Sleeping With Strangers

Photo: © Olga Breydo. All Rights Reserved.

Arttu in Türku

My train pulled into the station in Türku, Finland, and there he was, waiting for me. The minor anxiety of meeting a complete stranger abated as my couch surfing host, Arttu, received me. Atypically for a Finn, he was full of opinions, and from the get-go. When I greeted him and asked how he was doing, he replied, skeptically, “How am I doing? Finland is a country of assholes run by assholes.”


Arttu took a last, deep drag on his home-rolled cigarette and flicked the butt into the street—another uncharacteristic act for the orderly Finns. As we humped along, with me laboring under the weight of my full backpack, Arttu continued to regale me with comments on the passing social and political scenes. I don’t know why I took to this rough-cut character so quickly. Maybe because he laid all his cards on the table right off and I felt there would be no surprises down the road. His physical appearance gave me a lot to work with. Arttu was lean, almost cadaverous, with long—really long—reddish-brown hair that streamed from under his ball cap, Cousin Itt-like. Every so often during our hike to his apartment he would stop dead, then pull a lock of stringy hair in front of his eyes to examine it with the deliberation of a jeweler assaying a fine gem. His well-worn clothing, including a kind of black canvas work jacket, hung from his meager frame in layers. He was a chain smoker—no sooner had he filliped his butt into the street than he was rolling another, which he plugged between brown, rotting teeth.

“We need to pick up two women,” he erupted in the middle of his diatribe on the miserable state of affairs in a country that informed Americans looked upon as a model.

“Women?” I echoed.

“Yes. They’re at the bus stop. We’re almost there.”

Welcome to the world of couch surfing, where one secures sleeping space with strangers—for free—and where the surfer’s most salient asset is his ability to roll with the punches.

It was an overcast, rather cool June day in Finland’s erstwhile capital, and we found the two young Turkish women huddled on a busy street. Arttu didn’t even identify himself to them. He just used some nondescript body language to get them to come along. I introduced myself to the women as a fellow couch surfer, but this did little to allay the alarm they registered when they took a gander at their host. They huddled together like two pullets that had gotten a whiff of a fox. I picked up on this and told them, without much conviction, “It’s okay. I think he’s harmless.” They smiled doubtfully.

We continued our long march to Arttu’s apartment, which he told us he shared with his father. Arttu informed us, in an off-hand way, that his dad had had an accident. Two nights previous he had gotten drunk and fallen by the railroad tracks, passing out after hitting his head on a rock. That incident had possibly saved him from walking in front of the train that roared by a short while later.

Arttu’s apartment had not yet risen to the category of cataclysm, but it was well on its way. Every available surface was heaped with papers, computer components, and liquor bottles. The floor was also piled with papers, boxes, things. It took some diligence on my part to identify a space to place my backpack.

Without offering me and the Turkish girls any orientation, Arttu immediately sat down at the computer. A moment later he cried out, “Fucking Portuguese!” I had forgotten about the European Cup. I took a few moments to gather the scene. Arttu was still staring at the computer, blowing smoke at the screen, as if he could thereby inhibit the frustrating achievements of the fucking Portuguese. It was then that I noticed a white Persian cat, appropriately mangy-looking, reposing on its haunches on the computer desk. I was allergic to cats and regarded it warily. It looked as if it had dander to spare.

The Turkish women were now huddled on a sofa, looking at each other with something resembling panic. I sat down opposite them. “I still think he’s harmless,” I said, trying to put the best face on the situation. “I think that, under all that noise and smoke and hair, there’s real intelligence.” I realized that I sounded like someone trying to sell the unwanted to the non-buying.

The Turks were quite young. Late teens perhaps. They told me they had been couch surfing through Europe, starting in Italy, moving on to Germany, through Poland, and finally Scandinavia and Finland. I tried to engage them in conversation, but they were still processing the environment they found themselves in, their eyes darting about. “Where do we sleep?” one of them moaned.

Good question. I glanced over at Arttu, who was rummaging through a pile of papers for God knew what. Then I turned back to the Turks. “We shall see.”

In the world of couch surfing, one is a beggar who has the luxury of choosing. The whole concept precipitated in 2003. The intent: to give travelers a place to rest their heads for a spell before resuming their journey, and make meaningful contact with kindred souls along the way. On the face of it, it sounded improbable, but I was intrigued. When I described my interest to family and friends, many were, at the very least, doubtful about taking up residence, however briefly, in a complete stranger’s home. And yet there are those who couch surf as a matter of course and, on the flip side, there are hosts who are so avid about gleaning surfers that they scour the couch surfing website and reach out to travelers in search of sleeping space.

