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.
This may look like just another small plastic bag. Just another plastic bag with a plastic bracelet inside. And to most people, that’s exactly what it is. Just another plastic bag, just another plastic bracelet, except that at second glance, you may notice that the bracelet is a Fitbit, one of those activity trackers, workout buddies that count steps and calories, and track sleep.
Yet, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a while.
And I’m going to tell you why.
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
Had the self-checkout machine worked properly, I hadn’t even seen him there. I would have just paid for my taco chips, hot salsa, baloney, and a carton of milk (the one thing I had actually come to buy) and then gotten on my bike and riden home.
But the scanner didn’t send the items to the cloud, or whatever, so the self-checkout didn’t work, and when I went back to the screen, having violently shaken the scanner in its locking station, I saw him stand outside the grocery store with his lady friend.
I like bumping into people like that because it somehow makes me feel part of the community, and especially so now that I’m the associate assistant coach of Daughter’s soccer team.
And the man was a father of a player on the team, so I gave him a quick wave and a smile, before focusing on the checkout again.
Just as I realized the scanner still hadn’t sent my baloney to the cloud or whatever, the man (and his lady friend) walked into the store, and right behind me he turned to me and said, “Enjoy this time while you can.”
Twelve years ago, Wife and I shook hands in the little kitchen of our little apartment in downtown Helsinki, on a closed deal. She’d start up a Swedish-language site and a discussion forum for expecting and new parents, and I would start up a Finnish-language site and a discussion forum for … hockey fans.
Wife’s site was up and running a few weeks later, and it turned into a big success.
Meanwhile, I was still working at my day job, while trying to get my writer friends to contribute to my new magazine that was going to come out that fall, still six months away. I wrote several articles myself, translated the ones my buddies – and brother-in-law – had written in English and Swedish, traveled to Sweden to meet with the designer who donated his time for my cause, negotiated with the printers, and the distribution channels, while trying to be a father and a boyfriend.
What sticks to our minds really is a curious thing. What is a throwaway line to one of us may be something the other person remembers thirty years later, for one reason or another.
This morning I posted a photo of the Finnish language exam we had in our high school finals. Basically, it’s a list of 14 topics we could choose to write an essay about. I don’t remember what I wrote about, although I could make an educated guess, knowing the frame of mind of the teenage me.
The topics ranged from literary analysis to why sports matters to rise and fall of an empire to what makes me me.
I know my Finnish teacher used to like my musings on life so I’m pretty sure I wrote about what makes me me, but it may not have been my best work, and since we wrote two essays, my official submission may have been something completely different and come from the second set of topics.
Today was the day. The D day. Da D Day. The day my plan finally came into fruition. Which one of them, you ask? The one in which I stand in the middle of the street in downtown Stockholm, and stop all traffic.