Observations, music, thoughts, musings, written down over the course of eight days in December 2016 while meandering through Helsinki, Finnland.
Still the rush of an intense day and a stressful trip to the airport inside of me (one of those times when you don’t know if you’ll make it in time), I sit back on the plane. A few minutes after takeoff, I look at a sky so full of stars.
You are exactly where you need to be
At the airport, I see a plane that will be leaving for Lapland in one hour. I briefly consider changing my plans; but returning to Lapland will have to wait for another time. All snow is gone, what’s left are only piles of dirt-covered ice that must’ve been snow a while ago; an outdoor ice rig, a self storage called Pelikan (genius!), and giant neon signs with very long words on store fronts.
The wind today feels like it could blow me away any second, if only it wanted to. Everyone I meet in the streets is wearing a woolen hat. The soles of your shoes are all worn down, the time for sleep is now. I walk past a sign that says herkku (delicacy), but at first think it says heroku (Cloud Application Platform); I may have been working in tech for too long. I decide to get coffee.
I thought I’d moved on from being a person who takes picture of boats. Turns out, I was wrong.
Botanical gardens in December in the Northern Hemisphere are basically 50 shades of brown (with very few exceptions).
Santa Claus has a booth at the local Christmas market. Last time I saw Santa, I saw (“)the original one(“) in Lapland and refused to sit on his lap. A strong smoked salmon smell is in the air.
I follow the smell of fat and sugar and find a booth that sells fresh Munkki, a type of Finnish donuts. I get two, and this is how I find out what love is.
Someone is selling Christmas trees. I don’t do Christmas, but think that it might be fun to get a tiny tree for my hotel room. Trees are cool.
I walk up the steps to the Cathedral and sit down on one of the benches inside to defrost and listen to an organ recital.
Here, the ground floor is no. 1 (not 0, like where I live right now). I also accidentally find out (as in: I literally run into a sign with an announcement) that the Swedish Theatre in town will soon be showing Ingvar! – en musikalisk möbelsaga (literally translates to: Ingvar! – A musical furniture saga) – a musical about capitalism and IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad (at least that’s as much as I understand).
And I learn that Skönlitteratur (literally beautiful literature) means Fiction in Swedish.
I’m longing to read poetry.
When I walk through streets, I have a habit of reading out signs, even more so when I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language. I mutter them quietly, in an attempt to get a better sense for how words work, how they’re pronounced, what the language may sound like.
On the balcony of the Historical Museum, there are two giraffes sitting and looking down onto the rest of the world.
I enter another book store (one that has a piano in it), where the owner diagnoses that I was “looking adventurous”, and takes that as a reason to recommend I take a look at the basement – and the chapel at the end of it.
I go downstairs, past a pool table, along the white walls that are covered in shelves filled with books. I go to the chapel that’s home to bibles and encyclopaedias, sit down in a huge green armchair, hear a machine quietly humming.
I hear someone sing with a very deep voice, accompanied by a guitar. I get a few books, and listen to them, while skimming through the pages. An hour later, I leave the store with five books.
For someone who is on vacation and wanted to get a break from the calendar that usually determines most of their time, I have a damn lot of appointments over the next days.
I realise I still feel like I have to do everything immediately; feel like I’m running out of chances to see, chances to do things before the Public Holidays, to do before my vacation is over; feel like I’m running out of time, out of daylight, out of chances to explore before the great darkness sets in again at 3pm. (Maybe it takes a bit of time to ease out of this habit?)
As I walk down another street, they’re playing All I want for Christmas is you in stores. My inner “All I want for Christmas is you”-Counter is up at 8 for this season. For now.
Darkness is setting in. I go out to see a Ballet, am amazed about pretend ice skaters on stage, and get very angry about gender stereotypes in the production.
There’s a busker with an accordion and a voice like Tom Waits, singing very sad Finnish songs.
There’s no visible transition between day and night and day anymore. All is blurry, just one soup of different shades of grey to black to grey. Won’t you take me to a world after the rain.
On the way back home, all I hear is someone with a Zither playing Für Elise, a train in the distance, and my heels on the cobblestone. All else is quiet. I think about how, as soon as there’s a certain distance, there’s less room for bullshit.
I walk past a sign saying You are exactly where you need to be.
Light like from another world, bathrobes like hugs, patterns like angry dogs
For the first time since I got here, I see the sun, and decide to follow it. Suddenly, I see a taxidermied seagull sitting in a window, and Santa Claus jaywalking.
The moss covering the ground in the park by the sea is so soft.
There’s a playground built onto a rock.I sit down on another rock to observe the light. There’s a big hole in the clouds and in this day.
It starts raining, I don’t have an umbrella and forgot the lens cap for my camera at home; the camera is getting wet, and it’s raining too much to keep hiding under a tree.
And suddenly, the dark grey shifts –
to the most beautiful, glowing, almost magical light I’ve ever seen. I stay right where I am for a while, hiding my camera under my coat.
It keeps raining, I keep walking and end up on a small island.
