Monday, December 12, 2005

Tampere Is A State Of Mind



Tampere is something else than (allegedly) the largest landlocked town in Scandinavia. Tampere is a state of mind. There's something special about walking through Tampere's centre on a December Sunday night when the temperature has risen above zero, melting away most of the snow and leaving only the damp black streets reflecting light from shop display windows and few passing cars. Apart from some very occasional pedestrians hurrying to their homes, Tampere "City" on a Sunday night is virtually a ghost town. Only TV's sound blares out from a bar by Kuninkaankatu's pedestrian street, announcing those ever-important results of Idols. The air of melancholia is everywhere dominating these lonely streets.

Riku Siivonen writes on his column for the weekend supplement Nyt of Helsingin Sanomat (Friday 9 December 2005) about his former hometown Tampere: "It is guaranteed that one finds from Tampere just the same clubs, restaurants and events as even before. A disco at Yo-Talo, the steaks of Salud, a beer tent at Keskustori, the hippies at Telakka. I suppose no one even wants to change the local city culture. Or the image of the town. [...] I love the passive resistance of Tampere people. Because of it even any small changes appear large. [...] Of course, Tampere is such a small place that anything differing from the mainstream doesn't stand a chance to have a proper life span ahead of it. Very few new things are born there." Then Mr. Siivonen goes on to compare Tampere to his new hometown Helsinki with its cultural network of small record labels, DJs, graphic artists, architects, journalists, etc. etc; the sort of which he claims he can't find in Tampere. The rest of the column is dedicated to defending different subcultures against such enemies of it as the "zero tolerance" politics (trying to suppress the creative potential of hip hop/graffiti culture), and the positive "city nationalism" of young Helsinki enthusiasts; the sort of which (once again) is not found for Mr. Siivonen in Tampere.

I don't doubt at all the fact that Mr. Siivonen has found his heaven among the fleshpots of Helsinki after having lived in more parochial and provincial Tampere, though these days I'm always more amused than actually annoyed by the usual Helsinki-centredness of its inhabitants (many of which, like Mr. Siivonen, are originally from other parts of Finland, meaning places like -- gasp -- Tampere too). Face it, for urban observers outside Finland (such as Momus in his recent blog entry on Helsinki's youth fashions), Helsinki -- even with its aspiring "city culture" and characteristic superiority complex towards the rest of Finland -- is nothing but parochial and provincial backwaters, in comparison to such real cities as London, Paris, Berlin, New York and Tokyo.

Of course, this is just malicious nitpicking from me, and I am sorry to admit that I think there is more than a grain of truth in Mr. Siivonen's criticism towards the lack of Tampere's (sub)cultural life. Because how many times I have cursed myself the apparent atmosphere of stagnation in this town, the seeming general unwillingness to create something new and different. Anything that is new will get rooted in Tampere only so slowly, and once it does there seems not to be any chance of getting rid of it. "The good old boys" who have established their positions in local cultural scene won't give those up easily. Any newcomers to this sandbox must play along the rules of these gatekeepers or to take the risk of getting marginalised, even cast out.

I am originally from Lapua in the Southern Pohjanmaa (a.k.a. Ostrobothnia) province of Finland where I was born, even though I have lived in Tampere ever since I was merely one year old when my father came to study at the University of Tampere. Still, I feel many times being an outsider in this town: in my heart and attitudes I am obviously more often of Pohjanmaa than Tampere of the Pirkanmaa area in the Northern Häme province. Pohjanmaa of quietly proud, enterprising, hard-driving, temperamental, impulsive, flamboyant and even slightly mad people, in comparison to more careful, suspicious and hesitant Tampere denizens.

A stereotypical inhabitant of Tampere is an uneducated working-class hick, who is extremely careful in all his talk and deeds, even sarcastic and passively aggressive towards anything "strange" that does not fit to his basically conservative and parochial worldview. He is a fan of ice hockey and 1970s heavy metal, which epitomise "culture" for him; maybe also the new albums from those Manserock dinosaurs who started in the 70s and are still going strong, Popeda and Eppu Normaali. Juice Leskinen is his hero, even though Juice told him to fuck off, when he once approached the artist at a bar after having encouraged himself first with fifteen beers. The only book he has ever read is Väinö Linna's The Unknown Soldier. He laughs at the TV comedy of the Kummeli group, with whose caricature characters he can well identify. Such as Matti Näsä, the ur-geezer helplessly stuck in the 80s with his denim jacket, greasy hair, the barbarian style of the combination of moustache and sideburns.

The salvation of Tampere, though, is that this is an university town, which draws in young people from all over Finland. This means a bunch of potential new movers and doers coming in, maybe bringing with them some fresh ideas and attitudes sorely needed to shake up the slumbering life here. I know that even though I often feel pessimistic and skeptic about anything changing here, there does exist the cultural Tampere network Mr. Siivonen was missing in this town. It is just that often the things they do here are of small scale and low profile -- yes, of underground, if you want to use this many times misunderstood word -- but they are there. You have to look for them carefully, they are not necessarily the most conspicuous and extravagant people; they may not want to make too much fuss about themselves, but they are there. Compared to the Helsinki trendies desperate for any new fad, they are more down-to-Earth, less flashy -- and less superficial.

Things change slowly in Tampere, yes, but I think Tampere people are also more realistic about any overnight sensations, rapidly passing ephemeral trends and fly-by-night operations. When they do things, they are built to last.

Moreover, the age of Internet and global connectivity has been there to eradicate the traditional positions between "power centres" and "provinces". We don't have to limit ourselves any more to our nearest surroundings in exchange of ideas and thoughts. In the flesh we may still be provincial smalltown dwellers, but on the level of ideas, concepts and communications we can move on freely and without boundaries. It's up to us if we want to turn that into action on our local level too; however grassroots that might be.

So, you see my attitude towards my hometown Tampere is not a little bit ambiguous. I curse the provincial narrow-mindedness, but I still see vast potential being there too. Just give it a chance to grow up and flourish, work hard yourself, be persistent and patient, and something is bound to happen before too long. Do it yourself and don't expect anyone else to hand it to you.