ELLE IN HELSINKI
A young woman sits aboard a flight that has just departed from Helsinki. The woman’s name is Elle. She wears a short well-fitting dress and a jacket, her otherwise bare feet covered by narrow high-heeled shoes that are open at the back. The woman looks out of the window, her carefully made-up eyes wistful and reflective. Her thoughts are with the city she now glimpses between the forests and sea. She reaches for her handbag and takes out a red leather-bound diary and metallic fountain pen. She begins writing:
“I am again returning home from one of my trips. Home – is there such a thing? Home is where the heart is, and right now I feel like my heart has been left in that strange yet familiar city. My heart was not stolen; I gave it away myself, in gratitude for someone receiving it! None of my friends would believe that something like this could happen! I know that what I am feeling is perhaps just longing and regret due to my leaving, and I know that in reality home is where it has been for the past eight years. There I will find my belongings, the streets that I know and the people I consider my friends. But right now I don’t want to think so far ahead. Instead I want to use this short flight simply to remember my days in Helsinki and to dream about returning someday.”
Elle came to Helsinki on a business trip to meet a designer who she believed could create something new and unique for next year’s marketing campaign. Elle had a talent in recognising new trends, and she usually carried out her company’s marketing campaigns in spectacular fashion.
Back at home her relationship with Peter was finally over after two years, including one year living together. Peter had just moved out a week ago. Elle decided then to spend the entire weekend in Helsinki, to be alone and create some distance from recent events.
Sketches, sightseeing and shopping
Elle’s client, a young man called Mika, had met her at the airport inHelsinki. They drove to Mika’s office where he showed her what he had come up with so far. Elle was very happy with what she saw. They had fun working together, which was also very promising. After a quick lunch they continued working into the evening. It was almost 7 o’clock when they decided to call it a day. Mika drove Elle to the Hotel Kämp, where she would be staying. Elle politely turned down his offer for dinner, agreeing instead to meet the next day – even though she had planned to spend time alone in Helsinki.
It was Friday evening. Elle walked around the centre of town, along the Esplanade Park, around the Market Square and down Aleksanterinkatu and the main shopping streets.
The weather was sunny and beautiful, and there were many people still in the Market Square. The seagulls screeched as the modern passenger ferries and cruise ships left the harbour and headed for Stockholm, St. Petersburg and Tallinn. Elle imagined that it would be interesting to visit these places too someday. Her thoughts were miles from home as she ordered a glass of wine at a splendid terrace bar. There she watched as the good-humoured Finns began their weekend celebrations.
With time still for shopping she checked out the boutiques, trying on a couple of jackets and buying both of them. She also found a ring in a jewellery shop that was decorated with a knot. According to the salesperson, the knot on the ring symbolised distant lovers who are bound together as one.
Sea, Suomenlinna and a little something
The next morning Mika came to take Elle out to Suomenlinna, the historical maritime fortress that occupies a number of islands just off the coast of Helsinki. The weather was gorgeous.
There they lay out on the warm granite bedrock, soaking up the summer sun. Elle felt happy and carefree. Peter was a distant memory that no longer caused anguish. It was definitely worth staying in Helsinki for the weekend, she thought.
Elle glanced at Mika, who had taken off his shirt. Not bad! Mika was blonde, and the skin on his back was also fair. This Finn no doubt worked out or practised sports, as his body was strong and … interesting. Mika turned and looked at her, and Elle understood that they could perhaps have something in common – why not. They talked and watched the ships and the children with their families.
Elle told Mika about her life and travels. They ate lunch at a cosy restaurant and returned to a shaded area under the cliffs by the edge of the sea. Elle also told him about Peter, Mika listening intently.
“But I’ve told you almost everything there is to know about myself! You Finns don’t seem to talk much!” Elle laughed.
“Today you will experience something much better than talking,” Mika replied. “Before dinner you will get to experience an authentic Finnish sauna!” Elle thought this sounded like an appealing idea.
They got back to the town by a ferry, Elle returned to her room at the Kämp and took a shower. Her heart was full of expectant joy – although she also prepared herself for disappointment. After all, she really didn’t know anything about Mika, and perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to rush into a new relationship so soon after Peter.
Sauna and a little something more
They drove out of the centre towards the north, after a while turning off the motorway onto a smaller road. Between the trees she caught glimpses of lakes and fields. The sauna that awaited them was a small wooden building with a terrace and pier on the lake. They undressed. Elle was not shy, having heard that all Finns go to sauna regularly – and naked, of course. Inside the sauna they did not talk much. Outside she could hear the birds, and when Mika threw water onto the hot rocks, the steam seemed to sigh. Elle felt how the heat first made her skin tingle and then spread throughout her body. After a few throws they put on towels and went to sit outside on the terrace.
Inside the sauna there were fresh birch branches, which Mika used to hit Elle lightly on the back, shoulders, legs and front. It felt refreshing and wonderful, so Elle repeated the ritual on Mika. They then stepped off the pier into the lake, which felt cold at first but soon afterwards soft and warm. The smell of the surrounding nature was intoxicating and the sun was still above the horizon, even though it was well into the evening. They took their time washing before dressing and returning towards the city.
The Santa Claus Story
Mika and Elle went out to dinner at a restaurant called Kosmos, where they ordered champagne in honour of their new friendship, the sauna and business co-operation.
Mika noticed a familiar face at the door of the restaurant and gestured towards an elderly man, who came to their table. Mika introduced him as Santa Claus. The man was old, slightly rotund, and he had a long beard and curly hair.
