30 Years to Finland

by ERIK ORTON

It’s been 30 years since I’ve been to Finland.  My mother is Finnish.  She moved to NYC at age seventeen to be a nanny.  A few years later she met my dad and they got married.  I’m half Finnish.  I used to spend summers in Finland as a kid.  My last summer there I was fourteen.  My mom worried I would be bored spending all day in my grandmothers two-bedroom/one bath apartment, so she signed me up for a cycling race.  I was big into cycling at the time.

 Me with my great-grandfather, Pappa.  No wonder I think accordions are cool, and Madonna.

Me with my great-grandfather, Pappa.  No wonder I think accordions are cool, and Madonna.

I was too young for my driver’s license, but I was desperate for independence, so I would cycle all over Northern Virginia to do what I wanted and see my friends. I had the fingerless gloves, black shorts, clip-on shoes and everything. But I rode relatively short distances 10-25 miles.  For my flight to Finland, I packed my bicycle into a big box planning to ride when I got there.  When I arrived, my mother informed me I was registered for the rather grandly named Tur de Finlandia, not to be confused with the Tour de France.  The Tur de Finlandia was 180km/120 miles and it was to be held in two weeks.   That didn’t leave me much time to train.  

My quick-on-my-feet training strategy was to have my mother drive me out of town and drop me off.  I would then ride home.  I did this every other day for two weeks, extending my distance until my last day I rode 150km/100 miles from Lahti—where my grandmother lived—to Helsinki where they had Pizza Hut.  The plan was for my mother to pick me up in Helsinki and go to Pizza Hut to celebrate. I was desperate for American pizza.   Unfortunately, my mother never showed up.  

It started to rain; pouring rain.  As I waited alongside the highway, with only my biker shorts, short-sleeve biker shirt, no food and only a little water, I started to shiver.  It was pre-cell phone/internet, I didn’t speak the language and back then most Finns didn’t speak English as a second language.  I didn’t know what else to do, so I got on my bike and started to ride home.  Long story short, after an hour of riding in the pounding rain, I saw my mother speed past in the opposite direction.  She kept going.  But then I saw break lights.  She almost didn’t see me because the rain was so heavy.  She hung a u-turn, pulled over, wrapped me in a blanket and gave me a big hug.  She’d been looking for me for hours. We later realized there were two highways, the old highway and the new freeway.  She had originally driven the freeway. I had ridden the old highway.  Two days later I raced in the Tour de Finlandia.  Riding alone, without a team, the older bikers called me the "Américan poika," American boy.  They spoke to me in broken English, smiled at me and encouraged me as I set a new distance record for myself and completed the race as the youngest registered rider.

 In my riding bib after the Tur de Finlandia.

In my riding bib after the Tur de Finlandia.

 Getting driven home after the race in the same car with which my mother picked me up in the rain.

Getting driven home after the race in the same car with which my mother picked me up in the rain.

That experience did a lot to shape how I saw myself, my family and the world.  I knew I could do hard things.  I knew the world could be merciless; the sky could crack open and pour down on me.  But there was also so much generosity; complete strangers took me under their wing and helped me. And I knew my mother loved me and would always look for me to bring me safely home.  That was 30 years ago.  I haven’t been back since.

I've since gotten married, Emily and I had five kids and over the years we’ve sent our older daughters to Finland so they could meet my grandmother, my uncles and see the “mother land.”  This past summer my grandmother passed away at age ninety-three.  She was happy and healthy to the end.  My mother and Karina went to the funeral.  Now the rest of us are going.  I have the key to my grandmother’s apartment sitting here on my desk.  We have one-way tickets to Helsinki.  I told this to my friend, Casey, and he said, “Sounds like the beginning of a movie.” Grandmother passes away, haven’t been there in 30 years, you have the apartment key, one-way tickets.  I wouldn’t disagree with him.  For me, the question I love is, what kind of movie will it be?  

Don Miller, a favorite author of mine, opens one of his books with this:

“If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn't remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.

But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to be meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won't make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either”

If it won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.  I’m going back to Finland after a long time. We’ll be gone for all of fall and most of winter.  I’m not sure what story will unfold while we’re away, but I look forward to trying to write my best story.  

 Alison and SJ visiting my grandmother in Finland.

Alison and SJ visiting my grandmother in Finland.

 The old highway from Lahti to Helsinki.

The old highway from Lahti to Helsinki.