International Man of Mystery

Cities are weird places. The people, the layout, transport systems. All of this became apparent to Charlie and me while in Helsinki. After getting off the ferry, we approached a taxi and asked him to take us to a nearby Army Surplus store. 20 minutes and 35 Euro later, he dropped us off…at the wrong place. Lucky for us he came back and took us to the right place a block away with no extra charge. Good guy. Too bad the store was closed on Sundays. Really should have looked that up beforehand. This turned out to be a recurring theme: Helsinki is closed on Sunday. Both of the museums we wanted to go closed very early, and we found a Russian language shop that was closed entirely on weekends. Luckily Suomennila, the island fortress, was open all day. But we had to get there first from a 20 minute drive out of the city.


The obvious course of action was to take bus. The less obvious was which bus to take. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Finnish bus schedule, but they’re very confusing, especially if you don’t speak Finnish (I don’t, and neither does Charlie). There’s a lot of numbers corresponding to other numbers elsewhere on the map, and lots of lines with slightly different shades of blue-gray, and the whole thing is very difficult to make sense of. Not super helpful. We hoped the locals would be. A man had sauntered up to the bus stop while we were examining the map, so we took a shot in the dark and asked him which bus would take us to the city center.


“All buses go to center!” he told us a little more enthusiastically than we were expecting. Certainly good news, though. “I will show you where to go.” Then things started getting odd. He asked why we were I Helsinki, which was certainly a reasonable question (and one I had had to answer earlier that day, but more on the later) and when he told him we were studying Russian in Estonia he asked if we were working the CIA. Of course not, we told him.


“Oh, but you will. The CIA, when you go back, will be using you without you even knowing, they will ask to be translating on the phone lines, but they will pay you. It is ok, they give you good money, and there is no shame in it because is your government.” Ok then. Finally, a bus. 3 Euro fare, but as our new friend told us it wasn’t just bus fare; 3 Euro gets you a ticket for any public transport in the city, good for 2 hours or so, including the ferry to the island fortress.


We talk to this guy some more, find out he’s originally from Morocco and came to Finland 20 years ago because it’s “easy life.”

“You work 8 hours each day only, and you get much vacation time.” He was also excited to have someone to talk to; people in Finland, and Scandinavia in general I think, don’t really talk to strangers. He also asked some more weird things, like if Charlie was of Jewish descent (he isn’t). Eventually we get off the bus and he leads us through the rail station to the tram we need to take. On the way he stops and talks with a woman we pass by for a few seconds. Returning to us, he drops this little knowledge bomb: That woman was really a man. Ok bro, cool. But then a minute later he stops again as she passes us this time, she laughs at something and then we’re on our way again. Again he insists it was really a man, as if there was something we should have done about that, then proceeds to ask about our sexual shenanigans in Estonia. Eventually we had to part with our strange new Moroccan friend as he wasn’t going the same direction as the tram. He was a strange fellow, but very helpful.


Bonus story: I promised this one earlier. While boarding the ferry to Helsinki that morning, I had just made it through security when suddenly the wall seemed to open up and I’m directed into a hidden room. I’m set upon by about 5 security personnel who have me empty my pockets and ask why I’m going to Helsinki. The man seemed slightly unhappy about my answer of a day trip. Then they went through my passport and were very interested in my Russian visa, but nothing was confiscated and I was free to go after a few minutes. Not all that exciting in retrospect, but at the time I was caught by surprise. I guess it was just one of those random checks. Either that, or I am in serious need of a shave, a haircut, and more presentable clothes.


-Eric Chowning


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