And so, thus inspired, I struck out for Finland, my goal being to see if I could build the entire experience around couch surfing, around getting to know the country through the eyes of Finns whose only expectation was that I be a respectful guest and share something of myself. I had mapped out a train route that would take me from Helsinki, up the west coast, through the subarctic, and down through the eastern lake district. I had laid the groundwork for all this back in the States, by perusing profiles of potential hosts on the couch surfing website, identifying people with whom I might have something in common, or who otherwise looked interesting, and then contacting them and making my “couch request.” In short order I had secured willing hosts in the five cities where I would make my stops. I was on my way.

Erkko in Helsinki

In the interest of getting my narrative ducks in a row, let me point out that Arttu was not my first host in Finland, just my most colorful and unpredictable. Prior to arriving in Türku, I couch-surfed in Helsinki with a tall, blond, blue-eyed, thirtyish Finn named Erkko. In his couch surfing website profile he described himself as “very social and spontaneous,” with a taste for gin and tonic. Before my arrival, he had emailed me directions for getting from the airport to the main train station in Helsinki, where he would rendezvous with me. He also appended the following cryptic remark: “When you get on the tram, don’t say hello to the person sitting next to you.” Haha. So Erkko was a jokester. Or maybe not. Once in Helsinki, I found the right tram, got on board, and identified an open seat next to a middle-aged man staring mournfully out the window. As I moved to sit down, I erupted with a spontaneous “Hello”—and the man promptly got up and changed his seat.

Erkko was waiting for me at the train station. When I related the tram story, he wagged a finger at me and said, “I told you.” As we walked toward his apartment he gave a running commentary on Finnish ways. “You don’t have to talk to us,” he said. “In Finland there is no such thing as an uncomfortable silence. There is no small talk.” Defying his own admonitions, Erkko was never at a loss for words. When we arrived in his apartment a young, dark-skinned man was pulling his things together. “Time to go, José,” said Erkko as he shooed the man out the door. “Who was he?” I asked.

“Last night’s couch surfer,” said Erkko. “Now it’s your turn.”

I soon learned that Erkko, in his small but neat and clean apartment, was one of those CS boosters who hosted surfers on a rolling basis. Even as I was settling in, my successor was already pending, inbound from somewhere on God’s earth. Before I even stowed my backpack, Erkko was pointing out his sauna. “Use it whenever you like,” he said with the modicum of pride a Finn is capable of mustering.

Not knowing any of my hosts, I had concocted a game plan. The idea was to spend unobtrusive time with them, allowing for their schedules and obligations, and engage them with prompts such as: “What is it like to be a Finn?” “Tell me about your country.” “Tell me about your language.”

That’s all it took. Erkko, equipped with an armada of social skills, sat with me at his kitchen table, served me tea, and picked up the thread I had offered him. He worked as a digital marketer, pursued sports, and enjoyed meeting people. He loved women, and by the Aryan looks of him had no difficulties in this department. His English, like that of almost every Finn I would meet, was exemplary, with the merest hint of an accent. “Of course we don’t expect foreigners to learn Finnish,” he declaimed. As if the wider world might show serious interest in a language that has fifteen cases and sounds like something beamed in by extraterrestrials. I smiled as I contrasted this, in my mind, with the attitude of the French Canadians during a recent visit to Quebec, who had brought me to my knees in their refusals to utter a syllable of English, forcing me to pantomime my order for a bagel and cream cheese.

Nevertheless, I thought it diplomatic to inquire about Finnish. As a German speaker, I pointed out to Erkko how accessible that language was to native English speakers, because of the abundance of cognates: Brot = bread, Haus = house, Butter = butter, etc. Erkko listened with a Mona Lisa smile and then chuckled. “Bread in Finnish is leipä,” he began, “And ‘house’ and ‘butter’ are talo and voi.”


Voi,” he confirmed.


I surfed Erkko’s fold-out couch for two days, during which time I was mostly on my own, wandering around Helsinki and meeting my vegetarian needs in kebab bars, where falafel was always an option. Helsinki is a real city, with around the same population as Boston—about 600 thousand (the whole of Finland has only about five million souls). Like Boston, it is easy on the eyes, and walkable. The heights of the buildings are attenuated, so, unlike New York, there is nothing to draw one’s gaze upwards, except for the abundant sky. Helsinki is, like any city worth its salt, a busy place. The modern, colorful trams thread everywhere, and I was struck by the enthusiastic “Thank yous” (Kiitos!) the phlegmatic Finns offered the driver when they exited the conveyance.

