Tuesday 3 August 2010

A large small town

That is how the tourist site Visit Åland describes Mariahamn. Something lost in translation there perhaps? For me, however, this fits perfectly, but then I speak both Finnish and Swedish (spoken here) and have by now after twenty odd years even acquired the Åland accent and use the odd, little quirky word that only the island people know. To give you an example, Nojsa means to make a racket, a word obvioulsy adopted from English. (Explained by the islands' history of seafaring.)

In the tourist season, which basically means the duration of long summer school holidays from June to early August, the capital of the Åland islands is busy with visitors from mainly Finland and Sweden. There are many sailing boats moored in both Österhamn, the Eastern harbour facing Finland, as well as in Västerhamn, the Western harbour, which looks out towards the Swedish coast. Due to its tax free status, the large ferries that criss-cross the Baltic stop here, bringing with them more tourists to the islands and Mariehamn. By the time we usually arrive in mid-July, the tourists are already well settled and planning their return to either mainland. The weather also turns slightly colder in August, and as the tourists flee, the big town becomes a small one again.

Son says there's tumble weed running through Mariehamn by mid August when we walk along the deserted Storgatan. What we and the other tourists forget is that this is what life is normally like here in the 'large small town'. There are only 11,000 inhabitants, a number which at least doubles during the summer months. The telephone directory is the size of a small leaflet, including the Yellow Pages. Everyone knows everyone else. The local newspaper is so starved of news it's invented a new level of sensationalism.

'Joy Riding Arrives in Åland' was a title a few years ago. Reading the article you realised it was nothing more than a set of keys left in a parked car on Torggatan in Mariehamn which had then been driven by an unknown person two blocks north to Norrgatan and abandoned there, unharmed with same keys in the ignition. Today's paper carries the shocking fact that there can be many cars on the roads of Åland with falsified MOT certificates....no figures are given, but the paper claims that there are vehicles on the islands that are dangerous. Big news for a small place.

Don't get me wrong; I love the quirkiness of Åland and Mariehamn. I'd hate it if I didn't find the odd story of stolen flower pots being returned to their rightful owner after a small notice in the paper. I'm most perturbed when I find things have changed from my last visit. I'm not yet sure I like the new traffic filter which takes us from the main road, Hamngatan, to Lemland without having to negotiate the 'large' roundabout. That there was absolutely no need for this new road is another matter altogether, what I find difficult is to see change here on the islands. Perhaps I've just become very British in my outlook, or perhaps I just want to go back in time when I'm visiting my favourite large small town.

Semi-deserted Storgatan 
Whatever, I cannot wait to go into town later today and have my favourite kanelbulla (cinnamon bun) with coffee, or perhaps a slice of Ålandspannkaka with sviskonkräm (pancake with plum jam). I've tried to make it at home, but it just doesn't taste the same without the strong coffee and the hum of quiet conversation in Svarta Katten, our favourite kaffestuga in Mariehamn.

Svarta Katten coffee shop

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