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Seeing and Believing in Helsinki

I enjoy being invisible in a new place. It helps me adjust to unfamiliar customs. It prevents me from seeming like a neophyte while I reconnoiter the roads. It keeps me safe. Sometimes, though, going unnoticed works to my disadvantage. I was in line at a cafeteria style restaurant in Helsinki, Finland. It was lunchtime and the spacious hall was crowded with avid customers. I was hungry. I waited in line for a slice of pizza because it had the shortest queue. A tall drooping man transfixed by his smartphone cut me off to stand in front. I did not say anything. He received his food and clomped away. Even though I was next, the serving lady spun to the cross-armed woman behind me and asked her what she wanted. They exchanged pleasantries along with a slab of sausage and cheese. When the purchaser departed, the attendant turned to disappear into a back room. I was left to stare at a glass display of fifteen pies. I waited. A few patrons came to scan the goodies then, seeing no one at the counter, went away. I lingered alone once more, pacing in hopes someone would come out of the rear. A harried office worker laden with shopping bags arrived. We nodded at one another, ogled the pizzas. No one materialized to assist us. The business suit huffed, walking away while muttering. I followed. It was a trivial setback, yet I was deflated.   

Outdoors the wind chilled my ears. The sky was a sheet of lead. The red-tiled theater sneered. The clock tower of the railway station mocked me with its ersatz chimes. Drizzle started. The streets grew slick under my rubber soles. Umbrellas popped open around me, spraying droplets into my face. I huddled into my collar, my stomach growling. I ducked into a gloomy doorway for shelter. Through the opaque windows I caught a peep at white tablecloths. Heaving the ornate metal door, I stepped into a dim chamber of leather chairs and flickering chandeliers. The pinging of cutlery echoed against the walls. The diners looked macabre in the chiaroscuro. The waiters floated by with wooden expressions and dead eyes. I hastened out before anyone could confront me.

Back in the rain, I felt all of Helsinki was cold and unfriendly towards me. My invisibility cloak — which I had so proudly worn — now isolated me from the store-lined avenues, the dripping rowans, the scurrying pedestrians. The day was marred. Curiosity to explore abandoned me. I wanted to board the next train out of this unwelcoming capital. I longed to return to my hotel, but hunger kept me moving. Exiting from a soggy park occupied by circling pigeons who I sensed were readying to ambush me, I encountered a sedate summer-house. From its elegant paned glass siding streamed golden beams. The downpour stylishly cascading down its casements. I lurched up the porticoed stairs, through the open entrance, in a daze.

“Good afternoon,” the hostess said, smiling cheerfully, “a table for one?” I nodded. Light filled the interior despite the gray weather. Couples murmured at each other, friends laughed and clinked water goblets, a baby gurgled with pleasure. “I hope the wet conditions have not dampened things too much for you?” she asked as she led me through a maze of narrow aisles towards an alcove. Knotted into an unhappy mess, I managed a tight smile at her. We passed a mirror and it reflected me grimacing. “The waiter will be right with you,” she said, handing me a menu. I tossed it on my plate, flung off my wet coat, and exhaled into my seat. A wave of heat wafted from above. The aroma of baking drifted my way. I leaned back in my velveteen chair, sighing. I began to notice details again. A potted palm posed demurely adjacent to the large sashed aperture in my corner. I picked up the menu. While deciding between baltic herring or fruit soup, my server popped up. He laid a bread basket in front of me.

“Good afternoon,” he said in a soothing voice, “would you care to start off with a cup of hot coffee?”

“Yes, please!”

“Very good. Let me quickly refer you to our special today, the reindeer stew. Do you have any questions?”

“I was wondering about this fruit soup?”

“Yes, that is a cold soup of blueberries and arrowroot. We also have a toasty vegetable soup you might enjoy more today.”

“That sounds better. I’ll have that and the herring please.”

“Excellent choice.” As he left a second waiter arrived with a steaming pot.