I spent my two days visiting the requisite tourist sites—the Sibelius monument, the cave-like Rock Church excavated out of a basalt outcropping, the National Museum, Finlandia Hall… Toward the evening of my second day I rendezvoused with Erkko. In the couch surfing community it’s appropriate to offer something to one’s host as a gesture of appreciation, be it a tchotchke from home, an offer to cook a meal, or just one’s time and meaningful conversation. I invited Erkko out to dinner.

We hit a nicely-appointed kebab restaurant which looked like something one might find in the Casbah, replete with tapestries and large mirrors. As soon as we took our places opposite one another in a booth, Erkko began to chatter, contravening his description of Finnish reticence. I recalled, years ago, another Finn telling me, “You can drive for hours not saying a word to the person sitting next to you, and that’s okay.” Erkko obviously didn’t fit this stereotype. He held forth with the poise and confidence of a tour director, offering running commentary on everything from the annual air guitar competition in Helsinki to salsa dancing to ice swimming.

After devouring our immense kebabs, we returned to Erkko’s apartment, where Janna, a young female surgeon and one of Erkko’s best buds, joined us. Janna had only a few years on the boyish Erkko and yet seemed to be a generation removed from him. Like Erkko, her English was impeccable. But she was more measured and reflective, happy to be in the moment, whereas Erkko always seemed to be leaning forward for what was coming over the horizon. He was Brad Pitt attractive, and I had noticed his wandering eye as we sat with our kebabs. Every woman elicited his interest. He struck me as someone who would never marry, as he seemed unable to harness his attention to one person. He was also a fun junkie—a salsa dancer with plans to retire at forty. After which, who knows? He just seemed so loosely attached to…to things that most people attach themselves to. Janna’s look, when regarding him, occupied that ambiguous, wistful space between love and resignation. She stayed until late, then retired to her own apartment. Erkko and I lingered a little longer. Five minutes later I was snug on the pull-out. In the morning I would yield to my couch surfing successor and catch the train to Türku.


Which is where the Arttu narrative resumes. To make a long story short, the two Turkish girls found salvation in a lost passport: one of them had left the document in Helsinki. And so they were delivered from their consternation about spending the night in Arttu’s cluttered hovel. I said goodbye to them, but regretfully, as they were my only allies. Or commiserators. Or witnesses.

Arttu asked me to walk with him. “Gotta go see dad,” he said. I was, of course, game to meet the man who had fathered this iconoclast. As we walked down a busy shopping street, Arttu added Gypsies (“They have mansions in Romania!”) and Japanese (“You can’t trust them!”) to his hit parade of prejudices. Out of curiosity, and feeling a bit mischievous, perhaps, I asked him, “Arttu, have you ever met a Japanese person?”

He stopped and looked at me in quiet disbelief. “My girlfriend is Japanese,” he said.


We found Arttu’s dad seated in the corner of a small cafe, smoking and nursing a tumbler. I took him to be about fifty. His face was swollen and bruised. A line of black stitches closed a wound above his left eye. He had the bloated, ruddy aspect of the veteran alcoholic. With these details edited out, the man would be, I thought, quite handsome. I greeted him with a Finnish Hei, a rare particle of that alien language that was accessible to me, but he just smiled in a self-effacing way. In a gesture of tenderness that unmanned me, Arttu put his arm around his father’s shoulders and confided something to him. His dad crushed out the remains of his cigarette and downed the last of his drink before resting his head in the crook of his son’s neck.

We parted and Arttu led me over to the railroad tracks, where he indicated an outcropping of bedrock. “That rock saved his life,” he said, as if indicating a historical site. A few moments later a commuter train rumbled by.

We returned to Arttu’s apartment, which, in the absence of the Turkish girls, looked even more miserably inhospitable now. It struck me as curious how Arttu seemed to work around me, as if I were part of the general clutter. I cleared a place on a chair and took out my journal to jot a few notes. I still had no idea where I was supposed to sleep. And so I sat and wrote, while Arttu noodled on the computer, downed shot after shot of vodka, smoked butt after butt, and occasionally paused to examine that stringy hair of his, which seemed to be growing longer before my eyes.

