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.

Four weeks ago I woke up in a cold sweat. By my fourth cup of coffee I’d broken into a hot sweat. And after pedaling myself over to a nondescript building near the railway station, I was glistening with a gooey, stinky sweat. It was, you see, my first day of Finnish school.

I locked my bike to the paw of a sleeping polar bear and sought out my classroom; it was empty, but students of all nationalities were waiting just outside the door. I assumed this was some sort of European thing. Being American, I went inside and chose the best desk and spread my belongings over a wide swath. I then marked my territory and drank some more hot caffeinated beverage. By the time the teacher showed up, I was panting heavily and stewing in a puddle of my own bodily fluids.

We didn’t actually learn any Finnish that first day, but we did learn not to wear perfume, and that our teacher is pregnant (which she conveyed to us by gesturing toward her nether regions while saying, “plop!”).

One month later, things are a little different: I can now say, in Finnish, how old I am. I can count to one hundred and I can tell time. Life is really progressing for me. This is exactly where I wanted to be at age 35.

I also now know that Finnish is not actually the most difficult language on the planet. It’s second, after Penguin. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of it all. Just trust me on this one. Finnish is mouth murder.*

Fortunately I’m not alone. I’ve got twenty-two courageous and fantastic classmates. In fact, the rapport between us is frighteningly cordial. We greet one another with “hyvää huomenta” (“good morning”), handshakes and even slappy-hug-but-not-quite-hug things, even though many of our countries are at war with one another.**

It’s almost creepy. I’ve never been that type of person – the type who gets along with other people. I’ve always seen classmates as an obstacle between myself and the bathroom. But this is Finland, where things are different. Immigration is a relatively new concept for Finns (who aren’t quite sure why anyone would move here), often leaving us foreigners as befuddled as drunken elk. We foreigners stick together because we’re engaged in war of our own against this nation’s violent, spasm-inducing language.

And our teachers? They’re the language’s ninjas – hefty, female, Caucasian ninjas who replace one another without warning. Some of these ninjas are old and mean and loud, while some are ancient and aloof and Magoo-eyed. Some charge one euro every time a cell phone rings, or when an English or Arabic phoneme leaks out, while others freely quote Sex and the City or Serpico.

But one thing is for sure: you don’t mess with ninjas, and you don’t mess with Finnish teachers. The teaching profession is, for Finns, as serious as swordplay. Teaching is not only an honor, it’s a highly competitive field that puts one in the realm of lawyers and politicians.

Despite all this, Finnish teachers are no better paid than in the U.S. and their jobs require half a lifetime of education and certification. For many, it’s simply an honor – an act of patriotism. Yes, Finnish teachers are somewhat bad-ass. Our main teacher, despite being close to plopping, rarely sits down, doesn’t fill our hours with busy work, and after class arms herself with a thick binder and yardstick and prevents Russian samurais from infiltrating the country.

Her main job, though, is to prepare us for our first real test, which takes place one month from now. If we do not pass this test, we will be cut from the class. If we are cut from the class, we may be cut from the labor market program that oversees our integration. If we are cut from the labor program, we will be left to wander for all of eternity on the frozen banks of a country where we have no idea what anyone is saying. (Plus we won’t get our 25 € per day stipend, which is about what Finnish teachers are paid.)

I shouldn’t be worried. I do my homework, study, and honor the ninjas for five hours a day. I’m learning so much Finnish that it gurgles in the back of my head like a sewage pipe. I should be able to make the grade. But throw in words like “suuryritysrypäs”*** or “epäjärjestelmällisyydellis tyttymättömyydellänsäkään,”**** and all bets are off. I might as well take up Penguin. At least they tell good knock-knock jokes.

Ninjas and tests aside, here’s the thing that you’ll never here me say out loud: although I rebelled and sweated and suffered an infarction or two, after a couple weeks the truth became as evident as a big fresh reindeer turd – I like learning Finnish, despite having to leave the house to do so. It’s nice, after being in this country for 14% of my life, to be able to understand the label on a can of beans (contents: beans). It’s nice to be able to swear at the kids who are using a stolen lawnmower as a bongo at 4 a.m. It’s nice to pretend I have a future in this strange arctic wonderland. I’ve always been a dreamer, and soon I’ll be able to delude myself in two languages. Wish me luck.

* But let me bore you anyways: for starters, there are some 16 cases, which are all suffixal and conditional and constantly mutating according to context. The language is phonetic, meaning that one must pronounce each and every letter within a word. Finnish does not naturally use B, C, F, X, Q, W or Z, and A, E, I, O, U and Y (“eeyuu”) are all pronounced differently than English vowels (plus it contains Ä and Ö). Many words have double vowels and double consonants, and sometimes entire rows of these pairs are lined up just waiting to humiliate you. As well, the arrangement of letters within a word determines (in addition to the case!), what its respective suffix will be. IT’S F***ING INSANE.

** I suppose it’s more accurate to say that the U.S. is at war with their countries.

*** Pronounced something like soor-eeuw-reet-oos-reeuw-pass.

**** Seppuku is more preferable than trying to pronounce this, though it’s likely that any four-year-old Finnish child could tear through it with one eye closed.

