Lil and Armando

A couple of weeks ago I popped into my favourite local café in Crouch End and it was virtually empty. It was 10am and Crouch End was still waking up. The New Year had only just passed and it can take a couple of weeks for thriving society to emerge after the excesses of its festivities.

I ordered a large Assam tea, and a raspberry muffin from Armando the Spanish owner and took my book from my new leatherette man bag (an indulgent Christmas present to myself).

‘What you reading?’ came a voice from the corner.

I turned to see an older lady seated at one of the old wooden tables. She was the only other patron and was looking straight at me awaiting my response. She was wearing a woollen pinafore style patchwork dress over a white halter neck sweater. Her pure white curls poked through a silk headscarf. She had a polka dotted shopping trolley by her side with a walking stick jutting out. Her hand shook as she lifted her tea cup from its saucer and raised its steaming contents to her rosy red lips.

‘It’s by Tove Jansen called The Summer Book,’ I responded and smiled back.

‘Never heard of it. Is she English, the writer?’

‘No she’s Finnish.’

Armando appeared from the counter and delivered my tea served in a pot for one with a mismatched vintage cup and saucer, small stainless steel milk jug and spoon. The accompanying muffin also arrived on a 1950s flower-patterned china side plate.

‘Ah that’s why I haven’t heard of her then. Are you reading it in Finnish?’

‘No, it’s a translation. It’s a really good book about a girl, her grandmother and their interactions across a summer on a small Finnish Island.’

Armando stood with his arms folded between us watching this fledgling conversation develop.

The lady nodded and looked rather pensive as she put her cup back onto its saucer, picked up the teaspoon and gave it another stir.

‘The sugar hadn’t completely dissolved’ she said and I nodded my comprehension.

‘I’m Lil by the way.’

‘I’m Wayne,’ I replied with a smile.

‘So what do you do?’

I realised I wasn’t going to get much reading done, so I put my book down, stirred my pot and poured a cup of strong tea.

‘I’m a Sales Director and a part-time writer,’ I said and took a large bite of my freshly-baked muffin while I had the chance.

‘I used to write; children’s stories – just after the war. What do you write?’

‘I’m working on a number of short stories and a novella and I write a weekly blog. A blog is…’

‘I know what a blog is,’ Lil interjected. ‘I might be old but I’m neither senile nor computer illiterate. They taught us how to use the internet at the age group I go to. What’s the blog about?’

‘Well I’ve created this character that is an accentuation of me. It’s called Introspections of a Displaced Boulevardier and it’s about events I go to, and about living in Crouch End and London.’ I felt quite proud as I relayed the details.

‘What’s a Boulevardier?’

‘It’s a man about town, although remember I said displaced.’

Lil’s whole body gently shook with a stifled laugh as she looked me up and down.

‘Man about bloody town,’ she squawked with increased jollity looking both amazed and bemused. She grinned and lifted her teacup rattling the saucer as she did.

I smiled back and shrugged.

‘For instance I wrote about a weekend I spent on a Finnish Island with friends that I was reminded about when I started this book.’

‘You’ll have to give me the link thingie’ Lil said as Armando returned with her full English breakfast.

As Lil picked up her knife and fork and speared a locally grown organic tomato, and I took another bite of my muffin, Armando smiled and walked back towards the kitchen muttering while he fiddled with his apron strings.

‘What was that?’ Lil asked.

‘I said it seems as if you have both made a new friend today,’ Armando asserted.

Lil and I looked up a little unsure and then beamed simultaneously.

‘I think we have.’

‘Yes and he obviously needs some help with his bloody blog, ’ Lil said.

Had the Boulevardier inadvertently set up a new writers’ group? Would Armando let go of the apron strings? Time will tell…

TNW

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Finnish Archipelago

Reading is an incredibly important part in adding layers to the Boulevardier’s life. I am most drawn to fiction and like to immerse myself in the world authors create.

Following a recommendation posted on Facebook I ordered a copy of ‘The Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson, a Finnish author famed for her Moomin stories. This is a book however, written for adults. It follows a young girl and her grandmother as they spend a summer on a small island in the Gulf of Finland.  The chapters are short and provide snapshots of activity and simple experiences between the two, from sleeping in a tent to diving in the sea. The descriptions are stark yet beautiful.

As I was transported into the world of the book memories surged through me of a visit to an island off the coast of Finland with Finnish friends in 2007. I have sadly lost touch with this group of friends through the passage of time, but I shan’t forget the brief times we spent together in Helsinki and on this particular trip to a small Island near to the mainland town of Vaasa.

