The Not-So-Great Helsinki Elevator Caper

-          by Michael!

I’ve been very blessed with travel opportunities throughout my life. Most have been connected with music, particularly with my parents’ work with choral ensembles – California, England (twice), Austria, New York City, Switzerland, all were introduced to me by virtue of my travels with various ensembles that my folks were leading. Whether I was part of the group or just along for the ride, I have seen some amazing places thanks to them, and I blame credit them for my boundless love for any form of journey.

One of my favorite trips was in 2004, at the end of my (first) senior year of college. There was an “Alumni Tour” for my high school’s choral program heading to St. Petersburg, Russia, then to Helsinki, Finland, and then stopping briefly in Talinn, Estonia before heading back home.

Somehow, I talked the director into letting me tag along.

Now, I could tell you loads of stories from this trip. Ok, I’ll be blunt – I probably will tell you loads of stories from this trip. Spread out over several posts. For months. Deal with it. But for now, I just want to focus on one particular tale from our first night in Finland, because it deals with a familiar theme in this blog thus far.

Before getting to the actual story, I have a few things to say. In high school, I was salutatorian of my class, with test scores in the highest percentiles across the board. In college, I likewise graduated magna cum from undergrad, and had a 4.0 as a master’s student.

I have to remind myself of things like this when I write posts like this, because frankly, sometimes I wonder about me. Some of the things I’ve done, while funny, indicate that I probably do not have the brainpower to maintain a heartbeat and breathe at the same time, much less learn anything as strenuous as the alphabet.

What follows is a case in point.

After bribing the Russian border guards (this had a distinctly touristy feeling – “See Rock City!” “Feed the Bayou Alligators!” “Pay Off the Russian Border Guards!”), we unloaded from the train into the fairyland that is Helsinki. I’m sure that it was at least partially beauty-by-comparison, as St. Petersburg was pretty dismal while we were there, and full of pretty dismal, dour people, but we were all instantly enchanted with Finland.

The air was cleaner.

The people were friendly.

Nothing smelled like cabbage. Or vodka. Or semi-frozen swamp.

So we were fairly giddy as we filed into our hotel and checked into our rooms.

There was a fair bit of milling about the lobby after checking in, with people stretching their legs after the train/bus rides, people enjoying the perennial sunshine of Helsinki in the early Spring evening, that sort of thing. But our herd mentality eventually kicked in and everybody decided, more or less congruently, to head up to the rooms to nap, freshen up, what have you.

Now, I had already attempted a trip in one of the two hotel elevators. This contraption was not sleek, shiny, or large, just so you know. Picture an old-timey bathtub with a fluorescent light over it and you’ll get the general idea. So my first attempted excursion on the elevator involved me gallantly offering to ferry several ladies’ luggage to various rooms, only to find that, after I painstakingly loaded about six suitcases onto the elevator and squeezed myself on last, it really wasn’t kidding about its weight limit.

Four people.

Some number in KG that I assumed was roughly equal to four people.

These figures were not to be ignored, and my disregard for them was punished by an earsplitting shriek from a speaker hidden somewhere in the elevator. My gallantry not to be thwarted, I turned it into two trips, but I had learned the consequences of abusing this elevator!

Or so I thought.

At any rate, we were all dispersing to our rooms, and I was heading for the stairs. As I entered the stairwell, I heard one of the choristers call my name and invite me onto the elevator. (This young gentleman, if I remember aright, was likewise in the top five in his class. At least I was not alone.)

It was immediately apparent that the number of persons in the elevator exceeded four. It exceeded many more than four. I think there were at least nine people in the elevator already. Now, most of these folk were small people, to be sure, but the sign was quite adamant about the whole “four people” thing.

However, the kid was persistent, and I figured that, since the contraption had announced its displeasure with my previous attempt to overload it with such resounding disdain it wouldn’t be a problem. In all probability, I figured, the elevator would complain noisily, I would blush slightly but not without humor at being the obvious and overweight focus of its displeasure, and I could then retreat to the stairs as I had originally intended.

Imagine my surprise when the elevator doors slid shut without so much as a hiccup. “Oh! Well then,” thought I, “we must be ok, somehow!”

I would like to point out here that my reaction in this situation is very logical. Had I not had the prior experience of the un-Godly noise that this elevator could make when purportedly overwhelmed with Fat American, I would not have even attempted to get on the elevator in the first place. But I had empirical data to suggest that this infernal machine would alert us to its limits being reached, and the logical conclusion to the lack of an alarm was that we were not, in fact, exceeding the elevator’s capacity.

This is what I tell myself to make me feel better.

To the vast chagrin of all aboard, which included myself, my mother, one other adult chaperone, and several of the choristers themselves, the elevator sputtered to a halt just over halfway through its climb to the second floor.

And there it remained.

For over an hour.

We dangled there, in a Finnish limbo machine, for about twenty minutes before anybody even found us. “Anybody” turned out to be Mr. Berg himself, who heard our plaintive cries for help as he took to the stairs to find his wife. His first order of business was to laugh, quietly, I’m sure, then notify the hotel staff of the situation.

I think they shared his amusement, although it was often hard to tell with the Finns we met. Either way, they regretted to inform Mr. Berg that it would be at least half an hour before their repairman could make it back to the hotel to release the emergency brakes, as he had gone home for the day. This was communicated to us via Mr. Berg shouting through the crack in the door, and we communicated back to him that this would apparently have to do, but that it was hot in the elevator, and by the way everybody in here needs to pee. Right now.

Well, the latter problem was one he could not address. But the heat?


He came up with the brilliant idea to keep the second elevator running back and forth between the first and second floors, thereby creating a breeze in the shaft that wafted into our little cubicle of hell. We took turns standing by the doors, as this was the coolest spot, and thus not only allowed ourselves to move about a little bit and gain some (slightly) fresh air, but also enable us to feel some semblance of control over the uncomfortable but (to me, at least) instantly hilarious situation.

Once it became clear that we were in for the long haul, we settled in to a routine of story swapping and joke telling that passed the time quite admirably and, more importantly, kept our minds off of the increasing pressure in our bladders. Dad would not be caught dead in one of these elevators at this point, so in order to keep the “fan” going he was running up and down the stairs, a sight which certainly contributed to our laughter – and if that laughter had a somewhat manic edge to it by the time that the technician finally arrived and repaired the elevator, well, that’s our business.

Thankfully nobody was injured. And nobody wet themselves. (Although I think a few of us were pretty close.) And most amazingly, nobody freaked out. At least, nobody freaked out out loud.

I want you to think about that for a moment:

There were nine or ten people crammed into an elevator the size of a bathtub for close to ninety minutes, and nobody even so much as raised their voice.

It was pretty incredible.

So we finally escaped the clutches of the elevator of death, and I do believe that none of us set foot in either of the hotel’s elevators again during the trip. And now, when I come to an elevator that looks like it might be full, I bow to the wisdom of experience…

And get on, anyway. Because hey – last time, I got a great story out of it!