It was at this point that I began to feel the effects of the Persian cat, that unfortunate animal. My eyes had begun to itch and my nose was running. If things proceeded as per usual with my allergy, I would soon be wheezing. “Arttu,” I said, distracting him from the computer. He turned his gaze to me and revealed those brown teeth in what otherwise would have been a sweet smile. “I don’t think I can stay. I’m allergic to your cat.”

I thought Arttu might be offended. Or perhaps feel that I was judging his circumstances. Instead, he understood completely. “I have a friend who will take you,” he said.

And so I wound up in Timo’s apartment, and a greater contrast with Arttu’s situation there couldn’t be. Timo was a serious-minded law student. His living space was neat and clean, with proper Nordic lines. Tall, lean, clean-shaven and soft-spoken, he welcomed me warmly. We were soon sitting at his table, getting acquainted, sipping tea while Arttu mixed a rum and Coke. Toward midnight I excused myself and crawled off to surf Timo’s pull-out sofa.

When I got up in the morning my new host was already afoot. He prepared a breakfast of bread, jam, fresh fruit and tea for us. I was still pleasantly reeling from the contrast with Arttu. No clutter, no dust, no fucking Portuguese, and, of course, no cat. And Timo was nothing if not perceptive. “I guess you’re wondering how Arttu and I became friends.”

I smiled. “The question had occurred to me.”

Timo told me that Arttu’s hard edges and complexities were, in his opinion, due to alcohol. “He’s completely different when he’s sober.”

I thought this an accurate assessment and remarked on Arttu’s tender interaction with his father.

Timo nodded. “That’s because he was sober.”

I was charmed by Timo, by his generosity, his candor, and his willingness to be a friend to Arttu, despite crippling faults which, in my mind, would make Arttu difficult to get along with. My fear would be that, over time, a friend like Arttu would become so dependent upon me that I wouldn’t be able to breathe. But Timo reflected none of this. He had a healthy sense of his capabilities and was able to be available to Arttu without letting it impact his studies or his long-term ambitions. “You should come to Maine to visit me,” I offered, but Timo demurred. “I don’t like to travel,” he said. “I get homesick. But I like meeting Arttu’s couch surfers from all over the world. In a way, that’s how I travel.”

As Timo was not my primary host, I was loathe to prevail upon his time. I spent my remaining hours in Türku largely on my own, although I did meet up with Arttu again, briefly. This time he was lucid and thoughtful. He took me to a couple of historic sites, including a house where Lenin had lived, and then we parted. In short, when he was sober he was not uninteresting or difficult to be around. Timo had been right.

Alina in Seinajöki

My next destination was Seinajöki—due north but not far from Finland’s west coast. While still in the U.S., I had had an active email exchange with my host there, who had not yet had a couch surfer and was a tad circumspect. I must have won her over, because her last email contained the closing gloss, “We must meet.”

Germany’s vaunted trains have nothing on the Finnish rail system. The country’s railway is fast, clean, and efficient. One of its inspired graces is the presence of phone booths in the cars, where cell phone users can retire so as not to disturb other passengers. And so I rolled north, through a relatively flat, wooded landscape that was easy on the eyes and lacking the dynamism one would find in a Norway or Switzerland. I changed trains in Tampere, made the timely connection, and pressed farther north to Seinajöki, a nondescript outpost.

Alina had driven thirty kilometers to meet me. Of medium height, in her early forties, and with light hair, she was animated and friendly from the get-go. Her English was relaxed and colloquial. As we drove to her home in a rural area, she profiled her family for me. Her husband, Ossi, was out of work at the moment. They had three children—a girl (15), and two boys (13 and 7). Things were a bit difficult financially. And yet she had not only offered to host me, but had driven a distance to make it happen.

We arrived at her small house under clouding skies. It was careworn, and there were toys and tools scattered about the dooryard. As soon as we entered, Alina pointed out the sauna. “Use it whenever you like.”

The daughter was away, but both boys were home. They exhibited age-appropriate shyness, but they did approach me for handshakes. Then the little one, Hannes, returned, barefoot, to the sofa, where he picked up a controller and resumed his video game. Alina’s expansive husband, Ossi, came in. He greeted me with chagrin, as his English was stilted. “Better than my Finnish,” I offered in what would become my catchphrase with the rare Finn who sensed a need to apologize for less than exemplary English.

The house was an older wooden structure. Alina and Ossi were doing renovations, so there was a lot of exposed framing. We sat in the living room and chatted, while Hannes jumped with glee on the sofa, occasionally punctuating his Finnish with Americanisms such as “Gimme a break!” when the play didn’t go well.

