When Vaasa Stole Our Hearts
We had two goals for our road trip. The first was to witness the ambitious, undefeated Finnish heavyweight boxer Robert Helenius fight against the Georgian boxer Beka Lobjanidze. The fight would take place in Vaasa, the biggest city in the Ostrobothnia region, and our second mission was to explore this historical town of about 67,000 inhabitants.
I picked up my assistant in the small southern city of Loviisa, about 100 kilometres from Helsinki. It was sunny, the temperature climbing above 20 degrees of Celsius. The national road 3 of 424 kilometres connects Helsinki to Vaasa rather straight and was built in its current form in the 60s, when the cars were becoming more common instead of seen as luxury items. The music of James Brown carried us through the Eastern Uusimaa region all the way us passing Riihimäki and Häme region and passing Hämeenlinna until we reached Tampere, located about halfway from our destination.
“I’m coming, I’m coming, baby, I’m coming, help me . . .” the CD player tuned into Bobby Byrd’s classic Hot Pants.
Our mood was good, I felt energetic and decided to drive all the way even after a somewhat shorter night’s sleep of five hours, apparently because of the travel excitement. And even if I would feel tired at our destination, a power nap at our hotel, booked from a nice part of the town of wooden houses, would certainly do the trick.
“This is a man’s world, but it would be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl,” a James Brown classic pumped through the speakers.
It became quickly obvious that we were heading towards the north. The temperature dropped by the degree on every 60 kilometres and the speed cameras rose along the road like mushrooms after rain. The speed limit switched back and forth between 80 and 100.
We drove through a few small municipalities of about 10,000 inhabtitants such as Hämeenkyrö, and while we passed through these population centres, the speed limit dropped to about 60 kilometres per hour. We got a taste of why these locations are considered among the most dangerous in Finland, when a station wagon took a left turn a few metres in front of us and I barely had time to push the breaks . . .
We passed the spa hotel Ikaalinen, and my assistant told me about an urban legend of its reputation as one with the highest rate of used condoms.
“We should try it sometimes,” he said.
[alert type=white ]”Can you believe the guy tried to offer a room that smelled like a barn?” [/alert]
The road elevated between steep up-and-down hills and the sight of wind turbines spinning wildly in the heights told their tale of that we were in the Southern Ostrobothnia. While driving downhill, you could feel pressure in your ears, similar as in an airplane.
The road was bordered with flat fields and old detached houses. You could see horses grazing on the grass, and you could see old car carcasses dumped on the yards of houses that looked like somebody had abandoned them a decade ago.
Shell-Koskenkorva – we drove past the sign of an old gas station and asked each other:
“This is the place?”
We saw factory pipes rising in the horizon at the distance far, hovering over an evenly cut field.
“This must be it.”
Indeed, here they make the famous Koskenkorva booze (Kossu), the Finnish 38 proof classic, and we might have been zooming over the very fields from where the grain to make this deceptive drink came from.
The sight of the name brought back memories of a few hazy nights drinking the stuff. There were times when after pouring the sal ammoniac flavoured version down the throat, you woke up in a pool of vomit. Good times.
[alert type=white ]”I’ve heard the Ostrobothnians love a good fight,” said my assistant.[/alert]
The temperature had dropped to 16 degrees when we arrived at the outskirts of the city about six hours later after we had started our trip.
We were planning to take our luggage to the hotel and started skeeming on the address but to our surprise, the navigator said the location was about 40 kilometres from the city centre.
Apparently, Vöyri had many meanings in these parts of the country: Vöyrintie, Vöyrinkatu, Vöyrinkaupunki . . . When you are in a hurry and booking the hotel, one should be more careful.
Well, this was simply a logistical problem but, however, seemingly unsuitable for our mission, where the activities took place near the centre. We decided to eat and find another hotel.
A pizza buffet was easily located and while we were eating, we saw a group of people with long beards wearing Nordic Nightmare shirts eating at a table of their own. This definitely demanded a picture. While they were posing and lifting their bottles for cheers, I asked an obvious question: “Are you guys attending the fight of Robert Helenius?” “We are his walk-in crew,” they said in unison.
