Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Operation Ankka - This is a story about a duck. By Geoff Ballance

This first appeared in print in the Canadian Friends of Finland Spring 2020 Newsletter    

 As is often the case with duck stories, it begins on a cool, misty summer morning by a lake in Finland.  My partner Christina and I had been staying at her cousin Tapani's kesämöki, exploring the lake and surrounding countryside.  Perched at the end of a small peninsula, the cottage is situated in the ideal location to enjoy the unavoidable peace and tranquility of rural eastern Finland.  But alas, our time here had come to an end.  It was time to head back to Canada.

I grabbed our bags, threw on my jacket and stepped outside. The faded wooden deck was slowly being painted a polka-dot motif as light rain began to fall. I filled my lungs with cool pine-scented air that crept up from the lake and across the moss-covered forest floor. 

Soon our loaner car, a bright red Ford Escort turbo diesel wagon (who knew?) was packed and ready to go.  A sticker splashed across the side window proudly stated, 'Olen suomalaisen ruuan ystävä'-I am a friend of Finnish food-and as I waited for my partner to lock up the cottage, I silently wondered if I would ever get a grasp of this exotic language.

It did not take long to get to Tapani's dairy farm to drop off the car, say our thanks and goodbyes and head toward Nunnanlahti where we would catch the bus to Helsinki.  I was pleased to hear that Chris' cousin Arja would be joining us on our trip to the city as she spoke excellent English and would faithfully answer all my questions.  Uncle Mikko would drive us to the bus stop.  Mikko was a handsome man, with expressive deep-set blue eyes, that glinted with some sort of inner knowledge or secret whenever he would speak or laugh.  He was always nicely dressed and, being a retired dairy farmer, felt comfortable wearing rubber boots and a red Valtra cap wherever he went. Clearly the boots did not impede his ability to drive.  Despite the rainy weather and engaging in a decidedly one-sided conversation, he managed to get us to Nuunanlahti in record time.

The bus stop was adjacent to the Kivikylä stone village complex that included the display center for the famous soapstone ovens and fireplaces of Tulikivi Oy.  We said goodbye to Mikko and, having some time to kill before the bus arrived, decide to go inside the center for a look at some of the fireplace designs. 

Entering the complex, Arja drew in a sharp breath and pointed to a poster on the wall titled 'Ilmastonmuutos kuvataiteessa'-Climate change in the visual arts.  "Well this is your lucky day…" she said slowly, wiggling her finger at the poster.  "Kaj Stenvall has an art exhibit upstairs in the gallery.  He is a celebrated Finnish artist.  I have a print of one of his pieces at home. We must go!"

"Oh, I've seen his artwork before." added Chris, "I love his ideas!"

I leaned toward the poster. There was something about it that looked familiar. Yes, it was a wonderful depiction of the iconic vista of the islands in Lake Pielinen, but not from Ukko Koli viewpoint.  The perspective was much higher than Eero Järnefelt ever painted.  It would be what you saw if you were skydiving from an airplane.  In fact, there was someone in the foreground of the poster in an orange jumpsuit, free-falling awkwardly toward earth with its four-fingered hands splayed out to either side.  The figure was not human.  It was a duck.  "Hey, its Aku Ankka!" I exclaimed, proud that I remembered the Finnish name for Donald Duck.  I had been learning Finnish words by reverse engineering a Walt Disney children's book titled 'Opi Englantia' featuring Donald and Mickey.  Hey, do not judge. It works for me.

"Nooo…"  Arja had spun around on the staircase and was moving her index finger like a windshield wiper blade in front of my face.  "Kaj Stenvall has nothing to do with Disney," she chided.   "He just happens to use a very "familiar" looking duck in some of his artwork."  She used air quotation marks around 'familiar'.               

       We entered the gallery and it became immediately apparent that, duck or no duck, the artist has a way of drawing the viewer into his world.  Whether the setting for the piece was indoors or out, he exhibits a fascinating control of colour and light.  I was sympathizing with the subject in a painting titled 'She makes me sweat', intrigued as to how Stenvall manages to create such human emotion from a duck, when I overheard Christina whisper to Arja, "I would love to own one of his pieces…"  They were studying a creation titled 'The Lightness of Being'.  A tall, elegant duck-woman in a pink sun dress is leaning back casually against what could be a green, early model convertible Cadillac.  My God, I thought, never mind global warming, now that is a sexy duck...  The car is parked on tarmac or in a desert, under an infinitely blue cloudless sky.  I glanced at my watch. "Yikes," I said. "Look at the time! We have to go!"

As we rushed toward the Pikavuoro-express-bus stop on the highway, an idea was taking root.  I could not stop thinking about Chris' comment to her cousin about the painting.  Hmmm.  Her 50th birthday was approaching.  Although there was not enough time to secretly shop for a Stenvall piece of art on this trip, I would contact Arja upon our return to Vancouver to see if we could set up a covert operation.  It would have to be top secret.  The image of a secret agent duck in a black trench coat and fedora popped into my head.

We arrived safely back in Vancouver after another memorable trip to Finland and I did not waste any time putting Operation Ankka into motion.  First, I fired off an email to Arja to see if she would accept the mission-purchase a Stenvall original as a surprise birthday present for Christina and ship it to Canada.  Top secret, I reminded her.  She accepted on one condition-you must take a picture of her face when she opens it…

Arja:  I checked availability, but I think the price is too high for an original.  Are you ok with a serigraphy?  There is one available at Stenvall's gallery for around 380.00. It is a high-quality print.  This one is special. It was printed by Kaj Stenvall himself.  It is number 8 of only 15 printed.  They say the colors are more vibrant when it is done by the artist.  The one at the studio was nicely framed in a large passepartout.

Geoff:  That sounds great Arja!  Go for it!  Oh, and thanks for the English lesson.  I had to look up 'serigraphy' and 'passepartout'...  I thought they were code words!

After exchanging addresses and classified banking information we agreed to get in touch in a week.  I received a cryptic email.

Arja:  Hi.  I made it.  The duck is on its way.  Tracking number is LX093692311FI. It should be there during next week.

Geoff:  Arja, you are an angel!!  Thanks for helping make this a memorable birthday for Christina.

Luckily, Chris wasn't at home when the parcel arrived.  The duck had travelled a total of 7505km-as the whooper swan flies-from Helsinki to Vancouver.  But its journey was not over.  I had booked a rustic cabin at a lodge on the west coast of Vancouver Island near Port Renfrew and it was there, a few days later, on Chris' birthday, that the duck was finally freed from its cylindrical container.  As the print was slowly being unrolled, the image of a tall, elegant duck-woman in a pink sundress was revealed leaning against a green car.  'The Lightness of Being' had landed.  My camera was ready and I took the requisite picture for Arja just as Chris was excitedly mouthing the words, 'Kaj Stenvall!!'

Operation Ankka was a success…Mission complete.  Please burn this after reading.

Originally printed in the Canadian Friends of Finland Spring 2020 Newsletter. This is one of the benefits of being a member of the CFF – at less than $20 a year, it is a great way to help keep Finnish stories circulating. 

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