Alina worked as a personal care attendant. This part-time job, combined with Ossi’s unemployment, eventually led to her mentioning “poverty.” However, it was not a lament. Instead, the very idea seemed to give Alina pause, as if the concept of poverty were so alien in welfare-state Finland that one had to repeat it so as not to forget that the word really existed. I decided to wade in. “Is poverty something you think about?”

Alina nodded reflectively while glancing at Hannes. Justus, the lanky thirteen-year-old, sat in an easy chair with his legs drawn up, listening to the conversation, although I had gathered that he didn’t speak or understand English. Alina explained that the family was experiencing “a dangerous time.” When I registered non-comprehension, she told me that it was tied in with their financial situation. “Ossi and I decided that the only way to work through an understanding of our poverty was to help those who had even less.” She went on to explain that she and her husband had volunteered to foster eight parentless Afghan boys who lived in some kind of group home for refugees. Once a week or so they went to be with the boys and give them something resembling mom-and-dad time. For this reason, they had received death threats from a far-right anti-refugee organization.

This story totally unmanned me. It wasn’t the death threats per se, but rather the idea that poverty is a concept one can process, albeit at the risk of one’s own neck. I not only found myself rapidly warming to these people, but felt that I had known them all my life. The two days I spent with them were ripe with meaningful conversations, a couple of drives through the surrounding countryside, and occasional horsing with the rambunctious Hannes. Big, strapping Ossi made valiant efforts to communicate with me in English, showing me some of his folk art, and some artifacts he had unearthed with his metal detector. His English had the hard edges of something like Klingon, and he had a habit of misappropriating the progressive tense: “I have been cooking yesterday…”

During one of my evenings with this warm and giving family, the conversation turned again to the Afghan boys they nurtured. Alina told me that one of them, age ten, had walked, solo, from Iraq to Finland. As she related this story I searched her face, wondering if she would cry or choke up. But no. She told the story with the practiced ease of someone who knew better than to cry, as if crying were an unproductive response to such unimaginable hardship. Or maybe the boy’s great fortune in making it to Finland allayed any need to cry.

Alina seemed intent on spending some one-on-one time with me. She took me to a sort of mobile sauna drive-in, where creative Finns had built saunas on wheels, which they had hauled to a lakeside beach. One, dubbed The Aquarium, had been built in five hours from old windows. Another was little more than a converted minivan. Alina remarked to me, “Finns won’t talk to strangers on the bus or train, but they’ll get naked with them in the sauna.”

Erkko in Kokkola

The two days I spent with Alina’s family seemed much longer, probably because I lived so deeply in their home, and the conversations were so thoroughgoing and rich. I enjoyed the cozy clutter, the marginal meals (one supper featured sausage, potato chips and M&Ms), and my hosts’ warmth, engagement, and companionship. I slept in the absent daughter’s room, and it was my best sleep yet. When I gathered my things to leave, Justus got up and wrapped his arms around me in an unselfconscious hug. Ossi removed himself from the episode of Tattoo Hunter he was absorbed in on the tube and pumped my hand. Hannes took his eyes from a book long enough to throw me a wave. Alina got me to the train station and we said our farewells there. Of the three goodbyes I had thus far said in Finland, this was the one that hurt.

The train arrived on time. A double-decker. I ascended to the upper, for the sake of the view it would afford of western Finland’s woodlands and quiet villages. We pressed farther north to the coastal city of Kokkola. I knew absolutely nothing about the place, except that it was on the exotic-sounding Gulf of Bothnia. At the far end of the train car was a clutch of young teenage girls, all blonde, blonde, blonde. They were chattering over one another and giggling, exchanging confidences in their coded language which contained not one intelligible fragment to pique my curiosity, making their conversation little more than background noise.

We slipped into Kokkola right on time. My host, another Erkko, was waiting for me. He was 48, single, and worked in the local bank. More stereotypically Finnish in his manner than either Erkko #1 or Arttu, or Alina, he conducted me to his neat-as-a-pin apartment with nary a word. The apartment itself was standard Nordic white and looked more like a model condo ready for showing to interested buyers. It had some edgy, kitchy touches, such as a reindeer skin serving as a throw rug. There was nothing resembling clutter and, when Erkko’s back was turned, I took the opportunity to run a finger along the edge of a high bookshelf.


“Would you like a sauna?”

