In the Shadow of the Bear
At our age, Andy and I vacation not to sit and veg, but to see and learn. We broke up the long flight from PDX to Finland with a two-night stopover in Iceland, one of my favorite places on the planet. From Reykjavik, we flew to Helsinki to begin our tour of Finland, with excursions to Russia and Estonia. It was there that we came face-to-face with history. We were in Finland to experience medieval castles, meet Europe’s oldest indigenous people—the Sami—and we wanted to see a very rare airplane, the Brewster Buffalo. Finland did not disappoint.
Our first glimpse into their worldview came when we picked up our rental car at the Helsinki airport. I’d booked everything online, including our rental cars, choosing the most reasonably priced company because we are fixed-income folks now. Overhead signs and a friendly attendant directed us to our rental car pick-up point. We found no one, so we went into the gas station eatery, which by-the-way, are the fast-food/cafeteria food places in Finland and Iceland.
From there, we were sent back outside after the clerk called the rental agency using my cell phone. I tried unsuccessfully to call. The attendant explained that in Finland, you used a “+” before the phone number. Okay. Before our foot hit the steps, a happy-faced man approached us and said, “United States.”
“Yes,” I said. And off we went. He showed us our car and gave us instruction, cautioning us to not go over the speed limit. Then he invited me into his “office,” which was a van. When he sensed my hesitation, he reassured me, and I stepped in with Andy standing nearby. While I signed the paperwork, we chatted. He told us he immigrated to Finland to find a better life for his family.
“That’s what people do, migrate to find a better life,” he said, and I didn’t disagree. He told us how much he enjoyed watching the last U.S. election. He found it very entertaining. When I told him the next one was shaping up to be just as exciting, he said he couldn’t wait and smiled.
He then proceeded to say how “America is power, America is might,” flexing his bicep for emphasis.
“You need to go into Syria and clean up that mess in a day, assassinate the dictator, be done with it. The Syrian people are hurting. America can fix it.”
I commented that we have many of our own problems that we needed to fix first.
He brushed me off, “You can do both, “he said, and I left it at that. He then gave us instructions on how to return the car. “Park it here, and put the key in this hole in this car,” and he lifted a panel hidden within an advertisement painted on the side of the car to show us where to drop the key.
Okay. Add off we went.
We drove along the border as we headed to Savonlinna from Helsinki. There was no fence that we could see, but there were checkpoints at road intersections. There was no border wall between Finland and Russia. They don’t need one. Fear and trepidation keep the countries apart.
Tall and straight and uncluttered like their forests, we discovered that those that live on the border of Russia, are wary of their giant neighbor to the east that looms like a storm cloud on the horizon, full of thunder and lightning. Finns are a stoic, cautious, and self-directed people. Once they engage, they are willing to share if you are willing to listen without bravado or judgment. My husband and I got along fine with them. They are our kind of people.
Our host at the farm where we stayed confirmed my speculations. For her, the situation was not “if the Russians come, it was when the Russians come.” Wow! That puts a whole new spin on being able to settle in front of a comfy fire, secure in your own home.
We left with the impression that the Finns lived with the Russian threat in the background of their worries. I tried to come up with an analogy that we Americans could relate too, but I was unsuccessful. We are so fortunate to share borders with countries that don’t invade us every few hundred years. The very thought of living next to an unfriendly giant is so alien to me. And that same thought makes me respect those who do even more.
In Savonlinna, we were told that the Olavinlinna castle guard maintained a two year supply of food because they never knew how harsh the winter would be or how often the Russians might come knocking. During one siege, the Russians pounded the walls with cannon-shot for months on end. Then we learned that in 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. Finland allied itself with Germany so they would help them expel the USSR from their country. Finland eventually agreed to give up 10% of their country to end that Winter War and keep their neighbor at bay; 480,000 Finns fled when the Russians moved into their newly begotten territory. Then Finns gathered their forces and drove the Germans out of the remainder of their country. Towns and people were ravished, but Finland survived once again.
We chose Porvoo, forty minutes east of Helsinki, as our base for further exploration. It too bore the marks of invaders. Russians and pirates plundered their cathedral more than once since its establishment in the 13th century. It’s most recent injury was in 2006, when arson destroyed its roof. The townspeople always rebuilt. Bits and bobs of its long history adorn its walls and ceiling.
Later, when our daughter and son-in-law, Michelle and Jeff, joined us, we took a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia, a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. We’d hired a private guide for the tour of Old Town Tallinn. Christina filled us in on the history of the town, took us to stalls occupied since medieval times, and pointed out the changes intruders made during their occupation. She explained, “Every two hundred years, someone has invaded us. First, it was the Dutch, then the Swedes, then Imperial Russia, then Germany, followed by the Soviet Union.” When Imperial Russia occupied them, they tore down part of the castle to build a new Parliament building where the perimeter wall once stood. It was painted pink, and pink roses lined the granite sidewalks that contained pink phenocrysts of feldspar. It was handsome, but out of place next to the medieval tower that remained. Now the tower proudly flies the Estonian flag; it is like their “statue of liberty,” Christina told us. She explained that they had been behind the Iron Curtain with almost no contact with the West because they failed to drive out the Soviet Union as Finland had done. They gained their freedom when the USSR dissolved in 1991. The depth of her feeling brought tears to our eyes.
Over an ethnic lunch,
Christina shared with us that professionals, doctors, lawyers, and teachers make the same wage as clerks and waiters, a holdover from the days of Soviet rule. We heard the same thing from a teacher’s intern that we shared a table with at a Burger King in the Helsinki airport. Our time with Christina was too short; our respect for her was immense. When we headed back to Helsinki, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like to not know if your children’s children would be facing invaders again.
After a few days of exploration, Andy and I flew to Lapland above the arctic circle— home of the Sami, reindeer, and Santa Claus. Once again, we saw the remnants of war. The German retreat was particularly brutal when the Continuation War ended.
Our daughter Michelle and her husband, Jeff, stayed a couple of extra days before meeting us at Levi for a two-night stay in glass igloos. They wanted to spend more time in Helsinki. And there they saw first-hand, Finland’s determined efforts at preservation. Headed for downtown, the parking garage they chose ended up being part of an underground bunker system! There was a swimming pool, sports court, metal blast doors, and tunnels connecting it to other parking/bunkers. With a little digging, she discovered that the system could sustain 750,000 people for two weeks, more than the population of Helsinki!
Russia’s shadow looms across the Baltic like an overcast sky, gloomy and foreboding, forecasting a pending storm. The shards of WWII still pierce the hearts of many. In the Bend Bulletin newspaper on November 12, 2019, there was an opinion piece about whether or not Russia would use nukes to take back Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The thought gives me chills; the possibility fills me with dread. But there is hope. The Finns don’t mess around when it comes to their freedom, gained and lost so many times. They have survived centuries of invasions, and they plan to survive centuries more. I trust they will. And I hope their allies will stand strong beside them to keep the Russian bear at bay.