Posts Tagged ‘Finnish language’

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.


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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.

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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).

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8 days before departure, I receive in my mailbox a large and official-looking envelope containing my dearly missed passport, newly christened with a sparkly pink and blue sticker on visa page 11. 8 days, one 2-hour delay, a missed connection in Dusseldorf, two missing pieces of luggage, a €40 taxi, and 7 time zones later, I am in Helsinki. Things are looking up.

The first Finnish word I recognize in the Helsinki-Vantaa airport is “anteeksi,” which I learned over the summer in Teach Yourself Finnish by Terttu Leney. It means “excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, or “I beg your pardon.” As I stand by the queue for a taxi and deliberate the pros and cons of a cab, a Finnish mother with a large baby carriage enters the line with a clear and strong anteeksi” as she steps in front of me. My vocabulary words in action! I feel great.

Over the next few days, I use anteeksi several times myself. That is, I use Finnish to explain that I don’t speak Finnish. When browsing Sokos department store, a saleslady approaches me. “Anteeksi,” I say, “en ymmärrä suomea” [I don’t understand Finnish]. I say it again when a college student flags me down to sign a petition. And again, when a monk tries to give (sell) me granola. Later, I go to a Karl Fazer chocolate boutique. A Finnish girl, about my age, stands next to me while we sample different delicacies. She says something to me, and I ask, “Anteeksi, puhutko englantia?” [Sorry, do you speak English?]

Actually, that incident makes me kind of sad. She was telling me that the blueberry-filled chocolates were the best, that she had tried them all. I kind of want to have small talk with people in Finnish. It’s awkward when someone is trying to be friendly with you and you have to ask for translation. I’m getting tired of saying “excuse me” every time I communicate.

After chocolate, I need toothpaste, so I visit the apteeki [pharmacy]. I don’t recognize any brands, but I’m determined to figure out which bottle is toothpaste. It takes me about 15 minutes, I’m not 100% positive that my final choice is toothpaste, and the cost seems pretty extremely outrageous. Nevertheless, I purchase the Dentosal and leave.

The next day, I consult Google Translator to clarify the label on my Dentosal. The result is “includes polish of course salt.” Is this some sort of special treatment for people with dull teeth? Is it actually safe to scrub salt on your teeth? My next-door-neighbor, a dentist from Iran, looks at the ingredients and says that she thinks the Dentosal is for smokers.

Armed with my receipt and the new knowledge that I can get Colgate at the K-Market grocery for cheaper, I bring my Dentosal back to the apteeki. “Anteeksi, I begin to the pharmacist. I’m so tired of spitting out “puhutko englantia?” (and I know almost EVERYONE in Finland speaks English anyway) that I just sort of say, “englantia?” I explain that I think I bought the wrong product and I would like to return it. The pharmacist tells me that won’t be possible; they do not issue returns after the product has been brought home.

I did not use the Dentosal. Proof: it has an unbroken seal over the cap. Apparently that does not matter. The pharmacist tells me that Dentosal is normal toothpaste after all, but that does not give me back my €6. I’m too exhausted to fight it. I kind of want to cry. I miss CVS, where I understand all the labels on the bottles, wouldn’t pay the equivalent of $8.50 for toothpaste, and could probably argue down a cashier to take my return. I miss being able to read posters in the subway. I miss understanding the bus driver when he yells about the broken fare reader. It might be sort of convenient not to speak the language when salespeople, college activists, and monks try to communicate with me, but frankly, I’d rather know exactly what they were saying and say no to them in a language I actually spoke, then enjoy mutually-understood conversations about chocolate.

My Finnish classes begin next week, so hopefully these incidents won’t continue to be as troublesome. But in fleeting thoughts, I just want to be excused from them all…instead of say anteeksi.

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Perhaps this is due to negative and/ or salacious tales of international criminals, terrorists, and other shady characters in the media, but I confess I have a skeptical stereotype of people who have trouble getting a visa. With a half-raised eyebrow and a distrustful scowl, my mind disapprovingly contests about these folks, if there’s nothing to hide, well then, I don’t understand the problem.

My liberally-educated side, of course, stands up for the underrepresented Everyman seeking promise in a new land but caught in the bewildering throes of a foreign government’s bureaucracy and red tape, and suddenly, I’m the one with visa troubles.

Residence permit troubles, to be precise. Permission to reside in Finland for the next 10 months, as is my intention and (or so I thought) that of my financial benefactor, the Finnish and U.S. governments. The problem, really, is only a matter of clarifying health insurance coverage, but throw in postponements due to an incomplete blood test needing to be redone for medical clearance and Finnish vacation season (the entire month of July), and before I know it, I’m down to the wire. Every morning I check the mailbox, looking for an official envelope from the Consulate General of Finland holding my precious passport, newly decorated with a sparkly sticker authorizing my extended residence in Finland. But, as of yet, nothing.

I twiddle my thumbs and tap my heel on the floor. Is it lost in the mail? Has there been a problem processing the application? Have they just forgotten about it? Don’t they realize my flight is in 10 days? Don’t the Finns want me in their country? Why is this not a priority to them? Don’t they like me?  They must hate me. After all, their e-mails are all so formal sounding, and I’m just another ignorant, sneaker-wearing American who can’t properly pronounce “puhutko englantia?” (“Do you speak English?”) and doesn’t even know she’s saying it wrong. My very being insults the entire nation and culture of Finland.

Maybe I’m being irrational. After all, it is my first time living outside the U.S., and in my two weeks of “rest and relaxation” before departure, I’m bored, and the perfectionist in me needs something to freak out about. Thanks to experience, I know that the best subjects for freaking out about have to do with the unknown, the uncertain, and the unresolved. They provide endless opportunity for second-guessing and “what if?”-ing, thus enabling me to send my mental energy into a tailspin and turning minutes into black holes. Which is exactly what I want, right?

And thus, I channel my energy by commencing my official blog: a Finnglish-littered collection of writings, images, moving images, web links, and so on about my adventures, random thoughts, well-developed thoughts, culture clashes, awkward moments, triumphs, tribulations, and international havoc-wreaking. It’s a general assumption of mine that all bloggers have to be just a little bit narcissistic, so if I indulge in that side of me (come on, you know you have one too), I will begin by vowing to NOT take myself too seriously–but also to have some purpose in posts. Maybe one of these days I’ll write something mildly interesting, something mildly well-written, and perhaps even something mildly funny. Maybe even the Finns will like it. Maybe the Finns will like me.

Maybe they will give me a residence permit.

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