the very picture of nordic anonymity

AFTER A LONG STRETCH of gray mornings, could there be any better fate than to crack an eye open and spy a patch of blue in the sky? Especially when you are living in the older part of the town, where a custard-colored horizon is flavored by the wondrous silhouettes of chimneys and spires? It makes you happy to still be here alive, to know that somewhere a good cup of coffee awaits. Yes, there is a God, there is a Santa Claus, and all the good things in this world are real and true.

I can imagine Interior Minister Mart Helme felt the same way the other day when I spied him sipping a frothy drink in the back corner of the Maiasmokk Cafe in Tallinn’s Old Town, the very picture of nordic anonymity. It was the day after the Sanna Marin “sales girl” controversy broke and Helme had again become an international news item for his words about the new Finnish prime minister. The American and British press had picked it up and it had gone both global and viral. People in New Zealand were even reading about it.

It’s hard to imagine that many were rushing to Helme’s defense, but no matter, there was still good chocolate and coffee and it was still December after all, just a few days before Christmas. Minister Helme sat in the corner of the cafe alone. He sat alone and no one disturbed him and his hot drink. Down the way at the Tallinn Christmas Market, they were selling spicy glögi. Children were singing, there was a beautiful tree. Seeing Helme, I suddenly found myself chock-full of Christmas cheer and at once wanted to rush into the cafe to wish him good tidings. “There, there, Helme,” I would say with a jolly, good-time wink. “There, there. This too will pass. It is still Christmas!”

Of course, I didn’t go in. Something inside me repressed that convivial, joyful Christmastime feeling. Instead, I watched the solitary man enjoy his drink alone and then take the long solemn march back to his offices, his distinguished profile obscured by the brim of his trademark cap. There was such isolation, such lonesomeness in the scene that triggered a memory of the old Hans Christian Andersen story about the little match girl, whose father made her sell matches on the frozen streets of old Copenhagen, and who was afraid to go home out of fear of being beaten.

One by one, the little match girl lit her matches, watching each flame burn out with sad, Scandinavian eyes. Within each flame she saw happy memories though, the memories of her grandmother, in particular, who was waiting for her in heaven. When the locals discovered the frozen girl the next morning they knew not who she was. “She only wanted to warm herself,” the people had said. Yet no one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, or how happily she had gone with her grandmother into the light.

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how the sight of a friendless government minister in Tallinn and Andersen’s fairy tale girl in Denmark were linked, but the feeling of the two was similar. I thought of how the little girl in the story had pressed her nose to the glass of the warm houses of the Danish capital, seen the Christmas trees through them, smelled a goose roasting, and then I thought of the glass between me and the minister at the Maiasmokk Cafe, the reflective mirror-like glass on the Russian Embassy across the street, the glass in the windows of the Swedish Embassy a bit further down.

Between all us here was that impenetrable glass. Even in the warmth of Christmas, it kept us apart, prevented us from that sense of camaraderie, togetherness, of amity. That thick nordic glass. It was just everywhere. Even a Swedish friend had reminded me of the glass in a recent conversation. “You’re too much like an open book,” he said. “Everyone knows everything about you. But we northerners are not open. We are closed. It’s because of the cold weather. You should learn to be more like us now that you have been here so long. You should learn to be closed.”

I tried to change the topic, but I started to look at people a little differently after he said it. I watched the people on the streets of Tallinn at Christmas and saw them differently. I started to fear that he was right.

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