I was finishing off a bowl of lingonberry porridge yesterday morning when a helicopter suddenly swooped past my window. As it hovered, sirens began to wail. Air horns blared. Whistles whistled. Itching to witness some good old-fashioned gore and violence, I grabbed my camera, favorite Batman blanket and matching gas mask, and sprinted to the normally serene river where I witnessed a scene of profoundly disturbing perversity:



















This was the annual Kaljakellunta or “Beer Float.” It has no official organization and doesn’t actually exist until the first raft hits the water. It’s illegal and theoretically dangerous as hell, since the point of the whole thing is to drink as much beer as possible while floating down a feces-hued river.

Sweating with delight, I sat and waited for the police to arrive and club a few revelers into sobriety. I waited. Then I waited some more. I fell asleep. Because the funniest thing happened: nothing. The floats floated and sank. Drunks imbibed and drank. People flocked and gawked. And the cops didn’t do anything except tell kids not to hurl themselves off the highway overpass (which they did anyway).

And yes, that is an open flame edging ever closer to the trees:








Whereas in the United States and other nations the National Guard would be summoned to corral, contain and eradicate the revelers, the peaceful Finns instead take the opposite tack. Instead of complaining about the trash generated by the ad hoc festival, they simply hire a fleet of dumpsters. Ambulances and medic boats idle by. Motorcycle cops roam the river banks making sure the hordes of tipsy girls are peeing in the grass and not in the middle of the bike paths.

Then everyone vanishes, leaving the riverbanks looking like an exploded carnival:







But volunteers will soon scoop up the aftermath. Because they know what summer is like in Finland: thoroughly unexciting. Finns also understand the best way to cope with hundreds of drunken youths celebrating the zenith of summer is by watching from afar and reminding themselves that in mere months all of Finland will look like this:








Though I’d personally rather give my pet polar bear an unanesthetized neutering than float down a sludgy, pissed-in and beer-stinking river, I enjoy witnessing things like Beer Float. It’s yet another reason why summer in the Republic of Finn is unlike anywhere else in the world.

Indeed, the point of summer here is that there is no point. It’s downright languorous. People take saunas and visit their cottages. Old men sunbathe beside the bike paths in pink undies or none at all. Children squish strawberries between their toes. Seagulls perch on your windowsill and belt out hour-long arias. If you want to entertain your partner with a sexy sunset dinner, you have six or seven hours in which to do so (and if you wait an hour you can cap off your date with a nice sunrise grope session.)

Of course with only a blip of quasi-darkness in the wee hours, summer is, for an insomniac such as myself, blurry and largely incoherent. And from what I gather – based on the ceaseless revving of scooters and smashing of bottles on our street – Finns generally don’t sleep much either. But that’s ok. We have winter for that. And then the drinking won’t be celebratory, but mournful, and the idea of sunburned kids on rafts will seem like nothing but a cruel, distant joke.

Recently, while escorting my Two Insane Russian Dogs on their afternoon feeding rampage behind the local playground, I stumbled across a scene of domestic chaos: one snot-faced child clamoring over a fence, another escaping through a gate, and a mother-type person pounding on the back door of a house while screaming into her cell phone. So I did what every other Finn was doing: ignored it.

At first it was difficult to suppress my American Hero Complex, but in truth not that hard. I’ve realized, after two years in this wonderfully strange Nordic land, that getting involved with such situations only makes for an embarrassing clash of oppositional cultural mores played out in broken English and mangled Finnish.

Privacy, you see, comes at a premium in Finland. It’s less of an aura than it is a veritable force field. Unless you’re sardined in a train car on a Friday night – in which case every drunken hobbit feels obligated to rub their butt cheeks on your arm – then two meters of separation is generally expected (as evidenced by Exhibit A, “Scene from a Finnish Bus Stop”):

I sensed that something was different on my very first day visiting Finland. While out hiking on a remote windswept isthmus, I passed only one hale elderly couple with poles strapped to their hands (which I assumed were for fending off ravenous penguins); the couple not only didn’t say hello, but in order to maintain the two-meter boundary they veered to the far side of the path, plummeted into a deep gulch, and scrambled up the side of a steep thorn-covered hill (where they were swiftly disemboweled by a pair of nesting polar bears).

When I had told my future wife about the unnerving coldness of her comrades, she merely laughed. What did I expect, for the strangers and I to actually, you know, acknowledge each other’s existence? No, Finnish Wife said, she finds the opposite to be more terrifyingly criminal: how Americans and Brits will speak to strangers for no reason other than the overabundance of love in their hearts. Life is much easier when one simply suppresses their emotions until they congeal into vomit.

Still, this screaming-pounding-wailing display I was witnessing was particularly disturbing, and a bold one for the (stereo)typically modest Finns. Had it been winter, the noises would have been attributed to vampiric reindeer and the mountains of snow would have shielded the action from voyeurs such as myself. But right now, and for months to follow, Finland is awash in near-constant daylight, making it downright impossible to have a wizz on the bumper of the neighbor’s BMW without the entire country witnessing it through the misty windows of their saunas.

