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Round Table

Alumni essays: a different look at the world.

By Brian Curtis ’01

The Uncomfortable Tourist

A few hours of misery helps two visitors tap into the Finnish psyche

The wharves around the ferry terminal were deserted when Anna and I, traveling off season in Scandinavia, arrived in Helsinki aboard the S.S. Pearl of Scandinavia.

At midmorning on this late December day, the weak and distant sun hid behind a scrim of clouds just above the horizon. We followed a walkway alongside the industrial harbor. Some ways off, giant cranes loomed over the hulk of a partially completed ferry boat. We were in the capital of an EU country, but it could have been Pluto.

Spooked by the absence of other living things, we hurried on. It occurred to me how a dose of deprivation — extreme or prolonged cold, heat, or hunger — can make one appreciate life’s small pleasures. My next thought was, “I hope they have a decent wine list wherever we eat lunch.”

Anna appointed herself tour guide and armed with Rick Steve’s Scandinavia, led us to the first Helsinki sight — the central train station. Steve calls the station’s architecture “harsh but serene,” a fitting description of the entire city that day.

A steady wind turned corners with us as we walked stiff-limbed to one of our chosen sites, the National Museum. One exhibit displays Finland’s prehistory — a period that lasted until the middle of the first millennium A.D. there — as seen through the lens of burial grounds and hoards (a curious Iron-Age phenomenon best described as the intentional burying of selected weapons, coins, or exotic items). From these deposits, it seems the ancient Finns lived hard, fought a lot, ate badly, and died young. Winters were mostly spent inside, and I pictured them, huddled, engraving daggers by firelight, watching each other slowly waste away.

Our jackets were still cool when we retrieved them to go in search of lunch. Outside, the temperature had dropped with the setting sun (2 p.m.!), but the promise of a hot meal made the walk bearable. Anna had a contemporary Finnish restaurant in mind, and as we drew near, the darkened interior and chairs up on tables gave the distinct impression of a place that was … closed for lunch on Sundays.

We stood, thwarted and shivering. I yanked my left glove off with my teeth and dug Rick Steve’s guide from the depths of my jacket. Our second choice was a Sámi restaurant a few blocks away. Guidebook in hand, we strode past darkened shops, checking the map at every corner. Slicks of black ice made for dangerous going. We paused at an intersection and surveyed our eerily familiar surroundings. To our right was a restaurant — the first restaurant!

We backtracked. Twilight deepened, and the wind picked up. Frustrated and cold, I felt another sensation creeping up from within me. Hunger, with me since the museum, had faded but was now back with a vengeance. I needed food. I needed to warm up. And still, the Sámi restaurant, with its roast reindeer and mulled wine, eluded us.

Old Norse mythology says the end of the world comes in a great battle after Fimbul — the winter of all winters. The day’s assault, driving all traces of life into hiding, made this seem entirely plausible. Anna and I came, once more, to where we thought the restaurant should be. It still wasn’t there. Then, Anna noticed something blue sticking through the snow. A street sign — harbinger of good fortune! — indicating the missed alley where the restaurant was. And now we were saved. A roaring fire, huge portions of red meat and pickled vegetables, and overflowing flagons of potent spirits — it was within our grasp!

Which, of course, made it hard to accept that the Sámi restaurant was also closed.

We gave up hope of a serious meal and left Helsinki that evening. As I finally gorged myself on the boat’s smorgasbord, I was glad to leave. And thrilled to be warm again, with a full belly. We had just spent our precious hours in this exotic and far-flung city searching for food and trying to stay warm. In a way, I felt like we had tapped a deep vein in the regional psyche. We had never been in any real danger, but we had been hungry, lost, and very cold — feelings the ancient Finns and Sámi surely would have understood. Still, I wondered about those hoards we learned about at the National Museum. What would have made those people, who surely knew a thing or two about frugality, bury their wealth? Some say that to safeguard riches, people buried them in secret locations, sometimes taking the secret to their graves. On the way out of the restaurant, a jingle from my pocket reminded me I had some precious metal of my own — my last few Finnish coins. I fed them into a slot machine as we steamed across the Baltic.

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