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Ghost Writer

A few weeks ago I was working with the archives of the dance company I’m studying. When I stopped for some lunch in the kitchen, the new intern–I’ll call her Aino–asked me, “How are you?”

I had no idea what she was saying. And it wasn’t because of her English.

“How old am I?” I asked.

“No, how are you?” she repeated.

I stopped dead in my tracks. I had no idea how to answer her; in Finland, the question “how are you?” has a rather serious connotation–you only ask if you really want to know. So truth is, I haven’t been asked it too much lately. And suddenly, I realized, I’m not used to it anymore.

A big part of the Fulbright program is exchange–putting people into new cultures and having them become part of the community, part of the culture, where they live for the year. I’m not sure if “assimilation” is ever really possible, but there’s something to be said for settling into life abroad. However you function or relate to that place, you get used to it. It becomes normal.

And that’s when you realize you haven’t updated your blog for three months. The tool I chose to use to keep in touch with those at home and do a little reflecting on the whole cross-cultural experience I’ve taken on doesn’t quite seem irrelevant, but somehow I never feel I have anything to write. Yes, my Finnish is still abysmal and I have daily moments of awkwardness when language hampers my best intentions. And yes, whenever I chat with someone on the bus I feel that my quietest of conversations makes me an obnoxious chatterbox. But it’s old news.

What I’ve settled into, actually, isn’t “Finnish life.” It’s really just me living in Finland. I’ve become used to being an outsider making my own normalcy out of whatever I have here. People tell me that that makes it tough to be back home after living abroad. (I.e., reverse culture shock.) I believe it. Clearly, I’m in a bit of it already–”how are you” suddenly strange to my ears. But can we avoid it? I don’t think so. And I don’t think it would be worth the time if we could. So, readers (I know there’s at least one of you), apologies for my silence here. But rest assured, it’s because I’ve found, whatever it means, a place here.

Independence Day

This past Sunday, December 6, was Independence Day in Finland, marking the 92nd year that Finland has been free from both Russian and Swedish rule (for a brief history, click here). It was the first Finnish holiday I have gotten to celebrate in Helsinki.

One of the most central Independence Day traditions in Finland is for the student unions to march, torches in hand and white caps on head, to Senate Square. where speeches are given and a choir sings patriotic songs. In the dark, chilly winter air, it’s quite a beautiful scene.

My friend Melanie and I were walking towards Senate Square for the festivities and coincided with the student procession. Lo and behold, we spotted our other friend, Erika, marching with members of her orchestra (students–and Erika is a visiting student at the University). Melanie and I played the roles of embarrassing parents, waving to her and taking pictures and being all around too excited.

One of Erika’s orchestra-mates, who was unaware that Erika is American (after all, she speaks Finnish–and in reality, most Finns assume that you have to be Finnish to speak it), rolled her eyes a bit and said something to the effect of, ‘oh, those foreigners, getting so excited. Why do they care?’

I could get a little offended by this (shall I write ULKOMAALAINEN [foreigner] in big letters on my forehead for you?) and write an essay discussing the cultural politics and theory of how one transplanted from another country or culture can–or can’t–embrace and celebrate another’s traditions and celebrations. But I think I’ll leave that for another day.

Instead, I will imagine what it would be like to be in the reverse situation. Imagine me, decked out in my red white and blue finest with tacky patriotic sunglasses, sitting at a barbeque and eating a cheeseburger and star-spangled Jell-O from a paper plate as I watch the balloons, streamers, Cub Scout Troops, Veteran’s bands, and Irish Step Dancers of the Oreland 4th of July Parade pass in front of me (oh, and I’m getting sunburned as this happens. And there’s probably some epic ’80s pop music going on in the background). If there were some random people hanging around, speaking some other language and getting way too excited, I might be a little snarky about it too.

But then, this imaginary scene is in small-town Pennsylvania, where we don’t get so many ulkomaalaisiin [foreigners, plural], or even people from the next town over, and also a place I’m all-around snarky about to begin with. I reimagine a scene somewhere else I’ve lived–Boston, perhaps–and I don’t see myself reacting the same way. Perhaps it’s because being from the U.S., we are taught that nobody is really “from” the U.S. We’re supposed to love the idea of ulkomaalaisiin coming to our country, being identifying with our dreams and aspirations as a nation. We call ourselves a “nation of immigrants”; we have an ideal that Americans are Americans because they want to be (of course, a past of slavery and the disrespect for Native American nations make this historically questionable, but that doesn’t stop us from mythologizing it).

Finland isn’t like that, though. Finns have been in Finland for thousands of years, and they were ruled by Sweden, then Russia, but they have always been Finns. Finnish language, and Finnish culture, is a big deal—and while things were going well for a while, the Finns wanted to be independent from Russia because its autonomy (read: identity) was starting to be threatened a little too much. When the U.S. was fighting for independence, we didn’t refer to our unique language or national epic Kalevala because we didn’t have them (and Nationalism wasn’t really big yet).

Truth is, I’m a bit of a sucker for the American concept of and idealistically united country. I like the idea that a country is made up of–or at least, was started by–ideas that we share, and yeah, it probably never truly existed and it probably never will, and we’ll fight until the end of time about what will make that “more perfect union” and we’ll be, frankly, broken, but for some reason I’m inspired (if not also seriously confused and sometimes annoyed) by the fact that we can still be a country in spite of it all.