It’s no secret that the majority of Finns don’t like attention. When they were slapped with the label of “Best Overall Country”, a Finnish newspaper did some quick math and determined that Switzerland should actually be the winner. Indeed, Finland’s aversion to attention is so great that they are now building their cities not outwards and upwards but downwards.

Such modesty is, for a supercilious hermit such as myself, infectious. More and more I feel myself adopting the disposition of my new comrades, and with each conversation become more attuned to the fact that my emotions dominate my speech. Conversely, Finns will rarely, if ever, reveal their inner workings to someone who isn’t related to them by blood or beer.

Emotional withdrawal, of course, easily becomes passivity or outright ignorance. After dragging my dogs off the merry-go-round, we passed through a horde of drunken grade-schoolers, one of which lay face-down in a pile of something brown and steaming. Again, I felt compelled to act: chide them, berate them, throw gang signs, but again I did nothing. When I spotted my stepson and his friends using a stolen grocery cart to push their books home from school, I closed the shades. When my dog came home with a freshly exhumed femur, I helped him pry up a few floor planks to hide it underneath. Life is so much more peaceful when you mind your own business!

Eventually the screaming woman got back into her house. I know this because the truth is that I turned around a block later and spied from behind some trees. The screaming ceased; the children were corralled back into their pen; no one seemed to have lost an arm or eyeball; my dogs urinated on a tricycle. I felt better about myself. Everything is ok. Never doubt that a single, thoughtful citizen can change the world, even if he isn’t a citizen and hasn’t done anything except stand by and observe someone else’s private parts.


As I mentioned in my wildly popular first column (nine different Viagra spammers linked to it from southern China), my wife and I agreed that if I moved into her little yellow house on the edge of the Nordic floe known as Finland, she’d sort of support me while I kind of wrote my novel. Happily, we both fulfilled our contracts. Sadly, as many of you writer and reader types know, the publishing industry moves at the curmudgeonly tempo of a thawing mammoth. Which is another way of saying my Golden Ticket® has yet to arrive. Which is another way of saying I’m broke and desperate.

Thus I’ve come to an icy, vague, windswept crossroads of sorts. One path leads to some horrid, rend-your-soul-in-half corporate serfdom; the second leads to language school; the last one leads to a computer where I can sit and repeatedly email my agent to see if any editors have changed their minds.

While learning the native language of the country in which I’m living seems like a good idea, after seven years of higher education I’m not exactly itching to squeeze my aging skeleton into a kiddie desk for the next – not kidding – five hundred weekdays. For six to eight hours per day. Plus studying time.

Despite the rich, multi-textured dread that language school evokes, I’ve begrudgingly begun the enrollment process, which begins with an interview and some paperwork. That interview is then followed up by a meeting in which you fill out more paperwork discussing your most recent interview. That meeting is followed by an interview discussing the most recent paperwork. If all goes well, and the door to the office you’re in actually unlocks, you then return for another interview and a “language test” that can best be described as a “circle-the-word-that-is-spelled-identically-to-the-one above” test. It’s so easy that our Insane Russian Dogs could do it while gnawing on the underside of the sofa. It’s so easy you leave feeling deeply, truly stupid. I really hope I passed.

During these interviews and meetings and paperwork sessions I have been repeatedly asked what I do for a living. I won’t lie: I live for this question. Despite the fact that I rarely get paid to write, and despite the fact that my book doesn’t yet exist, and perhaps never will, I still like to give myself the cute little label of “writer –novelist.” (Some days I spend hours making these labels with my wife’s glitter pens and posing in the bathroom mirror. My author photo alone will win awards.)

So when an interviewer asks this question, my eyeballs start to shake and my heart hopscotches. I sit up straight, tilt my head eleven degrees to the northeast, and tell them exactly who I think I am.

Interviewer nods, types.

You might think such an inarguable testament of identity would be grounds for further discussion. You might think that in a country where the literacy rate is 100% – a country that reads more books per capita than anywhere else in the world – some might consider it interesting to find an aspiring semi-young American writer in their foggy midst. Fantasy and reality, however, rarely feed from the same trough. Outside of these bureaucratic settings – in two years of living in Finland – only a single person has asked me what I do, or don’t do, for a non-living. Family, friends, the children we hire to clean the polar bear’s cage – doesn’t matter. Instead we discuss: hockey, snow, snow-hockey, hockey pucks made from compacted snow, and hockey that is played on the pavement during the five summer days in which there is no snow. If I want to talk about my meta-career, I have to corner some reindeer in the back yard and bribe them with fried blueberries.

Making matters worse is the fact that my wife, who never dreamed of writing books, has not only published her first hugely successful cookbook, but has begun work on her follow-up. Instead of asking about my non-existent book, people ask me which of my wife’s dishes I am going to massacre tonight.

I am humbled by my inadequacy.

