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Escape from Helsinki

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

Update: A week after these events, the author left Finland himself, and is happily at home with his quarantined spouse.

My Aunt and Mother in Front of Kirsti's Family Home

It all starts with Karkku. Karkku is the place where the woman standing next to my mother grew up. Kirsti is my father’s half brother’s wife (try to keep up). Her grandfather was a schoolteacher in Karkku during the Finnish Civil War of 1918-20, where Karkku was on the front line between the landowners (the Whites) and the workers (the Reds). The Civil War is a lost story in Finland, as it is for Ireland during a similar period: nobody will talk about it. President Kekkonen famously said that his only regret during his long life was sending three Red Finns to their death; Kirsti said that her grandfather felt the same terrible weight of that war. After retiring, he built this house within sight of the school (you can still see it from the rocking chair in the kitchen), and passed it on to his son, a distinguished professor of Finnish language and literature, who passed it on to his daughter, who invited us there for lunch.

Amazingly, my mother and my wife both came to Finland to come to lunch at Karkku on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. My mother comes from sturdy British stock, and my wife grew up on a farm in upstate Ohio, so there's nothing they're afraid of. "As long as the planes are flying," said my mother memorably when I wrote to her to see if she was still coming, "we will be there." After a trip to Iceland to swim in geothermal springs at 8 in the morning (these are two amazing women), they arrived in Tampere ready for anything. And that is what they got.

Escape from Helsinki 2020

On Wednesday March 11 they were met by Kirsti and my uncle Jonathan in the morning and taken to two museums, one very high-end (an art collection belonging to Sara Hilden) and one delightfully low (the Moomin Museum). For those of you who don't know what Moomins are, they were created by Tove Jansson, who lived in Helsinki and wrote some beautiful books for adults as well (The Summer Book and The Winter Book are particularly recommended). Finn Family Moomintroll was launched in the 1960s and became a thing. My uncle can tell you the story of every drawing. Here's one I colored myself:

Map of Moominland

I think they spent the entire day there, because I taught 4 classes that day and they still hadn't finished. I took them home to my humble abode in the workers' cottages and fed them pasta, which they apparently liked. (High marks for Villa Antinori, a Tuscan white from 2018, which goes well with chicken and pasta.) I put them to sleep over a Powerpoint lecture that I was planning for the next day, on the botany of the North Wessex Downs and its connections with Watership Down. (It's actually really interesting - go here and click on "The Way to Efrafa" to look it up.)

It is now Thursday, the 12th of March. I knew something was up when Janette called from the bedroom downstairs: "Seb. Come down." She had received 12 messages during the night, all related to our short-term President declaring nonsensical things about the 26 countries in the Schengen area of Europe. My brother's wife Romi had alerted my brother Tim who had alerted my brother Jay who had alerted my daughter Sophie who hacked into the British Airways database to find the last remaining tickets to the Eastern Seaboard and by the time I had woken up we had tickets ready to go. Sophie is now a family legend. The next few minutes were instructive: it turns out that in an emergency Janette's first instinct is to reach for the hairdryer, while mine is to reach for the bread bin and make sandwiches. 10 minutes later we were in a snowstorm waiting for a bus to take us to Janey's hotel, where we all bundled into a taxi and drove for 90 minutes straight to Helsinki Airport. Janette has left me two different kinds of hair mousse, which I don't think I can find a use for. She also left the shower on the freezing cold setting, for which I will eventually forgive her.

Since Sophie had purchased the kind of tickets that I never get - fully changeable, fully refundable - we were able to get the two of them off on an earlier flight on Finnair so their layover in Heathrow wasn't a mad dash across Terminal 3. Landing in JFK, Jay had found them hotel rooms in the Airport Hilton, and had arranged for separate flights the next morning to Boston and Columbus for the two intrepid fugitives from Fortress Europe. Janey was met by granddaughter Ali, daughter-in-law Christina, and her ecstatic dog Daisy, and Janette happily put herself into 14 days of self-quarantine, which she is apparently enjoying immensely.

It was a wonderful trip, and it is greatly to be regretted that the two days planned for Helsinki had to be called off. There was an exhibition of the work of Natalia Gonchorova - an artist Janette was actually planning to teach before everything went belly-up - which movingly reunited her work from its two locations in Paris (the Pompidou) and Moscow (the Tretyakov State Gallery). That exhibition is going to Tate Modern after Helsinki: if you are in London, and if there are still art galleries, see it. Here's a picture of Gonchorova at age 26 in traditional costume:

That was a lovely show. Here are some pictures of the two days they missed.

Fan and Kirsti in front of Axseli Gallen-Kallela's Studio
Meatpies at the Kauppahalli (Market Place)
The Marimekko Factory (Good Thing It Was Just Me)

Now the University of Tampere has closed, and even the public library has shut. This is a pity, because I was just going to see if I could pick up the 2nd season of The Man in the High Castle. Instead I'm stuck with the books and videos in my apartment here - the owner has the complete series of The New Adventures of Lois and Clark, with a final disc missing. I have my pride - it'll take more than a pandemic to get me to watch that. Time to play some Shostakovich...

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