I was back on cherished ground, the granite cobblestones of the farmer’s market, or tori, near the harbor in Helsinki, Finland. There, the sights, sounds, and aromas were both familiar and new to me. It had been more than three years since my last visit, and my senses were taking it all in. A mild breeze off the Gulf of Finland lightly salted the different smells of fresh and smoked fish, vegetables, and fruits. Also in the mix were various languages of the locals and tourists checking out the produce, handicrafts and tourist mementos. In addition to Finnish and Swedish, I heard English, German, Russian, and other languages I didn’t immediately recognize, and was reminded that the harbor area is a popular destination.I needed blueberries. No visit to Finland is complete for me without them whether they are handpicked, tori bought, eaten fresh, cooked, baked in a pie, a pastry, or soup. Making my way past the various vendors, I finally had my bag of berries. I contentedly began popping them into my mouth one after another. It was the shape, texture, and the squish in my mouth releasing bursts of sweet juice that tasted so good. The Nordic variety, known in England as a bilberry, is darker blue, less meaty and much juicier than the ones available in California. In fact, the Finnish word for blueberry, mustikka, translates to blackberry, and blackberries are known by a different name altogether. The skin of blueberries is also thinner and stains the fingers easily. I kept reaching into the bag for more of that comforting taste. My fingers were blue, as they had been many years before.
I was about five years old, and my stained little fingers reached into a brightly colored basket of woven birch. As usual, I was spending the summer at the Lake Oksjärvi cottage, or kesämökki, with my grandmother, and it was our berry-picking day. We had rowed across the lake to the best spot known to her and had been there awhile already. It was mid-morning, the air was mild, and the sun filtered through tall pine trees. We were on a gentle incline of forest, the ground vegetation included heather and lingonberry bushes with the blueberries we had gone to gather. I remember wearing my red rubber boots to keep the dry heather branches from scratching my legs. Typical for me, more berries went into my mouth than in the basket; they were too tasty to resist at my young age. I also knew that my grandmother, mamma, was good at picking and there would still be plenty even if I ate more than I gathered. When I noticed that my fingers had turned blue I felt grown up. Looking around for more berries, I realized that my grandmother was nowhere in sight. All of a sudden I felt alone, it was quiet, the forest seemed huge and the pine trees very tall. I sampled a few more berries, and thought to myself that my mamma was somewhere, I just couldn’t see her. If I looked around again, she would magically appear, but she didn’t. Then, it became quieter than before, and the trees were taller than before. I called out, “mamma, mamma,” and waited for what seemed like a long time. A familiar voice finally called back, “I’m over here, I’ll be there in a little while, have you gathered lots of berries?” I was calmed. “Yes, I have,” I called back, and ate a few more. Blueberries have always been my comfort food.
My hometown, Lahti, is 100 kilometers north of Helsinki. I usually visit there within a week of each trip back to Finland. I had planned to meet my aunt, Pirkko, at the tori in the center of town. Pirkko and I had spoken months earlier, when my uncle Olle died, about the two of us taking flowers to his grave the next time I visited. We’d agreed on our meeting spot at the Vapaudenkatu street side, near the bus stop. I had lived on Vapaudenkatu as a child, and this market square was as familiar to me as just about any place could be. I recognized her out the bus window, talking with someone, as it pulled up to the stop. I walked towards her and waved, but she didn’t seem to recognize me right away. “That was one of Olle’s old pals,” she said. He had asked his friends, she’d learned after his death, to stop and chat, and see how she was doing when they ran into her in town if anything were to happen to him. It had barely been six months since his passing, and Pirkko was still learning to cope. So, it wasn’t odd that she didn’t immediately recognize me, though it seemed ironic to me at first, in a place that was so familiar to me.
After our greetings and hugs, we crossed the tori to one of the flower stands where I picked out a bouquet of roses. Walking back to the bus stop, I kept looking around, taking in the familiar, wanting to know the new. We’d lived on the street bordering the square, and I looked for the ice cream stand in its usual place, but it wasn’t there that day. As a child walking home with my mother, I would spot the ice cream stand and ask for a vanilla cone, sometimes strawberry. Once in a while my mother would say yes, reaffirming a child’s eternal hope, so I always asked. The memory made me smile.
Pirkko and I lingered at the cemetery for quite some time. The roses I placed on Olle’s grave looked fine, but I kept arranging and rearranging them, wanting them to look just right. It was a large graveyard, but my uncle’s grave was easy to find. Pirkko mentioned that I would find it on my own in the future, implying that I’d find it to visit even after she too was gone. There was a bench nearby, and we sat and talked for a long time. My mother in California was curious to know if she had dreamt of her husband yet. Pirkko had always had some psychic tendencies; she might well have “heard” from her husband of more than forty years. “Yes, I had a dream about Olle,” she told me. He can hear again, he had told her. After many years of working around heavy, noisy machinery, Olle had nearly lost his hearing.
But, he died of cancer that had not been detected early enough and it had spread very quickly.
Later, we left the cemetery by a shortcut through a wooded area back to the center of the city. “The blueberries are large this year,” my aunt commented as we passed some on the path. “They’ll be ripe soon,” she said. Pirkko, like many Finns, picks, buys, and freezes various berries for the long winter ahead. Could I do that? I wondered. Could I move back to Finland, and pick and freeze berries to brighten winter meals? Similar questions come to my mind every time I visit: would I be happy living there, would it satisfy me, have I been away too long, is the San Francisco Bay Area really my home now?
