Friday, February 22, 2008

July 2006: Paluu Suomeen (Return to Finland)

Finnish birch barkAt about 2:00 AM, On June 22, 1986 I finally decided it was time for bed. I told my companion, Paul Lemon, that I was heading to the tent on the other side of the island. He was ready for bed too, so we walked together through the pine trees—our footsteps muffled by a thick carpet of pine needles.

It was Juhannus or Summer Solstice.

Finland forest raspberriesIt had been quite a day. I’ll always be grateful to that bunch of mischievous missionaries who told me that swimming while on a mission in Finland wasn’t against the rules. The depth of my naiveté was only matched by the exhilaration of running full speed down the dock and leaping, arrow-like—fingers stretching toward the distant shore—weightless—then crashing into the Finland summer cottagewarm waters of Lake Saimaa. Run, dive, repeat. For hours. Never to be forgotten.

Our friends from the Lappeenranta ward built a grand bonfire on the beach and we roasted makkaroita and nakkeja (sausages). Group games followed. Smiles, laughter, birch smoke, the lap of the water at the shore, warm breezes, the smell of the pine and mountain ash, the snap from a bite into a flawlessly roasted nakki.


So, that night, as Paul crawled into our tent, I lingered a moment on the north shore.

Finland lily padsBetween the water and me were a few great pines—their bows reaching out over the shore. A warm breeze was gently blowing in off the lake. The midnight sun was just below the horizon—the moment caught like a held breath in golden twilight. It was a moment that would take me years to adequately describe.

A time of true awakenings,
A land so new and clean,
I thought myself in heaven then;
The seasons spoke to me.

Finland forest barley fieldThey spoke of firm devotion
That flowed from Father’s hand
When He created nature’s grace To show His heart to man.

I saw His crystal waters
Reflect the changing moods
Of clear, blue sky and gentle winds,
And still and sacred woods.

I stood ‘neath tall cathedral pines
And watched a midnight sun
Send clarifying beams of light,
And God and I were one.

He rolled a waking breeze
‘Cross water’s sparkling glow
To find me, waiting, at lake’s edge,
And fill my wondering soul.

Finland birch treesSurrounded by His craftsmanship
I felt His majesty;
Was lifted from the lowly world
To a place where I could see.

Oh Lord, wilt thou send gentle winds
To wake me when I sleep?
And recollect those beams of light,
This memory to keep.

A year and a half later when I finally left Finland after two years of loving it, I wondered if I would ever go back.

I’m convinced that the Lord wants us to remember those extraordinary times in our lives—and if we need a little reminder…he’ll provide a way.

Stockholm town squareSo in July 2006 I found myself cramped in a Delta jet, Lori at my side, winging across the Atlantic.

We had decided that we wanted a grand entrance into Finland—so we flew to Sweden first—intending to enter Finland by ship.

But not before we spent a few days in Stockholm….

Stockholm alleyThe moment we could see Sweden from the air, I felt like I was just a step or two away from my second home—the land of the Finns. But the chance to explore Sweden’s capital city for a few days was an adventure that was hardly second best.

Our destination was Gamla Stan (Old Town). Gamla Stan is a warren of beautiful old buildings built in the North German style dating back to the 13th century. Think cobbled streets, and rows upon rows of brightly-colored buildings in shades of mustard, sage, and ochre. Gamla Stan is really an island—surrounded by other islands—so water is around every corner. And the Swedes make good use of it—with beautiful bridges, parks, boats, and great steps built everywhere—inviting you to go slow, sit, and people-watch.

Stockholm blue skyWhen you plan an extensive trip, book hotels and plan excursions—far ahead of the time that you actually go—all you can do is a lot of research…then cross your fingers, hoping you chose wisely. Bingo on the Hotel Rica.

Charming, old…and it has one of those “lifts” with a door that opens on hinges. You cram yourself into it—then keep your fingers clear as the building’s walls literally brush past you as you head to third floor….

Finnish dessertAnd a breakfast of all breakfasts…. Had we known what the breakfast would be like, Lori and I would have fasted for a day or two before eating. Pastries, breads, cheeses, cereals, fruits, eggs, meats (even Swedish meatballs!), casseroles, fish, pancakes, crepes…all set out like a vast pirate’s treasure. Where to begin?

