Sometimes I joke about it, or I get teased a little about my propensity for taking the wrong direction but I think it’s an intentional misdirection I choose to commit myself to instead of a general ineptitude regarding maps.
“Getting lost” or taking the wrong direction might be a source of irritation or embarrassment for some people, but I’ve always found it an opportunity to see something I might have missed, to meet someone I might never have known. A perfect example of this is my last trip to Finland.
The beginning of the adventure had been an easy one: a short, relaxed and comfortable plane ride from Berlin. One brillant summer evening, my best friends and small child had dropped my son and I off at the Tegel airport, had actually walked us to the gate. So I felt enormously happy, warm with their hugs and waves good-bye recent memories in my mind.
It’s a beautiful flight. You’re not too long above the clouds before soon you drop and can look down onto the waters of the gulf of Finland where regular ships can be seen either launching from or headed to Estonia or Russia.
At the hour we arrived at Vantaa International Airport, it was quiet. Small groups of travellers spoke amongst themselves, small satchels or wheeled suitcases complimented their casual business attire. For our part, we had a little. Except for the basics, my laptop and perhaps a change or two of clothing, I keep our packing light. Anything additional we might need I choose to buy or trade for locally wherever we happen to be.
I’d visited Finland before yet only for a few days, and still my knowledge of the language was virtually nil at this tiem. My Swedish was better, and some knew that, and the younger people especially spoke English well enough. I found that our taxi driver spoke German, so it was no problem at all providing the name of our lodging. Being one of the more curious types, he asked us about our reason for visiting, then asked opinion on Germany’s governmental situation during the twenty-minute or so drive to our hotel.
Instead of being inside Helsinki main, I’d deliberately chosen a hotel in the suburbs in the heart of a quaint little neighborhood. A bus could always take us further to the more popular areas and especially to the coastline which is extremely lovely, but for me there’s nothing like seeing how the “average” person lives.
The hotel was neat, newer and tastefully decorated in gold and burgundy. My first impression was of warmth and welcome. The front double doors were open and outside on the walk a couple of tables had diners laughing over drinks. My review and photo can be found at the Queer Magazine Online website in the travel section. The perfect room for pleasure travellers and business people alike, it was neat, not overly spare and again, boasted rich colours which reminded me of home instead of generic suite.
After a superb breakfast served in their dining room, and needing to withdrawn some funds in local currency, I inquired at the front desk where a Geldautomat or automated teller machine was located. Smiling, the cheerful pale blonde young woman didn’t just give us the directions but actually printed us out a map. It was only a short walk and we set out eagerly without delay.
And I immediately took the wrong route.
The map was straightforward, a pen and ink affair with a simple lay-out, landmark spots to guide your way plus a boundary which stated “You’ve gone too far if you are here.” I liked that. Maybe subconsciously I lead us to that location. Instead of taking the first right, I was convinced we needed to walk further before turning. When we reached the train tracks of “You’ve gone to far”, then I decided to turn. But the area was pretty with a few shops and houses and balconied apartment buildings.
I paused for photos again and again, to observe the bus system and other passers-by. The temperature was slightly cooler than Germany’s, pleasant and clean, the sky as vibrant, the green of leaves and shrubbery especially spectacular, but we did have an appointment to meet a local who was open to the contact so I tried to redirect my attention. I “stopped” to ask for directions.
He was a bit grimy, and his clothes looked slept in at least a day or two. The beard was scruffy, his hair unkempt. His gait was slightly unsteady as we neared. He stopped at one corner near a bench and stood as if deciding what to do next. So I asked him where the shop with the ATM was. I started in Swedish, then English, and this he latched onto and his wandering gaze focused on my face enthusiatically.
“Are you American?” he asked.
More or less, I thought, but I only nodded.
And he came alive.
Thirty years ago when he was nineteen he’d visited New York, and he told of the wonderful sights he’d seen, and the stupid mistakes he’d made. His English was stilted but his gestures evidenced his frustration, but felt his passion and perhaps he sensed that. He gasped my hand and shook it with tears in his eyes.
“I wish I could go again but I have no money. One day I’ll have the money maybe,” he said as he abruptly wandered away.
I’d forgotten to ask him about the direction to the shop, so I stopped the next woman walking up. She was a tall, handsome woman perhaps sixty or so. When I called to her, she immediately stopped and smiled asking me a question in Finnish. I suppose we did look very lost and out of place. I didn’t understand her, but considering her age I asked her my question in Swedish which she switched to without a hitch. So we learned we were very nearby. My son, tired of my willingness to listen to life stories trekked ahead. The woman wished me well and we parted ways.
Money was spewed forth from the machine after anxious moments to see if it accepted my Mastercard debit. Having ascertained the landscape better than I, for I still felt turned around my son unhesitatingly lead us back another route to the hotel, without us having to backtrack. He shook his head, and I blamed the misdirection on my shoes wishing to go where they will but I reminded him we might never have learned the Finnish man’s New York story if we’d stayed on the proper path from the beginning.
Yes, yes, he said, impatient, but we’re going to be late! And so we were. Collecting backpacks at the hotel, we set out again needing to take the bus to our meeting point.
I’d met her through a travel site I’d been a member of for nearly a decade. I’d met my best friends through it as well, previously mentioned in my memoir post Berlin Underground & Catwalks though they’d simply been a pair of lovers responding to a general invitation to meet over drinks while I was in Berlin.
She worked at Vantaa airport in the hangar staff, was as relaxed and open as everyone else we’d met. We spent a pleasant afternoon roaming the sights of Helsinki before her scheduled work hour arrived. My son had half-fallen in love I think for her long-legged stride and wonderfully healthy air was attractive, and he looked at her shyly when she spoke. Normally rather reserved around new people, I was both confounded and proud when he recounted with an excessive of detail my mistakes of the morning, as well as a few I’d fallen into on other walkabouts.
She laughed with him, listening to his pre-teen enthusiasm with the respect and steady gaze usually some westerners only reserve for adults.
“With this is mind, I’ll give you my number just in case you need help and no one is around. Savonlinna basically has one stop, so you can’t miss it but with you,” she said, sliding her blue gaze to me, “I am not entirely sure.”
We were there in time for the annual Opera Festival held annually at the beautiful city of Savonlinna, but I made it a point to call her again anyway.