Martine came to the hostel to fetch me. She brought her car this time. “This means we won’t be having any drinks today," I said as soon as she plled in. "At least you won’t.”
“Don’t be that sure,” she replied. Pointing to the passenger side of the car, she added, “Get in here first.”
“Another pleasant, sunny day,” I said as I got into the car. “The third in a row."
“Quite a luxury in Helsinki,” Martine replied.
I resisted the urge to repeat my conceited remark of the previous day: that it had to do with my presence. We decided to drive around for a while before going to her mother’s place for dinner.
As we passed by the harbor, Martine drew my attention to a passenger ship that was anchored there. “It will be leaving for Stockholm in a few hours,” she said.
Every evening, a ship leaves Helsinki and reaches Stockholm the next morning. Many youngsters prefer traveling by ship to flying, because it doubles as a pleasure cruise with lots of fun onboard. "At the same time as this one leaves here, another one leaves Stockholm for Helsinki,” Martine said.
Though a working day, there were many people, mostly women, relaxing on the beach. All the women were in two-piece swimsuits. I didn’t see any of them swimming, though. Looking at them, I thought to myself, “The Helsinki sun is incapable of tanning their skin even at the height of summer.”
Their skin reminded me of what Shakespeare said in Othello, the Moor of Venice: “whiter than snow and smooth as monumental alabaster.”
Not that I had a chance to feel its smoothness, though the desire was there. When Martine was looking elsewhere, I furtively glanced at those sprawling beauties. She did catch me once, making me blush.
After some more driving around, we reached the Helsinki City Museum. The visit to the museum was quite an education for me. The exhibits, with texts explaining them, taught me a lot about Finnish history. Until then, I had only a superficial knowledge of it.
I learned to what extent Finland had suffered because of its being sandwiched between two superior powers of the time: Sweden to its west and Russia to its east. The two were in continual conflict until the turn of the nineteenth century—i.e., until Sweden lost its supremacy in the Baltic region to Russia. Any military expedition from Russia, directed at Sweden, had to go through Finland. Apart from the geographical disadvantage, Finland’s being part of the Swedish Empire also added to its sufferings at the hands of the Russians. Finland, as we said in chapter 4, was ruled by Sweden until 1809. Their sufferings were intense during the Great Northern War. The Helsinki City Museum has a whole section dedicated to that war.
The Great Northern War
The cause of the Great Northern War (1700–1721) was Sweden’s steady expansion into the coastal areas of the Baltic Sea during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The expansion antagonized Russia, Denmark-Norway, and Saxony-Poland. All three were looking for an opportunity to strike back at Sweden. Russia, under Czar Peter I (later known as Peter the Great), wanted to displace Sweden as the unchallenged power in the Baltic area. The immediate goals of the other two were to regain the territories they had lost to Sweden earlier. In 1697, when Charles XII, just fourteen years old, became king of Sweden, they thought that the moment they had been waiting for had arrived. They thought the Sweden was on the decline. The three powers formed an alliance against their common enemy.
But they had underestimated the capabilities of Sweden’s boy king. The war that began in February 1700 dragged on for 21 years, during which the original alliance was broken up and new ones were formed. Yes, ultimately, they achieved their goal of subduing Sweden.
By the time the war ended on August 30, 1721, Sweden had lost most of the territories it had grabbed on the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. Russia had achieved its goal: it had become the preeminent Baltic power and a major European power, displacing Sweden from that status.
The exhibits in the museum drive home to the visitors the hardships the Finns underwent during the Great Northern War. To fight the Russians in the Finnish theater, the Swedish king used mainly Finnish soldiers. Of the 60,000 Finnish soldiers in the Swedish army, only about 10,000 survived the war. There was a heavy loss of lives among civilians too: the prewar Finnish population of 400,000 was reduced to about 330,000.
Ordinary Finns suffered because of the armed resistance they put up against Russian occupation. Those who did it were mainly peasants. Most of the clergy and nobility in Finland had escaped to Sweden. The resistance was ruthlessly crushed, and tens of thousands of Finns were captured and sent to Russia to work as slaves. The Russians also destroyed much of Finland’s countryside. That was their way of denying Finland’s resources to Sweden.
The Finns’ hardships were more severe in the 1713–21 period, during which most of Finland was under Russian occupation and subjected to plundering and looting. The period has been recorded in Finnish history as the period of Great Wrath (Isoviha in Finnish). It ended with the Treaty of Nystadt (1721), which brought the Great Northern War itself to an end.
