the expectations of foreigners towards their country like Aki Kaurismäki. Whatever you may think of his films, they are about a sort of arch-Finn, a Finn you subconsciously expect to meet when you enter the country.
Drinking establishments play a big role in Kaurismäki’s films – so it felt like a natural move when he, along with his lesser-known director brother Mika, decided to open a bar in downtown Helsinki. The bar is just by the Orion cinema, which my friend Harri insisted I would visit now, since they have been hosting screenings for the film archive, yet that arrangement is coming to an end and nobody knows what will become of that beautiful theatre.
The Corona bar is nice enough but Harri tells me it’s seen better days, it’s not really the bar you meet everybody at anymore. There are numerous film posters on the walls and the basement hosts little used small cinema halls called Andorra and Dubrovnik. It also has one of the nicer pool-halls I’ve seen, with a dozen pool tables behind the bar area and all the seats. And I suddenly crave a Kaurismäki pool movie – isn’t there a Finnish Paul Newman out there waiting to star in it?
Then a bearded person in a flowery dress enters with a picnic basket full of poetry. She offers me a copy and since one of the books turns out to be bilingual, printed in both English and Finnish, I can’t but buy it, us bilingual poets must stick together.
The Kaurismäki brothers ended up growing bored with the Corona and founded another bar next door to escape to. That’ where you find Café Moscow, which I heard was meant to recreate the good old Soviet atmosphere – and that’s where I found a beer with a handle (see pic below). Yet their success in creating a Soviet environment is debatable – the bar is small, red and quite cosy – yet it’s famous for its grumpy bartenders, who have a reputation for being anything but service-oriented. But it seems as if the girl at the bar did not get the memo. Not only was she friendly and polite, she was quite chatty as well. I’m of course assuming she’s out of a job by now.
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson