Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Dustin, Is That You?

In the last couple of weeks one of my sons and his girlfriend have both spotted, on separate occasions no less, David Hasselhoff on the streets of Helsinki. In one case, he was eating an ice cream.

Now, this sort of thing isn’t quite as mind-blowing as you might think, not in Helsinki. It’s not even so surprising that Hasselhoff can be found roaming the streets of Helsinki, since he’s been spending time here taping the “David Hasselhoff Show”, a talk show that he hosts on MTV3. If you thought that a Finnish TV talk show featuring David Hasselhoff is a bit incongruous, you’d be right. It’s a quirky show, to say the least. However, there is a precedent, since Hasselhoff hosted a similar show last year in Sweden.

It’s not as if Hasselhoff doesn’t have a sizeable fan base in Finland. I think he probably does, though that wouldn’t necessarily include me. I’ve probably never seen a single complete episode of either “Night Rider” or “Baywatch”. I have no idea if Hasselhoff has ever starred in a feature-length film, or not one I recall seeing.

Still, I do know very well who Hasselhoff is. After all, he is a celebrity (or in Finnish, julkkis), which sadly sometimes means you’re someone famous for simply being famous, even if the reason (justified or not) for being famous in the first place has been lost in the mists of time. That’s the only explanation (or excuse) I can offer for knowing who Kim Kardashian is. She’s famous for something or other. I suppose.

One thing about celebrity-hood is how incredibly insular it can be on a country level. I realized this some years ago while leafing through some foreign magazines at our local library, back when it still had them. I recall being stuck especially by some Spanish gossip magazines. Page after glossy page were plastered with photos of people with insanely broad smiles, all apparently arriving at some glamorous gala or lounging on a beach or smartly dressed for cocktails at some villa – obviously the crème de la crème of Spanish celebrity. I didn’t recognize a single one of them. Okay, except maybe Rafael Nadal, I guess I would recognize him.

I’m sure it’s the same everywhere. Every country has it’s “flock” of local celebrities (or “pride” or “herd” or "gaggle", there should be a word for this – a “prowl”, maybe), most of whom are unknown outside its borders. I’m sure many of the Swedish celebrities are unknown in Finland, and vice versa.

It's different with the US, the pop-cultural hegemon of the world. In America, celebrities are a cottage industry, a national export. They’re not so easy to spot in the wild, though it can happen, even for me.

When I was a kid, on vacation in Cherokee, North Carolina, we happened to be eating dinner a couple of booths away from the boy who played Daniel Boone’s son, Israel, in a TV series popular at the time. He must have been on some kind of publicity junket to the rugged mountains where his screen character’s father once blazed trails, probably making an appearance at Ghost Town in nearby Maggie Valley. Naturally, we interrupted his meal with his family to ask for an autograph.

In the early 80s, I was visiting Los Angeles, where many a celebrity, if not actual stars, are born. A dapperly dressed man, whom I later came to think might have been Dustin Hoffman, kindly waved to me to point out that the hem of my future wife’s long hippy skirt was stuck in the door of my car.

Considering the fact, however, that he was filling up his car at the same self-service gas station as we were, I suspect he might actually not have been Dustin Hoffman. More like a Dustin Hoffman stand-in. Or, more likely an aspiring Dustin Hoffman stand-in.

Many years later, boarding a plane in Baltimore with my kids, I spotted sitting in first class one Richard Belzer, the cynical Detective Munch of “Homicide: Life on the Street” and later “Law and Order”.

Much more recently, about ten years ago in Vegas outside Cesar’s Palace, I happen to see the unmistakable and unsinkable Don King walking to his limo. I have to admit it was kind of cool.

I saw Mike Stipe of R.E.M. a couple of times in the 80s, once at a Saturday afternoon matinee showing of Lasse Hallström’s “My Life as a Dog” at a theater in Athens, Georgia. But this shouldn’t be so remarkable, considering that I once lived literally right up the street from R.E.M.’s office.

Coming through Heathrow airport with our daughter a few years ago we noticed everyone around us focusing a lot attention on a young woman going through immigration control with her husband, baby and nanny. When I asked the border guard who she was, he replied, “She said she was someone called ‘Pink’”. We later realized it was actually Gwen Stefani, passing herself off as Pink, for some reason. No doubt being a little cheeky there.

And then there are cases of celebrities I wouldn’t recognize if my life depended on it. A few years ago in New York, we emerged from the Guggenheim Museum to find a film crew occupying the sidewalk across the street, filming a scene from “Gossip Girl”. We hung around for a few takes to get a glimpse of some of the show's leading actors, none of whom I would have been able to name. Suffice it to say, that wasn’t the case for my teenage daughter.

The thing about living in a place like Helsinki, compared to where I grew up in rural Georgia, is that spotting celebrities, or at least locally famous people, can be fairly routine. Helsinki is, after all, the New York, Washington and Los Angeles of Finland, all wrapped up into one city.