The Treaty of Nystadt, signed between Russia and Sweden, was the last of the peace treaties that Charles XII signed with his enemies in the Great Northern War. Under the treaty, the Swedish king was made to cede Estonia, Livonia, Ingria and a portion of Southeastern Finland to Russia. In fact, Russia had already occupied those territories during the war. The treaty made the occupation permanent.
It may be added that even before the treaty, Czar Peter I had begun to construct a new capital for his country in Swedish Ingria. He did it soon after its occpation, in 1703. The newly built city was named St. Petersburg. In 1712, Peter moved the country's capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg. It remained Russia’s capital until 1918.
Thanks to the pictures and texts displayed in the museum, I learned to what extent Finland’s destiny was controlled by Sweden and Russia until the turn of the twentieth century. I turned to Martine and said, “Now I know why you were not all that happy about those road signs all over the city written in Swedish and Russian.”
“It is not much different from what your country went through,” she said. “Call it invasion or call it colonization. It’s all the same.”
“You are absolutely right,” I told her with a pat on her shoulder.
“We can spend all day here,” Martine said. “But you know we have things to do before the day is over.”
I knew what she meant. We had to be at her mother’s before it was too late. We walked back to her car.
Dinner with a Finnish Family
Martine’s mother made a decent living catering for parties. It was not a big commercial venture, and she wanted to keep it that way. Her clients were mostly her friends and acquaintances. Sometimes she prepared foods at her own house and took them to the place where the party was held; other times she cooked at the party place itself. That she was an expert cook was evident from what she served us that night.
Pointing to the fried mushroom, she said that it was picked from the backyard of her own house and those of her friends’ houses. “In Helsinki, you don’t have to buy mushroom,” she added. “It grows all over the place. People who have time to spare go around picking it during the season.”
The tastiest item Martine’s mother served was the smoked salmon. After tasting it, I couldn't resist complimenting her, but had to do it without sounding too flattering. I put it this way: “I couldn’t help recalling what my friends used to say after tasting the fish curry my mother used to make.”
“What did they say?” she asked.
“That it’s out of this world.”
All three of them laughed. “I can’t wait to taste it,” the mother said.
“Plan a visit to Kerala, my home state in India, when I am there,” I told her.
Her boyfriend poured me another glass of wine. I couldn’t say no because it was very tasty. I didn’t bother to check the brand. My admiration for Martine grew more when she successfully resisted my invitation to “taste it, at least.”
“I don’t want to take any chance with those cops,” she kept saying.
Before leaving, I said, “Here is my offer to all three of you. Anytime you come to the States or India, you have a place to stay. What I have in New York is a messy one-bedroom apartment. We can manage. But make sure that I am there when you come.”
“Thank you,” all three said at the same time.
“It’s not a perfunctory offer,” I told them. “I sincerely hope I could be your host at least once before I die.”
Martine and her mother laughed. “You are not that old,” Martine said.
I gave a hug and a kiss to Martine’s mother and shook hands with her boyfriend.
Martine and I walked toward her car. She took my hand when she noticed that I was too overwhelmed to speak.
While driving to the hostel, she glanced at me now and then, but decided not to disturb my silence. When we reached the front of the hostel, she got out of the car, came to the passenger’s side, and opened the door for me, all in silence.
She held my hand and walked me to the entrance of the hostel. Seeing me struggling to utter something and my eyes welled up, she gave me a warm embrace. “You don’t have to say anything,” she said. “You would do the same for me if I were in your place.”
I watched her walk toward the car. She looked back before opening the door and gave me a flying kiss.
I was unable to sleep most of that night. I lay in bed, pondering over the warm hospitality I enjoyed at Martine’s mother’s place and the warmth and care with which Martine treated me all three days I had been in Helsinki.
“Whoever thought that a chance meeting we had in Berlin would develop into a strong bond like this one!” I said to myself. “And whoever thought that a country like Finland, where the cold season lasts as long as nine months, with no sun visible for nearly three of those months, would produce such warmhearted people like Martine and her mother!”
The experience taught me two things. One, warm friendships can develop at the most unexpected times, in the most unexpected places. And two, the character of a person has nothing to do with the climate of the country in which she is born and brought up; it is the product of her upbringing, education, and mental makeup.