When I was at the farthest end of 21, I went to Finland with my mom. She was born there, and moved to America when she was a teenager. I’d been there once before with my family, when I was three. I only remember two things: sitting in a blow-up canoe in a living room playing with dolls, and wigging out when my aunt and uncle’s ugly old boxer dog, Pondi, pinned me on the kitchen floor. Now my mom and I were making a girls-only pilgrimage. We were there for six disorientingly bright weeks, right around midsummer, when the sun never abandons its post.
Traveling with your mother at 21 feels old-fashioned. It’s awkward and sweet and a little frustrating, like you’re going to a church luncheon for six weeks straight when what you most like to do at the moment is flash your driver’s license to bouncers and act nonchalant in bars, as though you’d been going to them for years.
We’ll fly on Scandinavian Airlines to Copenhagen, and then we’ll take a smaller plane to Helsinki, and then we’ll take a couple of trains to Savonlinna, where my Aunt Aune and Uncle Jorma will meet us.
On the flight from Seattle to Copenhagen, we order the vegetarian meals. When our trays are set down in front of us, it’s clear that vegetarianism has not made it to Scandinavia. In the biggest compartment of the tray, where the main course goes, there’s a bright white oval sponge. In the smaller compartment, where the side dish lives, there’s a tiny bunch of red grapes. People who’ve ordered the standard breakfast are eating croissandwiches stuffed with eggs and cheese. We’re not vegans. We could eat that. We feel jealous and sad. We taste our sponges. They don’t taste like anything. They taste like texture.
When we get to Helsinki, everything smells like apricots and freshly cut wood. We check into the Hotel Helka and fall asleep in our tiny room. When we wake up, it’s 4 o’clock, but here’s the trick about arriving in Finland in the summertime and waking up with jet lag; you have no idea which 4 o’clock it is, because it’s always light. And it’s rainy that day, so we can’t even try to hazard a guess from the sun’s angle. My mom and I bat theories back and forth about whether it’s early morning or late afternoon. We finally shower and get dressed and go down to the restaurant and see if we can pick up any clues. There’s a buffet in the dark little restaurant with platters of cheese, cheese, cheese, and some rye bread and some more cheese. Fuck if I have any new idea what time it is, but my mom announces confidently that this is breakfast.
We take the train to Savonlinna. Aune and Jorma pick us up and take us to their house, and then the six weeks quickly compact themselves into a routine that looks like this:
1) My mom and I wake up six inches from each other. We’re sharing a fold-out couch. It’s weird, but kind of nice. We grin at each other first thing every day, always surprised by our proximity.
2) We have breakfast. Our first breakfast, I should say. My aunt stuffs us with food all day long. Breakfast is always at 7:00. Rice porridge, rye pastries, cheese, bread, fruit. We noodle around the house for a couple of hours, planning the day, taking showers. By 10 am, my aunt figures that we’re probably starving and she makes a fresh batch of rice porridge, and though we’re not even remotely hungry, we eat big bowls of it with butter and cinnamon and sugar just because she went to the trouble.
3. We drive somewhere to see something. Aune always brings a bag of Fazer candy. This is the best hard candy in the world, because it’s not really hard. It’s slightly crispy on the outside, but then it gives way to a soft, oozy chewiness. There are fruit, coffee, chocolate, and some delicious mystery flavors. I gaze out the back seat windows at the birch trees passing by, my candy supply constantly replenished. Birches look to me like people who’ve had a spell cast on them to make them trees. The black markings on their trunks look like eyes and mouths. They seem romantic and sad, exiled into treedom. They’re my favorite tree in all the world, and Finland is blanketed with them. We sightsee or visit relatives, and stop for lunch and then for cake and pastries.
4. We come home and sit in the back yard and read novels, and I smoke cigarettes. My aunt and uncle smoke, so they don’t mind if I do, too, so my mom’s disapproval is overruled. There’s a porcupine that comes and visits the back yard every day. My aunt calls out in her somewhat broken English, “Porky pie!” I’m reading The Three Musketeers, and demolishing Camel after Camel. If it’s raining, I disappear into the RV parked in front of the house and sit at the tiny table painting watercolor after watercolor of birches that look and act like people. I paint a picture of a birch playing itself like a violin, and my aunt has it framed and hangs it on their wall.
5. Dinner is enormous. Then my aunt and uncle and mom watch Matlock in Finnish, while I read some more or listen to Elvis Costello or The Pretenders on my Walkman. When it’s bedtime, we pull thick window shades down to block that crazy, endless sun.
The days run into each other, maximally boring and very cozy. My mom and aunt and I sit at her dining room table, and they gossip in Finnish while I sit there, glazed. My mom is a neglectful translator. They’ll chatter on for a while, and then my mom will remember I’m there and throw me a non-sequitur bone - “Cabbage casserole of some sort.” “The Santa Claus was drunk.” - and I’ll muse on that for a while until the next nonsense phrase floats my way.
Once we go to some sort of picnic in a gazebo in the woods with a lot of other older Finnish people. We eat stew that’s filled with tiny fish that you’re supposed to eat whole. I crunch into one and gag wildly, my eyes watering, my mouth and throat filled with what feels like thousands of tiny, sharp bones. I’m having a full-blown fish bone crisis, and all the old Finns are staring at me while I choke and make inelegant noises for what feels like forever. Another time we go to a wedding, and I find out I have two distant male cousins about my age, and they’re impossibly good-looking and friendly. Antti-Jussi and Olli-Pekka. I have a wicked temporary crush on both of them, but nothing could be more pointless than sexual feelings at an afternoon wedding in Finland with your mom and aunt and uncle. Another time, my mom and I go to a gallery in Helsinki, where a Polish painter named Jan Jagielski is having a show. He’s there that day. His paintings are beautiful, all these wistful grey-green figures. The artist is also beautiful. He’s in his early 40’s, with shaggy dark hair and baggy, elegant clothing. My mom and I simultaneously fall in love with him, and she tells him that I’m an artist, too. He responds very warmly, and the two of us wander around the empty gallery together and he tells me all about his paintings. On the train back to the hotel, my mom and I fantasize about me marrying the artist. She considers the twenty-year age difference between us and dismisses it as an obstacle. “Papa was sixteen years older than Granny. And your dad is eight years older than I am. It doesn’t matter. He seemed smitten with you.” When I come back from Finland, I will buy a textbook and try to teach myself Polish.
On midsummer night we take a boat down through several connecting lakes to a cousin’s house in the woods. We stay up all night and eat cold cucumber soup and cloudberry cake, and I wander in the forest next to the lake. Everything is golden. Three a.m. sunshine is the most golden thing you’ve ever seen, especially bouncing off a lake onto birch trees. The sun goes down for about one minute, and then bounces right back up like it was just playing peekaboo.
We’re going to travel back to Seattle the day before I turn 22. The sun has just started to give way to a couple of hours of a night/evening hybrid, which feels disappointing. The sun is capitulating and I don’t want it to. I stay up the night before we leave, sitting in the window seat of our fancy Helsinki hotel, looking at the dark creeping at the edges of the sky. I’m going to be really glad to get home to see the proper moon and stars, and to pretend to be an adult and drink in bars again, but when I look over at my mom asleep in that big white fluffy bed, I feel a kick in my chest: the preliminary pang of separation.