In preparation for my trip, whenever I mentioned to someone I was about to travel to Helsinki, their response inevitably fell along the following variation: “Oh. What an ugly city. But the people are lovely.” Basically, Helsinki got the city version of ‘she’s got a great personality.’ Whenever I mentioned to someone that I would also be traveling to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, their response inevitably fell along the following variation: “Oh. Why are you going there? It’s just a part of Russia, right?” Basically, Tallinn got the city version of ‘Oh. You must just be flirting with her because you’re actually trying to get with her hot friend.’
Neither of these sentiments could be further from the truth of my time in either Helsinki or Tallinn. Yet, with a unilateral voice I found striking, the perception of these two places seemed to be imprinted in sediment. Why? Why was the story told about these cities in such contrast to the tale I lived?
Helsinki and Tallinn, two fraternal cities, the youngest siblings in the sprawling Scandinavia/Baltic post fall of the USSR Brady Bunch family. Russia’s the big brother who bullies everyone around—not because they’re particularly more talented than their other siblings but because they played ‘Risk’ as a kid and know exactly how advantageous their position is. (And they work out. A lot.) Sweden is the prettiest by conventional standards of beauty, Denmark is the hippest (none of us are cool enough to be Danish), Norway is the most successful (we should all be begging Norway to let us immigrate there) but what of Finland and little Estonia? What’s their voice in all of this? What’s their story?
I arrive in Helsinki and discover that everyone was telling the truth. It’s really ugly. If all you do is see the airport. Once aboard the train that will take me into the heart of the city, the industrial texture of the airport quickly begins deliquescing into the pine trees enveloping us. I trade the pines for the open air of the city and look up to see an old fading Olympic emblem on the side of the building in front of me. I smile at the reminder. Not that I really needed any reminding. Before I’ve ever arrived, Helsinki bore a special significance to me. This is the city where my grandfather became an Olympian.
Over the course of one’s life there are certain object we affix with symbolic importance. When I was young (and, honestly, not that young) you would have had to pry the Scorches (my familial trio of stuffed dragons) out of my surprisingly strong hands. I took these dragons, and a plethora of other stuffed friends, with me everywhere. One of my Uncle’s favorite stories to tell about me is how, after arriving for our two week stay in France, I opened up my suitcase to reveal that it almost exclusively carried all the stuffed animals I could not bear to be without, the Scorches chief among them. Without waxing poetic about it all, a lot of things changed a lot while I was very young. Amidst all that change this hodgepodge family of stuffed animals remained unchanging; other people had siblings, I had the Scorches and Teddy (actual Teddy Bear) and Borka (the goose with no feathers) and Piglet and the mini Teddys and Po and Spot and more than my dignity and pride can bear to list at this current juncture. But childhood me is not the only one who does this—my family is full of idol worshippers. My father has worn the same ring around his neck, a ring I gave him when I accidentally broke his baptismal crucifix and dropped it in the Atlantic Ocean (yikes); my mother has an ornament from every country I have traveled to so that each Christmas, no matter where our geographical locations may be, she’s on all my travels with me and I spend all my Christmases with her. Sometimes these hallowed objects change; while I still hold the Scorches near and dear to my heart, I don’t travel with them anymore. But there is one relic that has always remained sacred to me: my grandfather’s Olympic medal.
I’ve written about him before and I’ll suppose I’ll write about him my whole life; to me my grandfather was Prometheus—from the sparks of his own tales burst the flames of words and stories that would come to light my life. That and the fact that he, like Prometheus for human kind, would have done anything for me, even if it meant being strapped to the Caucasus Mountains to have a giant eagle visit him every day to have his liver eaten out. In short, my grandfather loved me a lot.
My grandfather won the bronze medal for Hungary in weightlifting during the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. There are two copies of the medal: my grandmother has the original and my mother and I have a gold plated replica. It is one of the most important objects I own. The first time I ever went traveling by myself, all those many moons ago when I stepped off that plane in Beijing, beneath my layers of oversized sweaters and hole ridden tank tops, pressed closest to me was his medal. That was almost a decade ago; my first summer abroad and the last summer of my grandfather’s life. It was the last Olympic games we would ever share.
