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Suomi for the senses

Suomi is the Finnish word for Finland, where I am currently visiting my mother and my family. I am mostly away from internet access, but sneaking in a post here and there because it’s about time I put some of these observations into words – difficult as that is – because Finland must be felt. But I’ll try, and I hope you enjoy it.

There are slim evergreen trees as far as the eye can see. The ground around them, though covered in low bushes and flowers, is otherwise nearly clear, almost graspable by the human mind. It is a stark contrast to the rain forests of the West Coast where life grows on top of life, filling every crevice, filling all your senses. Here life is more humble; it knows its limits.

Only a few minutes into the forest we spot our first reindeer but they quickly scurry across the path and out of sight. They aren’t always so quick to move – childhood Nina had to do quite a bit of intimidating running and flailing to get them to move their lazy lumbering bodies from behind my grandmother’s house.

And for no other reason than childish joy at interacting with nature, of course.

The air feels cool against my skin; you can tell fall is already settling in. It carries the familiar smell of leaves and earth. The ground is covered in a red carpet of not-quite-ripe lingonberries – in another few weeks my mom will walk through here again, filling endless buckets with them, filling her freezer with summer. There are blueberries too though you have to look a bit harder for them – you can tell this hasn’t been their year – but soon our fingers are covered in their reddish stains anyway.

All the wild berries here are tiny compared to the ones I am now used to but eating them makes you immediately realize that the large factory-farm versions are a complete farce. This is what a berry tastes like.

Every once in a while, I’ll see something that tweaks memories of a long-forgotten knowledge. Simple truths I once took for granted just as easily as the knowledge that the sky is blue. Like the tall bush with the bunches of red berries? Robins eat those in the winter. I would watch them from my grandmother’s kitchen window. Or that the ditch in front of the sauna has tons of little tiny frogs, but to see them you have to crouch down really low and wait patiently until you spot one jumping.

Or that the mosquitoes here are on steroids. As I watch the red, itchy lump on my wrist growing – and then growing some more – it really starts to feel like I’m home.

And with that, I’m disappearing back into radio silence again.

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

Your weekend assignment

In grade seven, we were given a list of thought-provoking questions to think through for an assignment. I don’t remember the subject, or why exactly we were doing this, but I still remember one of the questions clearly. It went something like this:

If you had the opportunity to have the most amazing year of your life, to experience and see everything you’d ever wanted, but upon your return you’d remember none of it – would you do it?

At the time I immediately said yes. In fact, I thought this was an absolutely silly question. Why wouldn’t I want to have the best year of my life? What was I missing? It sounded fantastic and that bit at the end about not remembering seems pretty inconsequential.

But even then I figured there had to be more to it, something I wasn’t fully grasping yet, or this question wouldn’t have been asked. So despite my emphatic answer, the question of why not stayed with me.

As with most things, I’m far less clear on my answer now than I was in grade seven. I think I needed more experiences under my belt before the real challenge of this question become clear. What is an experience really it if it doesn’t become a part of you? The idea of taking something with you seems to be built right into the word.

I think being able to relive your experiences and have a story to tell are not just a nice side benefit, I think they can be a key motivator to a lot of what we do. We’ve all seen those people on vacation who stop their car at a view-point, snap a quick picture (sometimes without even bothering to get out of their car), and never actually see the view except through a lens. Apparently seeing the thing is not nearly as important as telling the story that you were there.

I’ll admit to getting caught up behind my camera lens sometimes. Like on our honeymoon when we were on a boat cruise and a huge pod of spinner dolphins came all around us. I got so caught up trying to get a good picture of them jumping out of the water that I forgot to actually look around. Luckily before they were gone I realized that I wasn’t going to make a meaningful contribution to the world of dolphin photography that day, so I left the camera danging around my neck and actually looked around me. After all, these particular dolphins were only special to me because they were right there for me to see with my own eyes – I couldn’t very well take that away.

My attempt at dolphin photography

I’m trying to make more of a conscious effort to keep my mind in the moment, instead of contemplating over it just so I can try to live it later. The effort started when our wedding was approaching and I was determined to quiet down my ridiculously over-analytical mind* and just soak it in. After all, I only actually get to live it the one time – everything else is just imagination, coloured by other experiences before and since.

Despite my big words about trying to live in the moment, I would hesitate to answer yes to that question today. I guess I’ve also realized that there are plenty of moments in my life when I just don’t feel like keeping my mind in the present and I need all the great memories I can muster.

Like when it’s just another dreary Thursday night, I’m tired and yet again suffering from a tension-headache, and I just don’t have the energy to drag myself off the couch to clear the dishes let alone go to the gym like I promised myself I would. On those nights I appreciate that my mind can wander off to that amazing cabin on our honeymoon where I felt the most relaxed I ever have in my life and to the sauna on the lake in Finland where I’ll get to be this summer with John and my mom.

So, what do you think? Would you do it?

* When I was quite young I asked my mom if our minds ever quiet down, or if they are always going non-stop like mine seemed to. Apparently my little brain was already overloaded – I’m guessing with Barbie-house plans and candy savings accounts. I’m not even kidding.