The Girl from Finland

On the ICE 17 I have an aisle seat in front of a table. Diagonally across, facing me, is a young man speaking on a phone – an iPhone – with a British accent. A copy of the International Herald Tribune lies on the table, crisp and unopened. The seat next to mine is vacant; the sign above it indicates a reservation, like mine, from Brussels to Frankfurt.

Passengers move through the compartment slowly, stumbling over bags in front, pausing briefly to look at seat numbers or to allow someone settle into a seat. No one stops at our table. The Britisher, still on the phone, is speaking tenderly to (I presume) his girlfriend. He tells her to get some rest and says he’ll try to sleep as well. When the train begins to move he ends his call, tilts his seat back, and drops off to sleep.

My neighbour has not arrived yet. A few people are milling about, trying to locate their seat or to find one that isn’t reserved. A girl stops and asks me if the seat next to mine is free. I point to the sign above: it’s reserved, I tell her. But she persists: we’ve left Brussels, she says, and no one’s turned up. Alright then, I reply and make way – good luck.

* * *

The Britisher is fast asleep. Next to him is a middle-aged man, bald, wearing thick glasses, reading a Dutch magazine. It’s dark outside. The train has settled into its rhythm, cruising (the electronic display tells us) at close to 300 kmph. The girl next to me is typing fast on her mobile phone. I open my book and start reading.

Soon I hear the familiar cadence of the conductor as he enters the compartment. There is a rustle amongst passengers, reaching – inside handbags, coat-pockets, books – for their tickets. The conductor’s mannerisms are animated: he nods vigorously, gives a musical touch to his Danke Schöns, raises his eyebrows in an expression of mock-suspicion. At the table across the aisle he looks at a ticket and exclaims “Ah! Liège-Guillemins!” as though it was the name of a long-forgotten station. At our table, after he’s done with the rest of us, he gently taps the Britisher’s shoulder, twice. The man doesn’t move an inch. “Tickets please!” the conductor says loudly, giving him a shake this time. The Britisher, initially startled to find himself waking up in another world, recovers and hands his ticket to the conductor, who gives it a cursory glance, hands it back with a flourish and moves on.

* * *

The girl next to me is staring out of the window. It is impossible to see anything outside, but for the distant lights that occasionally trace a straight line across the window. The right moment to begin a conversation.

“You were right.” I say to her. “No one turned up to claim the seat.”

She turns around and nods. “I was lucky. The funny thing is, when I bought the ticket I was told there’s no need for a reservation. But this train is full.”

Her voice, soft and steady, suggests a maturity far beyond the age I’ve associated with her. The accent seems European, but I’m unable to place it.

“Yes,” I reply. “The train is usually full on Sunday evenings. I travel often on this route – my wife lives in Brussels – and I always insist on a seat reservation. Are you travelling to Frankfurt?”

“Köln. I study there.”

“What do you study?”

“Masters in Business. Not exactly an MBA, but something equivalent. I’m an exchange student, here in Germany for six months. I’m from Finland, actually.” She smiles as she speaks that sentence, almost anticipating my surprise.

“Finland?!” I exclaim, raising my eyebrows; in all these years in Europe I’ve never met someone from Finland. “Where in Finland are you from?”

But this is an unnecessary question: the only place in Finland I know of is Helsinki.

“Helsinki,” she replies.

“Finland – I remember it being referred to as the land of a thousand lakes.” This is the only other fact I know about the country. Apparently, it is wrong.

She smiles. “It should actually be known as the land of a hundred thousand lakes. There are so many of them.”

The conversation takes off. She tells me of her experience in Germany: very positive so far. The Germans are a bit like the Finns – reserved and conservative – but a lot more formal. (Her Professors here ask politely if they can address students as “Du”.) Finns, though reserved at first, become rather friendly once they get to know someone, even hugging one another each time they meet.

Are Finns religious? Not at all. Even among her parents’ generation, most people visit churches only during Christmas or for weddings. Around 80% of Finns are protestants, and have to pay church tax. Many opt out.

What does she plan to do after her Masters degree? She has to get back to the consulting firm that is sponsoring her studies. She started working for them after her undergraduate degree, and is still engaged part-time, working remotely; she’ll go back there, for a while at least. 60 to 70 % of Finns leaving school join the university, so it isn’t easy to get a good job unless you have a Masters. She hopes her prospects will improve with this additional degree.

Her course has taken her to other places too. She spent one semester in Montreal – a charming, vibrant city – and, while in Canada, she visited the U.S. on a holiday. The U.S was also nice, but the people there were superficial; she liked Canada better. What about Asia? India? She hasn’t been to India, but she spent a few days in Bangkok, at a conference. There, on her way back to the hotel one day, she saw an elephant on the road – it was fascinating. There was hardly enough time to see Bangkok, but she liked whatever she experienced.

* * *

As the train slows down near Aachen, a man on the other side of the aisle gets up, removes his bag from the overhead shelf, and walks away. A little later, when the train is almost at the platform, my neighbour indicates that she wants to move out (“Pick up something from the on-board restaurant.”). At Aachen some passengers get down, many more enter; soon a middle-aged woman is by my side, pointing to the seat next to me.

