The Honest Tribe – Sample from Chapter The World of Women

This is an extract from the book The Honest Tribe by Max Boyle.



For the first twenty minutes of my bus journey out of Alahärmä I was richly entertained. A woman sitting on the other side of the aisle addressed me in a combination of Finnish and English (Finnglish?) and often in single words of the latter. ‘River,’ she commented as we approached a river. ‘Bicycle,’ she announced, indicating a cyclist. Factory. Bridge. And so on. It was a relief when she got off at Kauhava. She recommended the American author David Wilkinson. I trust her mono-wordism was not a reflection of Mr Wilkinson’s prose style.

Jyväskylä. That’s yoo-vah-skoo-lah. You try saying it. It took me three attempts when buying my bus ticket before I was understood. During the journey the driver gave the Malhamdale wave to passing heavy-goods vehicles. I had a new theory on this practice. Perhaps Finnish bus drivers do this because they’re in need of human interaction. They don’t get much company from passengers, simply because there are often so few. On my five-hour journey from Alahärmä no more than half a dozen seats were ever occupied, and one of these was given over to my rucksack (which, I noted with dismay, was beginning to come apart at a seam).

An old man, slightly tattily dressed, stopped me in the street shortly after I’d walked out of Jyväskylä’s bus terminal. ‘Can I recite a short poem to you?’ he asked. I consented, thinking that this university town, which dates only from the nineteenth century, might be full of perambulating bards, all bent on promoting their art.

He delivered his stanza. His feeble voice and the downtown traffic noise meant I didn’t catch all of it – something about summer and winter, in a makeshift translation into English. Then he asked for a ‘donation’. I gave him a euro and he went on his way. ‘Can you spare enough for a cup o’ tea?’ might be the approach in Britain. Finland’s wizened beggars prise coins from you with cadence and rhyme.

A bus delivered me to a ‘summer hotel’ – a student accommodation block in the north of town. Major construction work was underway and it was a stripped-down core of a building. This caused me some concern. I’d made an online reservation but could see little more than a building site.

Yet there was a promising sign. It was still term time and bicycles were clustered here and there, too many of them to belong to the hard-hatted construction workers. I eventually collared a student, who directed me to a temporary reception area. It would open in an hour. I hung around the door and a staff member arrived after thirty minutes. I was saved. My reservation was confirmed and I took up residence in a room featuring a two-ringed electric cooker and a wall full of drawing-pin holes.

Just off campus was the Café Alfa, an unpretentious place with ‘KEBAB’ in large neon-red running along an inside wall. At a table a drunk rolled phlegm in his throat and spat grievances at his female companion. I ordered from the menu.

My dish of pasta was enjoyable enough, though I ate not solely to sate my hunger but to occupy myself. The long, light-filled hours of a Finnish summer evening lay ahead and I was in a suburb that appeared to offer little in the way of distraction.

The din of construction work continued until 9.30. An hour later I drew the gauzy curtains in my room as an obstinate sun still shone above surrounding trees. I went to bed and turned my face to the wall, but still woke frequently to light from the window, thinking morning was nigh, only to find the small hours had still to pass.

* * *
Long summer evenings seemed something to cherish when I rose the following morning and witnessed British weather: light rain and an overcast sky. I escaped the drizzle by breakfasting at the Wilhelmiinan Konditoria, a town-centre café with an attractive, partly wooden exterior. Raised umbrellas passed the window as I made short work of tea and a croissant.

‘Hello!’ chirped a middle-aged woman in checked trousers. She’d seen me, guidebook open on my table, and came over to chat. She loved travelling, she said, and often did so alone, and had homed in on me as a kindred soul. The architect Alvar Aalto had lived in upstairs quarters of the café building, she informed me, and Aalto’s works were scattered around Jyväskylä, just as they were in Seinäjoki. But she had unwelcome news. The Aalto Museum in town was under reconstruction and was closed to the public. I wouldn’t be able to gain access. My visit to Jyväskylä was being undermined by the construction industry – first my building-site-like campus accommodation, now the shrine to Alvar Aalto, my next port of call. She checked on her phone. No, a mistake, she explained. The museum was open.

She warned that the dismal weather was forecast to continue for a couple of days, and departed with a smile and her best wishes for my journey. I appreciated her taking time out for a chat. Her approach to me, and her vivacious manner, were a blow to the stereotype of the insular Finn. But that was how my guidebook described Jyväskylä: vivacious.


This was an extract from the book The Honest Tribe by Max Boyle.