That Helsinki-ing Feeling

When my editor at GOLFWEEK assigned me a story on a golf club shaft company in Finland in 1995, I had not had much experience with international travel. My only overseas trip had been my honeymoon to Paris five years earlier. That was the day after my wedding. On the flight from Philadelphia to London, the movie was Dad, a generational serio-comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Ted Danson. It was long on sentimentality, and being less than 24 hours out from hugging my own Dad after he gave a toast at my wedding reception, it wasn’t long before I was bawling like a baby in the upstairs section of a British Airways 747.

In London, I recovered, and on the short flight from Heathrow to Paris, I enjoyed a cup of tea. The flight attendant put down our cups and left behind what appeared to be single-use creamers. But instead of half ‘n’ half, their labels said UHT MILK.

“Honey,” I said, leaning over toward my wife in the next seat, “what kind of animal do you suppose an uht is?” She began to giggle, then chortle, then laugh uncontrollably.

Helsinki's enchanting waterfront. [ahem] Third boat from the left.

Helsinki’s enchanting waterfront. [ahem] Third boat from the left.

“It’s not an animal, you dope,” she said through spasms of laughter. “It means ‘ultra high temperature.’ You know, pasteurized. It’s just the way the English say it!” She kept laughing, but I swear she was looking through her briefcase to see if there were any loopholes in the marriage contract. This, I suppose, is what I get for marrying a food scientist.

Bottom line: I was not yet the experienced world traveler I was to become. The Paris trip helped. But the Finland trip was a major educational step. The lesson: travel isn’t just about rolling with the changes. It’s about turning negatives into positives.

The Finnair flight to Helsinki was just dandy. But the overnight ride to Europe, with its jostling of your personal time zones, takes some getting used to. Our host, a big jovial Finn, picked up our party of four in a little van that just held us and our bags (golf bags included). He was an adventurous driver, and covered most of the distance from the terminal to the downtown Helsinki waterfront on two wheels, and not always the two on the same side of the van.

My stomach was lurching in three dimensions. I was new at GOLFWEEK, I was new to this group of friends; I did not want to gakk in their general vicinity. I cracked the window. I sucked in gulps of sunny, cool Finnish air. I prayed.

Our host wanted to show us the waterfront and take us for a light lunch and a beer. Finnish fishermen were laying out their wares from the morning catch: huge salmon in the warm sun, sending up the aromas of the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. The smells worked on me, on my digestive tract, on my resolve. Now the problem was at the other end. I needed help. There did not appear to be a public restroom, a hotel, a bar, anywhere in sight around the docks. Just…boats. Lots and lots of boats.

At this point, I would like to apologize to the kind (I’m sure) owner of the unoccupied 34-foot sloop whose head (bathroom, for you landlubbers) I so heartily dishonored on June 18, 1995. I assure you, it was an any-port-in-a-storm situation. I hope the toxicity dissipated before you came to enjoy your yacht for the weekend, and I imagine you had another roll of toilet paper somewhere.

It was at that point, standing pale-faced on the dock a few moments later and about four pounds lighter, that I made a decision. Before I joined my friends (I told them to go ahead to wherever the first turn was a few blocks up; I would be right along), I resolved that wherever I got to go from that point on, I would gut things out and make the best. And believe me, I have had plenty of chances. Airport-floor naps, hotel overbooks, delayed flights — you name it. But I have always managed to find some good in every trip. Jet lag passes, discomfort passes — and opportunity passes. Be in the moment, don’t worry about what time it is in New York, and enjoy where you are, when you are.

The resolution worked immediately, and my first taste of Finnish beer was very good. The next night, in a public square in Helsinki festooned with hanging paper lamps, we stayed up late and drank with the locals as the sky dimmed, but never went dark — midnight sun over midnight revelers. The single men among us marveled at the beauty of a couple Finnish brunettes in their summer dresses; the married pointed and laughed at our single brothers’ very American pick-up efforts.

I sipped my beer, thanked my host for an excellent evening, and savored the air of another place, another time, another history, and a world I was beginning to reach out to.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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