A Well for Uganda
A project that promises to help people and push me to my limits. A reality between moments of lethargy and the pressure to perform. Steven Hille travels to Africa to build a well.
We were on an expedition through the streets of Helsinki, to find the one place we only heard about in stories. It was a long walk with an unknown destination.
Helsinki is easy to navigate. Not in the middle, but certainly in its center dominates the white cathedral. It towers above all buildings in the city. The only exceptions are the Olympic Tower and the Ateljee Bar, which serves expensive beer and cidre to mostly russian businessmen, 7o meters above the ground. From up there, you can see the grey of the city during the short summer or the white veil of the long winter.
But to discover the Finnish soul in Europe, you have to dig deeper.
Keep left when leaving the cathedral, go beyond the functionalist glass palace and you will find a far-reaching road. The longer you walk on it, the more cafés appear left and right of the street. People’s beards become longer and thicker, their shirts more colorful and tight. „Ah“ my Finnish friend says. „We are in the hipster district now.“
My friend Tiina comes from the Finnish countryside. Her father looks like Santa Claus, the family home has its own sauna and a birch forest is growing in their backyard with a lake. She has been living in Helsinki for some years now, but she never visited this district. The search for the Götan maailma lead us here.
We have heard it would be a magical collection of strange things in a tiny room. Only a adress, written down on paper and gathered from a year old entry in a blog from an american tourist who found the place by accident, guided us. Now we were here. An empty window. Underneath a thick layer of dust behind it was an old sign which said in big Finnish letters: „To rent“.
A collection turned to dust.
My friend wouldn’t accept it. She asked the neighbors, but no one knew anything. A collection? Strange items? Go and ask over there. Faster than before we continued our search. And we almost would have missed it. Around the corner, hiding behind a huge construction site covering half the block – there it was.
Two wooden doors, the windows plastered with signs and names – that was the entrance. The smell captured us right away. We both could not say with certainty what it was, only that it intensely smelled like time. Memories. The past. Our eyes needed a moment to scan everything around us. After the smell released us, we slowly started to make out objects: Taxidermy birds on the tables, tin silverware, minerals, pelts nailed to the wall and old furniture. Before we could see all there was to see in this room, a tall man came from the dark chamber in the corner. He towered above us and his short, wild hair sharply grazed the doorless frame.
„Welcome to the Götan maailma“ said the giant. That’s how I met Thomas Hamberg.
* * *
My first contact with Finnish people was in 2009. It was my second week in Tokyo and I changed my place for the third time. The next morning, I wanted to visit the southern islands, so I booked a two square meter „room“ in a capsule hotel near the ferry port. These islands are rarely visited by tourists, it used to be almost impossible to reach them without at least an understanding of the local geography or the japanese language.
Short was the night. Besides sleeping, the only thing I wanted to do was to charge my camera. The hotel – eight floors, each with 50 to 80 capsules and windows that closely let you examine the wall of the next building – only seemed to have one working power outlet. It was near the elevator, underneath the only table on the floor, where two young men where playing poker. To the left, a bald head shined pale around blue eyes and to his right was a guy with thick blonde hair leaning on the chair. Plugging in the camera, I accidently tipped over the cards on the shaky table. The men just smiled and whished me a good night.
With a lot of luck, I caught my ferry the next morning and found a cheap room on the island. It was in an old japanese house that’s been turned into a hostel for surfers, who weren’t here now for the rainy season. In fact, I was the only guest in the huge mansion. It wasn’t until the evening that two more guests from Europe arrived.
Our conversation went on for a while before we all realized it and pointed the finger at each other like they were guns: The two guys here in the mansion now where the same two guys who were playing poker the night before on the fourth floor of a rundown capsule hotel somewhere in the megacity. We barely exchanged any words back then. But now we met once more, 170 kilometers south of Tokyo, somewhere in the pacific on an island. They came from Finland.
That night, we told us stories about our home countries.
They described the cold winter to me and a scandinavian sport, that is somewhat related to ice hockey, but played with a tiny plastic ball with holes. Only countries from northern Europe compete in the tournament and every nation hates the other with competetive ambition. Proudly they told me how Finland triumphed over Norway sometime in the 1990s and they showed me clips from the game on Youtube.
Both of them had just finished their military service and traveled Asia on their guerdon. But they mostly stayed just among themselves. Finnish people keep their distance, they told me.
My next encounter with Finland happened a couple of weeks after the island. I was still in Tokyo and wanted to buy a new bed, so I replied to an ad online. That’s how I met Tiina. Through our emails grew a friendship – even though I never bought her bed.
Tiina considers herself an unusual Finnish – meaning she is social and talkative. I now visited her for the second time in her country. And in that moment, when I was holding the trash bags in the hallways of her home in Helsinki, while she smilingly danced down the stairs, I had to think back how absurd and coincidental it all was, that the only reason I am here now was because she was selling a bed in Tokyo.
Five years later, both of us have found the Götan maailma, a place full of absurd things that arrived here through a chain of coincidences.
* * *
After owner Thomas Hamberg had greeted us, he disappeared into the chamber in the back. Later, he explained to me that he does this with every visitor. Every guest should have the opportunity to get his or her own impression of what the Götan maailma means to them. He doesn’t want to stand there and influence the feeling.
