Mr. Nobody gets the VIP treatment
I finally agreed to take a vacation. I told my hotel's staff I was going to vanish for perhaps 10 days. Where was I going? Actually, I had no idea. I just wanted to get away. I flew to San Francisco's international airport with my little suitcase and read the flight-departure signs. I felt so free, and that felt so good. The voice inside me would tell me where to go, I was sure.
At that moment, an airport announcement said that a flight to London, Stockholm, and Helsinki was departing shortly. It sounded so glamorous. Helsinki? Why not? I'd never been to Finland.
I had exactly one contact there. I quickly phoned him and left a message. Then I ran for the plane and just made it. "Helsinki, in January?" a flight attendant said. "Family emergency?" "Nope, just a vacation," I replied. She looked at me kind of funny.
I arrived in Helsinki, excited. Had to find my suitcase now. A uniformed official approached me. He had my name. Uh-oh, what did I do? "Nothing, sir. However, the foreign minister and his family are waiting for you at the main gate. I'll bring your luggage, sir."
There they were, waving at me. Friends who'd been guests at my hotel in Big Sur, Calif. "I thought you did something in steel," I said to Father, who embraced me, along with Mother and the children, in high excitement.
"Well, I did work for a steel company, but the former government has just fallen and the new government appointed me foreign minister. Get in! We'll take you to your hotel." The manager at the Intercontinental almost fainted when he saw who was helping me check in. I was treated like a prince at that hotel during my stay. I'm a real nobody, but they didn't know that.
What would I like to do? Well, I wanted to see Helsinki, and I did, after the hotel provided me with about four layers of thermal protection. We're talking major, major cold. After joyful welcomes and giant meals and local tours with my host's family, I asked Father if I could see the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg (in those days - it was the 1970s - it was Leningrad). Mother looked concerned, but Father said he'd see what he could do.
A visa into the Soviet Union generally took months. Father got it in three days, but his pushing naturally aroused the warm interest (suspicion) of the Soviets. When I flew the short distance to Leningrad, three gentlemen in heavy black overcoats followed me the rest of my stay. They stood outside in the snow all night, every night I was there, poor guys. But the Russian doorman was a real Uncle Vanya type, friendly and warm. He told me about his relatives in New York and clapped me on the back in welcome. He recommended restaurants, raved about the Hermitage, and wished me well.
I was staying at the American consul-general's residence after a slight struggle. Being a guest of the foreign minister of Finland, the Finnish consul-general had insisted I stay at their home. Since I was an American, however, the US embassy in Moscow insisted I stay with the American consul-general and his wife, a nice couple from North Dakota. Proving that I was nobody important, I smoothed it all out, and checked into an enormous czarist palace along the Neva River with my new friends from North Dakota.
The Americans laughed about the overcoats waiting downstairs. "Don't worry about them," they chuckled. "They'll spend all their time trying to figure out who you are and why the Finnish foreign minister personally got your visa so quickly."
"That's not hard to explain," I said. "He and his family stayed at my hotel last year. He accidentally walked into the women's sauna; the women inside screamed. Quite mortified, he came to apologize to the boss, which happens to be me. We became friends."
"You'd think a Finn would know which sauna to enter," said Mrs. North Dakota, not amused. I assured her that friendship with his family was the nice result.
After a few days of glorious touring, it was time to return. Mother had warned me she was having a dinner party in my honor, the American ambassador was coming, and please come back to Helsinki on time.
Except for a snowstorm, I'd have had no problems. The storm closed the Leningrad airport. The Soviet pilot announced we'd have to wait.
Suddenly, we were transferred to a Finnair plane. Our new pilot said, "We are under orders to depart. They are clearing a departure strip for us now." We looked out the windows. Sure enough, men (and women) were pulling huge wooden plows to clear enough snow off the runway for us to take off.
"Who do you think is aboard this flight who's so important that the Russians are doing all this?" a woman seated next to me asked. Darned if I knew, I replied. Then it hit me: I shrank down in my seat and pretended to sleep. My hostess in Helsinki?
We took off, just barely. When we landed, a big black official limo was waiting to race me to the dinner party. It was a very grand affair. The staff was dressed in historic Finnish country dress; wonderful local dishes were served nonstop; there was even a bubbling hot tub and sauna afterward. I said nothing about the flight, but Mother later admitted she'd gotten Father to "urge" officials to help get me back on time for dinner.
It must have driven the overcoats crazy.
Just before I left Finland, I asked if there was any chance I could meet Finland's president, Urho Kekkonen, who in his 80s still jogged every day. He was greatly admired for so many reasons, including his skilled balancing act with the Russians next door. Somehow he always got the oil he needed to keep Finland warm.
Father again pulled it off. We three sat on little gold chairs in a circle at the president's residence. Kekkonen was stiff and guarded until I told him about switching pilots, repeating what a passenger had said to me: "If the pilots are Soviets, we'll never take off. If they're Finns, we'll take off and land safely." Kekkonen laughed so hard he nearly slipped off his chair. After that, we were pals.
I WENT out for some final shopping and bought dishes, a whole set. Staggering under the bundles, I made my way past the presidential residence toward my hotel, but was blocked by police who huffily insisted I stand back while official limousines departed. A military band played for an African nation's dignitaries who were just pulling away.
Crowds of locals, drawn by the music and ceremony, stared at me. Another pushy American, their eyes said. Well, the dishes were heavy, and I was frozen solid. But I was obedient. I stepped back and waited in disgrace - until the second limo came past. It stopped. A passenger window whirred down. Father's face appeared. Could I make dinner at 8 instead of 7? He was running late. I nodded, the window went up, and the limo moved on.
The crowds immediately backed away, smiling politely. A path opened for me to proceed. Even better, the now-solicitous police insisted on escorting me and carrying my packages to the hotel. Tough, those Finnish dinnerware plates, not unlike the wonderful people who make them. Not one dish broke, all the way back to California. I still dine off them. They always remind me of Finland in January.