I was in Amsterdam last week and I took the obligatory stroll through its world famous red light district. I was surprised at what my reaction was. I thought it was all a bit sad.
Girls with fake smiles giving false portrayals of their real selves. Men who were
blivious to what the genuine delights of that wonderful city are.
There are no short cuts in life.
We should have gone to the Mediterranean where our money would have been worth twice its value but instead we opted for Scandinavia where we discovered it was only worth half.
We had two weeks of youth hostelling and bread and cheese ahead of us.
On the second day we lingered over a few very expensive beers at one of those al-fresco tables in Helsinki that all continental cities do so well. The people watching, as the world passed by, was free.
Soon we couldn’t help but notice the beautiful blonde woman at the adjoining table. She was sitting with an older man. We all said hello and before long we asked if she would take a photograph of the two of us. She then surprised us shortly afterwards by asking if she could join us at our table and her male colleague departed. She explained that she often liked to have a drink on her own, only to attract unwanted company. We were only too happy to rescue such a beautiful damsel in distress.
Her name was Lilja and the three of us made a genuine, warm connection. We spent the remainder of the afternoon in friendly conversation with lots of laughter in the warm Helsinki sunshine. As the evening drew in, aware of our limited budget, she invited us back to her apartment for supper. She lived in a modern suburb just outside the city and after eating we all went down to the local pub.
This was my kind of vacation. We were doing what the Finns do. The people we met in the pub were enthralled that we had found our way out to their neighborhood.
It was too late at that stage to make our way back to the youth hostel so Lilja said we could sleep on her living room floor. We had just put out the lights and got in to our sleeping bags when she suddenly briefly appeared at the doorway. Although it caused great confusion at the time, the aspiration of her next sentence was undeniable.
“Perhaps one of you would be more comfortable in here”.
Unfortunately, what she hadn’t allowed for was the sentence was being addressed to two very innocent young Irish men who had never even remotely been in a situation like this before. It was like a scene from a well loved Irish T.V. comedy series called Fr. Ted.
For the next half hour our agonies ranged from, had we heard her correctly, to perhaps she genuinely thinks we are uncomfortable on the floor. The final straw was that if it was an invitation she needed to have selected one of us by name, because there was no way we could.
In the end the fear that it had all been a terrible misunderstanding easily obliterated any desires that we may have had and we fell asleep.
The next morning the mood had definitely changed. The planned day off to show us around the city had suddenly been cancelled and she now had to go to work. On the train journey back into Helsinki barely a word was spoken and the goodbyes were pleasant but brief.
It took us a few years before it eventually dawned on us that the only sensible conclusion Lilja must have come to was that we were gay. What other reason could there be to turn down such an invitation from such a beautiful woman.
Whenever Mick and I meet now we still have a wry smile at our lost opportunity in Helsinki.
Should we have swopped Savonlinna Castle, Rovaniemi, Oulu and Tampare for never leaving Helsinki. But it was never meant to be. And somehow the memory is all the more precious and sweet as a result. I am now glad that that is the memory I have.
From Helsinki to Amsterdam I seem to have learned that the simple things in life will always be the best. The greatest memories will always be pure and untarnished. The best lives will be the ones built with the greatest allocations of love and goodness in them.
There won’t be any short cuts.
When I do look back, that is what I hope I will see in the main.