To him, the Götan maailma is many things. He likes to use the words „illusion“ or „stage“, sometimes he also describes it as a museum or collection of antiquities. But first and foremost it is the realization of his dream.
Since he was a child, Thomas has been collecting old and unusual things. Maybe the stories his father told him about his great aunt Göta had an influence on him. An eccentric woman. She collected all kinds of weird and strange items: bones, old furniture or even a whole piano. Today you would probably call her a hoarder. Aside from all the magical objects, she also gathered trash and garbage, that piled up in the small appartment she was sharing with her sister in Helsinki.
He met his great aunt only after she was over 80 years old and living in a retirement home. She died at the beginning of the 1990s. Not much remained from her collection. Even inside the store that was named after her – „Götan maailma“ = „The world of Göta“ – only an old sofa is left.
Maybe it was the experience with Göta that created his, as he calls it, morbid view on life: „People come and go“ Thomas says. „People die – but things… if you keep them and love them, they can be decades or thousand years old.“ Longer than a human life. That’s why it is important for him to know that these things are always in motion. Even their stay in his collection is just a stop in their journey. To him, the objects in his store are a part of his soul – they have to be moving, always. Selling things that are close to him comes easy. „If the customer shares the passion for the same things, than the item is in good hands“ he tells me.
Inside the collection are a little less than a thousand items from seven countries and just as many time periods: religious paintings from renaissance era France, minerals from a Germany between the wars or medical gear from two centuries ago. In addition, there are artifacts from european expeditions or from former colonies. There is only one requirement for all these objects says Thomas:
„They have to move my soul.“
As Thomas is talking, he seems to me like someone who has been carrying a question inside him for a long time that others could not answer for him. He studied art and worked as a chef and clerk afterwards. It never really felt right to him. In February 2011, he opened the Götan maailma. Almost everyday he’s here, opening the store sometime between ten an eleven in the morning and closing it at six in the evening. If he can’t make it, his parents or friends help him out and wait like him in the backroom for customers. Thomas is traveling a lot through Europe, always browsing flea markets and old stores to find odd things for his collection or for customers, who come to him with special requests. Wasn’t he nervous about opening his own shop? „Of course“ he says strongly. „I’m a very anxious person, I’m always afraid something bad is going to happen. But I was only anxious afterwards. Before, I just thought that I got nothing to lose.“
Through his shop, he finds more people like him, he can connect with customers about his passion. Thomas is 33 years old and I believe he has found his place in life. In the dark chamber in the back, he sometimes even does little events or plays. Recently, he’s presenting „In the face of death“ with an actress. The audience always is just one person – that’s part of the perfomance. Thomas is still nervous everytime.
He is not sure if his great aunt Göta would like his store today. Probably not. Göta was a strange woman. „She probably would have disliked all the taxidermy animals“, Thomas says. With a cheekish smile, he adds „but hopefully her spirit is here with us.“
* * *
Thomas doesn’t have much money, but he’s happy. At least as happy as a Finnish man would confess his state of mind to a stranger. After our conversation, Tiina, who was silently listening and examing the wondrous items, approached me. She explained her perspective. For a Finnish, Thomas was unusually open about himself. „He probably doesn’t have it easy with other Finns“ Tiina suspected. I could imagine as much. But the great thing is: Thomas doesn’t have to get along with all the Finnish people in the world. He created his own world and likeminded people now visit him. „Once you have started and opened the doors“ he said „then there is no stopping it. It just keeps pouring in.“
Not every visitor is buying something. In fact, only a few people do, if he’s being honest. And sometimes real professionals are taking adantage of his collection as well. Thomas told me about a century old wooden carving from Germany, which he sold for a couple of hundreds of euro. On Twitter and Instagram, which he checks daily from his chamber in the back for comments or new objects, he eventually found the client again. He bragged how the piece was worth thousands of euro. But Thomas wasn’t upset. Really? „Well, at first, yes of course“ he says. „But for me it’s good to know that the piece is with someone who can really appreciate it. Better than having it just nailed to my wall here.“ His own room in the back is surprisingly plain. There’s a lamp, a computer and a lazy dog sleeping in the corner. It moves so little you could think it was a taxidermy figure as well.
As we are about to leave, Thomas tells us the secret behind the smell. Since we came in, we were wondering if it was just a mixture between the old objects or a bouquet of flowers in a hidden vase somewhere. The solution to the riddle is actually more complex than that. To Thomas, the smell is part of the act, of the identity of the store. It’s a meticulously created perfume that he mixed himself from century old cigars, amber, ashes and old leather. He sprays it onto the lamp shades and the furniture. Joined together with the dust and old wood it creates the smell of time. It is supposed to evoke memories of your grandfather or your old family home. A different impression for everyone.
In the future, Thomas would like to open more wunderkammers created after the image of the Götan maailma in Europe. In Stockholm, London or Berlin. It depends on if he can find a related soul in these places who can take over the business. Until then, his store will continue to be pecularly unique.
My friend is smiling from ear to ear after we leave the store. She has never seen anything as miraculous as this. „Well?“ she asks. „What do you think?“
For me, the Götan maailma is neither an illusion or a museum.
It is a journey. A journey through time. A journey through many different lifes.
And the journey through the soul of a man.
* * *