It’s summertime when I’m in Helsinki. While I wander her cozy streets, stumbling across design shops and Kusama exhibits, seven thousand miles away one of the most watched events in the world is finishing up its final preparations: the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Since our last games together, I’ve made a little streak, become an accidental Olympic groupie, if you will. In 2008 I stood on the front steps of my host family’s apartment and watched the fireworks cover the Beijing night sky, signaling the start of the games; in 2012 I traveled from Edinburgh to London just to catch a glimpse of the stadiums, just to be in the presence of an Olympic city once more. I thought about trying to go to Brazil but time (grad school) and circumstances (money) rendered that impossible. The streak was broken. This summer the Olympics would go on without me, without us.
But much like the maidens of myth, once you’ve been visited by a God of Olympus, you’ll never be quite the person you once were. So it stands for these former Olympic cities, old lovers of Zeus or Poseidon or Aphrodite, still shimmering with the radiance of a world beyond the perception of mere mortals, little particles of Ichor that still flow through cities’ bloodstreams from all those epochs ago: Olympians have walked these streets, my Olympian.
In Ancient Greece there were ways to summon the Gods, to speak with them, to seek out their advice or their affections. But in this era where we now know the reason the Pythia of the famed Oracle of Delphi was able to speak with the God Apollo was because of hallucinations caused by the fumes that steamed from a fissure under the site of the Oracle, how do we bring the Olympians back? Or at least just one.
Helsinki is a city of churches. I have a tradition whenever I enter a house of worship, especially when I travel: I light a candle. This may seem an odd tradition for a woman who was recently outraged to discover that as of 2010 (apparently) I cannot in any formal way defect from the Catholic Church, despite not having participated in a single Catholic religious ceremony since the day of my baptism, which was the result of my two thoroughly ex-Catholic parents having a last minute panic attack and deciding to cover their butts. You know, just in case. It’s like having to still live with your ex after you break up with each other because you have a rent controlled apartment and no amount of awkwardness is worth giving that up. Basically, we’re stuck with each other.
For the every so often moments of my life when I have believed in God in a more traditional form (more traditional than say the five years or so when I described myself as a Hellenist—someone who believes in the Gods of Ancient Greece) I always pictured him as my grandfather. Bearded Old Testament God’s never been my guy (though fifty points to Slytherin (because old testament God is definitely a Slytherin) for creativity with regards to that whole raining sulfur episode)—I’m a woman in the world today, or ever, the last thing I need in my life is another angry white guy. But if there’s a benevolent force out there, if we have guardian angels, the Clarence to my George Bailey; it’s my grandfather.
Traditionally, I light these candles as an act of gratitude. Because I, like my parents before me, am covering my bases. Because whether there’s twelve thousand gods or none, I’m still appreciative to the universe for my messy, beautiful life. Because I am never more grateful for my story than when I travel. I light the candles to thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. But this time it’s different. This isn’t an offering or an act of supplication, this is a request.
Like Orpheus before me, fighting his way to the underworld to bring back the soul of his beloved wife Eurydice; like Odysseus diving down past all mortal shades to visit the mother who died waiting for him to come home; I seek out my own lost goodbye, embark on my own journey to the mouth of the Tartarus and back, past Charon’s boat, through the jaws of Cerberus that three headed hell hound, right to the feet of Hades himself: I want my grandfather back, you son of a bitch.
My citywide séance starts at the Helsinki Cathedral. White walls that blaze against the sky like Tolkien’s White City of Gondor, this Lutheran Church floats at the pinnacle of Senate Square, her green domes a fitting wink to the whimsy that hums across the city. There are two kinds of white interiors: the first is often found in the expensive apartments of the rich and famous, the kind of pristine slightly off white color that can only be maintained through the privilege of having a room you never actually set foot in; the second is the white of wood houses that line the coastal shores of every body of water across the world. Trimmed in instruments of gold, the inside of the Cathedral glows in the warm white of the shore; it is incandescent.
Next I make my way to the Kamppi Chapel of Silence. Sitting at the corner of two shopping malls, in the middle of modernism and mercantilism, this place seems like an alien space ship crashed landed and decided to stick around for the hell of it. All curves, the chapel burns like an ember of moon rock: even with the sun’s full height overhead, it proffers a light trapped from some place beyond the reckoning of man. Honestly, it looks a little bit like the basketball full of “talent” from Space Jam. The interior of the chapel is bare. The wooden walls the color of sand that has begun to bleach in the summer heat. It’s small. It’s quiet. You can’t hear anything of the world outside once you’ve entered the innermost sanctum of the chapel, taking refuge in this still pulsing cardiac chamber. It’s quiet inside this God’s heart.
