I traveled to Helsinki for the first time several Novembers ago. It probably won’t surprise anyone when I report that Helsinki in November was brutally cold with a wind that whipped across the half-frozen harbor, that the sun didn’t rise until midmorning and quickly set by early afternoon, or that it snowed part of every day.
I wandered around the city’s snowy, quiet streets without purpose, following signs I could not read. I haggled with a Russian fur vendor over a muskrat hat in the market square. I drank coffee while sitting on boxes inside a tent near the fish vendors. I whiled away a dark afternoon at a tiny table in Café Engel, looking out across the stark Senate Square, warmed by sun lamps that the barista told me had been set up to counteract “the winter blahs.” I ate reindeer served with cloudberries and lingonberries, dropped markkas into the cup of a blind accordion player, and listened to people ice- skating in the park across the street as I lay in my hotel bed.
The trip seems rather uneventful in the retelling, I know. And it surprises me a little to say that this trip has become a meaningful part of my personal history — more than I ever could have imagined when I bought my plane ticket. The reason has as much, or more, to do with context as with the destination.
If you remember back to the mid- to late 1990s, you may recall those years as the zenith of America’s sudden, red-hot love affair with gourmet coffee and its accouterments. It also happened to be the zenith for a certain genre of niche, connoisseur magazine. During those years, I wrote for — and later improbably became the editor of — an attractively designed magazine called Coffee Journal, which covered what it termed the “coffee and tea lifestyle.” The magazine dutifully tasted and compared coffee roasts, reviewed the newest espresso machines and grinders, provided biscotti recipes, and profiled cafés all over the world. Travel was a major part of this so-called coffee and tea lifestyle, and I wrote stories about visiting coffee farms in Nicaragua and Haiti, as well as an article entitled “The Best Coffeehouses Coast to Coast.” By the time I took the reins, the magazine’s demise was imminent. America’s love affair with gourmet coffee had cooled considerably.
Following an argument with the publisher over whether our next issue’s cover would be a photo of a coffee mug with doughnuts or simply a photo of a solitary coffee mug, I decided to assign myself a travel story on the coffeehouse culture of Helsinki. The clever Coffee Journal angle for this travel article, I am embarrassed to admit, would go as follows: A widely circulated statistic asserted that nine cups of coffee was what the average Finn drank each day, the highest per capita consumption in the world. Taking that bit of information as my cue, I would sit in Helsinki’s finest cafés, drink nine cups of coffee each day just like the Finns, make notes on the interiors of cafés and those sitting in cafés, and soak up just enough local color on which to hang an itinerary our readers could clip out and follow. It was basically the type of story one writes for a connoisseur magazine that has long ago exhausted its niche. Come to think of it, it’s exactly the type of thin, slave-to-the-angle story I read in abundance over the course of the year while searching for quality travel stories for this anthology. I might add that it’s the type of story that rarely, if ever, gets selected.
Well, I made my Finnair reservations, and two days later Coffee Journal ceased publication. I was now unemployed, but since it was November and flights were as cheap as they would ever be, I decided to fly to Helsinki anyway. Free of artifice or gimmick or even the need to do any particular sightseeing at all, I chose to wander in the cold and do just about nothing that would be of interest to the average travel editor.
I met a number of Finns who were tremendously amused that I had come to visit their city in November, a month that the Finns consider to be the worst and most unpopular time of year. So amused was one man, a journalist, that he wrote a story about my visit and published it in the Helsingin Sanomat, the nation’s largest daily newspaper, under the headline “Silence of November as a Souvenir.” The journalist quoted me as saying, “I enjoyed the silence when walking the streets.” Instead of my writing a travel story, one was written about me.
That newspaper clipping in its original Finnish hangs on my bulletin board. When I look at the article, it does indeed make me think of the strange, silent beauty of Helsinki’s streets that I enjoyed, and of the snow- coated gargoyles and statues, including the two giant stone men wwho hold ball-shaped lights in front of the railway station. But soon enough, I find myself thinking of being unemployed, of how worrrrrried I was that I had made bad decisions, of loneliness and melancholy, and of how callow and absurd my thinking often tends to be. Now that some time has passed, I find that Helsinki also marks the end of things — things such as the end of my twenties, and in many ways the end of the 1990s too.
“I found that what I remembered, what seemed to transcend topic, and what affected me were not only essays with a grounded sense of place, but ones written in a highly personal voice,” writes Frances Mayes in explanation of why she has chosen the twenty-six pieces that make up this year’s anthology.
I couldn’t agree with her more. We all know it’s impossible to separate honest personal experience from the place at hand. Life happens even when we’re in a new place, far away from home. That’s why it always baffles me when writers and magazine editors try to pretend otherwise.
My friend Maggie recently showed me a postcard she’d received from her seventy-year-old mother-in-law, sent from Colonial Williamsburg. The photo was a typical scene of docents in period costume riding in a horse- drawn carriage. The caption on the back read, “A gentle mist and autumn shades of yellow, orange, and red provide the backdrop for this splendid carriage that conveys passengers around Palace Green.” Pretty banal stuff. But then I looked at the hand-scrawled personal note:
Dear D — s, We have had light rain — no carriage ride this year. Edgar and I have played tourist and enjoyed the history and each other’s company.
Dad has gotten herpes zoster back (10 years since) and in his ears?!!!! Went to a “doc in the box” for treatment. Better already.
Driving home today.
While I felt sorry and chagrined for Edgar, Maggie roared with laughter at the thought of her prim and proper mother-in-law scribbling this note. Clearly this postcard, and this otherwise straightforward trip to Williamsburg, had already become part of her family’s comic shared history.
Some other friends, Dave and Andrea, just returned from a trip to Vietnam, where they went to adopt a beautiful four-month-old girl. I watched their travel videos, with some great scenes capturing the hustle and bustle of Saigon, including some fabulous footage of Dave getting a haircut by a street barber as deafening motorbikes careen by. Of course, everything else on the video is overwhelmed by the dramatic footage shot inside the Saigon orphanage, where expectant parents from the United States wait for Vietnamese nurses to bring out their babies. This was a human moment that certainly transcended the destination. Even in amateur format, the expressions and reacti...