Finding Yourself in Finland

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I was contacted by an author after he saw my series about traveling to the places you write about. He said he had recently been to Finland, and since I am of Swedish descent, it piqued my interest. The Finns and Swedes are neighbors. Below I am sharing his very interesting piece, not just about the country, but the people.

This past May of the year 2015, I took a week long trip to Finland. In the process, I saw the capital, Helsinki, and a few other small locales. It was my first time ever in a Nordic country, and indeed my first time ever with boots on the ground in Europe proper. But I–an American of questionable heritage who can scarcely speak a word of Finnish, and can barely get by in Swedish–never felt out of place or overwhelmed.

Two jokes may explain the reasons for this:

  • An introverted Finn looks at his shoes when he’s talking to you. An extroverted Finn looks at yours.
  • Timo and Jaako agree to go fishing on a lake. They begin at dawn, and at dusk, over twelve hours later, they remain entirely unsuccessful. Timo says, “They aren’t biting very much today, are they?” Jaako glares at him and says, “Did we come here to fish or to talk?”
Clearly, Finns are often thought of as shy or socially awkward. I believe that this is a mistake. Finns are reserved, certainly, and shy to open up to strangers, or indeed friends and family. But I never perceived anyone to be uncertain of themselves or hesitant to speak when the time was right.
Or perhaps it’s my own bias. Several years ago, I went on a car trip that lasted some six hours, and when it finished, I was asked by my companions why I was so angry, as I had said nothing for the duration of the trip. The truth was that I wasn’t angry, nor was I sad or upset in any fashion. I simply didn’t see a particular reason or opportunity to talk.
These are certainly rare traits for Americans, and they are among the reasons why I have always taken a longer time than most to fit in among new social groups and settings. But in Finland, I felt that I understood everything and everyone the moment I saw them. The clean quiet streets, the restaurants that opened in the late afternoon for dinner and then closed before it was too late at night, the endless forests and lakes, the people who waited in lines with several yards of space between them, the endless bike trails and the preference for public transport over private vehicles.
Until November of 2014, I never seriously thought that I would make it to Finland. But then an opportunity to visit with a friend who had lived there for some years showed itself, and I jumped on it. I ended up traveling solo, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for almost anything in the world.

My first ever published piece, Maaselkä, takes place in once Finnish, now Russian territory, and I wrote it long before I ever took the possibility of traveling to Finland seriously. But looking back on the way I wrote that piece, I think I got the Finnish experience right. The Finns are quiet people, reserved even, and their landscape is one of harsh winters and endless sprawling lakes and hills. But there is real beauty in Finland, and real brutality too, lurking just beneath the surface, and it doesn’t take much effort to be immersed in it.

I don’t know when or indeed if I will return to Finland again. But the truth seems to be that the Finnish feeling has been part of me for as long as I can remember. To continue to write horrors like Maaselkä, I don’t need to go anywhere, or do anything. All I need to do is to draw from that which is apparently an inextricable part of who I am.

           Signed:

           Alex Ross
         Find it here:  Maaselka
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