Fifteen years ago, a colleague of mine arranged a visit to the Swedish state alcohol monopoly’s lab. She was a member of their language task force that aimed to come up just the perfect words to describe the wines on the shelves, to make sure the way the words matched the taste of the wines so that the nakedly elegant wine truly was that and that people intuitively understood what that meant.
We weren’t there to taste wines, we were there to see how difficult it was to put things like taste into words, but the thing I remember the best was our cinnamon test. Each one of us got a little cinnamon, maybe a half a tablespoon, while we held our noses, waited a while and then, at the instructor’s signal, let go of our noses.
I’m sure you know, or can guess, what happened, but I’ll tell you anyway.
These days, sports news travel at lightning speed on Twitter, but I have to believe that even in the era of Twitter, there still have to be rink rats, people who hang out at the hockey rinks and get close to the teams. They’re often either kids or people with special needs, and I think it’s because they seem harmless. And are harmless. And have the time.
I was one once. When I was a kid. I loved being at the rink, any rink actually, so I tagged along with Dad to his beer league and oldtimers’ games, and looked for pucks, and talked with the cafeteria people, and watched Dad and his buddies play.
The most famous rink rat in town was a man everybody knew as “Puti” and while he probably wasn’t homeless for real, that’s what we’d call him today. A homeless person. He was also special.
I suppose it’s possible that Pekka was trying to get me off my game with his question, although I doubt it. I think it was just something that occurred to him in the heat of the moment. He was never one to focus on football all that much.
Anyway, we were on our home field, on the small lot of grass between Pekka’s house and mine, and it was my turn to be the goalie. I had made a couple of saves and kicked the ball back to Pekka. He stopped it, put his foot on the ball, his hands on his hips, and asked me: “Hey, how old are your parents?
I didn’t say anything.
Pekka asked me again.
I said nothing. Pekka looked at me, and then – to be helpful, I guess – he said, “Mine are 35. Or, Mom’s 35, Dad’s a little older.”
Two weeks ago, I was on the ferry between Stockholm and Helsinki, listening to an interview on my headphones when suddenly I saw a man standing in front of me, pointing at me with his index finger. I took off my headphones just in time to hear him say, “Risto, right?”
It was Lare. I recognized him right away, which was pretty impressive, considering that I had only seen him once since we lost touch after fourth grade (mine, Lare’s third) and even that was more than twenty years ago.
But there we were, sitting at the table by the window, talking like that was all we ever did. We talked about his Dad (who was the first person I remember dying), about his 98-year-old grandfather who had lost his driver’s license and was wondering how he’d get to the summer cottage now, about my kids, his kids, our old hood, my work, and his work as a bodyguard at the finest and most legendary hotel in Helsinki.
“Some of the celebrities are really nice,” he told me. “Like Springsteen, he’s been there a couple of times. He’s a good guy … except that he gave me a T-shirt that was way too small so I had to go back and give him some feedback,” Lare said with a laugh.
“So, no rökötys for him,” I said.
One June morning in the 1970s, when I was on my way back from the park where I had gone to get some government sponsored soup, I spotted a familiar character walking towards me. I was glad that I noticed her first, because I was a little afraid of her. She walked around our neighbourhood almost every day, but it was much more fun to watch her from our kitchen window.
Every time Mom saw her, she let me know.
“Mrs. Sunshine’s out,” she’d yell, and I ran to the window to see what she was wearing that day.
Although, I wasn’t her clothes, really, that was the big deal. It was the fact that she was wearing so much makeup that it looked like she had painted two red balls on her cheeks. She also seemed to be wearing two wigs on top of each other. Anyway, seeing her made Mom happy so, in a way she was Mrs. Sunshine, even if the nickname probably wasn’t all praise to begin with.
Before we had latte – and that’s with any prefix, whether a tall or grande or venti or just cafe – before Central Perk was on TV, before Swedish coffeeshops had landed in Finland, long, long before Starbucks made it here, and before we even had coffee to go, we had the local gas station’s caféteria.
That’s where people got together, that’s where you heard the news, met your friends, hung out, and maybe had lunch, or even dinner. But at least a cup of coffee and a donut. One of the biggest Finnish comedy characters, Uuno Turhapuro, always hung out at a gas station, another major 1970s hit TV show, Tankki Täyteen (“Fill’ er up”), told the story of a quirky family that ran a gas station, and its cafeteria.
The local gas station was where everybody knew your name, even in a city like Helsinki.
The first hockey camp I ever attended was a day camp in Helsinki. The kids would come in morning, have two practices on the ice, eat lunch, and go home and then return to the rink the next morning to do it all over again. For five days.
The camp was run by two Finnish league players that were Dad’s friends, and from Day 1, they both referred to me a “Pikku-Eikka”, Finnish for “Little Eikka”, in which Eikka is my Dad’s nickname.
When I was ten years old, Paul McCartney was my favorite Beatle. After school, I’d be alone at home – well, me and our dog – listening to the Beatles, and maybe “Fonzie’s Favorites”, 50s rock tunes in the spirit of the hit TV show “Happy Days”, singing along at the top of my lungs.
When I got older, and realized that John Lennon was assassinated on my birthday – although, technically, it was already the day after my birthday in Finland – I switched allegiances and John became my favorite Beatle..
But I always liked “Let It Be”.
You know, “when I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”
My mother’s name is not Mary, but when I found myself in times of trouble, she did come to me and she did speak words of wisdom.
The other day, at the Gelateriana Italiana, when Son, Daughter, and I were having our usual Friday ice creams, Son pulled an essay he had written out of his school bag. It was a story he’d written the week before, and had now got it back, graded.
“You gotta read what the teacher wrote,” he told me.
Unsurprisingly – both because he does tell a good story and because he hadn’t asked me to read it had it not been praise – the teacher had praised his storytelling skills, his vocabulary, and his cliffhangers.
“Congrats. This is fantastic. I guess I can take some of the credit here, after all, I did tirelessly tell you stories when you were just a small boy,” I told him.
He nodded. Continue reading
Oh, we’re finally here. But, as all fans of Back to the Future know, the appropriate question is not “where the hell are we?”, it’s “when the hell are we?”
That’s what Marty McFly learns from inventor Emmett “Doc” Brown when Doc demonstrates his time machine for the first time in the 1985 film “Back to the Future”, and sends Einstein the dog one minute into the future in a DeLorean sports car.
By the time the sequel rolled around four years later, McFly had learned his lesson:
McFly: “Where are we? When are we?”
Doc: “We’re descending toward Hill Valley, California at 4:29 pm, on Wednesday, October 21, 2015.”