Most days it feels selfish and petty to complain about such problems when so many people are involved in much direr circumstances – revolutions, earthquakes, polar bear attacks. At the same time, writing is my own personal anarchy, a way to subsist outside of systems. Of course such a notion is purely illusion, as the only way my writing will make it to publication is via a series of systems – agent, publisher, retailer, etc. And yet again it’s a system I can abide by, one that is leaps and bounds beyond the systems I’ve spent my whole life trying to escape. Systems like the ones in which I’ve found myself entrenched since arriving in Finland.

Right now the Finnish Language System is on the horizon. Fortunately, since all of Finland remains encased in three meters of ice, I’ve got time to sit and fret and scheme. Unfortunately, Russia recently sent over a nuclear icebreaker to smash apart the ocean and bring with it the first rays of spring sunlight. In the process they’ll probably run across my career. I can only hope that when it thaws out, it isn’t already dead.


Recently, while teaching my pet polar bear and two Insane Russian Dogs how to sculpt ice with a chainsaw, I spotted a young woman dragging a baby carriage through a foot of hateful, sludgy snow. She appeared flummoxed and frustrated, snow pouring over the tops of her Ugg (ugh!) boots, icicle towers crashing to the ground all around her. The baby carriage’s wheels soon clogged to the point of complete immobility, and when the woman stopped to dig through her purse for a spare ice axe, she let out an audible whimper.

Being a typical American afflicted with some innate savior-samaritan complex, I rushed over to help. But – perhaps because Finns are markedly tough and resourceful, or perhaps because my Insane Russian Dogs were snuffling at the little human covered in its own frozen drool – the woman presented me with an uncommonly horrified expression. Despite my offer in three different languages to assist, the woman simply said “no,” took out her cell phone, and presumably bided her time until the spring thaw. There was no: “Thank you, but I’m ok,” or “Be gone, creepy Yank.” Just a well-rehearsed turn of the shoulder and a brutally disdainful sideways glance. I was offended. And in the typical reaction of someone who judges that which he doesn’t understand, I stormed back inside and updated my Facebook status.

Not two days later the scene repeated itself. This time I was busy filling the neighbor’s mailbox with snow (we’re at war, it’s a long story) when another woman, mistaking me for a smart person, ventured into our yard to ask for directions. She also had a baby carriage in tow. Before she could hand over her map of Finland (a monstrous white sheet with a tiny “You Are Here” in the middle), her two-inch heels gave out and she and the baby carriage splashed into the snow. The dogs howled. The reindeer scattered. The polar bear strained at the end of his chain. The baby wailed with joy.

After we pried her carriage loose, the woman asked me how to get to a particular church. I’ve heard of these things called churches. I believe they’re the pointy white things on the horizon. I directed her toward the nearest one (which actually ended up being an electric tower) and made the sign of the cross. The woman thanked me, stepped out of the yard, and promptly vanished into a crevasse.

This, my first uncut Finnish winter, has hosted many such events. While it hasn’t been particularly cold, the snow has been unholy and merciless. There’s so much that there’s really nowhere else to pile it. Neighbors can be seen tossing it back and forth over their fences in an infinite loop of futility. If you throw the snow into the street, the plow shoves it back into your yard. If you pile it against the house, the white stuff seeps into your basement and creeps up the stairs. Often you’ll be trudging to the store and will stumble over a shopping cart, an airplane wing, or the mail man.

Fortunately, the Finnish landscape is flat enough that we don’t get many avalanches. Unfortunately, the land is so flat that snow can’t be bothered to melt. Last year in Helsinki, the country’s southernmost city, the Municipal Snow Dump didn’t fall below the one-meter line until September 15th. All of Finland celebrated by peeling their snowsuits down to the waist, then got back to shoveling.

While the country may be big on snow, that’s about all that’s big here. Kitchens, roads, stores, sodas, stomachs, etc. are much more humble in volume. Even in the thick of winter, Finns drive around in cars not much bigger than a bicycle. (Often you’ll see forty or fifty clowns climbing out of them outside Alko, the state-run booze store.) SUVs are used as school buses and tow trucks. Houses that are large by Finnish standards would be considered foyers in the U.S.

Yes, Americans could learn a lot from Finland. Especially humility. But that’s not to say that Finland couldn’t learn a lot from the U.S.: the last time I was visiting my homeland, I stood in line queue behind a woman who wanted to know where she could throw out a coffee cup. Because she was above average in aesthetic pleasantness, an assortment of male courtesans appeared from the sky to assist her. None quite had a plan for the trash though, and the man who “won” it ended up shoving it in his coat pocket (perhaps to be used in future Voodoo rituals). Conversely, upon returning to Finland I saw a man try to help an old woman out of the path of an oncoming train. The woman spat, swung her handbag at him, and called him a “smelly c***.” And that was her being polite.

I guess in Finland being helped is ultimately a sign of weakness. It’s just not in their nature. Which is why I’m piling snow in the trunk of the neighbor’s car. I just can’t help myself.

 

 

 

 

My wife and I recently had a wedding here in Finland. We’d already been married in the eyes of America last winter, but we decided that we wanted more gifts, so we did it again.

