The Truth About Taxis and Volcanoes

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

“Do you speak English?”

“Mmm, little bit,” said the tall, ruddy man in the Tallink Silja ferry line jacket. He spoke in the low rumble of a smoking baritone.

“Taxi?” I tried to spin the one-word question with enough body language to include, “Where might one find a—?”

“Mmm, taxi.” He inclined his head in the direction from which I’d just come — back outside the Helsinki terminal, around the corner, where a growing line of people fresh off the ferry waited patiently under the sign that in fact read “Taxi.”
Marlene Dietrich recycling by medieval city wall
Mostly Baltic Sea shoppers, they wore windbreakers and carried cases of A Le Coq beer and Fizz cider, purchased at a tidy discount on the Tallinn-to-Helsinki ferry. A few skiers bore bundled gear on their shoulders and searched the sky for snow. The dreadlocked folks, wrapped in Nepalese sweaters and scarves and over-the-shoulder satchels, peacefully texted contemplative messages on their smartphones. And we, my husband and I, the only apparent tourists — stranded by Iceland’s volcanic ash — stood bundled in our cold weather gear, noses running and eyes tearing in the frigid April wind, as we wondered how it could be that no taxis hovered there, revving for newly arrived fares.

We had already waited for five or ten minutes while buses swerved past, private vehicles and service vans, but taxis, not a one. And still our fellow passengers had calmly persisted — five minutes more, six, seven — because, as culture dictated, they believed that some authority at some point would make certain the indicated taxis would indeed arrive at their designated point. They had only to be faithful.

I, however, being a brazen North American agnostic and having seen Waiting for Godot at least two or three times, decided that we might be caught in our own little Nordic theater of the absurd. Having been grounded for days by a mere volcano in the age of technology was certain proof of any possibility. Perhaps a misplaced taxi sign was holding us in sway until our last breaths passed through icy blue lips, glazed eyes frozen in anticipation. Or maybe it was a bit of hostile reality television, some idiot producer lurking behind a false wall to see how long we’d wait passively in the Arctic breeze for taxis, fated never to appear — because, you see, television is pretty much television the world over.

When I had gone into a music store in Tartu, Estonia, to ask for traditional Estonian songs, the young clerk had enthusiastically proffered a CD by Ott Lepland, the 2009 winner of Estonia Is Looking for a Superstar.

I had ungraciously said, “No, no, not pop music, traditional music, folk music, music of the Estonian Song Festival, birthed here in your very own town. I want your music that is the stuff of revolution, of democracy, of freedom from a persistent procession of invaders and occupiers.”

“Oh, yes, we have this,” he said politely, devoid of his earlier enthusiasm.
The Three Sisters Hotel, Tallinn
And in the Merchant’s House, our medieval Tallinn hotel, with walls the width of my kitchen and gracefully arced ceilings of stone, the Sanyo flat screen TV in our room had been tuned to Russia’s Dom-2 — similar to the U.S.’s Big Brother, but Russian contestants must first build the house in which they then live.

Having been grounded in Tallinn a few days, I had loaded the folk music on my laptop and considered the elegant, brass-footed tub perched in one wing of our medieval room — shower enclosures are not a requirement here and only toileting is considered a solo event. In fact, in Estonia’s small towns, each with its own satellite dish — a national commitment to being wired — Saturday is smoke-sauna day, a day of communal bathing. After firing up the logs for the morning in their detached wooden structures, families gather to sweat away the week, in the buff and replete with small birch branches for switching the sluggishness from one another’s skin. Beer is typically present. My mind wondered to the image of certain folks from my town of Fallbrook partaking of the smoke sauna, and the vision made any flight cancellation well worth it.

Still, I'd thought a long soak in history might relax the tension of stymied travel. But the door had rattled me from my reverie — my husband, returned from resolving our latest extended hotel stay. I'd contemplated his athletic physique, given unhappy thought to my spreading thighs, and determined that bathing before an audience — even one with prior intimate knowledge of my gams — would be a bit discomforting for me, no matter how much he might have enjoyed it.

In retrospect, that was probably a mistake. Who knows what delicious release might have flowed from that tub to— well, wherever. Instead, we had packed and sailed to Finland to see what fate Vulcan might hold for us there.
Apothecary's dried deer penises
And now, tension mounting further, I looked up into the weathered face of the ferry worker and wondered what magic words might elicit from him the truth about Helsinki’s harbor taxis. But in the absence of my reaction to his original nod, he was gesturing again — more emphatically — to the cold destiny outside, although his neck was so thick, the shrug emanated from somewhere south of his shoulders, requiring a full torso twist. I wondered why he didn’t just point, although it occurred to me that perhaps in Finland, as in the South of my ancestors, pointing was an unseemly occupation for a cultured hand.

Nonetheless, I gathered my waning wits and gesticulated in return. “Many people,” I counted off for him on my fingers of both hands, “but no taxis.” I held up what I hoped was the international symbol for zero and spewed out the concept in the few languages of which I had passing knowledge. “Zéro taxis, zed, null, cero — zippo!” the last, thrown in for emphasis, a useless addition given the fellow most likely spoke Estonian or Finnish, languages of a common root so far removed from English that I couldn’t fake them even with my nicely trilled ‘r.’ “Have you a telephone number for taxis?” I asked in subdued desperation.

Instead of my question, he acknowledged a passing colleague and shared a look that said with excruciating eloquence, “What’s with this American chick, in such a hurry. She wants a taxi? She needs to park her ass at the taxi stand and wait with everyone else. What the hell. So impatient, these Americans, so brash. Still they remain adolescents with adult toys. They’ll be the death of us all.”

To me he said, “Mmm, must wait. You wait, taxi come.”

Soundly rebuked, I made my way back to the taxi stand, and as I rounded the corner of the terminal, a fleet of purring taxis greeted me, their trunks open in gracious welcome. I slunk through the door my husband held for me, feeling very much the idiot I was and grateful for a chatty driver.

He was, as it turns out, from Greece, but “twenty-nine years I live here,” he said. “My wife is Finnish. I was skiing in Austria. She was skiing in Austria. We meet there.”

“Greece is a beautiful country,” my husband egged him on. “I was in Greece back in 1975, for a military exercise.”

“I was in Greek army then. It was hard time — the dictatorship and other things — it was hard time. … But Finland has good quality of life for all people, and high education for my children. The United States also is good country. But these wars of yours, we don’t understand why you fight these wars. Europe has so many wars. We do not want to fight more.”

“Yes, we have made some mistakes, some big mistakes,” I said, “but maybe it’s improving now.”

“Ah, yes,” the driver agreed. “Nowhere in Europe can we elect black president. This is so much good. I think ninety percent of people in Europe are exciting for you to elect black president. Yes, so!”

And it occurred to me that one of the very best things about traveling is the taxi drivers. That, and watching a spectacular day’s end at thirty-five thousand feet as the setting sun catches the faces of millions of volcanic particles turning the clouds below to the brilliant orange of a Tallink ferry line jacket.

©2010 Kit-Bacon Gressitt