Both Sanna and Janse voiced subtle concern over my going alone to the abandoned grocer’s house in the middle of the Finnish countryside.
And I admit it: everything on Planet Earth looks far less intimidating from outer space. I think that’s something a lot of astronauts probably think when they see it from all the way up there. Carl Sagan had his own way of writing about it through his famous Pale Blue Dot:
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, ever king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
What I always gleaned from that quote is that life on Earth, as big and as complicated and as scary as it can be, does not seem to be any of those things from all the way up there.
High above the farm in Finland — passed down for centuries by my friend Eeva’s family, wrought with legends of ghosts and war, featuring a unique cast of characters — at least as you can see it through the eyes of Google Maps, is a small portion of the planet that is just that: unintimidating. All five abandoned buildings on the property, immediately adjacent to the Pohjolan Kartano (Pohjola Manor & Farm), look spacious and calm and secluded enough for a solo Sunday trek in August at dusk.
When I first started the seventeen-minute walk from the farm to the abandoned grocer’s house in the middle of the woods, I felt like I was doing something perfectly reasonable by myself, but as I get closer to the property, I can’t seem to shake this slight feeling of uneasiness. Perhaps it’s because Sanna and Janse — and even Eeva — seemed nervous about the fact that I was going alone. Eeva kept asking me questions about my plan and made sure that I felt comfortable with the directions to the space.
Luckily, it’s just a short walk, a straight shot, through fields and then woods on a gravel country road until you come to a small, unenthused bridge, where you have to make one of two choices: veer right and continue over the bridge that passes between two sides of a small lake, or veer left onto the overgrown driveway. I make a measured approach and quickly realize how difficult navigating to the house will be. The thick of tall weeds and shoots and brambles and the swarms of famished mosquitoes overwhelms me. I also still can’t see the house. I just have to trust that it’s where Sanna, Eeva’s sister and owner of Pohjolan Kartano, says it is.
But once I begin to traipse in, I start to see the buildings. This is unlike any property I’ve seen before. Five red structures of various sizes and functions, from an oversized garden shed to the main house, all completely invisible to the human eye because Mother Nature, slowly but surely, gobbles up any proof that human life once existed here. Vines and tree branches and stories-tall grass and legions of pests buzz and crawl about while I advance into the madness, wondering why, out loud, I decided to wear “a goddamn tank top, of all garments,” particularly this far north on the globe where summer days last past 9:00 pm and when the sun still shines over the top of the misty trees and dazzles the sky with its brilliance.
The dusty, winding road, guided by forest on all sides, didn’t provide any indication that actually getting into the house was going to be this hard. According to Eeva’s father, it once belonged to the local grocer and his wife, later passed on to their son. For whatever reason, he left it vacant. Keep in mind that this entire region of the Nordic country is overrun with history and mythology that concerns a ton of ghosts. Like — a ton — and even though Sanna, Janse, and Eeva didn’t mention it, I was hastily made aware that there is some kind of presence in the house. I almost see it lingering in front of me even before I set foot onto the front porch.
Said porch is quaint, tiny, enclosed, and acts like a portico to welcome visitors into the house, surrounded on all sides by dirty white walls, a small oven and pair of work boots sitting inside. I know that whatever is on the other side of this door is going to need me to make my entrance nice and easy, to introduce myself to the space gently. Respectfully. Which is just as well because ever since the pandemic has been declared as “over,” I’ve been trying to grapple with reentering into this after-world. One of my latest intentions on a path toward mindfulness has been to, deliberately, take everything nice and easy.
Perhaps I’ve succeeded. Perhaps I haven’t. Perhaps I think I have, blissfully, even though the truth is that I have no clue if the “slow and steady” thing stuck. That’s part of the fear of exiting a pandemic, though. I don’t know what to say or how to say it. I don’t know what to do or how to do it. I just — do? And shrug. I don’t know if I’m “doing it right” or not, but I’ve really started to wonder if “right” is just a word that someone made up and added “true” to the list of words that could be synonyms for “right.”
What do you mean, “right?”
It’s my favorite question to ask myself these days.