Instead of going on a honeymoon or paying the mortgage, we also decided to give gifts to ourselves. For a long time it was a toss-up between a solar-powered hydrofoil or a refurbished Ukrainian tank, but in the end we decided to get two dogs. That way we could stuff them under the blankets to help thaw our feet after walking to the bathroom.

Raisa immediately starting perusing the ads on an online adoption site, but she wasn’t satisfied with your average Canis lupus familiaris bearing two ears, a tail, and fur in all the right places. No, she wanted the ones with bits of tongue missing and prison tattoos where their balls used to be. Within minutes her heart was set on two gnarly looking Russian dogs being extradited for matters of national security.

Desperate for help, I made some hot chocolate, crawled under the sink (it’s warmer there), and wrote a letter to Santa Claus, known in Finland as Yule Goat.* Mr. Goat has an office in Northern Finland, so I figured my request for two fluffy, photogenic, poop-free dogs would be expedited.

Alas, it was not to be. By the time my ink fob had thawed, Raisa had already paid for our dogs via RublePal, rendering the deal all but done. Now all we had to do was meet the dog dealers near an abandoned munitions factory along the Finland-Russian border, sign a non-disclosure/non-litigation agreement, and take our animals and their troughs home.

As we made our long and arduous journey through the Finnish countryside, I mentioned to Raisa that the deal seemed a bit shady. She told me not to worry, since Finland is considered the the least corrupt and most democratic country in the world. However, the closer you get to the Russian border, the grayer the market becomes. As do the trees, the food, and the atmosphere. We drove for hours through rain and fog and icicle storms, and when we got within 10 km of Russia, the GPS told us to turn around and never look back.

Undeterred, we navigated via dead reckoning toward the heavily guarded tower on the horizon. When we finally did locate the meeting point, we found one Cadillac-size dog squeezed into a Fiat and the other chasing his shadow through a poppy field. We managed to lure the animals into our car with hunks of maggoty reindeer flesh, at which point the dogs promptly went about tearing some skin from each others faces (which Raisa said is a custom in their home country).

While the dogs tended to their wounds, I finally asked Raisa why exactly these dogs were being given up for adoption. She told me not to worry about it, but when my wife tells me not to worry about something, it means that something is deeply, truly wrong.

Turns out that when the youngest of our Russian canines is left alone, he tends to rip knobs off doors, shred clothes, and tear pipes out of walls before finally opening a window and leaping to his freedom. At one point there was evidence of these crimes, such as photographs and insurance claims, but he ate those too. The other guy, an older hunting dog with a litany of scars and claw marks decorating his face like tribal tattoos, has never learned basic commands. Or his name, apparently. He mostly just stands there smiling and wagging his crooked, truncated tail while we beg him to climb down from the top of the television.

Luckily, both dogs know not to take their massive dumps in the house. Unfortunately, like many Russians, the dogs have terrible smoking habits** and prefer potato spirits over boring old water. Despite these deleterious traits, the dogs are as strong as Mongolian llamas. They’re also ludicrously competitive: on our daily 100-km jogs, they insist on chasing down every runner and cyclist and tearing the rubber off the athletes’ shoes (or wheels). When we really want to wear out the dogs, we yoke them up with the polar bear and have the trio plow our street.

I personally share a special kinship with these dogs, being a fellow expatriate***. The dogs and I often gather in a drunken heap on the floor and reminisce about our respective motherlands, which have been at war since before the sun was born. Sometimes, when the discussion lands on on current transnational commerce barriers or disarmament talks circa 1988-1993, the mood grows downright ugly. Fur flies. Flesh is ripped. Epithets are hurled. Curses are unleashed. Raisa is forced to send us to our respective cages. After a good nap though, we forget what the fuss was about. Our comradeship survives another day.

Yes, we love our Russian dogs. (If we don’t, who the fuck will?)

 

* Yule goat – a frighteningly ugly little beast – actually demands gifts from children.

**And Finland is increasingly becoming a bad place to be a smoker, even if you’re a dog. Strangely, the Finnish government is striving to eradicate smoking from its borders, despite the fact that marathons, bike races and quilting bees are all conducted while the participants are puffing away. The dogs had better be careful though, as it will soon be a crime to give a cigarette to an underage smoker (seven years old or younger) or to smoke on your balcony (which is strange since 75% of the country is covered in forest and the other 25% is balconies). In the near future you won’t even see cigarettes in stores unless the cashier is getting them out of the kryptonite safe beneath the register. The dogs are worried.

***Whenever I call myself that, I feel like I’ve betrayed my country, or have been fired from a football team.

When I arrived in Finland, my beautiful future wife was waiting for me outside the airport. Unfortunately, the saddle on her polar bear was only big enough for one, so I had to ski alongside them. I hastily tied my luggage to my waist, glanced at my Donald Duck compass, and kicked off. Soon I was gliding across the infinite whiteness while my typewriter bounced along behind me, making autonomous clacking sounds. Everything smelled like frozen cookie dough and pine. I was home.

