Where I’m from

Perhaps it’s time to explain why I seem rather obsessed with Finland and pepper my posts with Finnish words and tidbits. It’s not just because Finland is an absolute hotbed of culture, especially of the monster-based hard-rock variety. It’s because I was born there and though I have lived in Canada now for nearly 18 years and will in all likelihood stay here, that tough Nordic country is built right into my bones. As citizens of small and overlooked countries are wont to do, I also carry around an irritating amount of national pride. Here’s a bunch of that now, disguised as me telling the story of how I came to be in Canada.

I was born in a small town in southern Finland named Porvoo (less than an hour drive from Helsinki to perhaps give you some reference… or not). My parents moved there together from northern Finland shortly after getting married. They are both from small farms in Lapland, the northern-most region of Finland known for hardy, independent, proud, and stubborn people in a country already known for all of the above. You have to be to survive the ten-month winters and the nearly complete lack of sunshine for several of those months.

Oven at the farm house where my mom grew up, still ready to feed the masses

My dad was the kind of man I could see any young girl falling for – he was handsome and exotic looking with dark hair and dark eyes that earned him the nickname of Prince of Lapland. It was really too bad he was also temperamental and so thoroughly enjoyed his alcohol.

They married young, I think probably by the time they were 20 and had me when my mom was 23. I don’t know when or exactly how their marriage ended, but I don’t think I was out of diapers yet. Based on things I saw later in life I can only assume that my dad’s temper combined with alcohol to the point where my intensely proud mom was not going to take it and left him. She may have looked delicate as a doll in the old photographs I’ve seen, but my mom is anything but. Apparently my dad fought for custody of me, and ended up with weekends and holidays.

The bounty of fall

I sometimes forget now that I spent a lot of time with my dad during my childhood. I have mostly good memories, though they tend to get overshadowed by the few really bad ones. He taught me how to swim and how to ride a bike. Most of the vacations I took were with him, his girlfriend and her daughter Noora. At one point he lived in the most amazing farm house that had an abandoned barn, a seemingly endless row of apple trees and a huge field for skiing in the winter. It was an imaginative kid’s dream come true.

Despite all this he was never really a father-figure in my eyes, which I now recognize as a blessing since it meant he could never let me down in that crushing way that parents busy fighting their own demons are capable of. Throughout my childhood he was most certainly an alcoholic, but a relatively well functioning one. Nowadays he’s still hanging in there but based on the handful of times I have seen him in the last decade, the alcohol is winning.

Birch

Although my dad rarely made his child support payments, my mom and I were just fine. She was a single mom but in Finland the social safety net is large and sturdy, sorta like our feet. Her best friend was another single mom with two daughters close to my age. The five of us made our own family. I might tell the longer story another day, but those are just details. Lotta and Katri were the sisters I never had and to this day my heart aches when I think of them, so far from me.

When I was about eight, my mom met a Canadian man who was working in Porvoo for a few months. His sister was married to a Finnish man, which explains why he thought to come here of all places. After he went back to Canada, they wrote long letters back and forth for a while, then she spent a couple of summers in Canada, and on the last of those trips they got engaged.

I was in Lapland with my grandmother when I got the call telling me they were engaged. I couldn’t have known at the time what those news meant but I cried my little heart out. Perhaps I gathered the gist of it from my grandmother’s eyes, who knew the future instantly: sooner or later I would be moving to Canada. She also predicted I would eventually struggle to keep my language, something I imagined to be impossible. Grandmothers are wise.

Lapland showing off for the short but sweet summer

After that my not-quite step-dad lived with us in Finland for a while, attempting to learn the undeniably screwed-up language and making me eat beans and tofu, things I had never before even seen let alone contemplated putting in my mouth. He and my mom spoke English and tried to translate for me, which was mostly frustrating. Their wedding was lovely – Lotta, Katri and I were bridesmaids in white dresses my mom sewed by hand, and we sang a song for them at the reception. A few months later our immigration papers finally came through.

