In honor of Valentine’s Day, an epic love story — I think. Either that, or an epic tale of misdirection involving 4,500 kilometers, five boats, three flat tires, a few naked men, some drunk Swedes, one very important question…and a surprising response.
Going the distance: 4,500 km to propose.
June 1999. I was a consultant living in San Francisco, Audrey a Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia.
I set off on a mission: meet Audrey in Stockholm, make our way to Estonia, celebrate the Summer Solstice, and ask her to marry me somewhere along the way. I carried a “fake” ring, a photograph of the real ring, a ticket from SFO to Stockholm and back home from Tallinn, and two overthought marriage proposal plans.
I had about ten days to get it done.
I also carried with me a truckload of bad karma, apparently.
Plan A: Parry on the Ferry
My first marriage proposal vision: on the boat from Stockholm to Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city.
In an episode of gross travel naiveté, I harbored visions of a romantic cruise across the Baltic Sea. You know, just me and Audrey taking a late night stroll on deck, the soft evening breeze lapping us on our love boat as I work up the nerve to propose under the gentle light of a Scandinavian white night.
The reality: it was a ferry, a multi-stage party boat complete with a disco mobbed by scantily clad Russian high school girls and a performance hall featuring a busker with an acoustic guitar singing “Alice, Alice. Who the f*ck is Alice?!”
Our Love Boat was a booze cruise chock full of raging Scandinavian, Finnish and Baltic partiers. Everyone drank like fish.
Oh yeah, the marriage proposal. My best chance was on patch of bright green AstroTurf-y carpet on the upper deck.
I should have laid a knee to that patch of putting green and called it a night. Instead, I frantically searched the boat, nook and cranny, for somewhere appropriate.
The whole scene was preposterous.
It’s one thing to have a plan and just miss your mark. It’s another to end up in the wrong solar system. I attempted to soar like an eagle, instead I gaggled with the geese. Bottom of the 9th, bases loaded. Tee up whatever metaphor of gross misjudgment and disappointment, and you’d have captured where I'd landed.
This was not to be the vessel from which we'd launch the rest of our lives together.
Out with Plan A.
This is why you have a backup plan.
I had a backup plan.
Plan B: The Boy, The Girl, The Blossoming Fern
I got burned by romance in Plan A. So I picked myself up, just like good young man might. My fallback was all about thoughtful symbolism, cultural and contextual. I couldn't join Peace Corps and go off to Estonia with Audrey, but I could certainly co-opt her host country’s folklore as a backdrop when I proposed to her.
We made our way from northern Estonia across to Saaremaa, Estonia’s island of windmills.
My plan was rooted in an old Estonian Midsummer’s folk tale that tells of a boy and girl who go off into the forest to look for a blossoming fern. The thing is, everyone knows there is no such thing as a blossoming fern so it's just an excuse to go off into the forest together…for a long, long time.
In the spirit of Estonian boys and girls past, I would find an excuse to lure Audrey into the forest, place my knee upon a suitable patch of moss, catch the light, and pop the magical question.
Instead, it rained, the bonfire almost went out and everyone piled into the sauna.
My goal: Propose to Audrey in the forest under the soft light of a midsummer’s night.
The reality: I found myself in a hot shack surrounded by drunk naked men.
After sauna, everyone consumed large amounts of alcohol, sausage, and potato salad while dancing to bad Euro trash tunes. I learned the hard way that this was Estonian midsummer.
Stymied once again, I put my hand into my pocket and fingered a packet of folded white paper into which the ring was tucked.
Time was running out, but I was undeterred. One of the naked men had raved about a road trip to the very north of Finland. This gave me an idea.
“Hey Aud,” I said. “How about we take a drive to the Arctic Circle?”
You must have determination.
I had determination.
I also had a flight back to San Francisco in four days.
Plan C: Above the Arctic Circle
The following morning, hangovers be damned, we hit the road. We caught the ferry in the wee hours to the Estonian mainland back to the port in Tallinn, and hopped another ferry to Helsinki. At that point, we were roughly 800 or so miles from some unnamed destination on the shores of the Arctic Sea.
Oulu, Finland. If Finland has the last bastion of civilization before Lapland, it’s Oulu. On this midsummer night, it was engulfed in drunk Finns celebrating at our hotel disco. The door would open, belch cigarette smoke and spit out a Finn or two who'd consumed too much vodka.
I didn’t get a chance to party. I picked up a flu, felt feverish, began hallucinating, and swooned like I was going to pass out.
Maybe this whole proposal thing wasn't a good idea after all.
