After over two weeks cooped up at our creative hideout in rural Finland we were itching for a daytrip before we headed back to Helsinki. The one feasible daytrip, beyond the miles of forest and lakes that engulfed us, was the unpronounceable city of Jyväskylä. Finnish travel can be super expensive and on a shoestring artist budget, we decided this was the one trip we would do, and could justify it right at the end of our stay. Well timed as by then our cabin fever levels in our tiny town had reached feverish heights.
The day before we planned to go, I happened to glance in the recycling box at our arts residency – and saw a particularly beguiling woman half obscured in a newspaper supplement. Pulling it out I was even more intrigued by this individual, perched by a lake in a dazzling get-up.
Even better, from the article, it looked like she ran either a shop or a museum full of vintage Finnish trinkets
One think I like doing is photographing flamboyant older people, and having a nose for old relics and design this felt like a double hit – I suddenly realised there was no way I could not track her down.
Enquiries with Finns at the residency didn’t come to much when I asked them to translate…”hmm she runs a shop, oh no, it’s a museum….ah but I think it’s closed now”. However, according to them she wasn’t that far from Jyväskylä. So undeterred and convinced it was actually still open, I set myself the challenge of finding her.
Upon arrival we found Jyväskylä rather….strange. An odd place full of IT companies and no defined sights for tourists. I decided to meet my residency friends later in the day and set about following the path to the curious lady by the lake, feeling certain already somehow that I was going to find her.
My only tactic was walking into the tourist office and handing them the newspaper article, which I’d folded in my pocket as my only clue. They didn’t know her but from the article they could tell me the rough area she was based in – it would involve a bus trip for 40 mins out of the city and into an archipelago all connected by bridges, with islands named Säynätsalo and Lehthisaari. I was told to get out at the town hall in Saynatsalo, although there was some debate as to which island she would be on and they were worried I would have no time. The pricey bus ticket took up much of my remaining budget for the day but despite all of this, still hugely intrigued, I thought it was worth a shot.
A beautiful bus ride later, winding slowly around islands in the afternoon sun, I ended up at the last stop, not being aware which island I was on. Wandering off into affluent Finnish rural hamlets, all huge wooden houses, swings, waves lapping on the beach and creaking wooden walkways, without a soul around I felt stumped – there was nothing here, and nobody to ask, and maybe I wasn’t going to find her after all.
Happily I did realise I was right near the house of seminal Finnish architect Alvar Aalto so thought it might be worth asking staff there, as well as having a nose at his abode. Just closing, the staff kindly showed me around quickly (post about this to come) but didn’t know the lady in the article. Heading back out as they shut, I got a licorice ice cream from a small kiosk (Finns love licorice and in ice cream it’s surprisingly delicious) and sat by the lake, slightly defeated, listening to the breeze and pondering my next move. It did strike me that there were worse places to be stuck. In the height of August, this serene spot in rural Scandinavia with nobody to be seen seemed vast distances away from the crowds clogging the Med, and I couldn’t imagine a more sublime spot.
After a paddle on the shore, gazing at the ripples, I decided to go back to the kiosk, the only shop or sign of life in sight, and show them the article. The owner was friendly, and yes! She knew this woman, she had a museum on the next island. Ah but today, it’s her day off she said. It will be closed. So that was it. After some more chat, as I headed for the door, I offered that I wrote a blog in the UK and was really hoping to visit the museum and interview the owner. The kiosk lady then said perhaps she could call her, just in case she was there. At this point I suddenly got a jolt of excitement, I felt that I was still going to find her. Somebody obviously answered and kiosk lady spoke for a while in inpenetrable Finnish birdsong. Putting down the receiver she told me “She is there and would like to meet you! Please go at 5pm. You can walk around the lake in about half an hour. She is on the left from the bridge”
Impossibly thrilled that my amateur detective work had led me to her, I bounded around the lake full of intrigue, feeling quite alive and struck by the perfect postcard nature of so many scenes around me – pausing to look at this little sleepy walkway that looked straight from a screensaver, or inspirational quote meme
Finally crossing the bridge I looked to my left, and saw this curious building with the mysterious stranger in the doorway. Greeting me warmly and introducing herself as Marjukka, she said she had been “waiting for me”.
Upon entering the museum I was a little breathless to see the sheer amount of beautiful kitsch artifacts from bygone times, still laid out as if it was a shop. The dormant vintage wheeler dealer in me suddenly couldn’t wait for a rummage.
Marjukka seemed thrilled to have me, and being a hugely animated person she almost immediately launched into a story of her life and the museum. Standing behind the till whilst I took in the hundreds of products and old relics around me, she told me it used to be her parents’ shop and she had ran it as a museum since 1995 for people to learn about life in Finland in bygone times. She told me it was laid out like a shop to ‘evoke nostalgia’ and she attracted many school parties. Homewares, trinkets, beauty products – it was an amazing time-warp transporting me back to 1950’s and 1960’s Finland and a fantastic window into social history.
All of my photos of Marjukka were actions shots since she rarely stopped talking for a second, was constantly enthused and had endless stories she wanted to share passionately.