I smiled. “Not yet,” I said. Erkko opened the door to an adjoining sitting room containing the futon that would host my traveler’s body. He gave me a set of keys to the apartment. “Come and go as you please.” Then we sat for tea and talked about things Finnish: the language, the low-key politics, and the tenacity of winter. There was a knock at the door. Erkko got up, answered it, and admitted a shorter, more compact man. He gave Erkko a smack on the lips.


The two sat down opposite me and we continued with our tea. Erkko’s partner, Jarmo, didn’t speak English well at all. He was the first mature Finn I’d met who didn’t. But he was pleasant and struggled to make my acquaintance by using Erkko as his interpreter. He had his own apartment some distance away, but there was no doubt about his relationship to Erkko. After our conversation, Erkko became animated and, within the hour, there was a grilled salmon dinner on the table. That was my cue to present Erkko with a jar of Maine-made blueberry jam, which found a home on one of his immaculate shelves.

After supper, Jarmo remained behind as Erkko and I went out for a walk. He took me across broad, grassy fields and up and down seaside slopes. Every so often he paused to ask how I was holding up. I’m not sure why I came across as somehow fragile. But I gave him the requisite thumbs up at every turn, and we pressed on, eventually descending to the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia. Erkko looked on with curiosity as I skipped a few stones.

That evening Erkko invited me to watch the news with him and Jarmo. “You won’t understand anything,” he warned me, “but there are maps and pictures.” And so I took my place on the sofa, between Erkko and Jarmo. The news proceeded apace, and I marinated in the reporter’s opaque syllables, ready to snatch any familiar fragments on the fly. As the stories flickered by I paused to glance left and right at both men. Erkko looked at me. “Everything OK?” he asked.

I nodded. “We have a cozy situation here,” I said, incongruously, and Jarmo was the one who laughed. We stayed up until a civilized ten o’clock, at which point Erkko bid me goodnight and disappeared into his bedroom with Jarmo.

Erkko was the poster boy of couch surfing hosts. He gave me a comfortable place to sleep, shared his resources, left me alone during the day to explore, and spent time with me as his schedule permitted. After my two days with him I felt rested and energized. On the morning of my departure I hoisted my backpack and set out on foot for the twenty-minute walk to the train station, from where I would continue north to Oulu, in the Finnish subarctic.

Aarni in Oulo

My host in Oulo, Aarni, had emailed me with an attached photo showing the black bucket hat he would be wearing, so I would recognize him. It did the trick, and I easily spotted him in the small crowd on the platform. What a large, imposing man, with large, imposing feet, in Frankenstein shoes. As I approached him he tipped a tall walking stick toward me, smiling brightly. Aarni was thirty-eight, but he had the thickset, doughy build of a late-middle age banker who had long prospered in life and could brag of never having done a stick of manual labor. His English was excellent. We walked off, slowly, toward the parking lot. Aarni moved deliberately, somewhat ploddingly, as if he were aware of every footfall. He wasn’t overtly unsteady on his feet, but still I gathered that walking was an undertaking for him. The walking stick, then, was more than a fashion statement. It was reassurance.

Aarni’s father greeted us from the driver’s side of his car. Seventy-ish, and throwing me a smile of welcome, he spoke no English. Aarni was the translator and the first thing he communicated to me as I settled into the back seat was that his parents had invited us for supper that evening. But first his dad drove us to Aarni’s apartment. It was a small, cluttered affair, but nothing like the epic mess of Arttu’s place back in Türku. Aarni was an IT guy, and as soon as we entered his apartment he sat down in front of his computer as I hovered on the periphery, finally plopping onto a sofa. After Aarni did what he had to do, we chatted for a while. His programming work was enjoyable, but it was either feast or famine as far as income went. He alluded to an “economic depression” in Finland, but he was clearly unfamiliar with what that word connotes in the U.S.. And I had certainly seen no evidence of economic misery in the country. Perhaps it was all relative: in welfare state Finland, if one wasn’t doing exceptionally well, the situation looked bleak. But the social safety net never let anyone fall very far.

Our conversation lulled. I turned to my backpack while Aarni noodled on the Web. I couldn’t help but notice small trays and bowls of snacks everywhere, but always within Aarni’s ready reach. I closed my eyes for a bit, disturbed only by Aarni’s eventual separation from the computer as he struggled to his feet. A short while later we moved off, on foot, for his parents’ home. Another lovely Nordic abode—everything, including the walls, was white. A flower here, a photo there, a bowl of fruit carefully arranged dead center on a coffee table. Aarni’s mom didn’t speak English either, so I was in the uncomfortable position of sitting with traditionally quiet people, stimulating conversation via Aarni, who translated uncomplainingly. It was a tasty dinner of broiled salmon, potatoes, and vegetables. As we left, I punctuated the visit with a heartfelt kiitos, which elicited beams of appreciation from the older couple.

