March of fears and memories. At the end of every downward road the sea appears frozen. Huge slices of ice are floating on the water like melancholic islands. Blue eerie light all day long. The wind is whipping the faces as a reminder that winter never really ends here. It’s a frozen waft that comes from somewhere far away, probably from the history of Helsinki, that cast off the despots but not the architects.
The trams, sleepy but obedient, are carrying the thickest winter coats. The seams have unraveled due to the double layer of pullovers beneath them and the eyes read the co-passengers like a book with a beginning, but without a middle or an end. Most of these thick coats are disembarking in front of Central Station, its entrance always covered by a shadow that seems amphitheatric. Doors open and close and the beggars are walking around, fishing only the bad-tempered passengers: it’s a glance of solidarity that they’re searching for, not the money in the wallet. One should spend a quarter of an hour in front of Central Station, because on that spot all the neighborhoods of Helsinki are condensing; on that spot the wrinkles on the foreheads seem like frozen railroad tracks.
One can never really leave Central Station behind, not even when you see the buildings by Alvar Aalto and think that you’ve landed in another city. On this latitude and longitude, modern architecture resembles slices of concrete ice, which must rise above the everlasting piles of snow. The contemporary buildings are quiet in the interior: the laughter and talks of people seem to be less loud than whispers. Quite often, the voices seem to be getting distilled by the tall windows and they soon convert to light. The high heels of a woman, the keys of a guard, the crying of a baby, all that noise tends to challenge the serenity: it’s the denial to surrender in the dogmatism of walls.
The studious visitor, the one that carries in his luggage grief but not hope, is usually jealous of the people sitting inside the cozy cafés. The windows are steamed by faces exhaling words; human snouts crouching into wide coffee pots. Aside, on tiny plates, sweets not bigger than sugar cubes present proudly themselves: they cost more than the coffee. All those underpopulated tables are becoming a cheap allegory about life up north: people diffused in a territory, trying to muzzle the weather by shutting a heavy door in its face, the same way that one is shutting his eyes in order to forget.
One is tripping over the threshold of the Ateneum or Kiasma museums in order to learn something that has little to do with art. In Ateneum, among sorrowful paintings hanging from black walls, a newlywed couple is shooting marital photos. A blonde woman is dragging her wedding gown on the stairs and next to her the husband is dressed in a fine suit. The photographer is chasing them on the staircase, is searching for them on the halls and is climbing on the first floor for a panoramic photo of the couple; everything is taking place among paintings that talk more about the ones that passed and less about the people left behind. An older man is staring at a painting by Albert Edelfelt, the one with the coffin of the young child on the boat; the man turns afterwards, his head towards the newlyweds. He doesn’t applaud nor disdain them: he seems to be playing a match of chess in his head, where destinies of happiness and sorrow battle against each other. If, one has to judge by his gaze, the grim version of the destiny is leading.
Whatever can’t be easily controlled is often getting drowned in a glass of alcohol. In the city’s market-halls, where the wooden kiosks stand next to each other selling fish, cheese and souvenirs, the locals anchor in the tables for a glass of Jaloviina. It’s a strong drink that burns the innards and fires up the talk. At the port’s market-hall, most of the people sit next to the windows and cover themselves with blankets that look like sheepskin. They stare at the little ferry that returns back from Suomenlinna, panting in the frozen sea. The glasses are getting a refill every now and then and the view of the six little islands doesn’t cause any feeling of security: the old fortress has become an outdoor museum.
The sea is everywhere. Once in a while, somewhere ashore, somebody is exiting a steaming building and runs towards the sea. He or she is half naked and is holding a towel. A dive for a couple of seconds into the cold sea and then the person runs back inside again. The less courageous prefer to stay away from the sea and they just sit on the chairs outside of the sauna. They return two, three times inside the steaming building and they repeat the ritual as if this is a ceremony of purification. It’s a siesta that has to be done with eyes wide open and the body suffers without tears.
March of fears and memories. Up here, on the frozen north, the spring has been waiting for months around the corner, that overrated season of the year that always arrives triumphant and merciless. A long winter is trying to stay behind; all that silver light of the snow is the deepest version of darkness. One is visiting Helsinki in order to embark, sooner or later, in the northernmost metro of the world. The underground itineraries are never too distant, but they resemble journeys under the skin. The metro stations seem to be built on the stomach of eternal rocks and the itineraries carry on endlessly. But there comes, after all, one day that the passenger is emerging on the surface. The sun has gained some courage and appears finally in the sky while the trees are wearing their leaves again. It’s an almost violent moment, which romanticism falsely taught us to assume as peaceful. Whatever emerges then on the surface is just buried fears and memories marching on together.
The doors of the market-halls remain open and the windows of the cafés are not steamed anymore. People avoid museums. They prefer to stand on the piers of the city, where both small and big boats are getting ready for shorter or longer journeys. A man and a woman are embarking on a vessel. They are still young and they put a basket between them. They are going to Suomenlinna in order to stretch a tablecloth on the ground and clink their wine glasses. A person they loved passed earlier this spring. They are going to the old fortress to talk, to get emotional, to laugh and to stare at the city from afar. Meanwhile, the people left behind on the piers of Helsinki are observing the scene and turn into potential painters. The shorter journeys are for the boats; the longer ones, for the people.
George Pavlopoulos was born in Athens, Greece in 1980. He is the author of three novels: 300 Kelvin in the Afternoon, (Alexandria Publications, 2007), Steam, (Kedros, 2011) and The Limit and the Wave (Potamos, 2014). Extended excerpts from his first two novels were featured in New York based online translation venue, InTranslation. His second novel Steam is in the permanent collection of Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia libraries. He was a guest of the Hellenic Foundation for Culture at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair. In 2017, he participated in the International Short Story Festival of Istanbul. He has also written several travelogues and short stories. He currently lives in Berlin.