The next morning, a miracle. The fog of death hanging over me cleared. I was ready to go. Unfortunately, our car wasn’t. As I opened the trunk, I noticed the right rear tire: flat as a pancake.
Fortunately, the spare was a real tire instead of a donut. I jacked up the car, removed the flat, replaced it with the spare, and said to myself, “We are headed nowhere and we have no spare. We are in deep shit.”
Did I mention that we were driving an old Ford Escort?
As we continued north, our path began to fill with reindeer (they are slow to move), and starving mosquitos (extraordinarily fast). The road seemed never-ending.
Sure enough, as we closed in on the top of the earth, we stopped for a break only to find out that the right front tire had also begun to go flat.
Is this a sign?
We’d rationalized that at the rate of tire deflation, we could make it to civilization somewhere in northern Norway. We’d have to. We were plunk in the middle of nowhere and of the few gas stations that existed, only clerks were on duty. Everyone else was recovering.
We crossed the Arctic Circle, passing Rovaniemi, the purported home of Santa Claus. (I was always under the impression that Santa lived AT the North Pole, not NEAR the North Pole, but that’s for another discussion.)
“Let’s keep driving until we reach the Arctic Sea,” I suggested. Just above the Arctic Circle would not be sufficiently dramatic. Audrey was game; she didn’t suspect a thing. So we pressed on.
Then, a third tire began to go flat. It was clearly time to stop. We found Skibotn, a small village with an auto repair shop. The mechanics were so amused by us — crazy Americans driving a puny car in the middle of northern Norway en route to the Arctic Sea — that they plugged all our tires for free.
Every cent we saved on the tire repair was paid to an extortionately expensive guesthouse and for the world’s most expensive fish sandwich.
But we were alive, and so were our tires.
We took a walk along a nearby fjord shoreline and marveled at the sunset. It was 2:00 A.M.
My luck was going to change. I could feel it. Sort of.
One Last Chance: Are You Serious?
The following morning, I surveyed our map and noticed the Arctic Sea was quite a bit further than I expected. This trip is going to kill me. I had to be back in Tallinn in two days for a flight. Maybe we could just return to the home of Santa Claus and wrap this thing up?
I imagined the scene of proposing to Audrey at the home of Santa Claus.
Nope. To the Arctic Sea, it is.
I just drove and drove. I didn’t really know where I was going. One of the tires had begun to go flat again. I used this as pretext to stop at every station and ask, “Can you tell me where I can find the Arctic Sea?”
Who says men don’t ask for directions?
Eventually, the sea, and a clear line of sight across the water. A cute fishing village named Grotfjord. Of all the beauty we’d consumed, this was the place. On the map, the body of water read Norwegian Sea, but honestly I didn’t care. I would always refer to this moment as having taken place on the Arctic Sea.
I might even throw in a few polar bears in the next telling of the story.
Stop stalling! It’s now or never.
Audrey and I walked out onto a rock jetty. I shook like a schoolboy. Thankfully, Audrey busied herself with a sea urchin shell as I fumbled with the ring in my pocket, a $5 silver stand-in that I’d purchased at a San Francisco street fair.
I bent down, pretending to find something amidst the rocks and unfolded the fingers of my right hand, “Look what I found.”
Then, the ring fell in the water.
OK, I'm just kidding about that last part.
“Oh,” Audrey said. “What is it?”
“It’s the ring I’m going to ask you to marry me with.”
Audrey: “Are you serious?”
Hmmm. I was the one who was supposed to be asking the questions. I mean, here we are at the ends of the earth.
“Um, yes, I’m serious.” (I was also as white as a sheet and still shaking, I’m sure.)
Amidst the rocks, I got down on one knee, ring in hand: “Do you think you can find it in your heart to spend the rest of your life with me?”
A woefully long silence, which in fact was only a second or two.
A Few Lessons
After I began breathing again, I came to: “Wait! I can’t believe you asked me if I was serious!”
Audrey had a point. “It would have been a long ride back if you weren’t. You would have teased me the whole time.”
True, I was a joker and this was the payback. To pepper the story with some more credibility, I pulled out the photo of the real diamond ring.
We high-tailed it out of Grotfjord, back through Tromso, rewound our trip — the same reindeer, the same long roads, the same slowly deflating tires, the same light unbending. Mosquito carcasses piled up by the pound on the car windshield and grille.
Back in Tallinn, we inflated the tires (the spare, too!) one last time and returned the car to the rental car counter.
“How was everything?”
We were engaged. And that’s all that mattered.
Happy Valentine’s Day!!
When have your “perfect plans” gone completely awry?