I should be in school right now, steeling my ear canals against a six-hour onslaught of Finnish verb conjugation, suffixal agglutination, and phonemic molestation. While there, I’d watch the sky go from black to leaden to wan and back again. I’d pour coffee in one end of my body and drain it out the other. I’d envy the reindeer begging for alms outside the nearby train station. I’d weep.
But I couldn’t do it today. I just couldn’t be around humans.
I have spent most of my life avoiding my own species, and for the most part have done a damn good job. And as I explained about a year ago when I started this Spectacular Exploration of Life in the Sub-Arctic Wonderland of Suburban Finland, this country is among the best for writers and loners. But when impelled into taking an intensive language course whose basic premise is being able to communicate with other human beings, introverts and brooders like me are going to suffer.
This is not to say that my classmates are annoying, difficult, or weird. Okay, they are, but that isn’t the problem. The problem is that they are nice people. And it makes me be nice in return. And that in turn makes me reconsider who I think I am, or once was. Because the old me would have gone into Finnish school and sneered and slumped and groaned audibly. I would have been aggravated by the talkative ones, irked by the quiet and contemplative ones, and chafed by the funnier, wittier ones.
But I guess I’ve finally grown up. Or maybe I’m getting soft. Perhaps it has something to do with living in a country where warships are used primarily for breaking holes in the ice for baby whales.
Not so long ago I would have gone out of my way to avoid, for example, my 26-year-old Albanian classmate Marino.
Fluent in a handful of languages, Marino is a gregarious free agent, migrating fluidly from one clique to the next according the moment’s whim. He’s not afraid of anything, including embarrassing himself, and he’s the type of person who says he will die for his friends or family. While I’m not sure I’ve achieved Die For status, he makes me at least feel like he would jump in front of a rabid polar bear if I was in danger.
That is, if he doesn’t beat me to a pulp first. The guy is downright mercurial, and so unlike me it’s funny: he’s one of those Euro-dudes who spikes his hair and wears shirts that pinch his biceps and dons droopy sunglasses with gold earpieces. He has no qualms about picking up a female classmate by her arms and carrying her out of the room, nor about body slamming me against the chalkboard. If we weren’t forced to be in the same room (and if he weren’t blowing me kisses every few minutes), I never would have even noticed him.
Not only is Marino a people person, he’s the type whose skin will fall off if he doesn’t rub up against someone approximately once an hour. We often bristle at his tendency to herd us, shush us, or make us sit on his knee, but he means no harm. He’s like a muscular, pentalingual Santa Claus. And although none of his attempts to get the entire class into a “disco” has yet materialized, with enough time he’ll probably wear us down. In which case he can collect our bones and prop them up on bar stools.
Marino’s a great guy. (Now get off my lap.)
On the far, quiet, intriguing end of the spectrum is my Russian comrade, Lena.
Lena’s kind of an enigma. Her number one complaint about Finland is that its people are cold and distant, which is funny since that’s the number one complaint about her. But that’s also her charm. And there would have been a time in my life when I would despise her for such aloofness, but the new (older) me doesn’t. While other men in my school cower in her midst, I simply don’t find her intimidating. I’m far too curious about Russia and Putin and candles made from milk and sugar during Perestroika to not have the “sisu” to talk to her.
If these other dudes would (literally) stop beating their chests and try to talk to Lena like a human, they’d find that she laughs easily, flashes a sinister smile at the oddest moments, and for someone who does some modeling sure eats a shitload of candy.
Understandably, Marino and Lena do not get along (though they both have a penchant for argyle sweaters). And that’s what’s so rad about my school. Everyone is so unlike everyone else. It’s easily one of the most heterogeneous places in the whole country. I sit next to a Mexican and an Estonian, and across from an Egyptian and a Filipino.
And a couple seats over is my friend Aziz, from Kurdistan.
Aziz is a wonderfully crazy son of a gun. He likes to takes photos with a cell phone that has no camera, simply because he enjoys seeing people directing their happiness his way. He passes silly notes during class, fills us in on the best and worst of Helsinki Slang, and roams the hallways looking for smoking partners. But not far beneath his friendliness and antics lie strata of profound anger and melancholy.
A former lawyer and journalist, Aziz and his family and allies have fought an oppressive regime in his native country. Who exactly was he fighting? I don’t really know. Not only because Aziz’s response is confusing, but because he himself doesn’t really know. “The power behind the power,” he tells me. “Maybe God.”
Aziz and I are the same age. But while I was a 13-year old drinking Sunkist and getting sunburns on my impressive belly, Aziz was being arrested and beaten for selling a book written in his native language (forbidden by the Turkish government). At one point he was shot in the leg, and his brother was recently released from a stint in prison. When I was playing with cap guns, he was taking aim at enemy soldiers.
I once sat next to Aziz for two weeks, and while it was nearly impossible to get any work done, they were by far the best weeks of this endless language course. He shared his tea with me, brought me spices from home, and made me laugh so hard I wet my thermal undies.
While Aziz takes life in Finland very seriously, he also considers its safety and contentment an illusion. For him, he says like a well-traveled Buddhist, suffering is truth. The people of Kurdistan are not free, so he is not free. I do not think Aziz will ever know true happiness. His guilt will not allow him to.
I don’t have anything funny to say about that. I’m just lucky to have met Aziz.
A few seats away is Xavier, from Nicaragua.
After a couple of attempts, Xavier is now determined to master Finnish (good luck, man), find a job, and make enough money to return to Nicaragua and open a restaurant on the beach. He wants time to paint, to spend time with his children (back in Nicaragua), and to chill the fuck out.
Xavier doesn’t show up to class for long stretches of time. It’s always of a joy and a relief when he returns, since his infectious smile and I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude is often the only thing that brightens up a Finnish classroom in the bleak heart of winter. His slacker persona reminds me of the stoner-jocks who dominated my high school years, only this time around I don’t get stuffed in my locker. Not only because we don’t have lockers, but because Xavier’s a wise and conscientious soul. After a particularly life-changing episode while sky diving (in which an inoperative chute resulted in numerous broken bones), he abstains from any sort of destructive thought.
Like I said, he’s infectious. The guy exudes positivity like a salve. Just look at his visions:
I most relate to Xavier: neither of us wants to be corralled into a cubicle, to have a boss, to let our talents and skills evaporate by the minute. We’re also both struggling. Our dreams are huge and vivid, and not yet realized. We both hope that something changes for us in Finland, but right now we’re mostly just focused on writing complete sentences in a language that sounds like a violently protracted vomit session.
Anyway, I’ll be back in class on Monday. Marino will wrap his arms around me and bend my spine in the wrong direction. Aziz will give me a fist bump. Lena will probably not look up from her fancy phone. Xavier, if he shows up, will give me a smile. Then we’ll take off our coats and conjugate.