Gamla Stan is best seen by two feet, bicycles, and boats—all of which we did from sun up to sun down.

Silja Line bowDefinitely worth the stop.

After two days in Sweden it was time to board a Silja Line ship to Finland.

As a missionary in Helsinki I used to see those big Silja Line and Viking Line ships ford their way in and out of the Helsinki harbor. I pictured carefree people relaxing, eating, watching the stars and seeing the beauty of Ahvenanmaa’s islands crawling by…and I just wanted to do that someday….

Silja Line bowSo Lori and I boarded the first truly big boat we’ve ever been on and began the slow push to Turku.

But the Silja Line wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Far from having any romance, it struck me as “Vegas on the Water”. Sorry my Finnish and Swedish friends…but it was…how shall I say it…kinda tacky. Worn carpets, the smell of cigarettes—a little loud and obnoxious. Basically it was a floating duty-free shop. Even the famed smorgasbord was good-but-not-great.

Sweden cottage islandBut who can argue with the fresh breeze, sights, and sounds of a huge open bow? I don’t know who owns all those charming houses on the shores of Sweden—but I want to be their friend.

It was a day cruise, so we sat on the upper deck and read—and watched the beauty of Ahvenanmaa’s islands crawl by. That part at least was exactly how I pictured it twenty years before….

Missionary MormonIt’s hard to describe what it feels like when you first see the land of your mission after an absence of twenty years. The Turku harbor was more industrial-looking than idyllic, but still…this was my Finland. A flood of memories infused me. Nothing gave me more pride than to take Lori’s hand and say, “This is it.”

To me, the gangplank was a red carpet.

The next morning, as Lori slept in, I wandered down to the tori (open market). It was time to flex my long-inactive Finnish-language muscles. Three months prior to our trip I got serious about reviewing that complex Finno-Ugric tongue, and after doing a few warm-ups under my breath I let it loose with a grand plop. Or stutter. Or stammer. Or tuota noin niin.

Finland open market toriActually I did okay.

I chatted it up with farmers and bakers and blonde-headed girls selling munkkeja (donuts).

As long as they stuck to everyday stuff and didn’t stray into astrophysics I was good.

And nothing gives a former missionary more personal satisfaction than dusting off his old language skills and making himself understood. Inside I was all woo-hoo!—outside I was all this-is-quite-normal-for-me-to-be-speaking-your-complex-tongue cool.

Later in the morning after strolling around downtown Turku we decided to hop on a bus to Naantali. Frankly, I don’t remember having ever heard of Naantali when I was a missionary in Finland. As the Naantali website states: “History, music, the visual arts, Villa Kultaranta and Moomin World.... Everyone will find something to see and experience.” I’m not any sort of Moomin fan, but we could see that Naantali was some sort of destination for Finns—so we wanted to see it too.

What we found was an attractive, quaint little village built around a charming harbor on the Baltic Sea. Colorful artists’ shops, a nice little boardwalk lined with restaurants, yachts at the docks—all capped by a fine medieval church. We browsed the shops, listened to street musicians, ate a delicious meal of salmon at an open-air restaurant, and took a nap on the lawn of the Luostarikirkko (Convent Church).

All ‘n’ all, a beautiful day.

The next morning my parents picked us up by car in Turku. My father and mother had been coordinating the construction of the Helsinki Temple (in Espoo). As missionaries they had been in Finland for a year and a half acting as liaisons between the Church and the temple construction company.

Before arriving at their apartment in Espoo, I asked if we could swing by the mission office in Helsinki. As we circled Kaivopuisto (Well Park), I found myself knowing what I would see around the next bend. This had been my home during the last six months of my mission. Another flood of memories filled me as we walked up the steps and opened the front door of the mission office. Not much had changed—the desk that countless other missionaries and I had used was still there. Twenty years felt like yesterday.

Then it was a short drive to my parents’ apartment. What’s a mom to do when her son and his wife come calling from halfway around the world? Nothing says “welcome home” like a delicious mom-cooked meal. So it was makkara soppaa (sausage soup), open-faced sandwiches, and a little kiisseli (fruit pudding) for dessert. Afterwards, Dad, Lori, and I walked a quarter mile to the temple site.