It was the last weekend in August and therefore a bank holiday in the UK and a great time to take a trip without having to utilise many days of annual leave. I had wanted to visit Helsinki in Midsummer so that it didn’t get dark. I wanted to go drinking and clubbing and put sunglasses on upon exit because I needed to, rather than the usual posing in the dark or trying to hide swimming eyes. I had conversely already visited Helsinki in December where the sun didn’t come up until mid-morning and it was dusk by 2.30pm.

My friends mentioned that it was customary to visit the islands on the last weekend of the summer (which it coincidentally was) when there would be firework displays. We set off early(ish) and arrived in Vaasa early afternoon. The drive was largely uneventful and a time to chat and listen to music for several hours.

I was expecting a nice marina as I was still in London mode. St Katherine’s dock was running through my brain. Instead I was presented with a simple wooden jetty with small motor powered boats docked alongside. There wasn’t even a wooden plank to walk, so to speak, to transition between the shore and the boat.

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I secured my safety jacket and launched from the shore to the boat. The boat dipped rapidly at my end as my feet landed and I had to be steadied by two friends. I honestly expected to be in the water and needed a quick shock of Sherry to regain my composure. I sat in what I told myself was a safe position in the centre of the boat with bundles of provisions either side.

The journey to the island removed the boat embarking trauma as we smoothly navigated picturesque wooded and reeded areas before our path became a little less protected and the sea a little choppier.

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We were, I was told, not out into the open sea but away from the mainland. We sailed past lots of small islands with wooden brightly-coloured cabins and each with its own small dock. The waves jumped at the boat but we had a skilled and experienced skipper who delivered us safely to the island. The dock for our island was less treacherous than our start point and there was a ladder leading up to the wooden jetty.

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I thought I was in a dreamlike state as I took my first few steps towards the red wooden building before me with white picket posts hanging from the roof to protect the porch from the elements. This was a smaller house where I would sleep that night. The bedroom was small but warm and comfortable. One of the Fins would sleep on a sofa bed in the lounge. I liked this idea of a sentinel providing protection in the event of a visit from passing pirates.

There was a sauna, which is key to all Finnish properties that I had visited. Even though my friend lived in a small apartment in Helsinki a sauna was integral to the bathroom.

Beyond that was the larger house where we would socialise and the other two in our party would sleep.

To the left of the main cabin was a wooded area and the gardens in front of the cabins were manicured. The wooden deck was furnished with a comfortable swing seat where you could take in the outstanding views. Towards the water a field of sea grass was vivaciously swaying in the wind. It really was something to behold and enjoy.

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I am not really an outdoorsy type of person and feel more comfortable surrounded by the convenience of the city, as I am sure is the way with most Boulevardiers. However, this was rather magical.

I had validated facilities with my hosts before we left Helsinki and was grateful that the lavatory was modern. I articulated this and my three fellow travellers smirked and looked at each other.

‘Well I did say there were facilities but I didn’t say they were modern and flushing,’ advised one of my friends with a friendly smile.

‘I specifically asked whether the facilities flushed’ I added in a concerned voice.

‘I’m pretty sure you didn’t and of course I wouldn’t have misled you’ retorted my friend; I thought I noticed a slight sarcastic tone.

I realised there was little point debating as we were on the island and I had obviously been duped to get me there. I resolved to smile but to only eat small portions to try and avoid the need to use these facilities before we got back to the mainland the following day.

The wind was starting to increase and whirled around us and the island. We decided to stoke up the sauna and enjoy a relaxing mid-afternoon session while the other two started dinner preparations.

We drank beer, put the world to rights and sweated our troubles away. The sauna interestingly doubled as the shower. This was all very quaint but not quite the comforts I was familiar with.

We opened the bottle of champagne I had purchased at duty free (my fine addition to island life) and feasted on the freshest fish and Finnish delicacies. My resolve to restrict food consumption was forgotten and I was soon sated, full of drink and food tasting all the better for its rustic preparation and charm.

The promised fireworks didn’t appear as the winds were too strong but it didn’t matter. The strong winds gave a mystical feel to each breath on the island cut off from the mainland and civilisation.

We were relaxed and full and headed to our sleeping quarters early and slept soundly indeed.

I felt quite sad the next day to be leaving so soon and would have relished a couple more days on the island, and having successfully navigated the round wooden holed facilities, once could perhaps have overlooked them for another couple of days.

Reading ‘The Summer Book’ has really brought back these fond memories and I salute and clink these absent friends for a great break on the remote island. The sparse prose mirrors the islands where simplicity allows delicious joy in modest experience.

I would not only recommend the book but also visiting a Finnish island cabin should the opportunity present.

Cabinsky

TNW