Drawn by something I could not define, I walked the road to Monikkala manor. It seemed vaguely familiar, like a road I had walked in a dream last December. The crunch of the dirt road underneath my shoes, the fragrant smell of the evergreens lining the way, and the occasional mosquito bite reminded me that this time it was real.
It feels almost ludicrous to explain how I came to walk down this road, because I can hardly believe it myself. I’ve never been good at going in straight lines, but pulled by the Universe and the voice behind my bellybutton that shouts “YOU’RE ON THE RIGHT TRACK” when I’m on the right track, or “TURN THE HELL AROUND”when I’m not, the past five days were more than your average zig-zag.
Last Thursday I walked out of Malmi, Helsinki, headed north. After a series of wrong turns, road construction, highways and railroad tracks; with sore muscles, bruised hips, and possibly developing shin splints, I made camp. I was woken up the next morning by the rain and an ant crawling across my face. (camping on an anthill = rookie mistake!) I put on my Adventure Pants for courage, packed up in a hurry, and set off on my way again. A couple of miles outside of Tuusula, I decided to try hitchhiking. An office supply truck driver named Erik not only gave me a lift, but drove to town hall, went in to get me a map, and then walked me to the corner to point me in the right direction. I explored the parks and museums along the lake, and then ducked into a hotel for a coffee to escape the rain. The receptionist, Lotta, gave me free pulla and upon hearing my story drove me out of her way to the neighboring town of Järvenpää for the Puisto Blues Festival.
I danced the night away with the lovely Johanna (sister of the drummer in the Finnish rock band that was playing), her boyfriend Kimmo (a famous radio host, I was told later), two women named Annakaisa and Heidi, and a number of other awesome, and slightly plastered, Finns. (Who says Finns aren’t friendly?)
Maybe it was growing up on a diet of Eva Cassidy, Etta James, Diana Krall, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and John Lee Hooker, or the way I feel like moving my body when I listen to Muddy Waters or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Maybe it was being the white girl in the Albany High gospel choir, or singing with Blues Whale in San Francisco, or throughout my Ithaca College musical education how I refused to put work into songs I couldn’t also feel. Maybe it is the way I feel like crying every time I hear Bonnie Raitt sing “I Can’t Make You Love Me” or “Angel From Montgomery.” Maybe it is simply the way my soul rumbles and shakes and pours out my mouth when I sing. Maybe it is something there aren’t words for.
I sat on the lawn with a couple thousand other people Saturday, listening to the blues acts. All were talented, all were fun, but I was waiting for the group that had real soul, the ones who would drive it home. Cheney Sims, Junior Mack, Bill Sims Jr. and the Heritage Blues Orchestra did it. Hot damn, they had all of the soul. All of it! I stood in the middle of the crowd, a wild-haired woman with hands in the air and a smile on her face and slide guitar in her heart, and something inside me gave way. Something surrendered to the journey.
Then came the zag. In between performers, I sat on the grass and played my ukulele. When I finished, an older man to my right clapped and asked where I was from. We got to talking, and I learned he was from Jyväskylä up north – exactly the way I was headed!
Jari and his friend Pekka dropped me an hour north of Järvenpää in the town of Turenki. Petronella had visited the nearby Monnikala manor to interview the writer Helen af Enehjelm, and though no one seemed to know where it was, I had a good feeling. I followed the sweet sound of accordion to the Turenki town square, where I played more ukulele with a couple of teenage girls and another man named Pekka, the accordion player. Pekka blew me kisses and played all the American love songs in his repertoire, and we jammed until a man came by and gave us 10 euros. “What now, you?” was Pekka’s favorite thing to say, so I took it as a suggestion and headed off into the typical Finnish June 2-hour sunset.
I don’t know exactly how I found the road to Monikkala, the dirt road from my dreams winding through evergreens in low light. I sure as hell didn’t know how long I had been walking. In that moment, time didn’t seem to exist. My eyes were wide and the voice behind my bellybutton was whispering now, this is it! you’re alive and this is it! I reached a fork in the road and headed right, and then I saw it. Down the road to my left, a glint of yellow with what could be a window. I shivered. Squinting, I turned and made my way down the darkened path. The house grew larger as I drew near, and just as I reached it I was startled by headlights from a car behind me. The car pulled up to the yellow house, and a boy got out.
“Hei hei,” I said. The boy looked positively terrified.
“Moi?” His hello was more of a question.
“I am looking for Monikkala manor,” I said.
“Uh, well, you found it,” he replied.
I learned that the boy’s name was Jeremi, and that the house belonged to his family. I explained who I was and what I was doing at his house in the middle of the night, and he relaxed slightly. “Do you think it would be ok if I camped here?” I asked, gesturing to the front lawn. “Perhaps I could meet your parents in the morning…” Jeremi shrugged. “Yeah, OK.”
He went inside, and as I began to spread my tent out on the grass, I heard a deeper voice.
“Moi.” Not a question. It belonged to a well-built man in orange crocs, no doubt the father of the house, trailed by a small white dog.
“Moi! My name is Jenny. I’m so sorry to bother you this late…”
“Aki,” he said, shaking my hand. “I don’t speak much English.”
I dug my Finnish/English dictionary and the Ilta Sanomat newspaper article out of my bag and shoved them into his hands.
He stood there for a long while, reading. “Let me get my wife,” he said, and left me alone. I found my watch in my bag. 12:30am! Jesus, Jenny! I turned to the dog. “Please tell them I’m a nice person,” I said, but he only wagged his tail and sniffed my backpack for food.
Aki returned, shaking his head. “She too tired,” he said. He took the article back, and we stood there for another long minute.
“How old are you?”
He reached for my dictionary, and flipped to a page. “Rohkea,” he said. “Brave. You are a brave woman. Come.”
Aki showed me to a small, unfurnished guest house with a wooden floor. “You can stay here,” he said. “Tea?”
In the warm kitchen, we drank tea and ate toast with nutella. Using my dictionary, google translate, and his son Patrik, Aki asked questions about my job as an outdoor guide, and proudly showed me an orienteering race he ran. He was curious about Petronella, and I told him she interviewed a woman writer here, named Helen af Enehjelm. Aki looked at me.
“Helen was my wife’s grandmother,” he said.
And so it came to be that 65 years after Petronella stayed at Monikkala manor and interviewed Helen af Enehjelm, I stayed at Monikkala manor and interviewed Helen af Enehjelm’s daughter Johanna, now 81 years old (who met Petronella briefly at the age of 14), and Johanna’s brilliant, generous daughter, Louise.
I may never know exactly what was going through the minds of Louise and Aki and their three boys and two dogs when they took in a wild woman with a big red backpack who walked to their house in the middle of the night. I feel humbled by their open minds and hearts, and deeply grateful for the food, roof, vintage sauna, horseback ride, and family history they shared with me. The kindness they showed me is a reminder of the way I would like to show up in the world.
Something else happened over these past 5 days, too. For the first time, I have begun to feel a sort of ownership over the path I have chosen. Yes, I am retracing Petronella’s steps across Finland – but there is a point where her legend ends and mine begins.