I was a little surprised that a lumber yard was so close to the north edge of the temple property, but there was no denying the beauty of the House of the Lord. Dad gave us the “engineer’s tour” starting in the basement with the heating system (yawn…), but things got interesting pretty quickly when we turned a corner and saw 12 white oxen standing in a row—ready to be placed under the baptismal font.

The finish work in the temple was superb and the “engineer’s tour” was actually quite fascinating—one highlight was climbing to the large, storage room in the rafters by means of a maintenance staircase. Dad and Mom actually held a little pikku joulu (Christmas) party for some of the construction workers in that room during the previous Christmas season.

It was amazing for me to see a temple in Finland. Standing in the shadow of its shining granite—and understanding how long the Finnish members and missionaries had worked to have their own temple was an indescribable experience. I felt like, as a missionary, I had played a small part in it all.

The next morning my dad dropped us off near the Helsinki tori (open market). I wondered how Helsinki would compare to Stockholm. I’ve heard for years that Stockholm is a somewhat superior city. We actually found Helsinki to be a much more fun, “happening”, and energetic place than Stockholm. Crowds of people walked the streets—shopping, listening to street musicians, enjoying the sunshine, and being part of the “crush”. There were ice cream stands on every corner (Mmmmmm…) and row upon row of good things to eat at the tori.

We spent the day exploring, shopping, and eating.

The next day we explored some more—but this time on rented bikes. We bicycled around the famous Kaivopuisto and searched for the perfect korvapuusti (cinnamon roll).

We had scheduled a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia—so the next day we boarded a hydrofoil, crossed the Gulf of Finland in 1.5 hours, and soon found ourselves in the parking lot of the port wondering how to get to Old Town. We could just see it about a half mile away—but there seemed to be no logical way of getting there except by traversing across multiple parking lots, patches of lawns, and several streets—none of which seemed to be heading in that direction. We were somewhat spooked to see several signs indicating that the area was infamous for purse snatchings and muggings. We felt like we had flashing signs on our heads that said EASY TARGETS. But, we arrived at Old Town without incident.

Unknowingly, we began walking in Old Town around the northern periphery—which just happened to be completely devoid of any people. For a half hour we wondered if we had stepped through a time-bending wormhole into Old Tallinn after the black plague. Not a soul was around. Then, we guessed (correctly) that most people would be at the town’s center—and quickly found hordes of people enjoying the medieval central square. There was something fascinating around every corner. We climbed stairs, ruins, clock towers and fortifications for hours.

A highlight of our day was descending into the subterranean depths of old Tallinn to eat at Vanaema Juures (Grandma’s Place). Delicious Estonian fare. And well worth the stop.

That night it was back to Helsinki by hydrofoil—then an early morning wakeup to rent a car in Helsinki. We were headed east toward Lappeenranta—but not before I left my hand prints permanently indented into the rental car’s steering wheel. Picture me, hands death-gripped to the wheel, trying to avoid multiple crashes on nothing but one-way streets as Lori tried to read a map in Finnish. Too bad my memory of Helsinki’s streets hadn’t been a little sharper. “How do you get out of this place!”

Then it was all pine and birch forests, rolling hills, and beautiful red farmhouses as we pointed toward Finland’s southeastern border. But not without a stop at my relatives’ chocolate factory in Porvoo. Brunberg’s fresh black licorice and chocolate truffles never tasted so good….

As we got closer to Lappeenranta we started looking for signs. We were headed to a kesämökki (summer cottage) that was supposed be just outside the little village of Lemi. We had booked the kesämökki on the internet and we had begun second-guessing ourselves—wondering if it might be a disappointment. We were scheduled to stay there for six days…so we were crossing our fingers that we had chosen wisely.

My apprehension took a jump for the worse as we followed the directions given by the owner of the kesämökki. He had told me to drive through Lemi and follow the signs to Sairala. This is where my rusty Finnish let me down. I had never questioned my interpretation of Sairala as hospital. I had even pictured the mökki being close to a hospital (weird, I know). So as I turned off the pavement and onto a dirt road, I had my doubts. The mökki’s owner had said to drive on this road for six kilometers. Had I heard him right? How could there be a hospital anywhere on this lovely, winding, rolling, woods-and-pasture-laden road? We were clearly getting no where near a hospital (any Finns or not-so-rusty foreign Finnish speakers are giggling right now). I nearly turned the car around. I stopped next to a picturesque meadow and stared at the map.

