The living know that, at daybreak, the soul will leave them and make its way to the places of its past–the schools and dormitories of its youth, army barracks and tenements, houses razed to the ground and rebuilt, places that recall love and guilt, difficulties and unbridled happiness, optimism and ecstasy, memories of grace meaningless to anyone else–and sometimes this journey will carry it so far for so long that it will forget to come back. For this reason, the living bring their own rituals to a standstill: to welcome the newly loosed spirit, the living will not clean, will not wash or tidy, will not remove the soul’s belongings for forty days, hoping that sentiment and longing will bring it home again, encourage it to return with a message, with a sign, or with forgiveness. – Tea Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife)
My own journey, although far from that of the soul, has come to an end. For almost three days, I’ve been back, enjoying the sunshine, the fact that I can go outside without a scarf and gloves and settling back into my own rituals. Needless to say, there’s something joyful about returning home after a long journey and something rather strange about how, once you leave a place, it starts to feel dreamlike….
Of course, you have the tangible proof of your journey–chocolates for friends, gifts to be mailed to family, the two Iitala dishes you allowed yourself to buy at the airport since the price of a soup tureen in Scandinavia would have broken the bank. You also have the little things that you find yourself unexpectedly missing–the noontime jaunts with your camera when you would take the wrong street and come across beautiful Gothic cathedrals like St. John’s, the general lack of urgency in daily life (5 weeks with no cell phone! This is practically unheard of in this day and age) and the elegant, methodical preparation of things (namely food).
I’ll be the first to admit that, while I wasn’t always thrilled with the nature of my mission, my misgivings had nothing to do with the location. Helsinki itself was a constant source of pleasure. In the five weeks I was there, I was surrounded by the city’s bright colors and, in some small way, magical things that I had barely known existed before my time there: cloudberries, toffee-flavored ice cream sandwiches, buns with huge flakes–not specks– of cardamom thickly smudged with sugar-coated cream.
I also found myself, in my last days there, trying to squeeze in everything that I had wanted to do, but that, as often happens when you’re living in a place, I had failed to since time seemed to spread endlessly before me. I went to the Kiasma, the modern art museum, where there was an exhibition on Finnish comics that I loved. I loved that some artists were using traditional fabrics to feature their work like in the image below.
This one was amazing because, from afar, it looked like some kind of surreal landscape, but, when you looked closely at each tile, it contained a drawing.
There was even a “trippy” unicorn exhibition that questioned the nature of happiness. Given my occasional mindset during my travels, I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of “happiness is a slippery thing.”
I also finally managed to snap a photo of one of the city landmarks that I found myself endlessly returning to–either to wait for the tram, my faithful number 6 Arabia, or to exchange money. I loved the way the blue of the sky set off the sea green of the building.
And to capture the lunchtime majesty of one of the several places I found myself frequenting: Lounasravintola Raiku, where the soup and salad bar are beyond delicious and filling. Really, I’d go anywhere for pickles and curried-cauliflower soup.
My last day in the library passed by in a blur of microfiche disappointment. The quality of the newspapers was horrible, much too fuzzy to manage to scan anything successfully. I did, however, find one last gem in an artistic review from 1904, “Japanese Theater,” and, as I was leaving, paused to capture the library’s beauty in a snapshot of the rotunda.
I then went to meet my friend at the fabulous Juuri, which I had found out about in a NYTimes travel article about Helsinki’s food revival. I had been searching for a place to take my friend, so that I could thank her for her hospitality and say goodbye in style. It was definitely a celebratory kind of place and a nice way to enjoy various samplings from the Finnish kitchen. We had the “sapas” (yes, sapas, not tapas; Finnish hors d’oeuvres) and they were as beautiful as they were tasty. If pressed, I would say the Fried Pea Sticks with Marjoram Mayonnaise were my favorite, but the salmon, beets and egg cheese were equally good.
It was definitely the right kind of place to end my travel/research adventure. And I fully intend to go back.