It’s also the first sentence that I know the ghost of the grocer can hear in my head as I creak open the front door and step into the first room of this humble cottage. I make sure to listen quietly — one ear pointed in the vague direction of the center of the house — because sound is louder than sight. I can only hear my own two lungs taking stock of the dimly lit room, partially due to a lack of electrical current running into the house, partially due to the vines that lace the home, bolstered by thick brush (and those aforementioned famished mosquitoes). As such, all of the windows are covered, preventing any light from slipping into the canopied space, which only adds to the eeriness of its preexisting local mythology and confusing history (which I don’t know, yet). In fact, the entire town of Pohjola, some 175 km north of Helsinki, revolves around Eeva’s family.
Eeva is one of four kids from the last batch raised at this cow, oat, and wheat farm, before the current two boys, Akseli and Mauno, Sanna and Janse’s kids. The town is aptly named for the farm itself, so in a weird way, I feel like I’m staying with royalty. The farm has been in the family since 1906, originally built in 1779. For over a century, the land has been a recognizable mainstay in the region, and Eeva, whom I met working at a wiley tech startup in New York years ago, is a direct descendent, having been born, raised, and put through school at the schoolhouse on the property. Sanna owns and operates Pohjolan Kartano now. In fact, she recently passed her government exams to serve officially as the head honcho at the farm. (Imagine that: a government that successfully regulates the workforce on behalf of the general public.)
What’s fascinating about Pohjolan Kartano under Sanna’s care is that she’s millennial-ing it up by transforming Eeva’s childhood home (a separate building next to the main house) into an Airbnb that will invite visitors to stay on a real, functioning, profitable farm and hang out with cows, possibly watch the birth of a calf, and take long, quiet strolls through wheat and oat fields that border a thick Finnish wood full of lynxes, wolverines, whooper swans, Eurasian brown bears, great grey owls, elk, and Finnish forest reindeer.
These fairytale-esque, rustic creatures are on my mind as I move into the first room of the house, a large kitchen with a massive traditional Finnish oven. I can almost smell the Pannukakku as I stare at the red walls hovering over all sorts of things left behind: coffee cans and dishes and appliances and a flag of Finland resting in solitude on the kitchen counter. It’s tough to capture the images, at first, but as I allow my eyes to adjust to the low light, photographing everything with my iPhone becomes much easier. I’ve never claimed to be a professional photographer; I leave that work to my many talented friends in the urbex community.
I scan the room and slowly begin to hear the sounds of the family’s breakfast on Joulu (Finnish Christmas). At first, I’m thrown off by gargantuan size of the oven until the following day when Eeva shows me her mother’s own in-home bakery, no longer functioning as a result of old windows that make the room too hot to use, forcing the family to discontinue the huge machines until further notice.
But this gray beauty, lined with tacky vinyl runners, topped with old recipe books, and shadowed by the images of vegetables on the tile wall behind it, throws me because my only point of reference is a pizza oven. I marvel at the condition of the beautiful construction and the rest of the house, really. I assume it was only recently abandoned, but I learn later that it’s been vacant for about thirty years which would account for the deep layers of plant life barring access to the sun on all sides.
I stand there, curious, filled with questions, and I glance right into the next room. I begin to make an approach towards the soft glow that emits from the late golden hour that squeezes through every crack and crevice it can to illuminate as much surface coverage as it has been permitted. I pass through the room, a bedroom, and enter a connecting, second bedroom. The moment I step into the chamber, a chill runs up my spine. It moves across my left shoulder then up along the back of my neck and across to the other side like a ball that I’m balancing, rolling back and forth like a circus act. The localized drop in temperature doesn’t last long, and while it startles me, I am not afraid of the ghost who just brushed my skin, a gentle hello that relaxes me as I settle into the house.
Olet tervetullut tänne.
I am welcome here, though, out of respect, I say aloud, “I won’t be long.”
I stay true to my word and back out of the room immediately. The light is too dim to photograph it anyway, and for some reason, it feels disrespectful.
Once I enter the first bedroom, I take stock of everything inside. I note the centerpiece first, a small, modest twin bed pushed up against the far wall, the head of the bed facing a tall bookshelf with all kinds of books, encyclopedias, magazines, plus a kids’ anthology about Apollo missions 1–13. I wonder if a child lived here, or two. Or three. It certainly feels like it.
