My friend Erik Hansen

5 August 2010 | Essays, Prose

Short prose from Muita hyviä ominaisuuksia (‘Other good characteristics’, Otava, 2010)

On the first day we played getting-to-know-you games. On the second day we played real Finnish baseball out behind the university. On the third day we travelled to the countryside. Classes started sometime at the end of the second week. We watched the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The professor slurped Coke, chain smoked, and rewound the video back and forth: Nurse Ratched’s plump face filled the screen and then in the next image where her face had been there was a basketball Jack Nicholson was squeezing.

It was the autumn of 1992, and I was studying film and communications theory in Copenhagen.

The excursion to the country frightened me, a shy bacteriophobic neurotic. The Danes thought the camping centre’s shared mattresses and group cooking were hygge – cozy. There is no way a dictionary translation could ever cover all the forms of cosiness the Danes achieve together. I fled the camping centre on the first morning. On the train to Copenhagen I recognised all the usual post-escape feelings: shame, fear, guilt, loneliness and overwhelming euphoria.

I did not learn Danish. I only knew one phrase fluently: ‘En hotdog med sennep, ketchup og ristet løk.’ I used it daily. After a few weeks I stopped attending lectures at all. Instead I sat in the Finnish language department’s small library room and ate pretzels and wrote short stories, long laments about loneliness and homesickness. I didn’t even bother to read them myself.

On one rainy afternoon late in October, I was once again sitting in the Finnish language department’s library idly flipping through the Copenhagen phone book. I noticed that there were five hundred Erik Hansens living in the city. I started thinking about what these Hansens think of each other. Did they feel a sense of solidarity? Did the more outgoing among them want to meet other Erik Hansens?

I wrote a new short story about loneliness and homesickness, this time such that the first person character suffering from loneliness had ended up on a summer outing with sixty Erik Hansens. I was completely saved from having to describe the loneliness because it was otherwise clear from the story that the others had a strong, obvious connection that my protagonist was condemned to be excluded from. I found that this was how I had always felt among people.

The short story about the Hansens’ summer outing finally ended up in my first book. Since I had become acquainted with the Hansens in such pleasant circumstances, I continued to think of them often. I felt like we had a lot in common. I imagined the Hansens as workaday Danes, cheerful and scrupulous. I did note the special cases – the Olympic canoeing champion Erik Hansen and the actor Erik Hansen and the artist Erik Hansen – but as I understood it, most of the Hansens lived perfectly ordinary lives somewhere in the suburbs of Copenhagen.

A couple of years passed. I was studying in Tampere and didn’t hear anything about the Hansens. That is until one day I read in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper column ‘People of the world’ that Interpol had issued a warrant for Erik Hansen. He had committed some crimes abroad, stirring up trouble for the other Hansens, too: according to the report, an innocent Erik Hansen had been detained in Mexico because he had been confused with the Hansen the police were after. The Mexico Hansen had sat locked up in the airport jail for a day and then had been flown to London and locked up in a cell there. Around the same time, a third Erik Hansen had tried to go on a wine tasting trip to Chile – he had ended up locked up at the Santiago airport.

At the end of the news report it told how the Danish police were now considering outfitting all of the innocent Erik Hansens’ passports with a special stamp to demonstrate their innocence.

I sat in my studio apartment in Tampere’s Pispala neighbourhood thinking about all the Hansens that were travelling around the world committing crimes and tasting wine and vacationing. I also thought about the innocence stamp that the Hansens would soon receive: I imagined how they would go to the police station, and the police would applaud their innocence and give them the stamp, and how afterwards they would sit around with the policemen in the break room and chat about this and that and everything would be hygge. These thoughts made me melancholy. I would have liked an innocence stamp too. I would know how to appreciate it. It would have been nice to look at it on sleepless autumn nights.

I also thought about the constitutional principle that a person shouldn’t be forced to testify to his own innocence, but rather that others should testify of his guilt, and about how this principle of justice had always sounded somehow rotten, since it would be most pleasant if no one had to be involved in this business of testifying about people’s guilt at all. I also reflected on how unjust it was to force all of the Hansens to go to the police station to get an innocence stamp when the vast majority of them lived peacefully in their homes and certainly weren’t being driven to any old Chile by their wine addiction.

That one visual narrative detail from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the cut from Nurse Ratched’s face to the basketball, ended up being the only new thing I learned at the film school in Copenhagen. My other memories from that autumn are of city streets, of endless bicycle treks around windy Copenhagen. I still don’t know where I was going. I just rode. Cycling enthusiasts are always delighted to remind us how on a bicycle you can get close to the landscape, to the centre of life, but I just rode by. I rode by homes and parks and cafes; I rode by containers and cranes at the harbour; I rode by office buildings, empty lots, and demolition sites, past castles and red brick factory buildings.

When I returned to my digs in the evening, I left my bicycle in the dim cellar of the apartment building where dozens of reflector cat eyes glittered in the light falling from the streetlamps. Then I went up the stairs to the fourth floor, tiptoing past the landlord’s closed door and shutting myself in my room. I sat there eating cookies of the Kammerjunkker brand and reading the books I’d borrowed from the Finnish language department.

In November I wrote to Finland to ask a friend for a pulla coffee bread recipe. My intention was to bake in my sublet apartment kitchen the same kinds of long loaves as my grandmother in the 1970s. The rising phase failed. A couple of weeks later I got excited when I found a familiar pre-packaged liver casserole at the corner market. I bought a one kilo carton in a fit of homesickness. Back at the apartment when I ladled the casserole into the frying pan, it looked strangely smooth. It was Danish liver pâté.

My autumn as an exchange student should have ended at Christmas, but I fled for home on Independence Day, December 6. It was raining in Helsinki. The empty streets looked desolate. I was happy.

Since then I’ve visited Copenhagen three times and always found that it isn’t like before, that the enigmatic, inexplicable melancholy of my youth has disappeared completely from the city. Instead of the wastelands of the outer city and a dim bicycle cellar, I now notice the pedestrian street cafes and the whipped cream caps on the tall cups of cocoa. Drinking cocoa in those cafes, I’ve thought that I wouldn’t like to live my youth over again, that I would want to live someone else’s youth.

I’ve never met a single Erik Hansen, not on my trips to Denmark or otherwise. One or more Hansens may of course have happened to walk by on the bustling streets of Copenhagen, but they have melted into the anonymous, unfamiliar Danes.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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