Rocks like stranded whales.
It’s one of these times when sky and sea and rocks become one.
There’s no one at the beach (which is not extremely surprising since it’s close to 0°C and end of December – on the other hand, people are always tougher than we think). But then, beams of light.
I walk past red brick buildings and take pictures of Christmas stars in windows. At a street corner, there’s a “no entry” sign that’s got the same round shape as the street corner, and I wonder if that was by design or by (literal) accident.
As I enter one of the brick buildings, I see another Santa run across the backyard. Or is it the same Santa I keep meeting here? The smell of trees. Another walking teddy bear / dog.
Patches of light, a failed attempt to cover up the holes in our days.
I walk past a sticker saying No estas sola – tienes el feminismo. Two kids singing in a small square; they have to compete against the music blasting from the café nearby. In the bookstore, I get very angry looking at the numerous books written by white men that are filling up the shelves – compared to very few books by authors that are not white men. In another book store, I find a book called Only sofas, that actually only contains photos of sofas. At checkout, I learn that there’s a buy 7, get 1 free deal. Oops.
I find this quote from the Director of the Finnish National Theatre:
Today we live in a world of grim realities, of conflict and uncertainty. In a divisive world, it is important to create a unifying force. Art provides a common language, and we must have the courage to use it. — (Mika Myllyaho)
I read an email and I literally laugh out loud (that basically never happens). Because it’s exactly the right email with exactly the right content, but it could not be a more wrong (wronger? wrongsier? wrongster? wrongstershire?) time.
This timing problem seems to manifest itself these days, like it was a tiny, very angry dog, bit me in the leg some time ago, and now just won’t let go.
After a relaxing evening spent in the bathtub with pizza and some of my newly acquired books, I hide in this giant bath robe which feels like a wearable hug. I go to bed early. The flickering lights from the TV and the smoke detectors in my room make me feel like I’m at an airport and the desk is the runway.
I can’t fall asleep. At 1:30am, I’m wide awake and pondering anxious work-related thoughts. I’m not good at this vacation thing.
The Days of the Ravens
The rain is back. In the morning, rain drops hit the lid of my coffee mug like a little drum. Almost all shops and cafés are closed, and those that aren’t will be shutting down over the next few hours. I stay in one café as long as I can, trying to write and, for a brief moment, admiring a person with very good hair from afar. The seagulls that were here over the last days are gone. These are the days of the ravens.
As I walk down the streets, I catch myself whistling a Christmas carol. I don’t even know many Christmas carols; the few I know, I learned from TV shows and commercials. I stand by the lake and wait for a duck to resurface; after 3 minutes, I give up. I’m impressed by how long it can hold its breath. Superduck.
Reflections in water, on water, about water. When there’s so little light, all shapes blur out; contours wash out, there are no more clear lines. Really too late to call, so we wait for morning.
And then there’s still the question which thoughts are even worth thinking; which ones are worth writing down; which thoughts are worth being shared. — A system of filters where the result is not necessarily a good example for survival of the fittest.
I still have a tendency to pull up my shoulders, like I still haven’t gotten used to my height. I run into another giant nesting doll. Public bins here have an extension for removing dirt from shoes. Don’t be a person who’s only around to make someone else’s dream come true.
When people ask why I’m here, I tell them because I have nowhere else to be. That’s not true, but as close to the truth as I want to get. The truth would be: I am exactly where I need to be. But I also have somewhere I want to be, somewhere I’d like to be, somewhere I’d love to be; and somewhere I can’t be.
By the lake, someone wrapped a red woolen scarf wrapped around a lantern, as if it were there to protect the lantern’s very long neck.
The cracks in the ice are gentle, cold cracks in the few things that remain.
Any kind of magic always has a bittersweet reality to it.
I meet Santa no. 4 for the week, this time knocking at someone’s door.
The rain and wind intensified; I try to determine which angle they’re coming from, and estimate we reached about 60° by now. I have less than a rough idea of where I am. The departure time displays at the terminals are empty. Everyone who is still out here now is not going anywhere anymore tonight. I have nowhere I’ll have time.
All places are reminders of other places. All surfaces are opportunities for reflections of other surfaces, including ourselves.
I sit down for the first time after 9,786 steps and pour out the stones in my shoes. I only notice now that my feet are wet. It’s Christmas eve, the time of the biggest Christmas celebrations in Finnland.
Kiitos means thank you
At the indoor market, I see giant hams, tiny apples; gingerbread, pastry, Vietnamese food, giant piles of fish, meat, huge bowls of caviar (I’ve never seen such big bowls of caviar), kebab, nuts, wine.
I don’t have a sweet tooth, but for some reason, pastry in Scandinavia always gets me (I blame it on the Cardamom and Cinnamon). I get Kardemummapulla (when I was in Malmø, I got similar pastry; it’s basically dough with cardamom (or with a cardamom filling), sprinkled with sugar).
The wind blows over the ice, and ruffles the water in the bay. In the coffee place, there’s a giant dog that looks like a huge, long-haired sheep with big black dots.