That evening, I had coffee with my cousin Pia at Pirkko’s. We were looking at photographs of my uncle, aunt, cousins, and their children, of various celebrations, holidays and vacations. Many pictures were taken at the Oksjärvi cottage, the same one where I’d spent every one of my childhood summers. Familiar places, I told my aunt. She didn’t know of the bittersweet good-byes my heart was feeling for my uncle and the summer cottage. There were pictures of another cousin with her family and children whom I’d never met playing in my familiar places. Pia mentioned the initials my sister and I had carved on an attic beam when we were 16 and 17. My sister and I weren’t sure whether we’d get into trouble for doing it, so we never told anyone. My eyes began to tear and I tried to not let it show. I glanced at my cousin, and noticed that her eyes were tearing up too.
Later when I was alone, I cried that my uncle had died, and that I would probably never visit Oksjärvi again. And if I did, it wouldn’t be the same. Olle had been my connection to the cottage; the cousins and their families spend their summers there now. It wasn’t mine in the same way anymore; ownership had changed to the other side of the family now, it was Pirkko’s kesämökki now, and I would only be a visitor, a guest.
Lahti, as I remembered it, had a certain quiet air about it on Sundays, especially in July when most Finns were out of town, on vacation, or at their summer cottages for the weekend. It was a Sunday afternoon when I went and walked around the neighborhood that was my home turf. The building that we had lived in, known as the “bank building,” had gotten a new coat of paint a few years earlier. I tried the front door, but it was locked. I longed to go inside the lobby just to look around, and up a flight of stairs to see the door of apartment #1 where we had lived, but it was not to be. I strolled along the street, slowly examining each shop window, looking for something familiar, wanting something to be the same. The toy store on the corner now sold shoes. The incline up Rautatienkatu wasn’t quite as steep as it was years ago. Somewhere along the street my grandparents, on my father’s side, had a gentlemen’s clothing store until they sold it and retired. I couldn’t pick it out for sure, several shops had similar storefronts and others had been remodeled. Visiting the old haunts, I felt the old haunts, in turn, were visiting me. Since I didn’t have plans until later in the day, I ambled up and down the streets I knew. As a child, I would have run into somebody familiar, a friend, and would probably have gone and played at the playground with them. But that Sunday, I didn’t run into anyone I knew.
I made my way up Rautatienkatu in the opposite direction, to see where my maternal grandmother, mamma, had lived. The building she lived in was gone, and in its place were modern townhouses. Nice actually, I thought, as I looked up at it, counting the stories and figuring approximately where my grandmother’s windows would have been. I could live there, I thought, and picked out a particular corner unit with a deck that would give me a good view of the city to the south, and the park to the north. I wondered what kind of prices they were going for. I walked into the yard area, and looked around for something recognizable, but everything was new. I tried to place where the lilac bushes had been. With their sweet fragrance, they announced spring’s arrival each year. I sat down on a bench and reminisced about what the place meant to me. I didn’t think anyone would mind if I did.
After a while, I crossed the street to the park where I’d played, and looked around for the area where the neighborhood kids had a wooden toboggan slide each winter. I remembered a particular time a bunch of us were on the slide. One kid fell from the top, and hurt his head. Many of us ran home in a panic to tell the adults that he didn’t get up right away and was bleeding.
But this was summertime, the same granite cobblestone steps were still in the park, so I walked up and down them, too.
Lakes are an integral part of the Finnish summer. Like at the Oksjärvi lake, the sun danced and shimmered on the water surface at lake Arkiomaa. It was the day before I was leaving for home, and my brother asked whether I’d taken a sauna or had been swimming in a lake yet. “No summer visit to Finland is complete without that,” he’d said. I stepped off the pier into the water slowly; the water was unusually warm, and I dove in and swam for a long time.
I heard familiar sounds in the distance, “Mommy, mommy, look at me, I’m going to jump!” followed by several splashes, giggles, and shouts of delight. “Did you see me? Watch me now!” Siblings barely able to wait their turns, playing, jumping off a pier and splashing in the water. The place was different but the sounds were the same, generation after generation. Kids playing, and adults keeping an eye. The sun’s rays warmed my face as I swam.
Nearby, a fish jumped in the water, probably a perch. My mamma used to clean and cook my grandfather Kurt’s catch. He had a net somewhere in Oksjärvi, sometimes he’d come back with a catch big enough for a couple of days, but not always. I had a fishing pole too, and Pirkko and mamma tried and tried to convince me that I could catch a fish just as well without a hook and a worm. I knew better, and wasn’t happy that I wasn’t old enough for a sharp hook. I have a photograph of myself, at about age four or five, with my aunt sitting at the end of the Oksjärvi pier. Both of us have our fishing poles, and my expression is skeptical at best about my fishing prospects. My uncle Olle took the photo. He and Pirkko had just recently gotten married, and he took a lot of pictures back then.
At Arkiomaa I swam for a long time, enjoying every moment, while sounds in the distance reminded me of the past. I’d set my camera down on the pier, and decided to go and set the self-timer, swim back out, and smile and wave to the camera until I heard a click and a whirr. I called to my brother and sister-in-law to join me in the water. My brother chuckled at the idea, but they both joined me nevertheless. We took several shots, each time I swam to set the timer, and back out quickly, all of us treading water, waving to the camera, and laughing.
The alarm was set for five a.m., and I sat up in bed pondering the few more hours left for sleep. Had I packed everything, forgotten anything? It was an eight a.m. flight back to California. I was looking forward to going home, but I did not want to leave Finland. I got up, remembering that there were blueberries in the refrigerator.
A native of Finland, Anita Erola has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since the age of 10. She travels back to Finland often, and can be found there when blueberries are ripe.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.