Travel notesIssue 05 | June 2009

Breakfast in Helsinki

by Susan Koefod

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.

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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 Highway. While she is pleased report she has traveled widely to Europe, Scandinavia, and various parts of the U.S., she is proudest of her ability to pack everything she needs in a doubled Safeway bag.

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