And I’m inspired by Finland too. I love the respect everyone shows for personal space, and I love the appreciation of quiet and the reliability that Finns show. I love the idea of sisu [roughly, 'guts'--a word used to describe a sense of tough endurance and grace under pressure]. So, American that I am, this is why I care about Finnish Independence Day.

For your viewing pleasure, see below, the opening scene to “The Unknown Soldier,” played every Independence Day on Finnish TV and accompanied by Sibelius’s Finlandia.


(7/7) The Grand Finale

This, my friends, is the final day of my 7-day blog post challenge. I have reached the end.

Today is the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street in the US, and because it’s been adapted or rebroadcast in over 30 other countries, I decided to find out how it’s shown in Finland. The good news is that Finland does, in fact, have a history of showing Sesame Street, titled here Seesamtie. The sad news is that it was only a re-dubbing of the American version, and at that, it was only shown from 1997-2000. Actually, this information greatly distresses me. Do Finnish children not like Big Bird? Does the happiness of this show not jive with the melancholy of Finland? Perhaps it’s that the Finnish words are just too long for Sesame Street songs. I mean, really, can you imagine singing this song as, “Transylvaniassa, minä olen poika, meidän linna ole kylmä, mutta me emme ollut surullinen…yksi, kaksi kolme, levittää niemeen…”

Full admittance: I don’t know the past tense yet, so I “translated” this into the present. Also, it’s probably wrong, because Finnish is hard. Sadly, I couldn’t find a clip of Seesamtie. If only I were a child from 1997-2000…I would have learned Finnish from Evästettä Monsterin (Cookie Monster).

First, a note: apparently my last post has caused controversy amongst readers. Reason #1: not everyone thinks you need to have a well-considered thought to post. Reason #2: some people thought I had given up on the 7-day blog post challenge. On the first matter, I’ll let you be the judge. On the second, I’ll clear up the confusion and say, not true. Giving up would be totally un-Finnish. Here is post #6, written at the request of Carolyn’s mom.

You’ll see a lot of this poppy print in Helsinki.  Marimekko Poppy PrintIt’s not totally unfamiliar in the States, either. The Finns are pretty proud of it. Marimekko, the Finnish design company, makes textiles, purses, notebooks, dinner trays, and umbrellas with this, its trademark pattern. It’s cute, bright, and cheery, and…I’m sick of it.

Marimekko seems to be a pretty big point of pride for Finns, and since Finns don’t say anything bad about Finland, I’m probably a total jerk for it. But, for me, Marimekko is Finland’s Vera Bradley, the maker of the quilted purses that somehow went from being my grandmother’s choice of handbag to every preppy teenager’s status statement. It’s cute at first, and then, you see it everywhere, and even if it’s a simple, nondescript item, you somehow know what brand made it.

That seems like such a common thing to Americans, right? Liking something until it gets too “mainstream,” too recognized. In America, it’s coolest to be ahead of the game, before your time, into something “before everyone else was into it.” Finns are very proud of Finland, though, and Finnish things that make it to the world stage are a pretty big deal for them. In Finland, you buy Marimekko goods because they’re nice, well-made, and because they’re Finnish. I’m not getting a big sense that  anyone is “so over” Marimekko. So I’m trying to gather…is this accurate, or am I missing things? How do trends “happen” in Finland? How does that influence consumption? Self-branding? Marketing?

If you were one of those people who looked at this blog over the past three days, perhaps you noticed that I did not live up to my 7-day blog post challenge attempt. I fail.

Simple explanation is, I was busy and just didn’t get to it. However, despite my enjoyment of the craft of writing, the truth is that writing every day is kind of…annoying? Hard? Draining? I have a hard time coming up with topics that aren’t a waste of time. Meaningful writing includes reflection, and often that’s best when done in consideration of experiences spanning a more significant period of time. There are plenty of topics I could reflect upon and discuss here, but they wouldn’t all have to do with Finland and living here. So, they don’t make the cut.

I’ll work on finding new and interesting topics. After all, exercising creativity was part of why Elle magazine horoscopes thought I should accept this challenge. But for now, I’ll stick with the parting notion that less is ever so often more.

(4/7)

This one’s on request of Suzanne.

From “Thirsty Thursday” in college to Thursday evening post-work happy hours, Americans seem to have declared Thursday the official weekday of drinking. It seems reasonable enough: just one more day in the workweek, so relax, have a drink, and stick it out for one more day until the weekend.

It’s not exactly a secret that the Finns enjoy a drink or two…or many, many more. However, the “official” happy hour, when drinks are cheapest here, takes place on keskiviikko [Wednesday]. Everyone goes out, enjoys themselves…and goes back to work for two more days.

Call me the ignorant American, but I don’t get it. It seems to me that with two more days of work in the week, it would be time to hit the books and get everything you haven’t finished yet done before the weekend (though perhaps this is just my workstyle). When everything is sort of set and you just need to tie up loose ends on Friday, Thursday seems like the evening you could, in good conscience, enjoy a beer at the pub.

Perhaps a Wednesday happy hour is what Finns might do when Americans just congratulate themselves on “hump day,” that is, the hump of the week (everything downhill from here). They can always keep up the celebration the rest of the week. And how they do…and that, my friends, will be a story for another day.

(3/7)

Day three of the 7-day blog challenge.

I’ve shown many of you this video, but if you have yet to watch it, it still makes me laugh. Maybe that means I have no life. I don’t care.

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