To Helsinki and back – to my Clio-patra

2013-12-15 06:00

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The tow truck was heading towards my mechanic Winston in central Cape Town. I have Winston on speed dial, basically.

It was Monday, and naturally conversation in the front of the red tow truck turned to Mandela. I was squashed between two burly man frames; the driver and another guy with big, calloused hands. The Clio-patra was hooked up and following at an angle behind.

In the immortal words of Winston: “The French, they make cheese and they make trouble.” He’s made me promise that I’ll never buy a car from the land of croissants again.

That aside, the tow truck’s cabin was festive with chatter. Next to me, the guy with the big hands was saying: “Everywhere you look, Mandela. If only there was a little bit more of him in my wallet too, man.” The driver mumbled assent and so did I.

Later that day, after leaving the Clio with Winston, covering a special parliamentary sitting to commemorate Madiba and filing a story there on the run, I somehow made a flight to the Finish capital of Helsinki, via Munich.

The trip was for business, organised by the Fins to show off the legacy of Helsinki World Design Capital (WDC) 2012 in the run-up to Cape Town WDC 2014.

If you want to feel the lack of randelas in your wallet, try travelling to Europe right now, especially to Finland, which is known to be expensive.

The exchange rate is around R14 to the Euro, which, at €3.50 for a cup of coffee in Helsinki, makes for nauseating multiplication tables indeed. Fortunately, my maths is quite bad.

Finland has an extensive welfare system, which is lovely but comes at a price. “Finland really is the best place to die right now,” a man tells me, proudly. “We really take care of our aging population.” Pfft.

Who wants happy old folk when you can have Nkandla? I wanted to ask, but didn’t.

Helsinki is the younger, hipster sibling of the Scandinavian capitals, the one that went to contemporary art school while still gracefully in step with the gravitas of the region’s broader history, steeped in Soviet and Swedish imperialism.

Situated on the Baltic Sea just 180km from the Russian border, Helsinki has been described as the world’s “spy capital” and played an important diplomatic role during the Cold War.

It is here that cloak-and-dagger types met to discuss death and deceit under ornate Art Nouveau roofs in hushed tones. It is also the home of Nokia, Angry Birds and architect Alvar Aalto.

It’s been a jam-packed week. At the core of WDC lies the impetus to make design super-pragmatic, i.e. something used to improve public sphere services – thus rethinking aspects of schooling, hospitals, housing delivery, public transport and so on. Very commendable.

It’s been a horizon-expanding week. I have now seen dusk settle at 3pm. I’ve seen a man walk his small terrier cloaked in fairy lights after dark and a restaurant menu with reindeer fillet and cranberry sauce, mere days before Christmas.

I’ve heard my footsteps in snow and a woman dismissing the Guggenheim as the “McDonald’s of Art”. Guggenheim is trying to set up a branch in Helsinki – the locals are having none of it.

I’ve seen old ladies rise and offer seats to slightly older ladies in the tram. I’ve sat in a public sauna with a bunch of naked women chirping in foreign, and observed a streetful of people dressed entirely in black. Most importantly, I’ve seen a real-life icebreaker.

I followed the pain and celebrations and turmoil in my country via Twitter and CNN, and grinned out loud when footage showed a highveld storm just about swallowing the cable station’s presenter outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

Right now I’m in a bus en route to Helsinki’s airport, about to catch a flight back home, via Munich. It’s cold and dark, and everyone is quiet.

I can’t wait to land in Cape Town. For everyone knows, the best part of travelling is arriving back home. Also, may the Clio-patra ride again.

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