65: Trusting Serendipity

65: Trusting Serendipity

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less

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Trusting Serendipity

Don’t be a tourist. Plan less. Go slowly. I traveled in the most inefficient way possible and it took me exactly where I wanted to go.

~Andrew Evans

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have just landed in Helsinki,” said the flight attendant as our airplane rolled to the gate.

I looked at my boyfriend, Robin, who responded with a cheeky smile. He knew that I was nervous.

I was not nervous because of the trip. I was not nervous because we were about to spend a few days in Finland where I could not even pronounce the street names. I was nervous for a much darker, scarier reason.

I had not made any plans.

Over the years, I had developed and refined a routine that I used whenever I travelled to a new city. For weeks before the trip, I would obsessively read everything I could find on the Internet. What were the most important attractions? Which regional delicacies did I have to try? Which operator gave the best tour of the city? Whenever possible, I would order maps of the city from the destination’s travel office. I would watch promotional videos of the city. Then, I would start making lists: a list of things that I absolutely needed to see; a list of “nice to see, but not need to see” places; and a list of foods and drinks I would taste.

Once I arrived in the city I had been wildly fantasizing about for weeks — or even months — I would start squeezing these lists into a schedule based on the weather and other factors. Go to Museum X on Monday morning and then eat at Restaurant Y that is in its vicinity, and so on and so forth. After all, my short time in a foreign city had to be optimized. There was no way I was going to leave it with regrets. That only made sense, right?

Robin thought otherwise and had suggested that we make absolutely no plans for our trip to Helsinki. In a moment of weakness, I had agreed.

So here we were, in the Finnish capital, with no plans, but armed with a map, which I had insisted on bringing but had not been allowed to open before our arrival. Compromises are an important part of a healthy relationship. A kind airport employee explained to us the bus connection to downtown Helsinki, and off we went on a public bus.

As we rode from the airport to the central train station and from the central train station to our host’s apartment, I was glued to the bus window, taking in the atmosphere of the Scandinavian metropolis. I tried to look at some street names but the bus drove by too fast, and anyway they contained far too many vowels for me to remember, let alone pronounce them correctly.

The sun had set by the time we got off the bus in a residential area. We found our apartment relatively easily and were greeted by our host, Taras. Taras was a twenty-something Ukrainian expat with a friendly smile and warm brown eyes. He showed us the room we would be staying in and invited us to have tea with him in his small but cozy kitchen.

Robin, Taras and I spent the rest of the evening chatting in the kitchen. I opened my map of Helsinki, spread it on the table and eagerly asked Taras if he had any recommendations for our stay. This obviously did not count as planning, since we were already in Helsinki. Taras gladly gave us tips, marking our maps with dots and crosses. He looked like he had already done this with dozens of other guests but did not seem to mind.

I slowly sipped my tea while he told us where to find a traditional sauna and where we could get the best view of the city. I automatically started constructing mini-itineraries for the next few days in my head. When Robin and I excused ourselves and went to sleep, I carefully took our precious annotated map and put it in my purse for the next day. I fell asleep dreaming of saunas and elks.

The next morning, Robin and I had breakfast and headed out towards the city center. Our first stop: a café with one of the best views of the city. Unfortunately, the café was closed. I was disappointed but Robin said we could certainly get nice views of the city elsewhere. We headed east on foot. The next target on my list was Helsingin tuomiokirkko, Helsinki’s famous white cathedral and perhaps its most well-known landmark. A must for our photo album.

Suddenly, Robin started pulling me to the left, when we were supposed to go right.

“Let’s check out that building; it looks cool!”

He was pointing at a tall, funny-looking wooden building. I quickly checked the map.

“Taras didn’t mention anything there.”

“Come on, what’s the rush?”

I could not answer that question. I was on vacation, but somehow still felt like the slave of my precisely scheduled itinerary.

“Fine.”

We ventured into a large square that was bustling with busy-looking people in suits and approached the mysterious construction. It was a massive and asymmetrical wooden cylinder, which looked swollen in the middle. Its facade was made of smooth, wooden planks.

We entered the building and found ourselves in a small lobby. Some pamphlets indicated that we were in Kampin kappeli, the Chapel of Silence. Intrigued, we entered the main room of the chapel.

It was empty and breathtaking. The ceiling was as high as the building and the walls were made of the same beautiful curved wood as the exterior of the chapel. The furnishings were minimal: a dozen pews and a plain pulpit. The most striking feature in the chapel was the complete absence of noise: the buzz of the city, the cacophony of traffic and the chatter of pedestrians were all completely blocked by the soundproof walls.

We sat on the floor for a while, in awe. I grabbed Robin’s hand and smiled at him.

We left the chapel a few minutes later, and I felt a wave of pure excitement overcome me, as if our trip was starting anew.

During our quiet meditation, I thought of how we had stumbled upon this wonderful chapel and realized that there would be plenty of other amazing surprises awaiting us around every corner. Why was I so set on cramming our vacation time with commitments until it did not feel like a vacation anymore? My pet phobia, the fear of missing out, suddenly seemed less scary than the prospect of spending my vacation marching from one popular attraction to another like a zombie. Fewer plans meant more room for pleasant discoveries.

I considered ripping my beloved annotated map as a symbol of my newfound sense of adventure, but quickly decided that it was not necessary and that it could still come in useful if we got lost or kidnapped.

We spent the next few days wandering through the city. We ate cinnamon rolls, we got lost, we explored an abandoned fortress on an island, we biked through the city, and we were attacked by seagulls. And, most importantly, we had fun.

~Terri Kafyeke

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