Cold Hands: The Lost Gloves of Helsinki

I’ve lived in Istanbul for some years now, and while I’ve come to realize nothing about this city is normal, I’ve gotten used to its madness. According to census reports it’s a city of about 16 million, but locals will tell you it’s more likely above 20. The crowds, noise, traffic, pollution and round-the-clock chaos have begun to feel, well, pretty standard. This sensation of how much I’ve normalized the craziness is thrown into the most relief when I travel outside of Turkey.

I’ve recently spent some time in Helsinki, Finland, a city of some roughly 2 million. Upon my first visit, I began to feel the differences between the two cities around 20 minutes before landing, as the plane descended over the Baltic Sea and the sprawling archipelago that makes up greater the greater city. The buildings all looked to be about the same height and nothing seemed to be more than five or so storeys high. There were no skyscrapers or towering apartment blocks, just clusters of relatively uniform apartment complexes scattered between frozen forests, swamps and bays. What a contrast to the descent flying over Istanbul, gazing down upon an endless maze of concrete that ranges from tiny shacks to massive skyscrapers.

On the way from the airport to the city centre, Elif and I got on a relatively empty bus that departed at its scheduled time. There was room for everyone to sit on the bus and metro, and my suitcase was not in the way. Walking on the streets, even in the heart of the centre, I was not jostled by an endless mass of people. At crosswalks, the cars stopped to let me pass, even if there was no red light. And, what felt most strange, pedestrians waited to cross the street patiently until the light changed, even if there was no traffic passing. It all came as a familiar, yet jarring, sense of relief and bewilderment.

In my time in Turkey, I’ve not exactly gotten used to it, but have continually experienced and internalized the feeling that anything can happen, at any time. With such a volatile present, everything kind of happens haphazardly. What results is an ever-present anxiety of being late or that you’re putting things off, but that it’s probably fine. As everyone else is also in a rush, you can always just blame it on x relevant system (or just traffic) and it’ll be okay, because everyone understands. They’re also living with the same uncertainty.

I digress. As everyone in Istanbul is constantly in a rush, people cross the street illegally. Sometimes a few pedestrians start jaywalking and the cars slow, and then the entire crowd floods through the intersection – to the consternation of the drivers, who can’t cross an intersection at a green light. Over the years, I have gotten used to crossing the street like playing Frogger at the arcade. Just recently when crossing my street at a risky lull in traffic, a scooter driver zoomed past, honking the horn and shouting öleceksin! (You are going to die!) I would be surprised to hear such a phrase in Helsinki. First nobody would ever run across the street between cars in traffic, and then nobody would ever honk and curse at you if you did. I did, of course, frequently cross the street illegally in Helsinki, as this has become a habit hard to shake. When I did, though, I was only met with silent glares from my more patient pedestrian peers.

I did not see people fighting or shouting at each other in public in Finland. I saw many children but I cannot recall them crying. The dogs didn’t even bark. People seemed to be following the rules of a mutually agreed upon, structured society. Most smokers even threw their cigarette butts in rubbish bins. It felt like everyone was just giving everyone else their space, leaving everyone else alone. In Istanbul it feels very different. Everyone lives on top of each other all the time, with all of the love and claustrophobia that come with that closeness.

Given all of this cleanliness, order and polite behaviour that felt so strange coming from Istanbul, I did begin to notice an idiosyncrasy. There were gloves. Everywhere. Individual gloves. Leather gloves, cotton gloves, latex gloves, worker’s gloves, mittens, as well as children’s gloves and mittens of all colors. On street corners, on sidewalks, on benches, at bus stops, in front of markets, in gutters and in carparks. And the rule-abiding pedestrians passed by these gloves, never seeming to pay them the slightest attention.

The first glove I noticed was on the walk from the bus stop to Elif’s flat. Someone had conspicuously stuck it on a guard rail, perhaps with the hope that its owner would one day pass by again and find it in the place it had been lost. It was in pretty sad shape and missing a finger. Whenever we left the flat in the next few days I kept seeing it and reflecting on it, and eventually decided to take a picture of it.

The one that started it all

Later, walking by the harbour, Elif showed me the departure point for a ferry that I would take the next day on a day trip to Suomenlinna, an island and historical military fortification complex just south of Helsinki. We saw a child’s pink mitten that had been placed in an iron ring for tying ships to the dock. Would you like to get a photo? Elif asked, and waited patiently while I changed lenses. We then saw another glove in the bike lane and I experimented with a few angles and lenses, eventually lying down in the street for the shot.

It then became a project and the theme of my visit. I spent the next few days exploring Helsinki, ostensibly going to galleries and museums, but really eyeing the streets like a hawk and taking photographs of the random gloves I saw scattered about the city. Some touristic sites didn’t yield glove shots, unfortunately. I went to the Olympic stadium in search of a glove and spent €7 to go to the top of the tower. I walked all the way around the stadium and through the carpark on my quest, but alas, there was not a glove to be found and I did not get a shot from the stadium. Another shot I wanted but was unable to get was a glove in the square next to the train station and in front of the National Theatre. I walked across the square many times, always with my eyes scanning the ground for the outline of a glove, but never had any luck in finding one.

One day I criss-crossed the city, connecting all 10 of Helsinki’s tram lines. With a short lunch break in a park at the end of the 8, a quick beer in a cafe at a beach on the Baltic Sea at the end of the 4 and plenty of glove photos in between, I spent about seven hours riding trams that day. I imagined people asking me what I did on my holiday to Helsinki. I rode trams and took pictures of gloves on the street, I would say. I must have gone weird at some point.

As everyone was passing by these gloves and not looking at them or picking them up, I reflected that maybe I was the only one to find this interesting, or that maybe this was a new phenomenon. I began to do some research and realized that others, too, had noticed this before. I was not the only weird one. I found a photography project by an Aalto university student, a blog entry from 2015, an embroidery project and, expanding beyond Helsinki, someone who had turned orphaned gloves into a park in Baltimore, USA. Oh, you’re taking pictures of the gloves! I love it when a new person comes here and sees the city in a new way, a friend of Elif’s said when we met her over a drink later on during my stay.

It was just a short visit, and by the time I left the weather was turning warmer and it was no longer glove season. I hoped that meant that more and more people were being reunited with their lost gloves. In my last few days there I always had my camera with me, but found fewer and fewer stray gloves. Two days before I left the glove on the guardrail by Elif’s flat disappeared. While waiting for my flight back to Istanbul in the airport, however, I got a message from Elif: I just saw a glove! She was unable to get a shot of it, unfortunately, as she saw it through the window while on the bus. Come autumn, however, I imagine the gloves will return, and I can continue the project on another visit.

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