Marjukka told me that the shop was originally opened by her grandfather in 1923 in nearby Jyväskylä which then grew to five shops. She told me a wonderful story about the shop staff having to get to work via sledge in winter, travelling 10km. In the 1920’s they then moved to nearby Saynatsalo, where there were 50 inhabitants. Marjukka’s father was then born on the island in 1925 and being an only child had ‘been lonely’ so went on to have five children of his own. The five shops were passed on to him and Marjukka was born in 1950.
In 1955 her family moved here to Lehtisaari where there was no running water or central heating, yet 100 children there at the time. You could order materials to build your own house so she told me how when they arrived they built the shop out of plywood and lived above it. She told me there were still rations until 1952 and in the 1950’s and 60’s they would make their own clothes from textile samples. In the 1950’s most people on the island worked in factories and used boats or bikes to get around.
Marjukka had a wonderful story about how in the winter to entertain the many children on the island her father would project images of comics in the shop window whilst children watched in the snow outside. When I asked how cold it would have been, she said -20 to -30 degrees. (Apparently -39 is common in winter and she said her nephew recently got married there in similar temperatures and his bride thought nothing of wearing a wedding dress with small straps and bare arms).
I loved seeing the ancestors she talked of overseeing proceedings in the shop still (the picture on the left is of the shop back in the 1950’s)
I was offered some delicious homemade cloudberry juice as we continued to talk about Marjukka’s life and background – this is something I saw everywhere, home made by many Finns who love their berries and are keen foragers
Fascinatingly, Marjukka told me that her great-grandfather was tailor to the Tsar and her father’s cousin also makes clothes. Aged 14 she went on her own to Sweden and lived in Berlin aged 18 in 1968 for a year. Following in the footsteps of her sartorially inclined ancestors, Marjukka went on to study fashion and textiles in Dublin and London, whilst also working as an au pair. She told me how she hated mass production and liked it when people were at one with themselves – she believes it very important to be individual. She worked for the Danish born designer Ib Jorgensen in Dublin but later returned to Finland, albeit retaining a sense of her fashion background in the amazing flair of her every day dress.
As we talked we realised it was amazing what we had in common, not just a love of design from the past, visual culture and preserving beautiful bygone relics, we had both grown up with parents who ran and lived next to the village shop in a small rural community (I lived in a small village in Wales with parents who ran the Post Office) as well as both travelling widely, living in Berlin and being interested in fashion, textiles and people who dressed in unique ways (what initially attracted me to her)
After two hours in her company, I felt we could talk non-stop for so much longer but the last bus was leaving for the evening for After two hours in her company, I felt we could talk non-stop for so much longer but the last bus was leaving for the evening for Jyväskylä. Shivering as I walked with her to the bus stop in golden early evening sunlight, Marjukka insisted that I take her cardigan with me but I refused but was touched by the gesture. Then as we parted she turned to me and told me she had a feeling we were meant to meet – and I had to admit, given the epic journey I’d been on to find her and the amount of chance involved in our paths crossing, as well as the sheer amount of things we had in common, I felt the same.
As I watched the Finnish landscape rushing past me as I travelled back, blurs of trees and wooden houses, pink creeping summer sunsets and alluring cloud formations as dusk gently marked it’s arrival, I felt a real connection to this sparse far northerly landscape and the intriguing skies and people, and felt quite moved by the depth of my connection with Marjukka after just a few hours in her company, already sad to see her go. She felt like a true kindred spirit and that our meeting was dripping in serendipitous happenings added to this. I felt more and more like this was a country and landscape I had a deep connection to and this was only increasing the longer I was there.
Since our meeting Marjukka and I have continued to correspond, I look forward to her poetic and impossibly charming missives addressed to “Dear Soulmate Ali!” and was touched to hear things like “Our meeting last summer was truly amazing! Very rarely one meets a soulmate out of the blue! It gives one strength to keep going on the chosen path” as well as hearing her describe the weather, seasons and Finnish nature on her little island in elegant and alluring detail “We already have daffodils, tulips, crocuses and japonicas in full bloom!” and signing off in a variety of lovely ways “With my very best Autumn colourful regards” “Your friend, who seldom writes notes, but often thinks what you are up to” “Marjukka from the Island of the Blue Bridge”
During the turbulent times I faced soon after our meeting, after I lost my mother suddenly, unexpectedly and what felt absurdly, Marjukka’s sensitive and upbeat emails became one small source of comfort. “You have to keep going, until after ages the sun begins to shine, but slowly”. She thoughtfully mentioned my mother often (actually what most grieving people want others to do) and talked of how she believed her ancestors were always around her, in the trees and the nature. Picturing Marjukka on her island with this vast wilderness around her was a place of solace for me, in the land of elves and trolls this continuation of energy and spirit in nature somehow seemed a wholly feasible thing to believe happened there, it was a natural fit somehow, and this sort of truth was soothing to me.
Meeting Marjukka was the highlight of my trip and still stands out for me as one of my most heightened experiences of the thrill of travel, spontaneity, exploring and following my nose and intuition. I still think about her and our uncanny connection regularly, as well as those landscapes and pink skies, and know I have to make the trip back to her remote and serene enclave one day.
Perälä Museum Shop
Lethisaari, Jyväskylä, Finland
Enquiries +358 40 7740598 / +358 14 3741269