For the last part of my ritual, I have one flame left to light, one realm left to enter. I have stood above the city, surveying the bustle of Helsinki from Zeus’s perch; I was hit with Poseidon’s oceanic silence that moves with a force beneath the sea of people that fill the center of the city. This church does not glow or shine; it does not position itself in a place of prominence within the epicenter; it exists on the edge, beyond a series of side streets you wouldn’t wander down unless you were wandering for a reason; to enter this church we must enter the entrails of the Earth. Hidden beneath a pile of rocks I enter Temppeliaukio Church. We’re in Hades’ realm now.
A roof of sheeted metal that rises ever so slightly from a pile of stones, this Church of the Rock unfurls inside the Earth. The coppered ceiling glitters overhead, twinkling back at the raw rock face walls from which it emerged; an ice crevice serves as the altarpiece and candles slither across surfaces like fire wyrms slipping in and out of the shadows. In this place of darkness and light, of treasure and prayer, I light the last taper.
Now the great beacon is lit: moving from the white heat of the Helsinki Cathedral to the golden glowing plains of the Kamppi Chapel down into the blue oxidized core of the Temppeliauki Church, it’s now or never. But my grandfather doesn’t appear. I seem to have failed in my ritual, forgotten some crucial offering. I turned back to soon.
My last night in Helsinki, on a whim, I look him up. It occurs to me that in this age of all access pass information, I’ve never bothered to do something I would do with a person I met on a tinder date: Google him. But he’s not there. His name is not listed anywhere. Fine, immigrants change their names all the time. Maybe the name I’ve known him by isn’t the one he used to compete. So I go through every athlete on the Hungarian Olympic team. Those without pictures still maintain at least one crucial fact: date of death/current age. Not one of them matches with my grandfather. I search every record, every picture, of any team member for every sport I could get my hands on. None of them were him. I feel like some precious ancestral ring has just slipped from my fingers and fallen into the depths of a New York City gutter from which I’ll never be able to get it back. Where was my grandfather in all of these Olympic records? Why did we have a photo of him there? How did he get this medal? Had he even competed? Had he even been there? Or was I chasing a ghost that had never even lived?
Traveling from Helsinki to Tallinn, I am sick to my stomach. And it’s not just the raucous movement of the high-speed ferry. I’ve lost him all over again.
One of the greatest balms to me in the wake of my sudden separation from my grandfather was my inheritance as the keeper of his stories. So long as I kept telling them, kept seeking them out, collecting them like relics, then I was still holding on, then he was still alive, in some small way, his flame was still burning, still eternal. But what if all the stories I had protected and fought to remember, what if they were just tall tales? Fabrications of a man I apparently never knew?
As we pull up to the coast, I stumble out of the boat, trembling and nauseous, spit out onto the shores of Estonia, right at the feet of Linnahall. Bones made of concrete, Linnahall is the elephantine skeletal structure of another past Olympic games: it was the sailing arena in 1980 when the USSR hosted the Summer Olympics. Linnahall belongs to the dystopian landscape of a world in the not so distant future. A fragment of bygones that, unencumbered by purpose, has transformed into a kraken, an alien of past and future times beached upon the shore, the sleeping leviathan waiting to rise. The structure is a labyrinth coated in bursts of colorful graffiti, minotaurs and teenagers skulking about every ledge and corner, creatures of lore and habit, all of us seeking some refuge in the ribcage of a fallen god.
Tallinn calls me back to the walls of Dubrovnik; two cities that have grown their roots so deep that no amount of modern conveniences will tear up the foundation of their medieval walls. The 13th century town hall still stands and just around the corner you can sign up for a Segway tour or pop into ‘Ye Olde Pub’ for a bit of boar on the bone (no utensils allowed.) Tallinn: one part medieval, one part modern, and one part recreation—a story of something past that may or may not have existed but suits us all the same. Maybe that’s what the poets, what the faithful, what my grandfather understood—there is something in between what is and what was, the delicate sliver of meningeal matter that all the tales ever told are crafted of.