I don’t remember how I learned that we were moving to Canada. However it was, I honestly don’t think I really understood what it meant because despite being an anxiety-ridden child, I wasn’t afraid. My step-dad showed me Canada on a map and I recall thinking what a strange and irregularly shaped country it was. It doesn’t look like anything. Finland is quite clearly a maiden with a dress – one of her arms and the bottom of her dress were lost to Russia but she’s still there. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the vast expanse, scraggly shoreline, and choppy borders of Canada.

After selling all but our most precious possessions, we packed up and moved to Canada when I was 11. We arrived in Vancouver during the magical two weeks in April when the grey skies finally clear and the cherry blossom trees are in full bloom. I had never seen pink trees before. It’s now my favourite time of year in the city, though it took a while to get there – but that’s a story for another day.

Vancouver's pink trees

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Posted on February 22, 2011, in Life and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. What a fascinating story, thank you so much for sharing (especially the hard parts).

    Everyone in your life has the coolest names! I love them.

    • Yeah it’s quite funny that I ended up with such an ‘international’ name. Nina is actually not typically a Finnish name – my mom tweaked it from the more common Niina. It’s why I appreciate my middle name being more obviously Finnish – Annika.

  2. This is such a beautiful story!!!

    You have such compassion for your family, even though you are obviously very objective and see where they are clearly, it’s wonderful.

  3. I didn’t know that about Finland being shaped like a maiden – how cool! As a fellow citizen of a small and overlooked country (Scotland – no it’s NOT in England) I completely identify with the national pride thing.

    You told this so beautifully and honestly – I loved it. My dad has played at the Helsinki jazz festival for many years and loves it, but I’ve never been – that’s it, Finland is going on my list…

    • There’s only one way to experience Finland in my opinion: in a cabin, on a lake, in the summer. So if you go, make sure you scope one of those out.

  4. I loved this story. I can’t wait to hear more!

  5. Finland! Shaped like a maiden in a dress! Had no idea. This was a really awesome story.

  6. You left out how exactly your mother made it – just from welfare, or did she work? Did your Dad have to pay child support, or could he hold a job at all? I have lived in Finland for 8 months in the 1980’s and almost stayed, being in love up in Rovaniemi. I too cannot get that country out of my heart. I went initially because the girl I’d hitchhiked around Europe with came from Aanekoski, and she had to get home after a year abroad.

    So I went with her by hitching and ferry, and stayed and stayed.

    My friend, meanwhile, smart as a whip, a student forever on the Finnish tax money, became a single Mom and hasn’t had a real job in about 20 years.

    She has no guilt to live off the taxpayers, no shame, no matter that others think it’s crazy she has an MBA and a Master’s in Nutrition, could earn very well. She lives in her parents’ apartment and fools around with lots of guys and has a ball with two kids from different fathers.

    Is this normal?

    I had a higher view of her, all Finnish women and Finland in general, until I realized how many women do live off the system, in spite of not really wanting to be in Finland. If this friend of mine had to make a living, she’d move to the USA in spite of her complaints about life here. Only the free ride keeps her there, and the free apartment …

    What do you think now that you’ve lived in both countries? Any interesting comparisons about the “sturdy” women of the two countries?

    • Yes, my mother worked – it’s called a social safety net, not a hammock, for a reason – but her life as a single working mother was made far easier by living in Finland rather than many other countries. She had a year of maternity leave after which childcare was affordable. She also had comfortable working hours and a standard 6 weeks of vacation. My father also worked and contributed, though it wasn’t absolutely necessary for us to make ends meet.

      In every society there will be people who take advantage of the system – it’s not “normal” in Finland any more than it is in Canada where I am now. Most people want to work and contribute to society, and a country where the barriers to education are removed makes this possible for everyone, not just the privileged. And I believe that Finland’s economic success – not to mention health statistics – speak for themselves in how that is working out for them.

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