In the autumn…. beauty
Do you ever have one of those days when it feels like the universe is taking you by the shoulders and going “Chill out, girl! Don’t take yourself so seriously”? Today was one of those days.
You need to understand something about me first. I would be really cute in a romantic comedy. You know those characters who are always played by Anne Hathaway and Zooey Deschanel who are super clumsy and adorable and never seem to have a clue but somehow it makes them perfect? Yeah, that would be me. Unfortunately, that kind of thing is not cute in real life. Not cute at all. And when you’re that girl who is always missing trains and getting lost, it gets a little disheartening.
A commuter train and a bus ride north of Helsinki is a beautiful national park called Nuuksio, where I was supposed to be hiking with some friends today. We were going to meet at the train station. Me, being my usual super uncute self, missed the train by literally 10 seconds. Thinking I could catch the next one and meet my friends there, I tried calling, texting–nothing went through, and of course, my phone was out of battery. I asked a nearby R-Kioski attendant where to find a pay phone, and changed some cash for coins.
Well, stupid me, of course pay phones in the Land of Nokia take credit cards and look like a Nintendo 64. I put money in but couldn’t figure out how to work it, gave up, and took the next train to Espoo. I’d never been to the station at Espoo before, and had to walk around a few times before I realized that 1. it’s terrible and there is nothing there, and 2. everything that was there was closed, except for an S-Market and a little cafe. I went to ask the girl at the cafe about the bus to Nuuksio, and found out that the next bus left in an hour. Well, shoot.
I ordered a cappuccino and the story of my morning just spilled out. The cafe girl was about my age, and to my surprise, she immediately asked what kind of phone I have and offered to put it on a charger in the back, and let me borrow her phone to call my friends. For some reason that wasn’t working either, but I decided to go ahead to Nuuksio. I thought maybe when I got there the calls would go through since we would be bouncing off the same cell tower (I have no idea how phones actually work), and if not, I was halfway there already and it was a gorgeous day. No sense wasting it–why not go on an adventure! So I sat for an hour and sipped my cappuccino, thinking about impromptu adventures and the kindness of strangers.
I got to the park and asked for a map from the information centre, but of course, it was a Finnish map and since Finnish maps make exactly zero sense, I decided to wing it. I started off on one of the main trails but quickly got bored. Then a cute older couple with a pair of baskets slung over their arms caught my eye, and I remembered–it’s puolukka season! I had a new objective: foraging.
The thing about foraging in Finland is that it’s legal, first of all, and second, it’s almost stupidly easy. The most common things to forage for are berries: in the summer, mansikat and mustikat , and in the winter, puolukka . On the coast you can find tyrni . And there are obviously a lot of mushrooms in the forest. But for an amateur forager, the berries are enough. And it’s really easy because strawberries look the same the world over, blueberries and lingonberries tend to grow in patches together, and none of them look like any other kind of berry, so you’re not going to accidentally poison yourself. If you’re looking for mushrooms take an experienced guide, but honestly, that’s about it. There’s no feverish comparison in an outdated guidebook, no waiting till you get home to google your haul and hope you haven’t got a dangerous lookalike. You see something that looks like a blueberry or a strawberry or a lingonberry, you snatch it off the trail, and you eat it. It’s awesome.
Hiking around, the pure autumnal beauty of it all made me want to take pictures of EVERYTHING, so I spent most of the time on the ground, wedged against a pine tree, elbows deep in lichen, trying to get the light just right on a mushroom. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m really fond of the macro setting on my camera. I’m gonna be honest here, today it got a little out of hand. I’ve always been fascinated with the tiny world that exists beneath our feet, the color palettes and shapes and textures of these alien life forms. I still believe in the Cottingley fairies.
How can you not? When you pay attention to the little things. When you notice that speck in your vision is actually a tiny, perfect mushroom on a delicate stalk, cushioned with fluffy moss that has leaves so small you can’t see them individually. When you see how the sun glints on the strands of spider silk, and the little berries hang in aesthetic perfection on their stems, the smooth soft velvet of mushrooms.
