I awoke this morning a few minutes before the travel alarm was set to go off. John was already in the shower and sunlight poured through the transom window of our tiny room at Hotel Helka, turning a big swatch of the south wall golden yellow. Steam from the coffee maker on the desk drifted upward, casting a delicate shadow that swirled upon the wall. The coffee pot was one cup shy of full and although just beyond the foot of my bed, it seemed an entire ocean away.
It is getaway day in Helsinki and at some point I will crawl out from beneath the covers. In a few moments my feet will hit the floor, I will head towards the bathroom where John is now humming something beneath the drone of the hair dryer, and the long journey toward home will have begun. John’s humming and the drone of the hair dryer conclude simultaneously, the door squeaks open and he appears, ready to get moving.
“Morning Mark,” he says, “Can I pour you a coffee?”
Knowing full well he doesn’t need an answer, John tips the pot to the rim of a styrofoam cup. I sit up a little and John hands it to me. It is hotel room coffee, but it is good. And it is hot.
“I hope you don’t mind,” John says, “I borrowed some of your Barbasol. That’s great stuff, I use it at home.” And after a pause he adds, “And it’s still only ninety-nine cents!”
Somehow the price of cheap shaving cream made us laugh and I sipped from my cup. This sort of chat is the kind of nonsense that helps to sustain travelers like we. It’s a way to agree upon an acceptable mood for the day and a way to measure perspective. Loneliness and worry don’t come knocking so long as there’s a little work to do and a lot of nonsense to participate in. We four have covered thousands of miles over the last nine days and the amount of actual time spent making music has been small when compared to the amount of time spent doing everything else - riding in planes and cars, reading, walking, talking, shopping, eating, typing, thinking, lying awake at night and making fun of ourselves and different bits and pieces of our curious shared adventure. One learns to look forward to the nonsense.
“I’m headed down to check the internet,” said John. “I’ll see you down there.”
The breakfast buffet at Hotel Helka was good, but the coffee in our room was better. After breakfast I rode the elevator back up to gather my bags and instruments. Once returned to the lobby, I plopped my well-fed, weary bones deep into a soft arm chair. I looked out the window, looked at the internet and kept a tired eye on the comings and goings at the reception desk. A little after seven, Colby appeared looking sleepy, with all his stuff. We chatted for a bit and he ambled off towards the buffet, leaving me to look after his things.
In due time the cab would come and whisk Colby, John and I to the Helsinki airport. Paul was headed back to Sweden for some other business and I’m sure some more fiddle playing. And bless the remarkable woman behind the hotel desk who checked us out, who brought the coffee pot over to top off our cups while the Finnish bell hops loaded all our stuff into the van. Plastic lids appeared from her pocket and the sleep-deprived folk singers enjoyed a spill-free trip to the airport.
There was time for a real coffee after our plane landed in Copenhagen for a five hour lay over; after a private meeting with two customs agents who were curious about the tools in my bag, the pocket knife and the corkscrew. The one guy rooted around, discovered a jaw harp and held it up to the light asking me again and again what it was, never once giving me permission to play it for him. He finally allowed that I would have to check my backpack in with the other luggage, but I could keep my lap top, notebook, phone and my tattered paperback copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
John and Colby were already somewhere in the airport, and I headed over to a luggage boutique to buy a new shoulder bag. I found a good one which cost one hundred and forty-five Danish dollars. Later, I found out from the server at the cafe that a Danish dollar, a krone, is worth around seventeen American cents. So the bag cost about twenty-five bucks and the coffee, served rich and black with raw sugar and thick cream on the side, cost around two seventy-five.
I opened my Whitman.
The earth never tires;
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first - Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first;
Be not discouraged - keep on - there are divine things, well enveloped;
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell...
I bought this copy of Leave of Grass my senior year in high school, and have carried it with me to many places since then. The cover fell off a long time ago, and the pages are torn and marked and musty. Whitman is hard for me to read, but he carries something of the American essence that only few seem to have captured. And if I can stay with him long enough, his lines open up, and a glimpse of his beautiful vision will begin to appear. It’s a kind of neat magic I have come to rely on over the years, especially so at times like this, when I am a long way from home and feeling unsettled. And so far, no iPhone app has yet been made available that will perform this feat so dependably.
I hear John call and I turn, and he says, “Did you make it through okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” I answer. “Where’s Colby?”
“He’s looking for some presents to bring home to his kids. Hey, do you want to hang around in the airport for the next five hours, or do you want to see if we can get downtown to Copenhagen and look around?”
Not thirty minutes later, we three were walking along cobblestone in historic Copenhagen. With the use of Colby’s debit card, John had remarkably figured out how to produce three train tickets from a machine whose instructions included only obtuse pictures and words printed in Danish.
The history of Copenhagen dates back to the days of Vikings. It is a city of high culture and refinement, whose many churches, cathedrals, government buildings and museums strike a very kingly presence. Every few blocks is a sausage stand, where one can point to one of perhaps twenty different pictured menu items, hold out a pile of Danish coins, return to his pocket what the vendor has not removed, and be handed a delicious smelling thing on a roll that very much resembles a long American hot dog.
The downtown walking district of Copenhagen is a winding maze of shops, restaurants and cafes housed in what look to be very old buildings. No automobiles are allowed and bicycles are everywhere. Though mimes, puppeteers and musicians add an element of festivity to the street atmosphere, the air remains sophisticated and urbane. We walkers and eaters and sightseers are an international community divided in half between those who are on their way to somewhere and the rest of us who are happy to lag along with the leisurely afternoon pace of this most elegant northern European city.
John picks out a bakery that offers tables on the street, a few of which are available. We order croissants and our server brings us each a half-liter pot of coffee. It is strong and good. The cream is fresh, the bakery delicate and lovely. John lights up a cigarette, and this strange wish to become a smoker suddenly makes itself apparent. And I do remember seeing a beret in the hat shop earlier on our walk.
After a time, Colby said, “We better be getting back. We don’t want to miss our flight.”
To get to Chicago from Copenhagen by air, one has to spend approximately nine hours on a plane. And those who have never done it before will learn that chasing the sun in an Airbus will lead to one very long day. We will touch down in Chicago sometime after three o’clock in the afternoon when my body will be thinking it is sometime after eleven at night. And who knows how long it will take to clear customs, retrieve my luggage, get to a train, walk over to Paul’s house in the city where my car is parked, and navigate the gridlock of Chicago traffic back out to Riverside, Illinois.
The Soul travels; says Whitman.
The body does not travel as much as the soul;
The body has just as great a work as the soul, and parts away at last for the journey of the soul.
All parts away for the progress of souls;
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments, - all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of Souls along the grand roads of the universe...
Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go;
But I know that they go toward the best - toward something great.
“Excuse me,” said the flight attendant, holding out a small bag of pretzels. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Yes,” I say. “Coffee please. Black.”