The julkkiset I’ve randomly seen in Helsinki, or elsewhere in Finland, include:

Ben Zyskowicz (Kokoomus parliament member, getting out of a taxi at Stockmann Auto in Pitäjänmäki), Renny Harlin (Finnish-born Hollywood director, in downtown Helsinki posing for some publicity photos), a former Playboy playmate (at a music-school recital -- she was a lot shorter than I thought), Kauko Juhantalo (politician, waiting to cross a street – this was some time ago), Hannele Pokka (politician, also waiting at a crosswalk, and also a while back), Alexander Stubb (the outgoing – in every sense of that word – prime minister, at a triathlon in Joroinen), Lauri Ylönen (singer for The Rasmus, at the Tammisto City Market), Elastinen (rapper and Voice of Finland coach, at our local grocery store), Seppo Hovi (veteran piano player and entertainer, at the Paloheinä library), Pekka Haavisto (openly gay Greens politician and 2012 presidential contender, shopping at the Tammisto Bauhaus, more than once), Ville Valo (singer for the band HIM, standing with his back against the wall at O’Malley’s bar), Matti Vanhanen (former prime minister, pulling into a parking garage near parliament), Anssi Kela (singer-songwriter, at Gigantti shopping for a vacuum cleaner), and Tarja Halonen (then president of the republic, at a jazz show in Espoo). 

And then last week, I saw former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Matti Ahtisaari attending a lecture by the arguably even more famous paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey.

However, when it comes to randomly spotting the world-famous, my wife might hold the top prize in our family. 

In the 1970s, enjoying a summer’s day in Stockholm, she chanced to see crowd of people crossing a street blocked off by police. Among them were two men deeply engaged in conversation. One was Olof Palme, the Swedish prime minister, who was later killed by an assassin’s bullet. The other was Henry Kissinger, who at 91 is miraculously still alive today. 

Kissinger on the streets of Stockholm, 1976.  Source: Our family photo album.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Losers and Winners

It’s been 19 days since the Finnish parliamentary election, and there is still no government in place. At least, not quite. This isn’t unusual. 

And, I should point out that by "government", I mean "cabinet". The actual functioning bureaucracy of government is still there, intact. 

Compare this situation to the US, where you have a built-in two-month lag time between the election of a new US Congress and its actual installment in the Capitol. For presidential elections, the constitutionally decreed “lame-duck” period between election and inauguration is even longer.

Though we’ve still been waiting for the final makeup of the new Finnish government, the results of the vote itself were clear within hours of the polls closing at eight three Sundays ago.

As was widely expected, the business-friendly Kokoomus party, the biggest in parliament going into the election, lost its dominate position, apparently the victim of general voter dissatisfaction over the anemic economic recovery (if it can be called that). In its place rose the Keskusta (Center) Party, the party of the legendary Urho Kekkonen who presided over Finnish politics for a quarter of a century during the Cold War.

Keskusta, led by self-made millionaire Juha Sipilä, won 21.1% of the vote nationwide, giving it 49 seats in the new parliament, a huge increase of 14 from four years ago. Keskusta took most of those seats from two parties: Kokoomus and the Social Democrats, which got 18.2% and 16.5% of the vote, respectively. It was an especially hard blow for the SDP, since its loss wasn’t so widely expected. They were blindsided.

One especially bright spot in the election was the five seats picked up by the Greens, bringing its representation up to 15.

Still, the headline news was the “rise”, relatively speaking, of the anti-immigration anti-EU Perussuomalaiset party. I say “relatively” because the 17.6% of the vote garnered by PS meant they actually lost one seat, ending up with 38. The level of support for PS didn’t change significantly. PS was propelled into the Number Two position simply by the collapse of Kokoomus and SDP.

(The fact that PS came out one seat ahead of Kokoomus despite getting a half-percentage-point fewer votes is down to the D’Hondt method used to allocate seats.)

Voter turnout, despite the apparent huge interest in the election, was a somewhat disappointing 70.1%.

And now another inevitable comparison to America: turnout in the US mid-term election of 2014 hit a scandalous post-war record low of 36.4%. Okay, mid-term elections always attract fewer voters than do presidential races, but even in the 2012 vote – in which many conservative zealots I know lusted for the chance to turn Obama out of office — only 58% of Americans bothered to vote. Some democracy. 

Meanwhile, back in Finland, turnout was higher in Helsinki than for the nation overall (almost 75%), and I was pleased to see that my neighborhood did even better, with a turnout of 82.4%.

The earnest voters of this part of suburban Helsinki, where I live and voted myself, went overwhelmingly (almost 40%) for Kokoomus, followed by SDP (16%), the Greens (15%), PS (12%), and in fifth place, Keskusta (only 9%). In fact, Keskusta won only 7% of the vote in Helsinki overall, showing that there is something to the idea that Keskusta is still mainly a party of the countryside.

Since Keskusta's big election night victory 19 days ago, Juha Sipilä has been trying to put together a coalition from among the biggest winning parties, apparently a meticulous process of negotiation. There’s been lots of speculation about who will be included in the new government. The biggest worry among more mainstream establishment types is that, with its second-place finish, Perussuomalaiset will now demand a prominent role in the cabinet, something they didn’t seemed inclined to do four years ago.

With the announcement yesterday of an agreement finally being reached, those fears were proven to be well founded. The next government will indeed be a mashup of the rural Keskusta party and the more nativist Perussuomalaiset party, joined by Kokoomus, though this all remains to be formally finalized next week. 

The SDP was left out completely, as was the smaller, moderate Swedish People’s Party, which has had a role in every government for almost forty years.

The question now is how well will the Perussuomalaiset handle being in government, as opposed to just sniping at it.