Travel to Write

SONY DSCThe more I write, the more I want to travel. The more I travel, the more I must write. Writing my family memoir brought me to many unexpected places: the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.; the port town of Gdansk, Poland; Stutthof concentration camp in Sztutowo, Poland; the bay of Lűbeck, Germany. I tasted the salt of the sea air, felt the fine sand between my toes, heard the squawking of sea birds, and breathed in the scent of pine forests. Of course, historical documents, old photographs and museum artifacts also helped to set the scenes, but seeing the actual places was invaluable to my writing. My only regret was not visiting my father’s hometown of Oulu, Finland while writing about his life.

Recently, I had an opportunity to visit his hometown, a small port in the north on the western coast. I had visited it twice before, once in my teens and again with my husband several years ago. This time was different. His descriptions of his old neighbourhoods, his childhood antics, and bombings by the Russians made me want to see the places he had described so vividly. Although I had done my research for the book, and had some of my own recollections of the town, I knew this visit would be different. With only three short days to explore the city, I enlisted the help of friends and family in the area to locate my father’s favourite haunts. A strange combination of my father’s Winter War stories and the current city mixed together to create a new perspective of the town.

On my list of must-sees were his previous homes. On Iso Katu, a long street lined with shops and restaurants travelling the length of the city, we found number thirty-four. What was once one of many wooden buildings lined along the street, we found in its place a post-war brick structure housing a place for dancing and music. I smiled to think that my grandparents’ lively house, always bustling with neighbourhood children, was replaced by people gathering to enjoy an evening of song and dance.

The second house was easier to locate. Now apparently abandoned, it stands in the Kuusiluoto neighbourhood very much in its original state only a stone’s throw from the Baltic Sea. The wooden buildings, painted a distinctive yellow with white trim around the paned windows, maintain their historic character. Tall trees cast long shadows, sea water laps at the reeds, and the sun plays through the unkempt grass along the shore. As we wandered around the neighbourhood, bicyclists zipped by and couples strolled leisurely along the paths. It was easy to imagine my father as a young boy playing in the field behind the houses, running with his mates through the grass and paddling his little boat out to sea. It was as I remembered visiting it several years ago, and seeing the area again satisfied my desire to ensure my writing had got it right.

I was delighted to walk through Ainola Park, a perfect sanctuary within the city, and wished I had more time to explore its many paths, bridges and creeks. The park’s trails twisted and turned, often following the snaking river’s curves past swaying birches and willows. We crossed bridge after bridge, pausing each time to watch the water stumble and bounce over the rocks or trickle between them. Our guide, Annukka, paused on one of the bridges and pointed below. The rock. I’d often wondered if I would ever see the infamous object that hurtled across the park toward my Uncle Veikko as the Russians bombed the town. He had huddled below a bridge, afraid of the proximity of the Russian bombs, lucky enough to avoid the gigantic rock that landed just a few feet away. I could only imagine how afraid he must have felt. Farther along, we found the area upon which my father’s house once stood on the grounds of the hydroelectric plant. Now, the area is abandoned and there is little to show that a happy family once lived there. Our exploration of the park did, however, reiterate for me the importance of the rivers and park in my father’s childhood memories. It was a veritable playground for the young. Writing about it had brought it to life, but visiting it made his words more vivid for me. As I stood above a babbling brook on a white wooden bridge, I could just picture him swinging in the trees, splashing in the pools, jumping across the rocks.

With my current novel in mind, a historical fiction set during the Winter War and partially located in Oulu, I discovered the region with the mindset of a novelist. An exploration of a used bookstore proved profitable. Several books about the Winter War surfaced to aid me in my research. A visit to the local museum had displays of the Lotta Svärd, an organization made of women who performed a variety of duties during the war as part of the Civil Guard. A miniature model of the town was the most fascinating piece to me in the museum. It was as though the model was waiting for me to arrive: a perfect recreation of the town in 1938 – the year before my novel begins. Even more strangely, I learned my Uncle Heimo was instrumental in ensuring the accuracy of the miniature buildings, remembering colours of rooftops and locations of streets with great detail.

Now that my trip is done, I realize how integral travel is to my writing. The sensory details of a place are best described through lived experiences. After visiting my father’s hometown, I’m inspired to capture more of the history of that time period. Luckily for me, there is so much more to learn about the Winter War and the cities in my novel that I’ll just have to start planning my next adventure to the land of my forefathers.

Kiitos to the family and friends who made rediscovering Finland such an enjoyable experience. Until we meet again…