Yes, I’m from Finland

“What an honor that the amazing Markoolio was born in my fatherland
– Son, July 15, jumping up in joy

You can take the boy out of Finland, but you can’t take Finland out of the boy. Even if the boy sometimes does everything to keep Finland deep, deep, deep down in the dungeons of his soul. All you have to do is trash talk Finland – or tell the boy everything you know about the country – and the boy will come to the country’s rescue, or answer in mono-syllable sentences.

Unless you’re a Finn, of course, in which case the boy will join you in trash talking Finland.

Trams.

I’ve lived in Sweden since 1998 – minus the two years that Wife and I spent in Helsinki, Finland, where Son was born – which is about half of my adult life. I spent the first three months curious about the differences between Sweden and Finland. I told myself that since the countries are so similar, it’s natural to focus on the things that are different.

Which meant: things that the Swedes did wrong. Like that the store doors always open inward. You always push to get in, never pull, like in Finland. Or that the line at the ATM was always running to the right of the person getting cash, not behind him.

Except for that one stubborn guy who thought he could single-handedly change the way Swedes stand in line at the ATM.

You may know him.

Finland felt so beautifully raw and honest that I laughed when I told my friends how on one of my ferry rides back to the old country, I asked the waitress at the bar if I was allowed to take my glass out to the deck and how she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “I really don’t care”.

During my first six months in Sweden I was more Finnish than I’d ever been in my life. I read classic Finnish novels, I watched Finnish movies, and I traveled back a lot. I joined the mailing list for Finns living in Sweden and weeks before my first Christmas in Sweden – of course, I spent the holidays in Finland – I walked over to the Finnish church next to the office to see if they’d know where to get plum jam in Stockholm.

I vowed that if I ever moved back to Finland, a scenario that seemed very likely at the time, I would be an “active citizen”. I would want to get involved, and shape the country to what I wanted it to be.

(I did move, but wasn’t an active citizen.)

Then along came Wife, and opened me the door to the real Sweden. The land of the svenssons, where justice and solidarity rule, where if you’re very strong, you also have to be very nice, as Astrid Lindgren said of Pippi Longstocking.

It’s absolutely not everybody’s Sweden, but it is mine. And I like it.

Finland wasn’t very nice to Wife. My Finland was cold and gloomy, and angry, and it depressed Wife. I danced my funny dance, but it didn’t help.

In fact, Finland now felt so raw and honest that I winced when I told my friends how on one of my ferry rides back to the old country, I asked the waitress at the bar if I was allowed to take my glass out to the deck and how she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “I really don’t care”.

The same scene got an alternate ending, with some different lighting. In the first scene, Miss Finland was smiling and pretty, in the latter, an old witch.

These days, when people ask me where I’m from, I don’t know what to say. Then I start to stutter and pull out a lame joke about having flown in from Stockholm … but that I’m Finnish. Then I hand them a printout with my bio which will, in the future, probably also have a link to this post.

Old friends ask me whether I’ve moved to Sweden “for good”, and for some reason, I can’t answer to that question, either. I can’t say “no” because there are no immediate plans for us to move to Finland. I can’t say “yes” – even if the likelihood of that increases by the day – because that feels like betrayal.

I’d betray Finland if I said I was never coming back.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece about the Finnish-language radio in Sweden for the Finnish Union of Journalists’ paper. I haven’t really listened to the radio – but I have been on their Chrismas show! – because while I’ve read tens of thousands of emails sent to the mailing list, aimed at Finns living in Sweden, I’ve never made the effort to enter the Finnish community. I haven’t attended the seminars at the Finland Institute, haven’t listened to Sisuradio, or subscribed to the paper.

I didn’t get it. If you decide to move to Sweden, why hang out with Finns? Sounds silly now. Besides, the Finns that I saw, apart from the amazing Markoolio, always seemed so militant about their state of affairs as a minority group in Sweden. Always up in arms against the Swedish government.

There are five official such groups in Sweden. The other four are Sami people, Romani people, Jews, and the meänkieli speakers, a language spoken in Northern Sweden.

There are almost 300 000 Finnish speakers in the country. But their country isn’t Finland, it’s Sweden. Finland is their, our, heritage.

It took me a long time to get it.

Exactly 24 hours ago, I sat at a dinner table in a Helsinki texmex restaurant, surrounded by 14 of my old schoolmates. And by “old”, I mean “former”. I lost them in a world with no Internet, or mobile phones, and apparently no pens and papers, or telephones, either, because apart from one guy, I hadn’t seen any of them since May 31, 1981.

But last night, I got them back. Before the reunion, I told everybody who’d listen how much I was looking forward to it, but quickly adding – because I’m Finnish – that it’s probably going to be awkward, as “we’re basically complete strangers”.

In a way, we were. We went around the table, telling each other what we do, about our kids, about our jobs, and where we lived. But we weren’t complete strangers. The cool guy was still pretty cool, and the funny loudmouth still very funny. As they should. And the girls were smart and funny, and looked good, and the girl whom I always thought was like “Rizzo”, the leader of the Pink Ladies, was still the leader type.

And, in her own words, “pretty damn smart”.

That’s the Finland I want to remember. Sure, that Finland could be pretty raw, too, but it was also good to me then. That Finland made me feel good last night. That Finland made us us.

“Son, isn’t it funny how you say ‘fatherland’, but ‘mother tongue’,” I said.

He looked at me and laughed.

“Totally.”

“Except that you have two mother tongues. Like mother and father tongue.”

“For sure.”

He then skipped along, towards the beach, because we were on a beautiful island in the Stockholm archipelago. My beautiful Finnish-Swedish boy, even more amazing than the amazing Markoolio.

3 thoughts on “Yes, I’m from Finland

  1. Lovely story.

    Possible explanations of Swedish ways:

    Shop doors open inwards, because if someone came running outside a shop, they wouldn’t suddenly get a door slammed in their face.
    Watch out, people! Don’t hurt anyone!

    ATM queue lines up to the right, as to not get in the way for people passing by.
    Up against the wall, people! Don’t bother anyone!

  2. And Swedish waitresses don´t want things made of glass out of their sight, because if it would break they would not know of it and thereby not be able to put the potentially hurtful stuff away so that noone would get hurt.

How does that make you feel?