Midnight in Helsinki
January 22, 2020

Ravintola

I’m starting this new decade—and this journal—by revisiting the places where the last one began. Strange how a chunk of time takes shape in the mind, those first arbitrary encounters that define a sense of a place or tint a season. When Candy and I arrived in Helsinki ten years ago, deep snow covered the city. We checked into a hotel in an industrial area by the sea, and I remember smoking a cigarette in the subzero wind while watching the lights of freighters on the horizon. I thought we were at the edge of the earth. I remember the two of us navigating the icy cobblestones of an unfamiliar country, hunting for someplace to eat. We found an empty restaurant that was still open, a rustic place with a buffet of reindeer, herring, and mushrooms. A sign on the window said Ravintola.

When we told people we enjoyed eating at Ravintola, they gave us puzzled looks. A few days later, we worked up the courage to figure out the public transit system. As we rode the tram across the city, we saw the word Ravintola again and again. We saw it painted on windows. We saw it on billboards. We saw it in neon lights. Oh they have so many locations, we thought. And wow, they also serve Chinese. Then came that uniquely vivid realization of being an idiot: Ravintola is the Finnish word for restaurant. We’d told people we enjoyed eating at restaurant.

As the years passed, our wintry meal at Ravintola became burnished into the stories we told about our year in Helsinki. Returning ten years later, we wanted to see if it still squared with our memories of a warm refuge from the storm with a kindly old proprietor cooking traditional food. When we found the restaurant, it was smaller than we’d remembered, as most things are when you return. And it wasn’t sitting alone in a snowfield like an oasis. It was in the middle of a nondescript block of shops and there wasn’t any snow this January because we live in a new climate now. Our waiter was a hip young man with tattoos. French and German tourists filled the tables. But the reindeer was still there and so were we.


Springwater – I Will Return

Polydor, 1971 | More info

Fifty years ago, Phil Cordell recorded this track, playing all of the instruments and creating something both mournful and bright.

Each night in 2020 I'm writing a short post for a series called Notes From the End of a World because I want to etch these days into my memory before I forget them. Before the world changes completely.
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