Breakfast in Helsinki

At Hostel Mekka at 9:00 a.m., the sun had already been up for five hours. Summer solstice was only a week away, and this close to the Arctic circle, twilight merged with dawn in a near endless day. I had traveled from Minnesota to Finland to visit my 22-year-old son, Ryan, who was concluding a year of study abroad at the University of Helsinki. He now easily conversed in Finnish and blended in, having inherited his father’s Norwegian genes: tall, thin, red-haired and fair-skinned.

Years of exile from his life started before we could get the mother-son relationship down. He was not much beyond babyhood at the time of the divorce, so in an uncommon role-reversal, I was the breadwinner and his father was the primary caregiver. During our visitations, he was usually due home by bedtime so instead of reading him a story, I was telling him it was time to go, gently coaxing him out from under my bed, and quietly buckling him into his car seat for the drive across town. We never knew a favorite bedtime story worn-out from endless readings, nor a comfy, overstuffed chair where I might have learned of his dreams or fears.

Those difficult days and years seemed endless, yet suddenly it was all behind us and here we were, a couple of strangers spending many hours together, thousands of miles from home.

He greeted me at last outside Hostel Mekka’s iron gate. It was our last day together, so we planned to ride a ferry through Helsinki’s eastern archipelago to Porvoo, one of Finland’s oldest towns. We’d have lunch there, but that was several hours from now.

Ryan, a vegetarian, had been living in a land that subsisted almost entirely on mysterious fish stews and potato- and meat-filled pastries. We set off for the harbor, walking a few blocks to the Esplanade, a wide boulevard through the heart of Helsinki. The summer life of Finland took place entirely outdoors. The sidewalks were crowded with café tables, and filled with the most gorgeous people in Europe. They were all vibrating with good health, simply elegant as the artful Iittala vases and colorful Marimekko textiles on display in the shop windows along the Esplanade.

With the sidewalk cafés already crowded, Ryan suggested a place he knew at the open air market on the quay. I glanced at my watch and realized we’d be lucky to get him anything in the time we had before the ferry departed.

As we headed across the cobblestone intersection and made our way to the market, we had to duck from the aggressive gulls overhead. One gull snatched a pastry out of an unsuspecting tourist’s hand.

We came to the crêpe stand and found a table under striped tarp that offered some protection from the hungry gulls. Ryan ordered two crêpes from a beautiful teenage girl, and I handed over some Euros.

With a practiced hand, she ladled batter onto two griddles and quickly spread it over each hot surface. There was an art to determining the correct amount of batter to create the wafer thin pancake and then turning the fragile crêpe at just the right time.

Everywhere I turned I saw an endless supply of examples proving my own inferiority – my son who’d grown up tall, articulate and at ease, even when thousands of miles from home. Nothing proved me more a failure as a mother than his ability to thrive without any effort on my part. I’d functioned as helplessly as a ghost limb in his life and now I was left with nothing but pain sensations in a missing part of myself.

While we waited for our crêpes, I looked across to the quay’s edge and noticed a small crowd gathering and pointing down. One woman shouted in our direction to another onlooker.

I walked to the quay’s edge. In the water, a songbird thrashed. A small boat crept quietly up, its engine silent, the driver attempting to maneuver close enough to scoop the creature out with an oar. As I was doubly useless—non-Finnish speaking and netless—I returned to my son.

I glanced again in the direction of the crowd and then looked beyond it along the huge wharf of the Port of Helsinki to the cruise ship terminals. Here, cruise ships from all parts of Europe and beyond stopped on their way to and from places like Talinn, Estonia; Stockholm, Sweden and other ports along the Baltic and Atlantic, even St. Petersburg, Russia.

The crêpe-maker was placing golden-yellow cloudberries onto our crêpes. With a deft move, she folded them. I tasted the warm crêpe, still caught up in the drama a few feet away on the dock. I decided the bird was a baby, left too close to the edge of the water and abandoned by its parent. It floundered.

The cloudberries, fresh and seedy, tempered the sweetness of the thin pancake with a melding of flavors I didn’t quite recognize at first. They captured the essence of the northern summer, combining the flavors of honey, oranges and raisins. Tangy and lightly fermented, it expressed the fleeting lushness of a Finnish summer. It satisfied a craving I didn’t realize I had, so I relaxed for a moment and savored it.

When it was time, we made our way through the market to board the ferry. In moments, we were making our way through the busy seaport and out to the Finnish coastline, which bears a striking resemblance to the rocky ore-rich shoreline of Lake Superior in Minnesota. No wonder the Finns settled there when they came to the United States. The familiar piney landscape dotted with lakes must have been a comfort to them then, a vision of what they’d left behind, just as the sight of the Finnish coastline, passing behind my son, comforted me now.

Ryan stretched out his long frame and leaned back against the railing, his short red hair ruffling in the sea breeze, and closed his eyes for a nap. As he slept, I was free to examine him more closely. Clouds passed overhead and cast shadows that transformed his face into versions I recognized in that traveler’s photo album of my memory. In the flickering light, I saw flashes of the baby, toddler and boy he had been and the adult he now was. And then it came to me. Our relationship has most often been experienced in journeying with each other, just like now: sitting across from each other on hard ferry benches with the unusual taste of fresh cloudberry crêpes on our tongues.

I leaned against the cabin wall. For the remainder of the journey I drifted in and out of sleep, certain that the bird we’d seen earlier had by now been rescued, reunited with its wayward parent.

About the author

Susan Koefod's essays and poems have appeared in anthologies and literary magazines such as Midway Journal, Minnetonka Review, Snakeskin, The Talking Stick, and Tattoo…

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Issue 05 · June 2009

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