R is for Risto

The family legend is that when I was born, Dad looked up “Risto Pakarinen” in the Helsinki phone book, and noting the absence of the name in the mightiest phone book in the country, he decided that it was a good name for a son.

A little special, you see. Not just another John Smith (although, back then, being called John Smith would probably have been even more special in Helsinki).

So Risto it was.

And like most of us, I take my name personally. Every time I’m traveling, and I see signs that have “Risto” in them, I take a photo, and claim ownership. In Gothenburg this week, I saw a restaurant called “Ristoria” and sent the photo to my friends and I used to do that with every single “ristorante” as well, but it got a little tiresome. For years, even decades, I also often made the same joke of my being a secret restauranteur, and that my partner’s name was “Rante”. That, too, got a little tiresome – or so I was told.

Every once in a while, I still draw the special “RP” logo a buddy of mine designed for me in eight grade, and every time I see a truck with “RP” painted on its side in the Stockholm traffic, I stop and take a photo.

But every time I come in contact with another Risto – which happens about once in every three years – I feel a little disappointed. That I’m not as special as I thought. And when, like this morning, I get email meant for another Risto Pakarinen, I feel almost betrayed and most definitely annoyed. The very least Risto 2 can do is to give his contacts his correct email address.

Back in the 1990s, I was listed in the Helsinki phonebook, a thick catalogue that was “as big as the Helsinki phonebook” which was how people referred to all thick books and other massive things. That’s why I was stunned to hear the phone ring in the middle of the night, and a strange voice at the other end addressing me as somebody else.

“I think you’ve got the wrong number,” I said.

“Aren’t you Risto Pakarinen?” she asked.

“Yes, I am,” I said, and added with a sigh, “but you’re looking for another Risto.”

And it’s not just Risto that I feel so strongly about. A few weeks ago when a “Christopher Baker” tweeted that he had got a new job at the National Hockey League’s headquarters in New York, for a second, I thought it was me. Christopher Baker? That’s Risto Pakarinen in English. Impostor! (I congratulated him anyway).

These days, I sign off most of my emails and texts, postcards and other notes with a simple “R”. It feels more familiar than signing off with even my first name, or my initials.

That I only use my first initial may seem a little silly considering that I just said that I want to feel special. Surely there are more Rs than Ristos in the world but for some strange reason, I don’t mind that as much.

Partly because I’ve matured, I think, but mostly, though, because in its simplicity, R is cool and mysterious.

The other day, I was at a Starbucks for a cup of coffee. The young lady behind the register took my order, and then, with a smile on her face and her black marker at the ready, she asked me for my name.

“Risto,” I said, carefully enunciating the word.

“With a C or a K?” she asked me.

I chuckled. See, if I had a penny for every time I’ve seen my name spelled Kristo, Christo, or Cristo, well, I’d have many pennies.

“Neither,” I said cheerily. “Just R.”

She looked at me and shrugged her shoulders, so when I got my short cappuccino, I was curious to see what she had written on the cup.

I twirled the cup in my hand and chuckled again when I saw that she had written neither Christo nor Kristo.

There was only the letter R. Just like I had said.


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