16 December 2006

Tornio-Haparanda Site Visit

In Rome, years ago, I was told a joke about two English women who couldn’t decide which of the two palaces in the city center was the actual Palazzo Venezia, and which was the otherwise undistinguished nineteenth-century building that had been constructed, just for the sake of symmetry, to frame the piazza. Back and forth they went, consulting their Blue Guides and Georgina Masson and making the case for one, then the other. “Either way,” one of them concluded, “we’ve seen it.”

There are some things that you need to see just to cross them off your list. Because of what I learned this semester about the Tornio-Haparanda border erasure project, the planned EuroCity at its core became just such a destination for me (see Out on the Border and HAPARANDATORNIO, posted on 01 and 04 December, respectively).

So off to the formerly Janus-faced border city went I, with friend George in tow. George is a good sport. From Oulu, it’s a two-hour-and-twenty-minute bus ride each way. We shrewdly calculated that the 9:20 bus would get us there at mid-day, the only time that outdoor photography would be even remotely feasible.

We arrived on schedule at 11:40. As luck would have it, the skies were overcast and yellowish, with intermittent rain. A few weeks earlier, ten or more centimeters of snow on the ground would have helped illuminate the city. As it was, my bossy camera insisted that there wasn’t enough light to take pictures, even at what passes for high noon in these parts.

The temperature must have been hovering right around nolla, because while the ground appeared to be merely wet, there actually was a layer of ice underneath that made the footing extremely treacherous. During the earlier snowstorm a layer of gravel had been applied to help people get traction. George told me that it’s called “grit” in the U.K., and that it is laid down by “gritmen.” For some reason, that captured my fancy. In my next life, I want to be a True Gritman.

As it turned out, there really were not a lot of photo opportunities in Tornio-Haparanda. By far the most photogenic thing we saw was an odd little Orthodox church that was built in the nineteenth century. There is actually a very famous church in Tornio, a 1686 beauty that tourists come from all over to see. It’s two blocks from the bus station. For reasons that will become clear, we never saw it.

Within a few minutes after our arrival at the Tornio bus station, we were standing at the international border. At this writing, EuroCity is a massive construction project that began with the building of a dike designed to seal off one of the channels of the Tornio River. Land is now being reclaimed on the former river bed, and that is where the celebrated EuroCity will rise. I was reminded of the Dutch new towns that have been built on “polders” reclaimed from the former Zuider Zee. But here, of course, it’s all high-rise apartment buildings in the Scandinavian mode. See photo up top.

The two former customs houses stand on either side of the land reclamation project. Both are slated for adaptive re-use. In between, on what is called the Green Line, is a new joint tourist center that objectifies the “branding” and “visioning” mission that is at the heart of EuroCity, and of Tarmo Pikner’s thesis project. For some reason, the tourist center was closed, so we had to just gawk at the embryonic EuroCity without guidance or plan.

From the Green Line, we made our way—careening, like Ray Bolger and Burt Lahr, down the yellow grit road—into Sweden and past the big new IKEA store, which has already opened with great fanfare. The store is intended to serve a four-nation market (Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Russia), and also as one of the anchors of EuroCity. It is on the Haparanda side, and that is no coincidence, as the Marxists used to say. IKEA is a Swedish company. International boundaries still count for something, it turns out.

We were reminded of that several times—first, by signs cautioning us that the border is temporal as well as spatial and political. Finland is one hour ahead of Sweden, and presumably always will be. PR types have made much of this quirk. It is said, for instance, that if you time it just right (anytime after 11:01 p.m. on a sunny Saturday night in summer, I suppose) at the jointly operated golf course that straddles the Green Line out in the ‘burbs, you can tee up in Sweden and drive a ball into both Finland and “next week.” I suppose this makes Haparanda-Tornio a “City of Tomorrow,” but I’m not sanguine about the marketability of this arcanum.

Like all IKEA outlets, the one in Haparanda is a Very Big Box. So far, at least, nothing has been done around its edges to accommodate the kinds of “mixed primary uses” that Jane Jacobs says are essential in combating “border vacuums.” There are some existing shops adjacent to the Green Line on the Tornio side, and they will help to generate activity, just as the high-rise apartment houses will stimulate demand for local services. But how any IKEA can ever become integral to healthy urban tissue remains a mystery to me.

Along the way, we noted that while the city seemed pretty dead, the Alko on the Tornio side was hopping. In fact, we noticed that a bus had parked out front, and that passengers had debouched, some with empty suitcases. Others already were struggling back with their loot. Clearly, they were here to re-stock their vodka cellars.

At first, I thought, these people must be from remote corners of Lapland, and this is the closest Alko. Later, I remembered reading in a guide book that people routinely travel from Sweden to Tornio because the booze is cheaper in Finland. What we were witnessing was a busload of thirsty Swedes taking advantage of another feature of the international border that is not likely to be erased soon. The Swedes buy their booze in Finland, and the Finns buy their booze in Estonia. I wonder where the Estonians go.

By the time we had seen what there is to see of the incipient EuroCity, it was only 12:25, and we realized we had a chance to catch the 12:35 bus back to Oulu. We crossed a different bridge back into Finland. We picked up the pace and made it with a couple of minutes to spare. We had spent less than an hour, all told, in Tornio-Haparanda, but now I can claim to be an expert on international border erasure, and I have a under-exposed photo of the Green Line Tourist Information Centre to prove it. George promised not to blow my cover. He really is a good sport.