Between sips of warm lingonberry juice, my wife Raisa asked how my flight had been. I told her it had been uneventful until I stepped off the plane. I wasn’t prepared for the weather, and was wearing only a thin sweatshirt and some socks with embroidered American flags (my pants had been stolen while I slept). I was then greeted by the Finnish Welcoming Committee, which consisted of a black lab in an orange vest and a stout frowning woman with a large gun.

Hey poochie,” I had said as the little guy assessed my aura (and studied my socks). Seconds later I was escorted to the customs office and told to explain my existence, and  then my reason for visiting Finland, in that order.

Fumbling, I changed the subject to hockey, which I heard that Finnish people love about as much as they hate smiling. While one customs guard went through my belongings, the other helped me into my spare pants. He then wrapped a scarf around my face, leaving only a narrow opening through which I could watch as his comrade sniff-tested each Pez dispenser and typewriter ribbon. Turns out that these guards preferred American football over hockey, so they were done with me. They secured my luggage shut with glue made from reindeer spit, handed me a sack full of Nokia cell phones, and told me not to sit in the sauna for more than six hours at a time.

Thus I stepped out of the airport and began the stage of my life known as “illegal alien.”

My wife and I had agreed via lengthy typewritten letters that if I moved to Finland she’d give me a year to figure out my shit. To her that meant I’d learn Finland’s impossibly frustrating language, file for residency via their ludicrously complicated immigration system, and search for a nonexistent job. To me that meant I should write a novel, keep the bed warm while she was at work, and grind each coffee bean by hand with an icicle.

It was a tough year. Especially when I had to leave the country for fear of being arrested. Seems that my paperwork had been lost in their system of vacuum tubes, which the rest of the world phased out around 1985. Or perhaps I’d never filed the papers at all. Regardless, everything was rectified when Raisa popped into the U.S. for a visit and we got hitched. I was allowed to return to Finland a couple months later .  Once I finished my novel and got an agent, my wife and I celebrated by attending the World Air Guitar Championships in northern Finland. It was fun until a reindeer dove off the stage and gored a few audience members with his antlers.

But now my wife says I have to get out of the house and make some friends before the next snow, which is scheduled for fifteen minutes from now. Since she owns the house and I don’t pay rent, I don’t really have a choice.

I do think she’s right that I need someone else to talk to. though Often when she arrives home from her job at the factory where the Northern Lights are manufactured (which is owned by Santa Claus, or as he’s known in Finnish, “Yule Goat”), she finds me in the same fetal position in which she left me early that morning.

It’s not entirely my fault though. Because Finland is the third-most sparsely populated country in Europe, you can do all of your shopping, dining, and socializing without even seeing another person. It  truly is the ideal place for an introverted writer such as myself. If J.D. Salinger wanted to be left alone, he should have come to Finland, a place where eccentric and angry people are not only welcome, but invited.

So, I asked Raisa, how does one meet people here? She said I should join a club or take up a sport. Turns out Finland has a competitive activity for nearly everyone: the World Milking Stool Throwing Championships, the World Cell Phone Throwing Championships, and the World Wife-Carrying Championships (the Wife-Tossing Championships ended in 1999). But these are very exclusive clubs, and Americans are always chosen last (since we tend to sort of take things over).

My applications are pending. In the meantime, I’ve got to go clean out the polar bear’s stall. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds, but at least it’s not mating season. That’s next week.


Wednesday 5th August, 2009.

It is not every day one finds oneself on a train, heading north out of Helsinki. Just such a day is this. Nor is it every day one walks into the restaurant car to find elegant brass railings separating upholstered chairs and tables with tablecloths, and an ice-blond woman smiling coolly behind the counter. I order some meat soup.

“What sort of meat is it?”

“It’s… hmm? I don’t know.”

“Just say it in Finnish.”

She says something strange. Then makes a mooing sound.

“Ah, beef!”

“Yes. Biff.”

Minutes later I am enjoying a plate of homely beef soup, whilst the wide-bodied train thunders through bewitching countryside in evening light, the landscape semi-dressed in wraiths of mist like a foxy sylph in a whirl of white silk. Ah! Finland!

What a revelation! The bread is almost black, the butter is thick and cold. Ah! My stomach sings for joy as I open my mouth. Forgotten are the countless ciabatta rolls with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes I have consumed today in the world’s identikit café chains. Now I have meat and potatoes and carrots and fragrant broth in my gullet, washed down with beer. I am like a fornicator who’s got wind of his prey, nothing can stop me now. I eat. Then I sigh with relief.

Progress, what is progress? To me, it’s when you keep the good things and throw out the bad. In England we threw out everything and replaced it with plastic bags. Attempts are occasionally made to revive or preserve the good things, but we tend to be told they’re too expensive. Or rather, financially non-viable. It’s just a regrettable fact: we have to make the most of our plastic bags and even learn to love them!

What’s so financially non-viable about a table with a tablecloth and some meat soup?

“It’s home-made! You made it?” I ask the girl.

“Yes.” Her eye-brows rise, as if to say “of course”.

“It’s very good.”

She shrugs. It’s okay, she means to say. Nothing to talk about, just a plate of meat soup for God’s sake.

