You can take the boy out of Finland

“Are you Finnish?” the man asked me, wasting no time with niceties.

Now, he asked the question with a smile on his face, but his tattooed knuckles told me I’d better answer him, and answer him truthfully.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

“I could tell. Finnish genes are strong,” he said and raised his finger to indicate he was about to take a pause in the conversation.

We both did a set of bicep curls.

“I don’t know what it is, but there’s something very Finnish about you. My ex-wife was Finnish so I can tell,” he went on and wiped some sweat off his brow.

I did, too.

“Yeah, well, I don’t really know what it is, but sure, I’ve seen an image of the genetic map of Europe and we’re way out here when the rest of Europe is here,” I said, pointing holes in the air.

“Where in Finland are you from?” he asked me then.

Usually, when people ask me where I’m from, I tell them I was “born and raised in Helsinki” because, well, it’s true. But I was born and raised in a Helsinki the person asking me will most likely never visit, because it was in the suburbs.

And I often also hesitate before answering the question because I did spend my teenage years in Joensuu, far away from Helsinki. But then I always realize that nobody’s really interested in my life’s story in that detail so I just say Helsinki and move on.

But I proudly do tell people I have two hometowns and I do have fond memories from both, and to this day, return as someone coming home.

However, after 22 years in Stockholm, I now have a third hometown, and I approach each visit back with slight trepidation wondering if I’ll still feel right at home.

Oddly enough, it’s easier for me to feel at home in Helsinki, the nation’s capital than Joensuu, a small town. You might think that going back to a small town would be like stepping back in time, and in some ways it is, but not on the surface. The town square is still there, but it looks different. It is different. It’s brand new. The park where my classmates and I marched to on our high school graduation day has been re-built. The stores I used to go to aren’t there. The old outdoor skating rink next to the then-brand new hockey rink is now a pesäpallo arena. New apartment buildings are cropping up, the town hall is moving, and the old all-girls school turned library turned music conservatory is up for sale. The cool hotel famous for its night club is now a spa.

Interestingly enough, in downtown Helsinki I can navigate using my old sign posts. I can still set up a meeting under the Stockmann department store 57-yea-old clock. While the stores have changed and the restaurants have opened and closed, the old geography is still there. I don’t know the tram lines anymore, but the sound of an approaching tram still makes me smile at a memory of hearing the noises from the street below when I was going to be as a kid. (Before the move to the suburbs).

Maybe it’s in my DNA.

“They’re good genes. Strong,” the man said and flexed his impressive bicep.

I did not. I just nodded and said, “thank you.”

Then I left the gym and sat in the sauna for a while.

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