"I have been searching all of my days, all of my days
Many a road, you know, I've been walking on, all of my days
And I've been trying to find, what's been in my mind
As the days keep turning into night.
Many a night I've found myself with no friends standing near, all of my days.
I cried aloud, I shook my hands, what I'm doing here?, all of these days.
'Fore I look around me, and my eyes confound me
And it's just too bright, as the days keep turning into night."
— Alexi Murdoch, "All My Days"
It was the day that would never end. I'd woken in Copenhagen seventy hours earlier, and I'd since seen Gothenburg, seen Oslo and Bergen and the Norwegian fjords, seen Oslo yet again, and still, I hadn't a shower, nor a bed, nor a proper ninety minutes of uninterrupted sleep, not even a full setting of the sun to confirm the earth was still spinning on its axis. I had become untethered to time.
I was at the Oslo train station, then I was on a Stockholm-bound train, then I was in Stockholm, and maybe I'd slept a little, and maybe I hadn't. My body was all jelly and lumps, legs of sandbag and lids of heavy steel, my head had been filled with lead and my neck felt far too weak to support it without snapping. My stomach was a whole different sort of battered; for days, I'd fed it nothing but cheap waffles and unripe bananas, and it demanded a real meal.
I walked into Stockholm's pretty old town—despite my drowse, I acknowledged that it was really, really pretty—and found, against all odds, a restaurant offering a home-cooked vegan buffet for only sixteen dollars, which was a steal at Scandinavian prices. My body pulled me inside, I sat, stood, grabbed a plate and loaded it with heaps of vegetables and curries and rice and bread and a small mountain of sprouts, ate it all and came back for seconds. I stayed there for a while, hungry stomach and malnourished muscles fighting it out with sleepy head, and only once I couldn't possibly pick up my fork again did I leave for a nap in the park.
I slept, I woke. I felt a little better. I walked around the center of Stockholm, crossed the lovely bridges between its dozen little islands, wandered inside of the plainest cathedral I'd ever seen and its neighborly counterpart, adorned enough for the both of them. I admired the cinnamon and saffron buildings, the sparkling waters, the grassy harborside. Stockholm was clean, it was positively picturesque. It was also hopelessly boring.
I wasn't disappointed; again, I knew not to expect much from the cities of Scandinavia. I was merely moving east from the fjords—Oslo, Gothenburg, Stockholm, the Finnish places to come, they were just pit stops along the way. And so I moved, quickly, unregrettably, from one stop to the next: here, pause, now onward, now toward Helsinki.
On my way back to the train station, I discovered that I was going the wrong way. I assumed I'd be arriving in Finland by train, rounding the Gulf of Bothnia and coming at Helsinki in a great arch along the coast. Instead, I realized that I'd actually be ferrying there, cutting clean across the gulf in a direct shot from one harbor to the next. Sure thing; I loved ferries. I spun on my heel and walked back toward the water, traced the shore to Stockholm's southern port and ambled up to the ticket window. The overnight ferry cost forty dollars, which was unfortunate, but it promised a smooth ten-hour journey—finally, a chance for some sleep!—so I grabbed a ticket and climbed onboard.
Most of the passengers were making their way to the cabins, cabins with beds and bathrooms and doors that close and lock. All my ticket afforded me was a seat in the "sitting room," which was a small corner of the main deck with about twenty train seats bolted to the ground. The seats reclined as train seats do, all of six or seven degrees, but toward the back of the room I spied a seat that had been violently flattened to nearly the angle of a dentist's chair; clearly, someone else had really, really wanted their sleep. I crashed down in it, twisted to one side and then the other, tossed my feet up on the window ledge and turned my head. It would do.
I left my things on the prized chair and headed to the duty-free shop at the other end of the ship for a bite to eat. The offerings weren't wonderful, but they were cheap: ciders for two euros and cashews for three and a mighty bar of dark chocolate for four. I bought the lot, wandered back toward the sitting room, stopped at the information desk along the way. "Excuse me," I asked, not wanting to get my hopes up but simply needing to ask, "do you know if there would happen to be any showers onboard for those in the sitting room?"
"Oh, certainly," the angel behind the desk smiled, "deck two."
The next thirty minutes may be among the happiest of my life. The next thirty minutes were what the whole spartan week had been about, deprivation for heightened gratification. Remembering that which is to be appreciated, appreciating it as one has never appreciated it before. The next thirty minutes consisted of nothing out of the ordinary for the ordinary man; hell, the ordinary man might complain about the cramped shower or the warm cider or the meager meal. But oh my: to shower! To strip off grimy garments and stand naked under hot rushing water, to watch the filth of the week wash down the drain in soapy spirals; is there any finer joy in life? To be reddened by the heat and force of the faucet, to pat one's self dry with a scarf and brush one's teeth with a real mirror, to rifle through one's pack for the freshest shirt-pant combination and find one that just might work. To dress, to walk past others and not desire to shrink into a corner from smelly shame, to lie down, almost horizontal, on a simple cushion and crack a cider and toss a handful of salty cashews into one's mouth—and then, to sleep! To sleep without shoes on! To shut one's eyes and not fear the next patrol of petty police nor urban rodent, not worry about dropping temperatures nor biting wind. In the words of Tolstoy, "What more can the heart of a man desire?"
I woke in the morning—in the morning—a perfectly reasonable time of day to arise. A beautiful family rested in a heap to next me, father and mother softly singing lullabies to their two boys. Out the window, we sailed by the loveliest little islands, tiny saucers no more than fifteen meters across, with little dollops of foliage sprinkled in the middle. I felt rested, I felt at peace; I felt so, so happy. The day felt bright.
We docked some time later at Turku, Finland's southwesternmost city. I walked through its pleasant town, stopping to read in a park for a few hours, strolling along the river and slowly making my way to the town's train station, where I boarded the next hourly train for Helsinki. I arrived in Helsinki a few hours later, found it just like Stockholm and Oslo and Gothenburg and Copenhagen: pretty, pleasant. Amusement park in the center of town, as is the Scandinavian custom. Wide streets, short buildings. A nice harbor with a nice harborside market. Not much to do or see, but not a bad place to be.
If you're going to Helsinki, be sure to wear colors in your hair. Everyone there does it, I discovered: the young girls and the old women and the middle-aged men, all bustling about with mops of electric blue and tendrils of hot pink on their head. I liked the Finnish style—subtle punk, you might call it—I liked the self-expression and butch haircuts and, yes, those crazy colors. I liked Helsinki, I just didn't know what to do there, and so I took to doing my favorite thing to do while passing time in a new place: hit the grocery, get some snacks, picnic in a park and let the city come to me.
Finland was a bit cheaper than Stockholm (and Stockholm a bit cheaper than Norway), so I managed pretty well with a baguette and hummus and chips and juice and whatever else my eyes and stomach fancied in the local grocery. I carried my little bag of food stuffs to a busy patch of green, plopped down with the rest, and pulled out a book to read while I slathered the soft bread with spicy chickpea puree.
From behind me, a few chords on a guitar, astonishingly familiar. They sounded like the first few chords of Alexi Murdoch's "All My Days," but they couldn't be, because I was in Helsinki and that was one of my favorite songs and the odds of a busker strumming that out all the way in Finland seemed improbable, but sure enough, another few chords followed, and there it was. I turned, basked in the music, felt grounded by its familiarity, basked in the sunlight, felt rejuvenated by its warmth. And then, more: Nick Drake, Simon and Garfunkel, a full set of well-known classics and obscure b-sides that rang through the little park with mesmerizing grace. I passed the whole afternoon there; where else did I have to be?
Nowhere; nowhere in the whole wide world.