I wound my way deeper and deeper into the park, keeping an eye on the time. To my surprise, I had only been gone about an hour and a half, which is nothing in hiker time. See, I’m what you might call a hardcore hiker/backpacker. My parents took me on camping trips as a baby, so I’ve grown up knowing how to take care of myself on the trails. This morning I had packed twice as much food and water as I would need for the afternoon, a first aid kit, extra clothes, and a couple of large plastic bags that could be fashioned into a tarp. I’ve learned from experience that you should always be prepared to take care of yourself for a few days, if you need to. Of course, Nuuksio is only about 24 square kilometers, so while I was having my lost-in-the-wilds-of-Finland backpacking fantasy, I came to a highway and a few well-tended summer cottages on a lake.
Undeterred, I decided to set myself a challenge: find the biggest, slipperiest looking kallio around, and climb it. Might as well get a good view and a workout in, right? So I set out, taking pictures along the way. The sunlight here is so beautiful all the time, and I think it’s because of the angle that the light hits this latitude. Since it’s autumn officially and we only have about 11 hours of sunlight (and counting!), around 3pm the light was already sinking to the west, behind a clear lake and another rocky tree-covered hill. I conquered my kallio and decided that a late lunch was in order, to celebrate. I took out my sandwich of salmon and fennel (when in Finland…) and some grapes, and enjoyed my solitary view. Then I took a selfie.
As I started walking north along the rocky ridge, my illusion that I had done something impressive by climbing the mountain was suddenly distorted by the sound of children. I came up to a lookout point and found an extended family camped out, setting up dinner and waiting for the sunset. Obviously, I was back on the main trail.
I clambered my way back down the mountain, taking a small faded trail that lead me back to the main drag. I was a little disappointed that the summit of my accomplishment was apparently a bunny slope for kiddos, but later I saw a woman hauling a pram and two toddlers up a hill that left me breathing hard. Finnish parents are apparently just that hardcore.
On my way back to the Haltia park entrance, I hit the jackpot on a patch of lingonberries. One clump was particularly beautiful in the evening light, so I decided to take a picture. Of course, in my typical uncute way, I managed to spill my tupperware container of berries everywhere and spent the next 10 minutes halfheartedly picking them out of the moss. I had a brief marketing idea: Extra Crunchy Berry Mix, Now With More Nature! Well, a little moss never hurt anybody.
A few last pictures, and I was done for the day. I came up to Haltia just as the sun set below the treeline, and my bus pulled up to the stop. At Espoo, I realized I needed to either buy a train ticket or figure out how to top up my travel card, which I don’t really know how to use since I walk everywhere. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see….. the cafe girl from this afternoon! She asked if I had ever found my friends and said she had been worried I was going to get lost. She helped me top up my travel card and we were going the same direction, so we got on the train together and she talked my ear off for about 20 minutes to her stop. Just goes to show, you can make friends in the weirdest situations!
I was starving by the time I got home. Now after eating and relaxing for a few hours going through my photos, I get up and can feel already that tomorrow is going to be one sore Monday. But it was totally worth it. Even though I’m a scientist and I’m supposed to be objective and obsessed with hard facts, I’m one of those people who believes that everything happens for a reason. Every situation is an experience to learn from–learn things about the world and about yourself. I could have been really upset that I missed the train (well, I was, for about 10 minutes) and just went home. But it was a beautiful day, and I found a way to enjoy it. I think being comfortable being with yourself is an important skill, and I know I’m still developing it. But it’s part of being independent, part of growing up. Especially when you’ve moved far away and don’t have childhood friends or a significant other. There’s a lot of stuff you can do alone, and it’s perfectly fine. And there’s also times when you need help, and the kindness of a stranger can mean everything in the moment. The girl at the cafe told me she was trying to save the world, one person at a time. It might sound cliche, but I like her mentality. It’s about appreciating the little things. Like lingonberries, in the autumn light.