On the advice of my host, I leave the medieval epicenter of the city and venture into parts less likely to be found on a trip advisor recommendation list. North of the Old Town lies the next era of Estonian history: the communist period. Many of the old Russian buildings still stand, funny stretches of pastel rectangles that look like the warm smile of a boy with a girlfriend: it’s all invitation and play but you’re never sure what lies behind those window panes until you unlock the front door. But these buildings are not for me. I’m seeking something more…archaic. By the bay sits a series of abandoned buildings, old communist housing blocks that have undergone several iterations of biblical traumas: abandoned, burned, eroded, these half eaten structures form the crumbs of streets that were.
I’m not supposed to be here. Entangled in a property war, the buildings stand empty and off limits: the homeless have been removed by those bidding for reconstruction, the real state developers have been blocked by those bidding for historical preservation. So there they sit. Empty homes, covered in strange spray-painted portraitures, the grass grows to reckless proportions, and the sounds of the grey Baltic thrum through your marrow. It’s a strange thing to stand in a community that used to be, I feel as if I have fallen through the rabbit hole and landed in some post apocalyptic landscape. Or perhaps it’s something far tenderer than that. This is not the cannibal ridden hillside of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, nor is it the impending nuclear image of things to come in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. This is a forgotten story, the memory of the unremembered.
I find my way to the shore of the sea, ignoring the thick atomic raindrops that have begun to fall and I think of this era of crossings and crosswires, of stories that have been bartered and traded, transmuted for survival. Legacies are the places we build and never get to live in.
It’s my last night in Estonia. I return to Linnahall for a final beer against the bleeding sunset. Sitting amongst the carcass of Olympus, I think of my own sometime God. My grandfather was a storyteller. I don’t know how he got that medal, I don’t know if he was an Olympian, I don’t know what happened or what he wished had happened. I do know he hated how much I talk during card games, that he whistled every morning to wake me up, and that no person or demi god ever made better scrambled eggs than him. I know he left me a medal and a mystery and a myth.
And what of the myths of Finland and Estonia? What fragments of them will I remember?
Finland is the scent of sperm whale sweat, cottage culture, cake buffets, dockyards of rusting iron next to oiled wood, packs of evergreens, black licorice ice cream, red moss on the rocks curling like tendrils of blood, old and new Olympic stadiums, churches of fire and ice, shining above and below the city.
Estonia is the smell of cinnamon, funny little pigeon statues, a country in the shape of a bat (seriously, it is), the sweet scent of pond water, medieval walls, cobblestones, embassies with glass mirrors for windows that sit across from chocolate shops, Alice in Wonderland doorways, forbidding railway tracks through the woods, burned pastel houses like half eaten Easter candies left behind in the tray, slow decaying temples to the God(s) of crossroads and stories.
When Achilles sauntered out onto the beach of Troy, when he hurled himself at her walls, dragging Hector’s body behind him, he did so with the weighty pressure of fate upon him. Achilles always knew he had a choice, two destinies, a set of sliding doors presented to him at birth: he could live a long, happy, but inglorious life or he could earn a pivotal seat at the table of one of the greatest sagas in history. Thousands of years later, with his name still in the common vernacular, I think we all know which choice he made. The instinct to be remembered is primal, more so than even our original prime directive to survive. In Lin Manuel-Miranda’s epic modern musical Hamilton, a refrain that is posed over and over again is “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” We have so little control over it, over the tending of our narrative once we’re no longer there to nurture it ourselves.
The Helsinki Olympic stadium is currently undergoing renovations. It will reopen in 2019, as the newest, most modern, and largest sports arena in Finland. It’s not the first time the Olympic stadium has undergone changes: from 1990-1994 it previously underwent construction. It’s still the same foundation as it was in 1952, the essential story is still the same, the spine of it, but with each generation, each new retelling, the story takes a different life.
What if the truth of who we are lies in the stories we tell rather than the stories that happened? Isn’t there something altogether intimate about the fictions we spin, perhaps more so than the facts? The stories we vest with power. Maybe it’s the story of Abraham on the mountainside with Isaac, or Persephone and her pomegranate, or my Grandfather and his medal, all are blended fabrics, threads of truth and fiction woven together to form something loftier and grander, something eternal, a torch to be passed from one champion, one generation to the next.