“Is that free?” Her German is thickly accented. Bavarian, I think.

“No,” I reply. “It’s occupied.”

She repeats the question on the other side of the aisle. There, the situation is unclear.

“There was a man sitting here,” someone nearby says, “but he left with his bag a little while before Aachen and I’m not sure if he is coming back or not.”

“I’ll take a chance,” the woman replies, and sits down.

The train leaves Aachen, and soon I see my neighbour enter the compartment with a bottle of mineral water. Short and slim, she has a bouncy, girl-like gait. She’s wearing dark-blue jeans, a violet sweater over a black blouse with frills in front. Her dark hair falls onto her shoulder in a straight line, which reminds me of profiles of women in ancient Egyptian art. The only thing that appears out-of-place is her large brown leather handbag: covering almost half her torso, it seems too large for her. From the way she carries it the handbag does not seem bulky, which makes the choice of size more peculiar. Her eyes narrow and lips widen as she approaches – a wonderful smile.

“I thought you’d been left behind in Aachen.”

She laughs. “There was a long queue at the counter. They must install a vending machine there.”

We continue talking, and soon find ourselves on the subject of movies. I then remember another Finnish reference: the last part of Jim Jarmuschs’s Night on Earth is set in Helsinki. Has she seen the movie? She has, and she remembers that the taxi ride across Helsinki covers some interesting historical spots. And yes, she recently watched Slumdog Millionaire, liked it. I smile, and recommend Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited for another view of India as seen – and shown – by a westerner.

Apart from Slumdog, the other thing she knows about India is Goa. And yes, the Taj Mahal. I tell her I’ve seen the Taj, but never been to Goa.

Her phone rings. She reaches into her handbag and brings out a slim instrument. After speaking into it for a minute, she types something on it, then places it back in her handbag.

Was that a Nokia phone? Is she loyal to Finnish brands? She laughs, and replies that she indeed has not one but two Nokia mobile phones. Nokia is Finland’s biggest employer, but sometimes their phones do not work so well.

The train is slowing down again – we are near Köln – and the man who had vacated the seat across the aisle returns, a good forty-five minutes after he left, to claim his seat. The middle-aged woman has to make way.

“We thought you had left in Aachen,” his neighbour says, as the man sits down. “You even took your bag!”

“No, no.” he replies, in the most casual manner. “I was just chatting with a friend in the restaurant.”

Köln arrives; it is time for my neighbour to leave. As she collects her belongings and stands up, I ask what her name is. Cini, she replies. I try to imagine it written: Cini, Sini, Seenee, Sceni, Cene? But there is no time to ask – the train has stopped and people are getting down. At the end of the compartment, where the queue has stopped momentarily, she turns around and waves. I wave back. The queue begins to move; the next moment I see her getting down onto the platform, the large handbag slung over her left shoulder. She looks to her left, right, and then merges, with the crowd, into the darkness.

6 thoughts on “The Girl from Finland

  1. Loved it! Fascinating read. Something about conversations in a train I’d imagine 🙂
    or maybe coz I knew of all the place you speak of(Brussels, Achen, Koln, Frankfurt), except for Finland, barring the fact that my first penpal was Finnish, and we both were 12 years old. Her name was Jouni (J is pronounced Y) and her sister was Sini. (the I’s pronounced as “ee”)

    Been reading you a bit, and I must say, you make a keen people watcher. Sometimes they make interesting characters that ones you find in a book.

  2. My first penpal was Finnish too. His name was Petri and he came from a city called Turku. I thought, since he was European, he’d be heavily Christian, so I sent him a very religious looking Christmas card – only to learn later that his family never every went to church.

    Quite funny.

    Lovely piece, as usual.

  3. Good account – though I am not as well traveled as I would like to be, such encounters are so fascinating – to know a little, imagine the rest about one’s fellow travelers – my own take of fiction! When so much of modern life is so hurried, such interludes provide a moment of connection and a peek into the life of one’s fellow (wo)man… Have visited your blog occasionally – always something interesting.

  4. Yes such encounters are fascinating and the way you write it makes it even more so. Or is it that we find it more fascinating when the person happens to be from a culture and place far removed from our own? Wondering…

  5. This is lovely. So simple, so vivid. I felt as though I’d been on the train with you for the few minutes I was reading – all those feelings of inertia and boredom mixed with anxiety and with interest in the strangers around me and how they behave that I associate with travel. The name is spelt Sini, my Finnish friend says.

  6. Rads and Kushal: What’s this with so many Finnish first penpals – did you choose them for their place of origin, or is this a coincidence?!

    Bea Walker: Your mention of “imagine the rest about one’s fellow travelers” made me realize that this is something I haven’t done. Yes, it is an excellent starting point for fiction!

    Rash: Yes, it is the exotic and remote culture of the characters involved that makes such accounts fascinating.

    Jean: If you felt you’d been with me on the train, then you are The Ideal Reader! Thank you.

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