So much has happened in the past week, it’s hard to remember everything as it was. In my memory it’s more a series of short vignettes. I almost like it better that way; I can remember the specifics of the moments that impressed me most. It’s a little like leaving postcards for myself.
I took a taxi (taksi) from the airport to my short-stay apartment, not wanting to lug my heavy suitcase on the bus with a pulled back muscle. The taksi driver was very attractive, spoke Finnish at me with a heavy accent and blasted Arabic music on the highway.
The next morning I woke up at 4:30 to take a train to Jyväskylä. I love the trains in Europe; they’re fast, quiet, and I’ve developed a sort of nostalgia about them. I love the feeling of being alone on a train early in the morning, watching the countryside and the towns go by, counting the lights as they come on and the people wake up. I like making up stories about the people in the houses, imagining what their lives are like. If they’re farmers, or if they work in the city and are taking the same train as I am.
I made it to the conference and had a great time meeting new people and catching up with old ones, having the usual conference experience of chatting with my superiors over drinks and watching those lines fall away. There’s something about being at a conference, or a music festival, or a road trip–spending a lot of time with people sort of evens things out. It makes me feel less intimidated, more willing to open up and share my ideas.
One night we took a cruise around the lake and admired the late sun. It started raining halfway through, but just being able to be on the water was exhilarating. We watched the cabins pass by and fantasized about having summer houses on the lake.
On Thursday, we all went out to a jazz club to unwind after a long day of presentations. I ordered a round of beers for my new friends, because they decided I could read the signs and pronounce it the best. I managed to communicate with the bartender entirely in Finnish. It wasn’t much of a conversation, but I was proud of it. “Mitä haluat?” He gestured toward the tap. “Karjala. Kolme.” I held up three fingers, in case my pronunciation was off. “Kolme?” I repeated it. “Kolme.” He nodded. “Viisitoista.” I handed him a twenty-euro note. “Viisi.” He handed me five euros in change. “Kiitos,” I said, and passed down our drinks.
I had another successful ordering encounter the next week, in my favorite posh cafe, Esplanad. I followed the line cafeteria-style and soon my prize was in sight. “Korvapuusti,” I said. “Jä kahvi.” The cashier looked at me. I may have overdone the rolled ‘r’. “Kuusi, jä yhdeksänkymmentä senttiä.” I handed her seven. She gave me my change and receipt, and turned to my friend, who was trying to order a meringue in English.
Outside the cafe and down the street a short way, there’s a market square filled with orange-topped tents and vendors. I saw all sorts of knitted parkas, scarves, mittens, hats, and rows of furry pelts–for what use, I have no idea. Rugs, maybe. Then the rows of food vendors: mostly berries and potatoes, onions, some greens. A friend and I stopped to sample some berry preserves and the woman selling them expounded upon the virtues of the different berries. Cloudberries, she said, help with circulation in the winter. I bought some crowberry jam (delicious, like a mild combination of grapes and blackcurrant) and we walked along the pier.
Later, walking up and down the sidewalks of the market square, I noticed something odd but it took me a while to realize what it was. I’m familiar with (and quite enjoy) the cafe culture in Europe, and it doesn’t surprise me anymore to see people sitting around a patio outside sipping coffee in the dead of winter, wrapped up with blankets and chatting away as if it isn’t snowing on their heads. I’ve also become accustomed to the amount of staring at passersby that goes on–moreso than in the states–and it’s not really considered rude, just part of sitting with a coffee and people-watching. Finland takes it to a whole extra level. After a while, I realized what was unsettling to me about the coffee sippers was that they were all facing the street. Chairs were set lined up in rows like church pews or audience seats at the symphony, and the people sitting in couples and trios were faced to the sidewalk, for the most part not talking to each other. Just staring. At the people on the sidewalk. It made for a rather comical scene, and I tried not to strut too much, but it made me feel like I was on a runway. I imagined little rating cards came with the coffee, where you could write comments like “shoes do not match dress” and “trousers too long.”
I spent an afternoon lounging on the lawn in the square, reading. People passed by, buying coffee and ice cream from the kiosk on the corner, walking dogs, pushing babies in strollers. Three young men with large backpacks speaking Swedish wheeled a little cart of cranberry long drink onto the lawn and sat chatting for a while. Suddenly, as I’m learning it happens in Finland, the sky darkened and it started to rain.
I had an evening coffee and korvapuusti snack with a friend at a tiny kahvila that had been recommended to me. It’s right on the water in Töölö, about two blocks from my apartment. She commented that it felt like another century; on the inside, it’s decorated like a nineteenth-century fishing hut taken over by someone’s eccentric grandmother–pots, pans, and rusty tea kettles hang from the ceiling and walls, and landscapes painted on dusty canvas interspersed with prints of medieval Madonnas cover the walls. The outside has a beautiful large patio with umbrellas and rustic planters, jutting out into the water.
I was walking back from the market square last night, on Juhannus (Midsummer Eve), and the sunlight streaming through the apartment blocks in my neighborhood struck me as particularly beautiful. I took a different route than I normally go in order to cut through behind a big church and found a little kiosk and sitting area behind a gigantic boulder. The greenspace in this city is really almost alarming, in a pinch-me-this-can’t-be-real sort of way. I realize that while I knew about the forests and the wilderness, I didn’t think of Finland as a very green country in general. I had been here once before, but it was in February so my impression was mainly one of snow-covered everything. Out of sight was truly out of mind; I never imagined what the bare tree trunks I saw might look like in the summer. But spending some time in Jyväskylä, even in the city centre, and in Helsinki around the city, I’ve come to realize that Finland in the summer is a paradise of lush greenspace, fragrant wildflowers, huge stands of trailing roses, stunning bright pink lilacs, cattails, Queen Anne’s Lace, and soft emerald grass lawns. Standing there watching the 10pm sun filter through the trees and apartments, creating a brilliant piece of living art that begged to be captured, I felt very lucky.
I realize these little snapshots aren’t special, and they aren’t unique. But to me, a genuine experience is made up of them, and made up of the space in between them that you don’t remember except for maybe a vague feeling. Flashes, faces, impressions–street musicians, vendors, the general atmosphere. Colors, textures, smells. That’s what you remember, and that’s what you miss when you leave.