Yrjö Palotie, who is from Helsinki, wakes up at 6 am on Thursday morning at his home in Lauttasaari, just as he has done every weekday for decades. Yrjö, who retired at the end of last year, heads for the kitchen, pours himself a glass of orange juice and leafs through the day’s paper.
Around seven, Yrjö jumps into his car. The streets of Helsinki are still quiet as it is too early for the worst of the morning rush. At half past seven he is already seated at a table in Fazer Café Kluuvikatu, lifting a cup of coffee to his lips.
He would be able to find his way to this familiar table blindfolded, because Yrjö can be found here up to four days a week. And he is not the only one. The chairs around the corner table quickly fill up with the members of the group of friends, who all live in the Helsinki area. The friends greet each other and place white coffee mugs on the table.
On the busiest mornings you can find up to twenty coffee drinkers around the table. Everyone is free to come and go according to their own schedule. Today, Yrjö is joined by seven other men. Most of the men in the group are in their seventies.
Yrjö Palotie meets his friends at Fazer Café Kluuvikatu in Helsinki up to four times a week.
A chance encounter led to friendship
What is it that unites these retired men, who have been drinking their first coffee of the day together for decades?
“Chance,” laughs Arne Pihlström from Espoo.
Chance was aided by the Helsinki Market Square, where the men, who were all working nearby, first began meeting for their morning coffee in the summer of 1988.
“Yrjö and I used to meet for coffee at Anja Snellman’s legendary coffee tent. We were colleagues,” Arne explains.
Soon men from the neighbouring tables began joining them. The chance encounters of these men who did not know each other evolved into a close-knit group that has supported its members for all these years.
“We moved to Kluuvikatu at the beginning of the 2000s because our group had grown over the years, and the tables are larger here. That’s also when our coffee group assumed its current form,” Arne continues.
The company of friends is what motivates the men to rise at dawn. Today Risto Leka, Arne Pihlström, Yrjö Palotie, Tapio Sademies, Risto Soppanen, Ruurik Peura, Juhani Perttula and Matti Visanti have gathered around the table at Fazer Café Kluuvikatu.
A morning coffee meet-up is also a good way for a pensioner to start the day
In the early days the men drank their morning coffee together before going to work. The habit has remained even though most of the men have retired and are now gentlemen of leisure.
“My wife is pleased that I have this group as she was worried that I would just stay in bed all morning. It is good to keep the old routine going,” Yrjö says.
Even though they all agree that the best thing about retirement is the freedom, they also think it is important to have a daily routine. It is all too easy to stay in bed.
The men come from varying backgrounds: pilots, goldsmiths, engineers and civil servants. The topics of conversation come up spontaneously based on the news or political decisions, for example. Everyone sitting around the table is free to be themselves.
“We discuss current affairs, including politics, but we do not talk about anyone’s religious beliefs or what political party they vote for,” says Tapio Sademies, who used to work for the City of Helsinki before retirement, and who many know as the ‘father’ of the Hietalahti Flea Market.
Everyone’s opinion is valuable
The men rarely discuss their private lives during their morning coffee meet-ups. They may mention things like their children’s divorces in passing, but they do not dwell on difficult topics. They are always keen to swap cultural tips, however.
“There is always a lot of discussion if someone has been to a good arts event,” Tapio explains.
“There’s no need to go to the event yourself if someone else tells you about it,” Arne laughs.
It is obvious that sense of humour is one of the things that unites these friends. The group has become very close over the years. Their perspectives support each other, and everyone’s opinion is valuable.
Some of the men have breakfast at home before heading to the café. Many like to have a bun to go with their coffee.
Flying squirrels and the birth of black holes
In addition to politics, other popular topics around the table include town planning and sports and even the geographical distribution of flying squirrels. One morning the men swapped their opinions on the birth of black holes.
Sometimes it is difficult to get a word in with such a large group, so separate discussions may be going at different ends of the table.
“I always say that you get two sentences to put your opinion across, and by that time the topic has already changed,” Tapio laughs.
When someone has a birthday, a cream cake will sometimes appear on the table. Most usually have their breakfast at home and order a coffee and a bun at the café.
The group also keeps in touch outside of their morning meet-ups. Their Christmas party at the beginning of January is the highlight of everyone’s year. The celebrations kick off at the home of Risto Leka, who lives in the city centre. The evening begins around the grand piano with aperitifs and canapés, followed by dinner in a restaurant.
The friends also meet up outside their morning meet-ups. They are already planning their annual Christmas party, which takes place in January.
Absences are noted
As the men speak, you can sense that they genuinely care about each other. If someone does not turn up for a few weeks, the others start asking after him.
“Someone always knows someone who knows how that person is doing and where he is,” Yrjö says.
It is approaching 9 am. The free parking hours are about to end, and the coffee mugs are empty.
“Life would be a lot duller without this gang. At our age, a good life consists of a sharp mind, legs that work and friends to chat to,” Yrjö says.
Like-minded company, shared values and a positive atmosphere are the things that keep bringing these men back to the café on Kluuvikatu day after day.
“If you’re having a bad morning, you quickly forget about that when we get going,” Tapio sums up.