In the brief few days before the summer tourist season officially begins, the port town of Hanko on Finland’s south coast, three hours by train from Helsinki, is just as quiet as it is in winter.
A population of a little over nine thousand goes a long way to ensuring that all is sleepy and still; certainly, it is impossible to imagine that this town of sandy beaches and islands floating off the archipelago was once home to one of the most important fights against Russia, who were defeated by Sweden in the 1714 Battle of Gangut.
Today, it is a place where families either rent or own holiday houses for the summer and a place where retirees come to escape what they consider the rat race of Helsinki. Hanko’s wide streets and endless expanse of sand go some way to making the town feel like an open air museum in that it embodies nostalgia and old times. One of the few traces of evidence that show it is 2016, not 1986, are the movie posters outside its Olympia cinema.
Hanko was a perfect return-to-Finland gift to me. Fresh off the plane, then train, I walked through the town’s almost-empty streets and passed an older lady walking her dog who waved and said hello, then on to the beaches and through the forest where older people lay naked under the sun as if it were the medicine they required. Back in the town centre I thought: this is pin-drop territory. Everything was so silent it could have been a movie set. I went to a supermarket, bought a sandwich and sat outside. In one hour I would have to leave to get back to Helsinki.
“Excuse me, did I talk to you by the beach?”
I looked up to see a thin woman with short blonde hair dressed in black leggings and a loose-fitting purple shawl walking a cocker spaniel.
“I’m not sure,” I said, biting into my sandwich, then just as quickly remembered that I had in fact passed her when I first arrived in Hanko.
“Sorry, I didn’t recognise you from before. Your clothes are different,” I explained.
“Yes,” she noted. “I was getting cold.”
“Are you lost?” she continued.
“No,” I assured her. “Just having lunch before I go back to Helsinki.”
“I live close-by,” she almost whispered. “You can come and eat in my house out of the wind.”
Why not? I thought. It was in Finland that I first began sleeping in stranger’s houses when I signed up for Couch Surfing and with some people it is always easy to tell who is menacing and who is not. This woman looked as though she was probably not far off slipping into the quagmire of dementia, though even then she would only be harmful to herself.
We introduced ourselves: the lady’s name was Aada*, her dog, Tosca. I assumed she was a fan of the opera.
Aada was right when she said her house was close-by. In a matter of minutes we reached the brick apartment block and she let me into her door on the first floor.
“Have you lived here long?” I asked.
“I only moved this year,” she said in a hushed tone, as though she were an escapee.
“Where were you before?”
“Helsinki,” she said, moving towards the kitchen. Tosca was already off exploring in one of the rooms.
Aada’s apartment was laced by the occasional cobweb, dust and overflowing ashtrays that had each accumulated in the corners of her grey walls. What I noticed most, however, were the piles of books that had spilled off the shelves and formed mountains on the floor. She obviously read – or had read – a lot of crime fiction, particularly the classic ‘whodunnits’. It was hard to tell which author took up the most space in her house: Ngaio Marsh or Agatha Christie.
Aada never once tried to play the role of host. She seemed to accept that anyone who enters another’s house only ever wants to inspect the surroundings, not stay confined to a chair and be fed biscuits. She took herself off to her room adjoining the living area where I stood.
“I can tell you like reading,” I observed.
She stood in the frame like a seductress.
“Come in,” she said, holding a cigarette between her index and middle finger. This was the first, and only, time I felt worried.
Nervously, I walked into her bedroom, which at least had a large window. Less reassuring was the knowledge that I’d seen but a handful of people in Hanko.
“Look,” she pointed, to a grand, imposing bookshelf, “more.”
Aada’s bedroom, like much of the apartment, was also being choked by books.
“These must have been hard to move from Helsinki,” I offered.
“That’s the thing, you see,” she said. “I began unpacking and then I rather lost my urge to continue.”
Aada ran a finger across some of the spines.
“None of these are in order,” she sighed. “It might have made me sad once. Now I don’t really care.”
“You have a good collection of books,” I told her. “A lot of them are in English, too. I’ve wanted to read We Need to Talk About Kevin for a long time.”
Suddenly, Aada walked into the living room and selected the title from the shelf.
“Oh,” she muttered. “I don’t think I could ever read that book again – it was far too sad. Take it.”
The book was thrust into my hand. After watching the movie and biting the insides of my cheeks to stop myself from erupting into tears I knew that when I did start reading the book, it would not be on my holiday.
“Could you sign it for me?” I asked.
Aada readied herself with the task of finding a pen, while Tosca buzzed around her owner’s feet, perhaps misinterpreting the flurry of activity as preparation for meal time.
“My ex-husband is a writer you know,” Aada said, giving me back the book and selecting another from the shelf. It was in Finnish.
“The Cuban revolution,” she explained, pointing to the cover of her former spouse’s work. “I told him ‘Don’t dare put me in it!’”
“Have you considered writing?” I asked.
“Well, you like animals,” I suggested.
“No,” she answered truthfully. “I like animals, but you see I really don’t know a lot about them. And I do feel that one does not need to know everything about everything.”
Something Aada did seem to know a lot about was Marilyn Monroe. She kept two large framed prints of her in the dining room.
“My – my friend in Helsinki,” I began, “is a great fan of Marilyn. Would you mind if I took a photo of these?”
The first photo showed Marilyn averting her gaze from the camera as she leaned over a balcony, a limp cigarette in her hand, while the other was a showgirl-like caricature of seduction.
“Can you see what the photos represent? The ideal and the reality,” Aada said. “She was so sad and no one knew it.”
“No one wanted to know it,” I corrected.
I have never understood the public’s fascination with Marilyn Monroe. Elton John, who never even met her penned one of his most famous songs in her memory. My friend in Helsinki and Aada both idolised her. All I could understand was my grandmother’s pithy opinion: she could not act.
“You didn’t see what else was in my bedroom,” Aada continued, leaving the dining room.
Tosca and I both followed her into the bedroom. Over the bed was a gaudy portrait of Marilyn lying on a lounge with a fruit platter below. It was too tacky for words.
“My favourite,” Aada said proudly.
No longer afraid that I had been lured home by a seductress, I looked around Aada’s room: the books, the elaborate jewellery; a forgotten cigarette still burning in the ashtray. It was all like something from the scene of a made-for-television movie, and so sad.
“My daughter doesn’t speak to me,” she explained. “I was angry before and I yelled at her. Now she has forgotten me.”
The simplicity with which she told the story was almost astounding: I was angry. I yelled. She has forgotten me. I wanted to tell her that most children will and do abandon their parents despite the common perception that it is the other way around. I wanted to tell her that my people in my own family were suffering from exactly the same heartache. Selfishness stopped me. This was the first day of my time in Finland, let Australia stay hours behind.
When I left Aada’s apartment, I departed armed not only with her gift, but with proof that Finland had left out its welcome mat for me. More correctly, the doors had never entirely closed.
“Thank you for letting me – a stranger – into your house.”
“I am an Amazon,” she crooned. “If you were rude to me, I would break you!”
On the train I looked inside the copy of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Aada had written the words: Con amore (with love, in Italian) and underneath her indecipherable signature, the word Hanko. It had been only a matter of hours and I had already found another Finnish stranger to befriend.
*Names have been changed.