“Are you really Santa Claus?” Elle asked. “No one believes in Santa anymore, not even small children. They just want to open their presents as fast as possible.”
Santa Claus assured her of his identity, whether she believed him or not.
Mika told that Santa was also his father! Or that at least the man boasting to be the Santa was his father. Santa Claus told that he was on summer vacation in Helsinki and that every so often his wife called to his mobile phone from Lapland.
“So you’re Santa Claus with a mobile phone. Only in Finland!” Elle laughed.
Just then Santa’s mobile rang and he answered in Finnish, which Elle did not understand, of course. Mika laughed and said that his mom still hadn’t got used to Santa’s summer holidays, even after hundreds of years. “Santa uses his vacation to talk with children, meet young people and check on supplies for the next Christmas season. He’s just trying to keep up with the times,” Mika assured her.
“You Finns are all crazy! This sure is a good joke,” Elle chuckled. “Wait till I tell everyone at home: I met Santa in a bar in Helsinki, and guess what: He’s my client’s dad! Besides, if your father is this mythical character, what does he need a mobile phone for!?”
“Santa Claus is also a modern person who uses the latest technology to enhance his magical powers,” Mika explained. “In fact, it is quite common for us in Finland to combine magic with technology.”
Elle decided to go along with the joke, accepting it as some kind of strange Finnish humour.
Santa Claus finished his phone call and smiled at Elle. “The wife was just looking after me,” he said.
Santa asked Elle what her favourite Christmas memory was, and Elle replied how she was given a silk dragon when she was just four years old.
“Its name was Puff, of course, and it was green and peach-coloured. It had these glowing eyes and was rather dangerous, but very kind all the same,” Elle remembered.
Santa told Elle that he seemed to recall that occasion.
“You had a new silk ribbon in your hair. In fact, it was the same kind of silk as the dragon, isn’t that so? Was it that same Christmas your brother received a toy gun, which your mother didn’t like at all,” Santa remembered.
Elle was speechless.
“I remember every Christmas of every child,” Santa said. “These days when I meet them as grown ups I can still remember many of the details, even though I am rather old,” he added, laughing.
It certainly was a strange meeting. Elle could not explain how the funny old man could know about her most precious childhood memories. Perhaps he was simply good at guessing, or had good intuition. Either way, it didn’t matter. She decided then and there to start believing in Finland’s Santa Claus – it was fun.
Santa explained how Christmas Land was a long time ago established in Finland, as only here could the great secret remain safe among the quiet and trustworthy Finns.
“Where do you get the money to buy all Christmas presents for the whole world?” Elle asked.
“It is very natural,” Santa replied. “You see, there is much more good in this world than bad, just as there is much more love and caring for other people than there is neglect and hatred. A long, long time ago we set up a secret fund to support these positive values. These funds are invested in people’s very own love accounts and these funds generate so much interest that it would be impossible to spend it all.”
“So in a way you are a kind of finance minister, logistics supervisor and marketing manager for Christmas-Finland!” Elle exclaimed.
“All of the above,” Santa acknowledged. “I’ve also been the head of Christmas Land since it was established. The Christmas spirit – caring for others and giving – is my life’s work. Christmas comes just once a year, but it lives in all of our hearts throughout the year. Presents are just symbols of Christmas. You should visit us at Christmas time, when the days are so short that the only light comes from the snow and stars.”
Elle really wanted to do this, especially experience the snow. They spoke for a long time about winter and how this period of rest was so good for nature, how wisely the trees and animals lived.
Will I ever see you again?
It was late and Mika wanted to escort Elle back to the hotel.
“I think I’ll miss you,” Elle said to Santa Claus and hugged him.
“But I’ll come and see you at Christmas,” Santa pointed out. “You should also come and visit us, whenever you want, and bring your friends!”
Mika and Elle strolled in the summer twilight along Mannerheimintie, the main street in Helsinki. Elle did not yet want to go to bed, so they continued their walk side by side. They passed the National Museum, guarded by its granite bear, as well as the white marble Finlandia Hall, almost hidden from view among the verdant trees. They headed towards the Hesperia Park, where teenagers were partying late into the night, and around the Töölönlahti Bay, passing the modern National Opera along the way. The night was still and filled with birdsong. There was hardly any traffic to disturb the serenity.
Mika told more about Finnish people, as well as his own life in Lapland and Helsinki. A tiny bar was still open, so they ordered some red wine and sat in silent bliss. Mika took Elle’s hand.
After a while they continued their walk in the night back to the centre, crossing the Pitkäsilta Bridge and through Kaisaniemi Park to Esplanade Park. Mika said goodnight to Elle in front of the hotel. “I will call you,” he said. Elle watched him as he walked away under the pale sky.
“But the next trip will never be the same. I heard it said once in a movie that whoever leaves is free, whereas the one who stays home experiences longing mixed with jealousy. I think that the one who leaves also experiences longing; those people get to stay there, but I have to leave. Then again, they don’t have me anymore either, and their lives will also never be the same.”
Why must life be like this?
Finns are strange. No one will believe whom I met there. Will I even believe it myself when I get home…
The plane landed. Elle gathered her diary and hand luggage and stepped back into reality. She turned on her mobile phone, which immediately beeped. She had received a text message:
”MERRY XMAS! See you soon. Mika”
Translation by Edward James Crockford and Ulla-MaijaRouhiainen