For sixteen years, the Golden Gate Bridge has been something of a secret code in our household. A symbol of unity, if you will, between Wife and me, a testament to our way of sticking together. Well, not the actual bridge – even though it is an impressive sight and an impressive piece of engineering as it is – but driving across it.
I love to drive. Ever since I was a baby, the car’s been my safe place, and my happy place. The backseat was my domain, back there, I’ve read comics and made scientific experiments – such as testing which brand of glue dries fastest. Back in the day, there were no seat belts, especially not in the back, and there were no boosters or baby seats, I’d just lie on the back seat and take a nap when we drove to Grandma’s place.
Looking back, it’s always easy to connect the dots and see how one thing led to another. That’s how we take out the randomness and turn in a nice and clean story, because in truth, you never know where the road’s going to take you. You just keep on going, and while you may know where you’re trying to get, sometimes you make a right turn or get off an exit you hadn’t planned on taking, only to find out you ended up exactly where you should.
Both literally and figuratively speaking.
I don’t think I ever wanted to be the president of Finland, and I certainly didn’t know what a president did. Just goes to show that while sixth-graders know a lot of stuff, there’s a lot of stuff they don’t know about the stuff they know. What I did know, though, was that it was the highest praise the school nurse could have given me, and that made me feel good.
The players on my table hockey game were made of steel. I think one of the teams was Team Finland, but I’m not sure anymore. I am sure, though, that even a 7-year-old kid could grab those flat tin players by the head and bend them into an S shape, if they, for example, wouldn’t shoot the puck right, or if the goalie let in a soft goal.
It was also easy to curve the blades on their sticks so they were exactly like the real players’ sticks.
The little metal guys did their best, and so did I. My Dad, however, probably didn’t bring his best game to the table, but even his second-best was a little too good for me.
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.
He coulda bin a contender. His words, not mine. Actually, that’s not true, they were my words because his words were, “Coulda been an A-list celebrity”, but the idea was the same. Had he got his break, the one he thought he had deserved, things would have been different. Very different.
The first time I saw him, I heard him first. I heard the sound of a skipping rope hitting the floor, but not the sound of his sneakers softly landing on the same floor. There was only a centimeter, at most, between his shoes and the wooden surface that had once been blue, and it was almost as if he’d just but now had black scuff marks from all the skipping and other training that took place in the small workout area.
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.
Sweden is a country where “lunch” is not just a meal but a concept of time. Meetings are booked either “before lunch” (11am) or “after lunch” (1pm) – except on Christmas Eve, when everything is different. First, not many people book meetings on Christmas Eve. Second, people may skip lunch altogether and rely on a heavy breakfast to carry them through to the dinner feast.
At Christmastime, Swedes use another concept of time. It’s used only once a year, and it’s not an actual time, either, but it does dictate the movements of an entire nation.
It’s called “Kalle Anka.” You may know it as Donald Duck.
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.