I sit on the orange blanket sprawled across the bed, breaking a rule to never sit on furniture, and I glance at an old alarm clock in the window bay, parked next to a pamphlet for some kind of martial arts studio. I graze my feet along the black and yellow carpet, still in fairly good condition, overshadowed by the bizarre fur coat that’s splayed out and hung above the bed, covered in all sorts of Finnish tourist flags, all strung together, sloppily, covering up a portion of the cracked concrete that looks like it’s covered in impressions of bird feet. I think about that scene in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves when Snow White makes a pie that’s edge-pressed by two birds who hop around its circumfrence until they meet in the middle again. I always wanted to bake a pie like that.
I pull one of the Apollo books off the shelf and crack it open. All sorts of Finnish words surround photographs and drawings of astronauts and shuttles and of space itself. I pick up another book, open it, scan the pages, and I fall into a sudden sadness. I can’t tell why, but I don’t think the ending to this house was very happy though the reason for its abandonment remains a mystery to Eeva’s family. One myth that surfaced over the years was that the grocer’s son, who inherited the house after his parents’ passing, went mad and couldn’t afford to keep up the house anymore. A psychotic break landed him in a psychiatric facility about two hours away where he’s been ever since though Eeva later debates this when I sit at the kitchen table with her and her sister, grilling both sisters about their knowledge of the house.
Earlier that day, I spent time with Eeva’s shirtless father, who speaks literally zero English and is often donned in a headlamp. With Eeva by my side to translate, he told me a couple of stories about the abandoned house and its former inhabitants, about how the grocer’s son was conceived in the back of a car by a “loose woman” who wore lots of makeup and once got knocked down by a friendly dog on the side of the same county road I took to find the house. (According to family legend, the dog licked every stroke of makeup off her face, so she had to go home and reapply it all again.)
The courteous relationship between neighbors broke when the son asked Eeva’s father if he’d cosign a loan for a car. Herra Marja refused, promptly ending their neighborly relationship. They never spoke again.
I look back at the window and admire the fake plastic flowers that cover the surface of the ledge, and as I turn back to look into the kitchen and living room combination, I see him sitting there on a small wooden chair up against the western window. He doesn’t notice me and is too busy talking to himself. I have no idea who he is or if he can see me, but for some reason, it becomes my cue to leave.
I push my way back onto the tiny enclosed porch with the small oven. Though I’ve only been here for twenty minutes, it feels like I’ve been here for two hours. I barge through the heavy, crisscrossed branches and brush, hoping that I don’t have too many mosquito bites. Once I reach the clearing next to the small bridge at the front of the property, I turn back to examine and realize that I can no longer see the main house, only the small front studio space that I don’t have the time to explore; the sun has abruptly set, and there’s not enough natural light to guide me through poking about. I’m satisfied enough as it is, anyway.
As I bend down to examine my ankles and shoes for ticks, I realize that, out of all of the spaces I’ve explored since All-American Ruins was born in the spring of 2020, this one had the most untouched evidence of human existence. No graffiti, no stolen objects, no broken windows. Just a wildly preserved grocer’s cottage, unnoticeable from the road in the middle of the Finnish woods and bordering my friend Eeva’s family farm.
The walk back feels unusually slower than the approach. Typically, I feel like the return trip goes much quicker, but not this time. It occurs to me, about a quarter of the way back to the house, that in less than a month’s time, I will have been sober for ten years. I am taken aback by this and make sure to stay grounded. “Don’t get too excited,” I whisper to myself. “You’re not there yet.” Addiction is one hell of a disease and can sneak in at any moment if I don’t stay centered. However, I also begin to reflect on my community and my spiritual connection to a higher power of my understanding, a major portion of which lives inside my Sagittarius desire to wander and see as much of the planet as possible before I return to the place where I came from.
The end of the grocer’s life doesn’t seem to have a happy ending. There seemed to be an air of loneliness and reclusiveness to it, which is why even finding the house felt like a challenge. It was just left there, full, nobody to claim it, take care of it, tend to it the way it deserves.
Though it’s far away, the sound of the traffic from Eurooppalainen tie E75 surrounds me. It’s discombobulating, and it continues to grow the closer I get to the Marja family farm. I think about Eeva, her giant Finnish heart, her friendship, and how grateful I am that I have people in my life who celebrate who I am, which is a wanderer and an artist and a storyteller. I’ve been in recovery from booze and opioids for almost ten years, and I am so glad that I have explored my third international ruin.
And as these thoughts swirl about in my head, the roof of the farmhouse comes into full view, surrounded by the late dusk light that glows in the summer sky that hovers over Finland.
I will come back here, I think.
After all, I need to see the grocery store.