A bunch of Finnish guys come marching past, all with cut-off denim jackets. They’re white, pudgy beer drinkers, but don’t underestimate the power of white fat when it comes to a showdown. These Finns will perform with enthusiastic violence, count on it and don’t utter a word in Swedish.

Swedes were always the oppressors. Swedish is still the second official language of Finland… even though only 6% of the population speak it.

What else?

Not much.

Back in my seat, I watch the sun sinking over the jagged forests.

Finland… forgotten land of high technology and slightly scruffy people. I like the combination, it appeals to my aesthetic sense. Okay?

In Helsinki, I noticed, they had the most enormous cobblestones on the pavements. They looked hand-cut to me. Each one a work of art. Granite cobbles, slightly red-flushed. Handicrafts… wood, stone, glass… It’s solid, man, it’s solid. Finland… where the women are so pale and athletic that their bodies resemble the trunks of silver birches. But the men are like depressed lunatics, for ever engrossed in glum conversations, smoking and drinking as if this were the only way out.

In Helsinki I met an Old Master writer, Bengt Ahlfors, whose play I had just translated. The play was a monologue based on the conversations he used to have with his elevator.

It sounds a daft idea for a play, I know. But… by the end of that play you felt like jumping into an elevator and starting up a conversation of your own. (I tried it at the Holiday Inn, but I only lived on the second floor, so there wasn’t much time to get into my stride.)

Bengt and I went up in the elevator, a old creaky thing (his inspiration, he explained), then sat in his study where he went through my translation whilst offering me some cherries from a bowl. It seemed rude not to, although ever since I started using large quantities of Swedish snuff I’ve noticed I seem to be allergic to most fruit. It makes my lips balloon.

I feel like that woman, what’s her name, Donatella Versace, is it – whose plastic surgery went wrong? We sit there and talk, my lips are monstrously large, I slobber over my words. But I don’t think he notices.

I ask for some water and try to rinse my mouth clean of every vestige of cherry. It works. Slowly my lips reduce to their normal size.

That’s when he gets up and announces I have twenty minutes to make the train to Tampere.

As an English-speaker, I have an automatic advantage over this old writer,  this old-school servant of the written word, with his diffidence and his electric piano placed next to his computer. I speak the world language.

Translators help some of the lesser-known voices grow more powerful, but we have to take away their sting, their pith and kith and kin. We have to Anglicise.

Small cultures like Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden can only live by turning themselves into type-cast, herring-eating snuff-takers. They need interpreters to be understood outside their boundaries. They turn themselves into clowns. They are not really herring-eaters any more than Englishmen are cricket-playing, meat-pie eating gentlemen.

In Tampere, the favoured fast-food alternative is a length of black blood-sausage filled with specks of white fat, eaten with a large dollop of cranberry sauce. I can’t see it catching on internationally. But who cares? Do we need to spread the word on Finnish blood-sausage? Should it be globalized and rebranded? Or can we just agree to let it rest?

Thursday 6th August

And so… day two in Finland…

Did my amazement and satisfaction continue into day two? At lunch-time I would have answered with a resounding “no!”

You see, I found myself being accosted in a restaurant by a drunk, who insisted that I had no right to be writing in my little book. When I told him I was writing about Finland he got murderous. “You know this country? Not. You not know. So… why the write?” I tried to explain to him that I was observing with my own two eyes and such things can often be more significant than dry, academic study. His eyes narrowed as he told me he had seven brothers, one of them with a prosthetic arm – this because of his love of fighting. Someone had stabbed him with a broken bottle… repeatedly.

When he slapped me brusquely on the shoulder I noticed at once he decided to give it a miss – fighting with me, I mean. I have large, muscular shoulders and I could have decked him very easily, especially as he could hardly walk.

I glared at him, and then he stumbled off mumbling curses to himself.

But if he’d known I was a Swede he’d have fought to the death. They’re a bit hung up about us, the Finns.

(But who can blame them? Swedes have been rude about the Finns for centuries. The Swedish word for “pimple” is “finne” – literally “a Finn”. An acne-troubled Swedish youth might therefore peer into the mirror one morning and say: “Oh no, I’ve got a nasty Finn erupting on my nose.” Whether there is some etymological link here I don’t know, but it seems insulting nonetheless.)

In the morning a coach picked up the festival guests and took us for a ride around the city. The guide seemed stuck at first for things to say about Tampere. “To your right is an apartment block built for the workers in the textile factories, it was built in the 1950’s, it is the tallest apartment block in Tampere…”

I turned my head and looked at a gray peeling building about ten storeys high.

We made progress, though. We drove out of Tampere.

The guide explained that the town was first established there on account of the advantageous position between two lakes, one of them eighteen metres higher than the other, thus the rapids, and thus the building of the mills and textile works.

We drove past the old mill-owners’ sumptuous villas and suddenly found ourselves in a settlement on top of a high ridge looking out over lakes on both sides. Its name was Pispala.

Finland used to have about 70, 000 lakes, the guide explained.

Then, when Sweden announced it had 80, 000 lakes, Finland held a recount and upped its total to just short of 400, 000. (More or less like the Iranian election results.)