I hold the door for a woman with a stroller. She says Kiitos, I say you’re welcome. She sits down next to me on the pillow-covered bench outside and talks to her baby. In German. She starts writing Christmas cards, but as the baby seems to be very dissatisfied with the situation, at some point she says: “If nothing is good today, let’s just go home and make this a quiet day”, and strolls away with the kid. I feel like I should’ve told her that I could understand her.
There’s a lantern with a candle that the wind has blown out. I re-light it and watch the wind play with the flame.
My body is tired and aching today. I hide under my coat as if it was a blanket. I’m afraid of birds, and yesterday, I accidentally bought a book that’s exclusively poetry about birds; not my proudest purchase. At the Christmas market, you can also buy signage for saunas. And hourglasses. There’s also a blacksmith making candle holders. It’s very quiet, as if people were only whispering.
I get a haircut at a place that’s bar and hair salon combined. I ask the hairdresser if they went for that setup so people can at least get drunk when the haircuts are bad. He doesn’t find it funny.
I see Finnish Tom Waits again, meet more very fluffy dogs, almost buy huge golden crown earrings, and a reindeer fridge magnet. Pikku Prinsi means Little Prince in Finnish.
There’s something very beautiful about the language around living through something. It makes it sound like something you go through, a tunnel or a jungle, maybe a lake or the sea. I like when language feels so close to the truth.
I’m at a choir concert, where I see 5-year-old kids who have haircuts that are hipper than mine (I’m jealous) and almost disappear entirely behind their textbooks. And, unexpectedly, the first song turns out to be a reminder of what was, what is, and what will never be. All lights turn into dots.
As I get back out, they’re disassembling the Christmas market. The All I want for Christmas is you-Counter goes up to 10.
I sit in a bar. I came here to write. Instead, I stare at a pile of zested oranges and lemons. The last time I saw a zested lemon, it was at a crossroads somewhere much further south-east. Some drinks here come with pre-folded paper planes. For a writer who needs to decipher the stuff they write at some point, I have horrible handwriting.
The great thing about sitting at the bar, all by yourself, is that there’s really no one who cares about you. I got myself a space coat. I keep the future as bright as gold. I’m drifting far away. You can stay.
For years, I’ve been wishing for things to quiet down, for my life to be calmer, less stressful, more chill. This is the year I understood why that doesn’t happen; and that not all stress is the same.
The bartender has the same dark blue shirt that I have with me, and I smell burnt rosemary leaves. One of the biggest (and most fun) challenges in writing is making sure that your facts and fiction are indistinguishable.
The night turns out much different from I thought it would. In the bathroom of the bar, I find over a dozen different feminist, anti-fascist stickers on the mirror, which look like they were put up there over the course of many, many years. Whoever put them up: I salute you.
The stickers remind me of something I need to take care of. I get out and walk home. Drink up, baby, look at the stars.
Flames, cobblestone, and something about happiness
These are the days when every bit of sunlight is an event. And today, I was just in time for it.
I walk down to the park that turns out to be a different kind of park than I thought it was, and, as I stand at a crossroads, I realise I’ve forgotten the meaning of some English words in German.
The ice in the bay makes for a perfect mirror (much less of the trees behind it). I sit down by the water and look at how clear it is.
It reminds me that it may be time to dip my into the water again.
The backlit moss on top of the graveyard walls looks like tiny, bright orange flames.
As I sit by the harbour and watch the sunlight on cobblestone and water, see the ferries come and go, I finally freeze to the core. I guess I can finally let go of all my uncertainty.
This is a place that can change in all that it is so quickly, just through a little bit of light. As I’m off to the train station, I see a purple sky and my first actual sunset here. By the way: Should anyone count, they may find out that some bigger stones at the beach are missing – I took them with me in my shoes.
Travelling by oneself is, per definition, a lonely experience — and whenever I want things to be different, I have to make an effort to change that (and, as a woman travelling by herself, I feel like I also always have to be extra cautious; which is frustrating, but that’s still the state of things).
Today is one of these days when traveling by myself is difficult. Today, it feels lonely. Today, I feel very alone. And I have zero interest or energy left inside of me to make any effort to change that. I miss the people I love, familiar faces.
Happiness comes from within, yeah yeah; but all that comes from within here at the moment is exhaustion, frustration, tiredness. (Also, screw “happiness”). No matter what I try to combat that, nothing helps. And as then, to top it all off, the handle of my travel bag tears off, I just want to curl up in fetal position on the floor between the commuters and cry.
But that’s not what happens. What actually happens is that I pull up the bag by its remaining handles and myself together, and walk on.
There are days in traveling by myself when I can’t do anything but embrace the deep, dark, soul-sucking loneliness. And hope for other, sunnier days. If all goes as I hope, they will come again very soon. And if really everything goes as I hope, I won’t have to listen to All I want for Christmas is you in a very long time.
To be continued.
[*turns up the volume*]
All photos are also on Flickr.