Monday, August 19, 2002

The height of civilization is not Einstein's theory of relativity or Mozart's operas, not riistafel or the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh or even The Simpsons.

The height of civilization is sitting for hours and hours in a café on a warm summer's day in a European capitol, say, Helsinki, and watching the people go by on the elegant tree-lined Esplanade, sipping cafe latte and eating rhubarb cake slowly with a spoon.

Amazingly enough, all the romantic notions I had as a 16-year-old American living in the suburbs of Chicago are absolutely true when it comes to sitting in a café on a summer's day.

As for Helsinki, there is a small grandness to it, a green-ness, a great charm and a faint Russian flavor. My favorite Finn and the lovely and pregnant J. walked me round and through the city, pausing and peering in at libraries and churches and markets and theaters, and I was duly impressed. We drank pear cider and on Saturday afternoon stood in a sea of runners, waiting for a friend who was taking part in the Helsinki marathon. We worried that we had missed him somehow, and we listened to the four or five 7-year-old boys next to us having a grand time, high-fiving any runner willing to slap their hands, and very tunefully singing a song of their own composition:

    Parhaita ootte, kultamitalin saatte,
    Parhaita ootte, kultapokaalin saatte

    (You are the best, you'll get a gold medal,
    You are the best, you'll get a golden trophy)

They were still singing it even as we left once we'd found our friend and given him congratulatory hugs and handshakes and sent him on the rest of his 27-kilometer way.

There are of course lesser heights to civilization, some of them nearly on a par with sitting in a café near the Esplanade. For example, an obtuse conversation with a nearly falling-down-drunk chef at the weekend's party (I'm not sure what exactly the topic was, but it was important), the ride on the streetcar to Temppeliakio (I am in love with all forms of train travel; alternatively, I rather loathe buses); even the hamburgers at Hesburger Carrols, Finland's homegrown answer to McDonald's.

My favorite Finn and the lovely and pregnant J. sure know how to make a guy feel at home.

The Swedish word for the day is Helsingfors. Which is the Swedish name for Helsinki.

- by Francis S.

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