Saturday, March 1, 2014

Lost and Found

Last Saturday, I went for a walk with my wife to get a little exercise. On the way out the door, I grabbed a pair of wool socks in case the ones I was wearing weren’t thick enough for my slightly oversized rubber boots.

I crammed the socks into my jacket pockets along with a pair of heavy gloves, which of course it turned out to be completely unnecessary, as Saturday was another one of unseasonably warm (above-freezing) days that felt more like April than February.

All during the walk, the wool socks kept protruding from my overstuffed pockets, and I kept pushing them back in, so it was no surprise that when we returned from our hour out in the fresh air, one of the socks was missing.

Since I hate to lose stuff, and since I knew exactly where we had walked, I set out the next morning by bicycle to search for the missing hosiery.

Left behind.
I retraced the route with a clear search image of the sock in my mind. I knew that it wasn’t enough to scan just the surface of the sidewalks, dirt paths, and roadsides where the sock would have fallen after worming its way out of my pocket. I also had to keep an eye on fences, signposts, tree branches, mailboxes, in fact, any structure rising above the ground on which some passerby might have deposited my sad, lost sock.

This is such a typical occurrence in Finland that I doubt anyone would hardly ever think about it. As I rode past the horse farm near our home, then across the bridge over the Vantaa river into the subdivisions on the other side, I spotted – in quick succession – a red beret on a fence post, a mitten hanging in a birch tree, and a glove inserted into a wire fence at a construction site, all conspicuously visible in case, like me, their owners came looking for them.

I wonder how common this practice might be in other countries. For example, I have no idea whether Americans routinely rescue strangers’ outer garments and place them where they can easily be found. 

From one personal experience, however, I do know it does happen at least with sunglasses. A few years ago on the Fourth of July my wife, daughter and I were hiking with my sister in the Adirondacks Mountains of New York. Returning down a mountain trail, we took a break at a lakeside spot where a rough jeep road gave access to a crude boat ramp. My sister noticed a pair of sunglasses sitting on a log off to the side of the trail, and decided to put them on a large rock where the owner might better spot them.

Just as we started to head on down the jeep road to where our car was parked some two miles away, a battered pickup truck pulled up with a fishing boat in the back. Some time later, about halfway down the deserted road we began to think we heard sounds coming from behind us, like people shouting to each other. They seem to be getting louder, but we didn’t imagine it had anything to do with us. Then suddenly we could hear the sound of someone running hard, rapidly approaching us, between shouts of “hey”. We turned to see a young man coming around a bend in the road, out of breath. In his hand, the sunglasses. He and his father had noticed them after we left and assumed they belong to us, and this poor guy had just run a mile to return them to us. We hated to break the news to him that the glasses weren’t ours.

Going the extra mile to return a nice pair of sunglasses is one thing; whether Americans habitually rescue misplaced gloves, is another. I can’t say. When I lived in the States it wasn’t in cities where people take walks (if such American cities exist), and anyway it was in the South where the need for gloves, scarves, even warm hats is so small that these must only rarely get misplaced. They aren’t an essential part of your wardrobe as they are in Finland.

In fact, as a schoolboy I don’t recall ever wearing gloves waiting for the bus on those mornings when we had frost on the ground. I simply put my hands in the pockets of my jeans. (Doing things outdoors like hunting was different – then we used gloves.)

At my father’s service station, we used to sell brown, cotton gloves, mostly to the same customer who stopped in every morning before daybreak on his way to work at the chicken plant or some other workplace where he needed to protect his hands from the elements. At twenty-five cents a pair, they were cheap, which was handy since the customer seemed to go through a pair almost every day.

People in Finland don't go through that many gloves maybe, but still quite a few, judging by the number of lost ones that ends up on some fence or else in a lost and found box.

A yearly ritual for us at my kids’ school was going through the detritus of lost and found items before school let out for the summer. After the year-end school program, the singing of “Suvivirsi” (Summer Hymn), and the handing out of classroom certificates, we would go to the gym to check out the three or four large cardboard boxes full of all the gloves, scarves, socks, shoes, sweatshirts, jackets, even hockey helmets that had been mislaid in the school during the past winter. It always amazed me how much unclaimed stuff one small student body could lose track of. You would think even the most absent-minded ten-year-old would notice that somehow he had arrived home without his best winter parka.

More valuable lost items often end up at the local police station's lost and found center, thanks largely to general Finnish conscientiousness and honesty. Recently Reader’s Digest did an experiment where 12 wallets, containing some cash, were purposely “lost” in 16 cities to see how many would be returned to their “owners”. In Helsinki, 11 of the 12 wallets were returned, making the Finnish capital the most honest of the cities tempted by the easy pickings.

Once in London, on my way to a meeting, I stepped into a taxi to find on the seat an iPod. I wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. In Finland, I would have given it to the taxi driver, pretty certain that it would have found its way to the police station where it could possibly be returned to its owner. With London cabbies, I wasn’t so sure. (In the Reader’s Digest test, by the way, only five of the wallets “lost” in London were ever seen again.)

I called my British colleague to ask what the standard practice is in such matters, but she couldn’t really advise me. In the end, I gave it to the cabbie, figuring that even if he chose not to try reunite the iPod with its owner, it was anyway no less mine to keep as my own.

Unlike my sock, that is, which after about 40 minutes of cycling, I did finally find lying all balled up on the edge of the bridge over the Keravanjoki. Luckily, it hadn’t fallen to the frozen river below. It’s a nice sock, but certainly not worth venturing out on dodgy late-winter ice just to return it to its mate.


  1. "At twenty-five cents a pair, they were cheap, which was handy since the customer seemed to go through a pair almost every day."

    That was a nice little subsidy for your business. You get what you pay for, I guess. Had the guy bought gloves for 2,50, he wouldn't have had to buy new ones all the time.

  2. Because of my job, I find all manner of lost stuff. Generally, I do what most of the folk along your route must have done: post it in a conspicuous place in case the owner is searching for it.

    Occasionally, I will find money. If it's in front of a house I will knock on the door and give it to the person who answers. No one has ever refused the cash, but only once has anyone thanked me for handing it over (an elderly Vietnamese fellow). I found a snazzy looking earring last week and so placed it on top of the mailbox on the house where I'd found it (in their yard). It's still there after a week. Either they haven't see it, or they did and it's not theirs and doesn't interest them.

    The only time I ever kept any money I found while at work was some cash I snagged making its way toward the storm drain during a thunderstorm. There was absolutely no way I could figure out from whence it had I kept it. Five bucks.

    Something like an iPad...I would turn that in to a Police station. I certainly wouldn't keep it.

    1. That's good to hear. I would hope everyone else is as conscientious. Once, in Florida when I was speaking on a pay phone outside a store, I dropped a quarter but didn't bother interrupting the call to pick it up. Some guy next to me reaches down, picks up the coin right at my feet, puts it in his pocket and hurriedly walks away. I thought: "How petty." Oh well,