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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.


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.

 

 

 

 

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.