“Coffee?” I agreed eagerly and watched him pouring the amber liquid into my cup. I drank several sips, allowing the beverage to warm me. The outer pane was spattered with drops in a picturesque pattern. A thin draft whistled through the sill, but it no longer seeped into me. I relaxed. The exterior scene appeared cozy. As I progressed through my meal my good humor surfaced.

When I exited the restaurant the Helsinki sky was limpid blue. The green domed cathedral called to me from its dizzying heights. The alleys gleamed with anticipation. The droopy park I had traversed was alive with bird chatter. The boutique fronts had transformed from spartan to chic. Each crooked curve revealed a quirky beauty: a moss-covered vehicle, cartoon hippopotami clambering brick facades, delicate curlicue of adorned lamp posts. The city was sprouting color. There is an adage that says, “Seeing is believing.” I began to understand in Helsinki how believing could also warp into seeing. A single disagreeable incident had tainted my perspective, turned me hostile to an entire destination.The more obstacles thrown my way, the more I was convinced this trip was a mistake. Evidence stacked up as if it were scientific proof. In my angst, I failed to distinguish between reality and my impressions.

As I was slogging through Helsinki after the vexing episode at the pizza depot, a question kept looping through my head: “Why?” It had pursued me as I replayed the event, first to critique my actions, then to blame the attendant. I rearranged the scenario, dissected it, parsed it for clues as to what I could have done differently. Wandering the leafy neighborhoods under a sunnier ambience I realized the reasons did not matter. What I should have been examining was my internal response. This is, after all, what determined my subsequent judgement of the city and my attitude. How I react to the slings of adversity, large or small, impacts my view of the world; it shapes me as a person; it guides my future behavior. Though I do not want it to influence me, others’ directives often determine how I conduct myself. Helsinki has taught me to always check: how do I wish to be influenced by a particular situation? As a traveler, as a storyteller, and a participant of digital media it is imperative I continue to question what I see and what I believe.


TRAVEL NOTE:

How design improves society is of great consequence to Finnish culture. The art of constructing everyday, timeless, functional structures with care towards its beauty, singularity, and usability is crucial to Helsinki’s layout. Finlandia Hall, built by the renowned architect Alvar Aalto, features an optical deception you have to see to believe: viewing the venue from the eastern shore of Töölö bay it appears as if Finlandia Hall is joined on one side to the National Museum’s tower. In actuality the museum resides across the street.


What do you do when circumstances or people sour your travels? How do you rebound from an unpleasant experience? 

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119 replies »

  1. I had a similar experience in Amsterdam–entering a shop with a huge German shepherd by the door, which I assumed must be friendly, or why would it be there? until it leaped up and started barking fiercely at me. A woman ran out of the back room and shooed me out as I tried to ask directions to the Van Gogh Museum (not exactly an obscure locale). It was cold and rainy, I had a cold, and the bathtub in my hotel room (which I taken because I was looking forward to an antidotal long soak) was so diminutive, I had to sit with my knees under my chin. But I found the Van Gogh Museum, and the art was to say the least restorative. And my brief chat with a kindly museum guard reminded me that in any city you visit, you will meet those who are angry and hostile and those who are friendly and hospitable. I’m glad your trip to Helsinki reminded you of that, too.

    • Thank you so very much for relaying your own similar travel experience. They’re such small, unimportant things aren’t they — rain, a fierce dog, a tone of voice — but affect me equally as much in an unfamiliar place. I was thinking the other day about how much a stranger’s smile can shift the focus of my mood; even more so being able to connect with another human for a few brief minutes.

  2. I really appreciated this post. The same thing has happened to me on more than one occasion. I sometimes feel that middle-aged women become invisible and hate it when an incident like this reaffirms that idea. I usually don’t mind either, but there are times when it seems insulting; when I wonder why servers or cashiers don’t see me. There are times, like you, that I’ve left a place feeling miffed. And, like you, I easily jump to the conclusion that it is an unfriendly place. There is always another encounter that rectifies the situation. If I can just be patient.