Back at Aarni’s, a friend of his, Erno, joined us. He was a small, compact, somewhat dark man who spoke fluent English. I was flattered by his curiosity about me, and I returned the favor by pumping him for his views on Finnish culture, politics, language. As we batted the ball back and forth, Aarni took it upon himself to project YouTube images of the Finnish landscape on the wall, as if to illustrate the conversation I was having with Erno. Towards eleven I retired to a thin, roll-out foam mattress in the far corner of the room, between the sofa and a wall. I must have been exhausted, because I don’t remember my head hitting the pillow, and I certainly wasn’t bothered by the Finnish chatter of Aarni and Erno.

The next morning Aarni and I arose at approximately the same time. That’s when a curious thing happened. As I rolled up the mattress and pulled a change of clothing from my backpack, Aarni went into the kitchen and made himself an effulgent breakfast of meat, eggs, and potatoes on an oversized platter. He sat down by the computer and began to shovel it in while I stole occasional glances. He finally looked over at me and, after swallowing audibly, asked, “So what are you going to do today?”

Well, the first thing I was interested in was breakfast, but as a couch surfer I didn’t feel comfortable demanding food. So I went out to forage. After corralling some tea and pastry, I enjoyed the freedom of moving according to my whims. I walked by the Oulujoki River, explored the shops in town, and bought a pint of fresh strawberries in a farmers market. I discovered a lovely park and a vacant bench. Sleep overcame me again, so I stretched out and closed my eyes. When I opened them again an hour had slipped by. I made my way back to Aarni, who was aimlessly surfing the Web while one of his paws clawed around in the nearest dish of treats. I spotted a granola bar and decided upon an experiment. Without preamble I reached for it, unwrapped it, and began to nibble away. Aarni stole an approving glance at me. I immediately sensed that I had missed a cue by not going into the kitchen that morning and making a meal for myself. I suddenly, finally, felt very much at home with Aarni, whose philosophy seemed to be, “If you see food, take it.” That evening I invited him out for pizza and looked on in wonder as slice after slice disappeared into his gaping maw. It was this very lack of self-consciousness that finally endeared the man to me. He was the type of person the expression “happy go lucky” was invented for.

Juha in Kuopio

Aarni’s couch surfing accommodation was the simplest thus far. But I appreciated that thin mattress in the corner of his living room. And I appreciated the merry soul that Aarni seemed to be. Oulu was as far north as I would go. The next morning I would catch a train and dip out of the Finnish subarctic, bound for Kuopio in the eastern lake country.

My host, Juha, was waiting for me at the train station. He had been quick to respond to all of my emails and seemed enthusiastic to host me. He was a tall, beefy, twenty-nine-year-old, with dark, almost black, hair and a light beard. He gave me the choice of walking or taking the bus to his dorm at the university where he was at the tail end of his bachelor’s program. After the long train ride from Oulu I opted to walk, but after the first kilometer I began to regret it as my backpack became heavier with every step. I persisted through the remaining two kilometers and we arrived at the dormitory, attractively situated in a wooded area on the campus of the University of Eastern Finland. Juha shared a suite with two other students, neither of whom was in at the time. I asked Juha their names. “I don’t know,” he said without embarrassment. When I asked what they were studying he shrugged and said, “I have no idea.” Again, with no hint of chagrin. Not only, then, could Finns ride together in a car for hours and not say a word, but they could live together for a year or more and remain blissfully ignorant of one another’s identities.

After a brief rest, Juha and I took the bus back downtown. Kuopio is a pretty place, a city of more than 100,000 souls, on Lake Kallavesi. I strolled with Juha along one of the tree-lined banks, occasionally stopping to sit on a bench and chat. My host was forthcoming about himself and spoke quietly and earnestly about his childhood, during which he had been consistently bullied. He attributed this to his shyness and the associated unwillingness to fight back. The memory of abuse was also the propellant that brought him to reach out to host people from other countries, as his way of choosing those with whom he cared to share his time and space.

In appreciation for Juha’s generosity I invited him out for supper. “Let’s make it something Finnish,” I suggested. Juha thought hard about this. I had heard that there weren’t all that many typically Finnish dishes. But during our search we discovered a sandwich board outside a restaurant. It advertised something called “vence.” This animated Juha and we went in. “This is authentically Finnish,” he assured me. After a short wait we were each served a small, oval, china bowl of what looked like diminutive smelts, nestled in steamed vegetables. Juha assured me that the correct approach was to eat them fins, heads and all. And so down they went. Just the right amount of food, just the right amount of seasoning for a compact, delicious meal.

