This summer I have traveled more than usual, the usual being a summery visit once a year to Europe. More than usual also in the sense that whenever I was able to go to Finland, I would stay in my birth town Turku, but this time I spend an entire month in Kristiinankaupunki where we run an AiR programme every summer. This picturesque town is a member of the international Città Slow network, and rightly so: the town has a lovely somnolent atmosphere with old wooden housing, long narrow streets and neat gardens. Yet it is a functional place with a couple of restaurants, a library, a cinema, and it’s by the sea which to me is a huge plus.
I actively slowed down while in Kristiinankaupunki and took part in this Città Slow pace by spending my days sitting on the steps of an old customs house built in 1680. We had an exhibition of Ethiopian church paintings and my photographs in this house as part of the International Art Week and the annual Open Gates event that attracts hundreds and hundreds of visitors into town for a weekend. We had advertised the event in the local media and as a result there were visitors also from far away neighboring towns and there were guests from even as far as Australia! As this town used to build large ships and had a lot of sailors and fishermen, many also left and never came back. Now their grandchildren or grand grand grand children would come to spend a holiday in town and walk in the footsteps of their family members.
The customs house is such a magnificent setting to show art work and as it had been closed for years and years, the locals were now very curious to have a look inside. Some of them would tell stories about who had lived in the house after its original purpose, or argue whether anybody had ever lived there in the first place. Based on these stories I gather that at least in the seventies the house would have been used by three families, and there was also a time when a friendly Roma man called “Black Jack” lived there. “Jack” was “a heavy drinker and always wore black clothes,” customary to the Finnish Roma people.
I mentioned the library.. it deserves a separate thought here. If there is one thing missing in Saint-Louis, it’s the library. Libraries in Finland are notorious for creating public spaces in which you enter and you no longer want to leave! Moreover, if there is a copy of a book in any library in Finland and you would like to borrow just that book, they will order it for you and text you once it has arrived. So I was able to get hold of Arundhati Roy’s most recent novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness that I could dive into with all that craziness of Old Delhi and Kashmir under Roy’s pen. My reading during those quiet hours, sitting on the steps of the old customs house, was only interrupted once in a while by swallows that had ended up trapped in the attic of the customs house. I would wait until they were a little tired first, then climb up those narrow stairs and catch them and take them out.