Apparently the fight and another event related to old cars had taken their toll from available hotel rooms.
“I have a special offer for you. In this room you can smoke,” said the older gentleman behind the counter.
“We don’t smoke.”
“But you could . . .”
We decided to look for other alternatives.
“Can you believe the guy tried to offer a room that smelled like a barn?” my assistant asked as we strolled across the market square, under the eyes of Finland’s Statue of Freedom rising 14 metres above us.
“We only have one room left,” said the lady behind the counter of the Hotel Kantarellis. “It has its own entrance, a sauna and a jacuzzi. You can go and take a look if it fits your needs.”
It reminds me of currants, it’s strong, acidic . . .
We were smelling, tasting and observing the colour of the organic wine in our glasses. The sauna was getting ready and the jakuzzi was being filled with water. “The surprises, the surprises are what I love in a trip like this,” I said. My assistant nodded. The room definitely suited our needs.
We called a taxi to the hotel.
“Robert Helenius is a tough guy. I think he will win,” the cabby said while we passed the colourful old city houses and were getting closer to the arena.
“I’ve heard the Ostrobothnians love a good fight,” said my assistant.
“That is true. I’ve driven a lot of folks to the fight tonight.”
Vaasa Arena was crowded. There were about 4,000 people seated. We arrived just in time for the fight to begin.
In the very first round, Robert hit his opponent with a hard right to the body. It dropped the Georgian gasping for breath. After a short count he got up and the fight was ready to continue, but Robert kept dominating for the rest of the round.
The Georgian attacked wildly. He hit Robert with a few straights and a hook scratched Robert’s chin. Moves like these are known to awaken the beast within the Nordic Nightmare. You could see it in Robert’s eyes as he started becoming fierce . . . At the end of the round Robert got in a few good shots and the Georgian was on the floor again. Then the bell rang.
In the third round, Robert attacked the Georgian with all his might. It didn’t take long for the right hand, which he told me earlier that he had been improving on, to hit the body of the Georgian. He dropped to the ground. Fight over. The Ostrobothnians screamed and cheered for their hero.
His partner, Sandra, kissed him. The walk-in crew hugged him in their armoured helmets.
“How does it feel that after the Georgian hit you a few times, basically, every punch you threw at him dopped him to the ground?” I asked.
“Well, as I’ve told you earlier, there is more power behind my punches like there has never been before,” Helenius said.
I strolled to the hotel with my assistant, happily playing Metallica’s Battery from YouTube and we felt the breeze of the sweet and salty sea air.
The venue for the after party was called Hullu Pullo (Crazy Bottle) and was located a few blocks from our hotel. When we got in a rock band had just stopped playing.
It was a local traditional bar, a kind of dive bar found in every city around the country. It was surprisingly empty. We ordered a beer and got quickly acquainted with a few local ladies in their late 40s. We had a feeling they liked us. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn’t mutual. We decided to explore another place.
While looking for an alternative, we met a beautiful local lady in the street, who was in her late 20s. She suggested a terrace at the historical shopping centre Rewell Center, which was 25 years ago the biggest mall in the Nordic countries.
The terrace belonged to a bar called the Lobby. The weather was getting chillier and the only people sitting there were a bunch of heavy metal fans who started moshing when a song by Pantera rushed through the speakers.
We ordered beer and we enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and the discussion and the personnel offered us rugs to keep warm. Maybe it was the beer and the sea air, but the lady seemed to have a hard time understanding what we did as our profession.
We tried to explain that we are in the media business. Surprisingly, she said that she was, too, and so the conversation started flowing. I don’t know what they put in the beer in Vaasa, but the rest of the conversation is rather blurry . . .
Later, we ate spring rolls at the market square. I ordered at least three sets of these and offered them to everybody. Who knew? After the bar, in the south, people eat sausage and French fries or kebab or hamburgers, in the north, at the west coast, people eat Chinese food.
In the early hours of the morning, we found all three of us in the sauna, after that in the jakuzzi. We listened to Paul Anka’s version of the Eye of the Tiger, enjoyed beers and gin long drinks from the mini-bar and the hot water was covered in foam.
That night, Vaasa stole our hearts.