Luckily I decided to continue rolling down the road. And just when I was sure that we were far off track, a little wooden sign appeared: Sairala. Not a hospital in sight. A quick check in my Finnish-English dictionary revealed that hospital in Finnish is spelled sairaala. Yup—one more “a” makes all the difference. I’m still not sure what Sairala means, but we had arrived.

Eero Kajansinkko has a farm—at Sairala, Finland. He owns three mökkis on Kaitajärvi (Narrow Lake) and he rents them to people just like Lori and me. Our fears could not have been more unfounded. The mökki was beautifully situated on the shores of the lake about two hundred yards from Eero’s farmhouse. A small, golden field of barley rolled behind it. Red gooseberries grew in the yard. Pines, birch and ash arched around it. The back porch, complete with a swing for two, faced the lake just thirty feet away. Eero and his wife had built it themselves—and we were very lucky to have found it.

We have six children. So imagine what a paradise found this was for Lori and me.

After the rush of sight-seeing and soaking in the stimulation of Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn…Sairala was heaven.

The only thing that interrupted those blended days of peace and relaxation was a quick trip to Lappeenranta on Sunday to see my old friends at the Lappeenranta ward, and a couple of strolling trips into Lemi for more ohraleipä (barley bread). Oh, and a delicious dinner of Lemi’s renowned speciality: särä (specially prepared lamb).

A typical day went like this:

Sleep in. Prepare breakfast of muesli covered in strawberry yoghurt and a little milk. Eat breakfast on porch. Discover that you have locked yourself out of mökki. Give thanks that you’re not in your underwear. Hobble on tender, bare feet two hundred yards up gravel road to Eero’s house. See Eero’s wife hanging laundry wearing nothing but shorts and bra. See Eero’s wife cheerfully wave at you wearing nothing but shorts and bra. See Eero’s wife cheerfully hop on bicycle, ride past you to mökki, and unlock it for you. Walk back (giggling) two hundred yards on tender feet.

Read book sitting at lake’s edge. Prepare lunch of open-faced sandwiches (näkkileipä [rye crisp], ohraleipä, sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, and Edam cheese). Eat lunch on porch. Take nap. Swim in lake. Feed ducks. Row boat. Roast makkaraa and nakki on grill. Snap teeth into perfectly-roasted nakki. Chase it with ice-cold Pommac. Fire up sauna. Melt in sauna. Swim in lake. Repeat three times. Fall blissfully asleep.

Just what a mom and dad of six kids needed. For six days.

(Okay, by the sixth day we were missing the kids)

As we packed up our bags and readied the car for the trip back to Helsinki—and ultimately back to the USA, we walked out on the dock for one final look. The water rippled under us, little fish darted in the shallows, a warm breeze blew in off the lake.

We knew that it may be years before we would be able to return to Finland. And like years ago, as I felt that warm breeze and sensed all the beauty around me, I willed myself to remember it all.

The moment caught like a held breath in golden sunlight.


andrejules said...

Whites Thanks for sharing your lovely trip back to Finland with us.

My wife (Terttu Aunola) and I knew your parents back in the 1950s while we were missionaries in Finland. It was so good to see how much you enjoyed returning.. No comments from your wife on the wonderful language?

We made similar trips in 1980 and 2000. Just the two of us in 1980, when we also joined a Finnish tour group which traveled by the long green train to Leningrad.

Our children treated us to a family tour to Finland in 2000 for our 40th anniversary. All of our 5 children but one were with us, along with three of our grandchildren. We rented vehicles and drove all the way from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, spending most of our two weeks there either in Oulu, Tepa's former home where we stayed with her aunt and her cousins, and Lahti where we stayed with Tepa's two time mission companion Raija Salminen and Seppo. We also spent some time at a rural kesamokki near Savonlinna which, like you, we found through the internet. Equally nice, although their lake was a mile away.

Our fourth son joined us later as we visited the US Air Base in southern Germany where our Major son worked.

Andre Mostert
Champaign, IL

Melody said...

"I’m convinced that the Lord wants us to remember those extraordinary times in our lives—and if we need a little reminder…he’ll provide a way." What a lovely thought.

The poem is wonderful and moving. You have a gift. Thanks for sharing this experience, this return to one of your homelands.