1000 Words

Klaus

When eventually we both were in other relationships, we remained friends. Klaus’s new girlfriend Camilla was Finnish and each summer she and Klaus sailed together from Stockholm to Helsinki, where she spent a month with her family. Klaus returned to Stockholm alone, taking his time sailing back slowly through the more than six thousand islands in the Archipelago Sea between Finland and Sweden. During a phone conversation, we hatched a plan to meet in Helsinki so that I could sail back with him, and I was impressed that Camilla was such an open-minded Scandinavian woman she seemed fine with the idea when Klaus ran it by her.

I gave myself ten days in Finland before meeting Klaus, as I’d never been there. There are few things I love more than holing up in a hotel where no one knows where I am. I rarel make reservations and never have an itinerary. The feeling of freedom anonymity brings is unrivaled—probably evolved from years of being immersed in a family when every phone call could potentially be a request to intervene in a fight and force you into a series of lengthy mediating phone calls. (Refusing was futile, the guilt would ruin your day.) So, snug in my tiny Helsinki hotel room at night, I’d bring in dinner and read or watch television. A game show featuring an attractive woman and two men caught my attention. Whenever someone seemed to get the wrong answer, a buzzer sounded and one of the contestants removed an article of clothing. It wasn’t long before the woman was bare-breasted, the men down to their skivvies, and it was still eight o’clock in prime time. You can imagine what came on later and I found myself happily staying up until three in the morning and sleeping until noon. One afternoon when I finally went outdoors, I was peering through the window of a pizza parlor when the man making pizzas waved for me to come in. “Where are you from?”he asked. “New York,”I replied, “but how did you know I wasn’t from here?” “You’re smiling,”he said. Orhan was among the first groups of foreigners recruited to work in Scandinavia. When I learned he was Turkish, I immediately accepted his offer to meet him after work for a tour of the city. I’d spent a lot of time in Turkey and loved the warmth and hospitality of the people.

I went to the tourist office and they helped me find accommodations with a farming family about five hours north in the countryside around the Saimaa lake district. The young couple who owned the farm had a small baby and they made me feel comfortable from the moment I arrived. I milked my first cow on that farm. When I got my period and craved sugar, the wife understood my sign language and climbed on a ladder in the kitchen to get me a chunk of chocolate from her hidden stash. Some things are universal.

The entire area was beyond bucolic. The boat basin at the waterfront was shaped in a semi-circle and lined with flags that danced with each other in the breeze. Across the street, four baby carriages stood alone outside a cafe. Not the lightweight—practical for the mall—strollers, but shiny deep blue metal carriages with white tires we used to call prams. Hand-knit blankets and crisply ironed embroidered pillowcases surrounded each sleeping baby as their mothers met friends inside for coffee. This was done without a second thought when I was a child, just as we could meet our friends unsupervised to go trick-or-treating and excitedly run home to count our loot. It was a simple thing, but I could feel my eyes filling with tears. Technologically we’ve gained a lot, but everywhere there are reminders that we’ve lost a lot too.

Klaus was already on the dock organizing boxes of provisions when I arrived. After an enthusiastic greeting, we made room in the galley for the ginger cookies (men never bring enough sweets) and array of smoked fish I’d bought off the grills of vendors along the waterfront facing the market. When packing in New York for an August sailing trip, naturally I had been thinking boats, swimming, bathing suits, and had an array of bikinis and tube tops in my bag. But it turned out to be one of the coldest Augusts on record and compounding the cold only one day out, we hit torrential rains. Thankfully Klaus had an extra parka on board, as well as a pair of insulated gloves for my hands that had become so numb they were useless.

Before leaving New York, I’d asked Klaus what he’d like me to bring him, and I assumed it was because of the sky-high taxes on alcohol in Sweden that he’d requested a bottle of Glenfiddich single malt scotch from the duty-free. The morning of the second day was below freezing, and I thought a splash of the scotch in our black coffee was in order. But I couldn’t find the bottle. When I asked Klaus, he got all hemming-and-hawingly evasive, which made me suspicious. The first moment I was alone, a quick reconnaissance turned up the empty bottle. He had to have taken it into his cabin and downed the whole bottle by himself the first night. His alcoholism had progressed to the point that he drank all day long. He had a few stouts with breakfast and throughout the morning, wine with lunch and during the afternoon, switching to the hard stuff late afternoon and well into the night. From the protection of the dry cockpit below, I can still picture him up at the wheel in a hooded yellow slicker, open bottle of beer in his right pocket, squinting for visibility through the slashing rain hitting his face. The once tall, thin handsome man still in his thirties now had bags under his eyes, a sagging chin line and big paunch. Unchanged however, was his determination, love of sailing–and fabulous legs.

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One Comment

  1. I was born in Denmark and my mother was Danish, so I spent my summers there as a child. Danes and Swedes can be found in almost any country in the world, yet there are only 6 million Danes. It must be that Viking spirit of adventure. Look forward to reading, “Without a Spare.”

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