Back in Juha’s dorm room I plied him with my stock questions about Finland, Finnish, and his personal interests. In flawless, unaccented English, quiet, reserved Juha admitted to a passion for heavy metal, a musical form that was all but opaque to me. “Teach me,” I said as I sat cross-legged on the floor with him. For the next thirty minutes Juha loaded disk after disk into his player and explained the different forms of metal music, who was who, and why certain bands and tracks were singular. By the end of the half hour I was beginning to feel overloaded. But Juha seemed gratified by the interest I had shown in something that meant a lot to him. At ten he crawled into bed and I slept on the floor on a thin but comfortable mattress.

The next day I left Juha to his studies while I took the bus to town and did some more exploring. I found another bus that traveled a circuit among a number of close-set islands in Lake Kallavesi before returning to the city center. I walked some more, dozed on a park bench, found some more fresh strawberries, and then returned to Juha in mid-afternoon. When I told him I had snoozed on the bench he wrinkled his nose. “That’s not done in Finland,” he said, but gently. My take was that it was akin to putting one’s feet on someone else’s coffee table.

Juha suggested we go to a traditional Finnish smoke sauna in the woods. I knew this was my last chance to experience this central facet of Finnish life, so I agreed without hesitation. We took two buses, then walked a short distance to what looked like a ski lodge. It was old, made of dark, heavy wood, with a low, peaked roof. Juha explained that this public sauna was open only two days a week, because it took so much effort to get it going. A large wood fire was ignited in its heart and the sauna filled with smoke. Then the smoke was evacuated and the embers tended and fed throughout the day. This was a co-ed public sauna, so there was no nudity. But the heat! The chamber was dim, with several tiers of long benches. The wood was so hot that it seared my ass through my bathing suit. The air felt liquid, as if I were drinking the heat. There was a Japanese man sitting next to me, alternately moaning and gasping. I didn’t know whether he was in pain or ecstasy. I turned my head toward him. “You okay?” I asked. He nodded. I watched the sweat run from my face like an open faucet. After five minutes I needed relief. Juha accompanied me outside. We sat in a couple of chairs overlooking a lake. “That was brutal,” I said. And then, “Let’s go back.”

The second time was a little easier. I was able to last ten minutes. Then outside again to sit in the cool air under a roving sky. I watched as one of the young men from the sauna walked down to the lake, shed his towel, and took a dip. It looked inviting, but I was content where I was. Once more into the breach. Twelve minutes. My personal record. And then a cool shower and the trip home.

The sauna was a nice punctuation mark on my Finnish couch surfing experience. Juha, like all my hosts, had been generous and hospitable. I considered that couch-surfing was custom-tailored for the reticent Finns as a way of making social contact. I know this was the case with Juha, who had expressed this in so many words. As I sped south on the return train to Helsinki, I couldn’t envision ever staying in a hotel again. In comparison to the couch of a welcoming stranger, the antisepsis of such tourist institutions no longer held any appeal for me.

Once back in the States, I performed the duty of leaving positive feedback on my hosts’ profile pages on the couch surfing website. Even the frayed-at-the-edges Arttu received a nod of appreciation for the kindness he had extended to me. I noted that all of my hosts had already given me their seals of approval as well. I felt very close to these people, and their kind words displayed their feelings for me. Before I left for Finland, I had told a friend how I intended to travel, sleeping with strangers. She was aghast. On the surface, it does sound improbable, even dangerous. But in the end I learned that most people are curious, most people are good, and in the worldwide community of couch surfers, hosts and guests tend to be on the same wavelength, reaching out, with open arms, for contact.

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Issue 10

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Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta. He is a regular contributor of essays to The Christian Science Monitor. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Exquisite Corpse, and elsewhere. His books include Adopting Alyosha — A Single Man Finds a Son in Russia, Small Worlds — Adopted Sons, Pet Piranhas and Other Mortal Concerns, The Three-Legged Woman & Other Excursions in Teaching and the novels, Long Live Grover Cleveland, which won a 2016 Ben Franklin Literary Award and a USA BookNews Award, and Life on Mars, which was a Finalist in the Humor category of the 2019 Best Book Awards sponsored by American Book Fest.

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Issue 10

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