Joutsa, Finland. October 2015
‘Huttula’, Amy tells me, drawing out the first syllable.
The Finnish feels odd on my tongue, but I’m determined to get it right.
‘Huttula’ I repeat.
‘That’ll do’, she laughs. ‘It’s not like we have to ask for directions.’
She has a point: the village is tiny. Its three pubs are called Huttula, Kellari and Juurti, odd little names that sound like Dr Seuss characters. We’re deep in Finland’s Lake District, hundreds of kilometres north of Helsinki, and I’m captivated every time I open my front door.
I have an attic room in this artists’ residency, sharing a sprawling house with six other writers, painters and musicians. My studio is on the ground floor, where I write every day surrounded by turpentine and taxidermy. I eat reindeer stew washed down with cloudberry wine, and stare in wonder as the northern lights snake across the sky.
Amy is pure gold: southern and sassy, she is, in her own words, ‘a fucking pistol’. When she invites me to the pub and we both reach for matching leopard print ear muffs, I know I’ve found a kindred spirit. Our boots flatten the moss as we walk into town, wincing at the cold. I stride out in front, the bright red hood of my coat pulled tight, until I realise I’ve wandered off the path. I turn to Amy and warn ‘You take the lead – I don’t really think you should be following the woman in the Red Riding Hood into the forest, honey.’
We decide on Juurti, mostly because I love the name. There are only three customers, all older men on stools. They turn, and stare at our red lipstick and leopard print. This is not downtown Melbourne on a Saturday night, I realise, and my dream of a dirty martini is unlikely to be fulfilled.
There’s a man in the corner with a guitar, crooning an Elvis song in broken English: ‘You ain’t never caused a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.’ Amy and I try not to smile. The singer notices us and lowers his guitar. Now all four faces are turned our way, silent and staring. Or maybe they’re just being Finnish; it’s hard to tell.
It only takes one round of Lapin Kulta beer for them to warm to us. Soon we share a table as one man drapes a drunken arm around my shoulders and belches in my ear ‘Will you be my husband?’ The feminist in me battles with the linguist, and I waver between correcting his English and biting his arm. I do neither, as the song on stage floats into my awareness.
It’s one I grew up with, though I can’t quite place it, not with Finnish lyrics. I have a brief memory of my mother belting out her tunes as she vacuumed on a Sunday morning, and then it hits me: Sunday Morning Coming Down, by Kris Kristofferson. I recall the English lyrics, and feel the melancholy ache of the song for the first time in years.
Well, I woke up Sunday mornin’ with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more for dessert
Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes, and found my cleanest dirty shirt
The song had troubled me as a young girl, its sorrow and loneliness palpable as a hungover man took a walk along Sunday morning footpaths. I was a pensive child, drawn to dark stories and even darker thoughts. I knew he was trying to find his place in a world he needed to drink to endure, and I wondered what was lurking behind the door of my adulthood.
Sunday Morning Coming Down stays with me well into the next day. I read that to talk his hero Johnny Cash into recording it, Kristofferson, a decorated pilot, landed a helicopter in Cash’s front yard and emerged ‘with a copy of the song in one hand, and a bottle in the other.’ I sit in my studio, writing desk littered with broken charcoal and stiffened paintbrushes, and read more, hoping that the bottle in hand is not the only defence against the world available to artists.
And there’s nothing short of dying, half as lonesome as the sound,
Of the sleeping city sidewalks, Sunday morning coming down.
I spend my Sunday morning in the forest.
I pick lingonberries and keep an eye out for wolves padding the forest floor behind me. I curl up by the lake, notebook open in my lap, wanting to pin it all down in ink. This is my defence against the world, I realise, pen in hand as snow geese skitter across the water’s surface. And there’s nothing at all lonesome about it, not for one moment.