    • I’m delighted my experience spoke to you. I’m sure men have also felt the same in situations, but it is fascinating to reflect on the fact that when this happens to some of us, we tend to wonder what it is about ourselves that caused the incident.

  3. The way in which you tell your travel stories is so empathetic that we sympathize with it as if we were there ourselves 🙂 What at first seemed like a non-heartwarming welcome, still ended up nice and heart-warming! Helsinki has a beautiful architecture and looks great to be there! But before we start our trip / journey, first we make sure we are well rested and our stomach is filled 🙂 😉 Thank you for sharing your story and beautiful images with us!
    Best regards, Heidi

    • I am extremely flattered by your marvelous praise Heidi! The Scandinavian countries do have some wonderful architecture so they are great places for those of us who love to look at buildings. Great advice about starting out journeys rested and with full stomachs — better adventures are had that way.

  4. Oh my, I like to travel that way as well and would have been utterly disappointed by events at the pizza shop. What if you had formed a line elsewhere and eaten what the natives were? Helsinki has long been on my bucket list so your observations made me keen to pursue a trip there soon. Gray skies make for gray personalities I think. I learned to despise umbrellas during my studies in Heidelberg. They turned inside out and were rendered useless. Instead, I purchase coats and jackets with hoods which I can simply pull up. Did you encounter smorgasbords in Helsinki? The ones I had in Norway were outstanding with a variety of fresh vegetables and fish to choose from. Your descriptions as you travel are succinct and lovely as if I were actually there on the journey. Thank you.

    • Your lovely praise fills me with gratitude. I’m sure if I had not allowed the situation to take hold of my emotions and insecurities I could have had a lovelier meal sooner! I never had a smorgasbord in Helsinki, but I’m looking forward to trying one out in another Scandinavian country. Hopefully it will be delicious.

      • Well deserved praise I might add. Next time you travel to Scandinavia, try a smorgasbord. I never saw such magnificent huge fresh mushrooms which were very tasty with the fish and vegetables. Guten Appetit!

  5. “How do I wish to be influenced by a particular situation?” – Here’s one of those instances where having a little age and experience helps, doesn’t it? Your experience sounds familiar; I’ve watched myself react to things and color the whole day, or the place, with a brush full of black paint. Instead of the usual travel writing, describing everything that you’ve seen and heard, etc., you delved inside and described how your emotional reactions colored your experience, and what you learned from that. I think that’s brilliant travel writing! 😉

  6. I can totally relate to this post. I’ve been in your shoes more than once. I enjoy being invisible in new places. It helps me observe and ruminate in peace. However, people tend to leave ‘invisible’ people alone. And sometimes that can get to you. 🙂 And the same place can look different. Your narrative and pictures truly complement each other and take me with you to the places I wish I’d been too! 🙂

    • ☺️ Thank you for those sweet words. Though I couldn’t foresee it, the lovely thing about sharing my travel stories has been connecting in meaningful ways with kindred spirits I would never otherwise get to know in my ‘invisible’ state. 🤗

  7. ooh herring… yum. As this post started out I was nodding my head, as I too like being anonymous in a place and in fact it is one of the reasons I enjoy traveling. However, I can see how it can also work against you…. haha. Beautiful photos and descriptions, as always.

    Peta

  8. I remember feeling a similar level of frustration and anxiety when I got lost at the Shibuya train station on a trip to Tokyo in September. Even though I could speak Japanese, I didn’t realise the ticket machine didn’t accept one-yen coins and in my desperation scrambled to the station staff for what I later felt was a rather silly mistake. Pausing and reflecting on how you’re going to react to a situation can be a very small, but powerful lesson indeed.

    • As you say, “Pausing and reflecting on how you’re going to react to a situation can be a very small, but powerful lesson indeed.” So often, in the throes of panicked embarrassment I forget to take the time to pause. Still learning….

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