I Spent New Year’s Eve With Old People in Finland
“So, do you want to spend New Year’s with us?”
My head still ached from the night before. “Sure,” I said, with my mouth full of crispbread.
After four weeks of sleeping in a cot bed in the spare room of my friend’s Swedish grandparents, Gunn and Arne, I’d just agreed to spend New Year’s Eve with them and their pals on a remote Finnish island. Because, hey, there’s nothing like an island retreat detox, right?
There was only one problem: I would be the only guest younger than the ripe-old age of 70.
The annoying thing about islands is that they’re generally surrounded by water, so my journey over there required boarding a ship and crossing the dark and choppy Baltic Sea. Usually, at this time of year, I’d be listening to my friends getting drunk in someone’s backyard, and I’d be emptying the contents of my stomach into a flower bed rather than over the railing into the sea.
Safely on dry land, I was met by Arne and driven to the traditional Swedish weatherboard house they had made their annual New Year’s retreat, together with a handful of close friends.
Arne gave me a tour of the house, including introducing me to the piss bucket (indoor bathrooms were not in fashion when the house was built a century ago) and the outdoor toilet that sucked down everyone’s waste in a vicious vacuum. I was so petrified of using it I didn’t shit for the entire three days.
I put my bag down on the off-pink bedsheets in the room that had been assigned to me and stared at the mould on the fading wallpaper. The room smelled damp and the single tiny window had fogged up, making the room feel unbearably small. I was thousands of miles from home. It was the day before New Year’s.
Trying to put away my fear of getting mould poisoning whilst I slept, I descended the steep staircase. There was no other way about it. I had to go join the party.
As it turns out, they’d already started without me.
By midday, they were already hitting the gin and tonics, glee splashed across their lined faces as they reminisced like old friends do. I was introduced to the company, squished by strong handshakes, their lined, mottled skin a stark contrast against my smooth, pale hands.
There were five men and two women, one of whom was Oskar’s mother Ida, who was nearing 90 and spoke no English. I ran into her in the kitchen later that night, struggling to sleep, and caught her stealing grapes from the fruit bowl. She popped one into her toothless mouth and giggled at me before retreating to her bedroom. Oskar was no less of a strange character himself, his preferred outfit being a grey hoodie, always zipped up to his chin, tucked into grey sweatpants that were perpetually hoisted up just a little bit too high.
I spent the first day sitting with my frozen toes pointed towards the fire, attempting to do a Sudoku puzzle in a Finnish newspaper, my best attempt to blend in with the senior lifestyle, and most of the day passed in a similar fashion.
“Why do we always talk about the past?” asked one of the gents, Erik.
“Because we have no future!” they laughed.
The future was a prospect that scared me almost as much as the outdoor toilet, but nothing seemed to faze people who had seven decades of life experience.
The sun went down early in December in Finland, so the colours outside were already changing when Alexander, who had flew in from Australia to be here, suggested we play a game of dice. I never fully understood the rules, but it involved some kind of gambling and aroused a passion in all of the players. Ida, despite her wide grin and innocent face, was deceptively good – the sun had gone down by the time she’d beaten me at least five times, rolling the dice with shaky hands tipped with yellow fingernails, and shouting victory cries in Swedish.
At this point, we were all pretty sick of losing to Ida, so we decided some drinks would be very welcome.
As they unanimously decided that Moët was cheap shit, they popped open the first bottle of champagne for the evening. I accepted a glass that would be the first of many. Johan, who was about as terrible at dice as I was, quipped that they were saving the best for midnight. This time last year, I was drinking vodka straight from the bottle.
Alexander leaned over the dice table to inform me that we would be celebrating New Year’s not once, not twice, but three times: once for Sweden, once for Finland and once for Australia. In case you haven’t celebrated New Year’s with a bunch of seniors before, that is a shitload of celebratory champagne. I’d come here to take a break from drinking excessively, but turns out that plan had gone the same way as my lunch did on the boat.
After the Finnish New Year, we went outside to watch Oskar attempt to set off firework. Instead, he spent 15 minutes swearing under his breath in a language I didn’t understand, and we resigned ourselves to watching the more successful fiery displays of others.
I lay in the frozen grass, my head spinning, staring at the flashes of light in the cloudy sky – a spectacle that was supposed to resemble the Northern Lights but was about as disappointing as my ability to stick to resolutions.
We went to bed after watching the Swedish New Year’s concert, at the respectable time of 1:30am. The next morning, I woke up staring suspiciously at the mould stain – though my lungs felt healthy enough. Waving goodbye to my newfound friends, I set off towards the harbour.
My phone started buzzing as we crossed into Sweden and my SIM card started working again. I was eager to hear of my friends escapades over the New Year, but was met only with disappointment: the same clubs, the same pineapple cruisers, the same endless cycle. I rubbed my tummy, filled with overpriced bubbly, and smiled at the approaching Swedish coastline.
Cover by Anne