Pispala consisted of congeries of wooden houses built by textile workers, once the slum of Tampere, where the urchins were said to be born with stones in their hands. Now the place is full of artists… rich artists. As we piled out of the bus, we saw a group of those same artists sitting on a bench. A girl in pig-tails and striped tights was singing from a book she held solemnly in front of her. A young man accompanied her on the guitar, another young man fell in with a violin.

I could have stayed there all day.

The blue, slightly ruffled lake lay at the bottom of the slope. There was something Greek about it. A lake stretching almost to the horizon. Very peaceful. Its name, the guide told us, was “Holy Lake”.

On the way back we stopped at an intriguing cathedral, whose central nub was decorated with a long coiling snake opening its jaws around the round fixture at the top of the chain by which the chandelier was suspended. Encircling the snake were countless feathery wings. Sort of God trying to snuff out Satan. (He’s not doing very well, so far.)

Friday 7th August

Today when I woke up there was a message flashing on the TV, which had switched itself on while I was sleeping. “Please pick up a letter in the reception.” I went down, vaguely curious, to find an invitation to a puppet theatre performance of King Lear – a non-verbal version. I didn’t have a lot of other invitations, so I went. Luckily the auditorium was very dark. I fell asleep in there, but whenever I woke up, I was treated to the spectacle of an odd-looking little puppet being manhandled by two women – one of them making loud moaning sounds that continued for about an hour. Occasionally she screamed as, in the background, another puppet was cut open and large bleeding livers and hearts were pulled out of a hole in its stomach. At one point the top of the puppet’s cranium opened, like a sort of lid, and a small hand emerged. Very Jungian – the writer must have had an excellent time coming up with that. Had the audience been high on LSD there would have been many nervous breakdowns.

It was a pleasure to walk back out into the sunlight. I went down to the waterfalls and bought a sausage at a hot-dog stand. The girl, another ice-blond, encouraged me to have some blood-sausage and cranberry but I told her I’d had some earlier and now felt like a regular brown sausage. She smiled in a slightly mocking way. I looked round and noticed a big fat guy wolfing down some black sausage in the background – clearly if you had too much of it, you ended up looking like him.

The other people by the waterfalls were mainly teenagers with green hair, studs coming out of their lips and generally deformed. It struck me that in out-of-the-way towns like this, the kids at school decide to make their mark on things by being “alternative”. But ultimately their efforts are futile. In Tampere, looking like a Goth freak is just another way of conforming.

Yet, after I wrote this I learnt that in July, Tampere enjoys another important annual festival: the Anarchist Counter-Cultural Festival. When I check the website I read: “For us anarchism means for example the critique of all forms of domination and hierarchy and on the other hand creating non-oppressive, egalitarian culture. We see domination not only in large structures of society, but also in oppressive customs among ourselves. Our analysis is not limited only to human relations. It also includes our relationships with non-human beings. Our aim is to strengthen critical views and empowerment in the form of taking control of our lives. Kill the police within!”

(Quoted from http://news.infoshop.org)

So maybe the green hair and weird t-shirts are signs of a flourishing counter-culture? The fact is, that drunk in the restaurant is correct: I will never know…

I was going to finish (sic) my Finnish journal here but something else has come up. Tonight I had the privilege of seeing Bengt Ahlfors’s play (the one I translated) at the Lilla Teatern in Tampere – a sumptuous nineteenth century theatre with gilt plaques above the stage celebrating great names in world drama such as Lopez de la Vega, Ibsen and Molière.

Ahlfors’s play is a monologue, so there was only one man on the stage, this being the unique Lasse Pöysti. None of you reading this will know about him. None of you will know that he starred with Birgitta Ulfsson in “Ö” in 1959, or that he appeared in Johan Bargum’s “Som smort” in 1971.

However globalized we get, these things don’t cross borders. The best things are always secrets locked up in their own language and no translator or Arts Council grant can ever transfer the magic. (Except perhaps in the case of Lopez de la Vega, Ibsen and Molière?)

Lasse Pöysti is an old hero of the stage. A war-horse close to eighty years old.

In the middle of his performance there was a fire alarm and we all had to walk out and wait in the sun-drenched square by the old Russian church, its bell-fry of yellow, cracked wood.

When Lasse Pöysti resumed his performance he muffed his lines. He ended up repeating a long anecdote, but no one minded. When he finally finished there was an emanation of pure love from the audience. We clapped and clapped. Seriously, there was not a dry eye in the house.

On my way home, I was again struck by a quality that Scandinavians all have in common, whether Finns, Swedes, Norwegians or Danes: they are all May-flies! When the sun sticks its head over the horizon and gives them a few days of summer, they rise up from their wintry graves. Girls seem intent on procreation all of a sudden. Boys lengthen their strides and know this is the time to find a companion for the long, dark winter.

A final note: did you know Scarlett Johansson comes of part-Danish parentage? When you walk down Tampere’s main street on a summer’s evening, there are tens of Scarlet Johanssons skipping along, with very milky skin… and green hair.

It’s really quite entrancing…