En Puhu Suomea

 Lunch with our cousins in Kotka, Finland.

Lunch with our cousins in Kotka, Finland.

By ERIK ORTON

In my last post, I wrote about how coming to Finland felt like the beginning of a movie.  I’d never thought of it that way until my friend, Casey, suggested it.  I’m fascinated by this idea of writing our own stories.  Movies are made up of short 5-15 second clips much like an Instagram or Facebook story.  String together enough of clips and you have a scene or sequence.  Combine enough scenes and sequences and you have a movie or a story.

I don’t know that this trip would make for a very interesting movie.  There’s been no peril, big action, dramatic reversals, or really much angst.  It’s mostly been a lovely time reconnecting with family, making new friends, enjoying the peaceful serenity of the thousands of lakes, driving through the country side and finding joy in the little challenges of everyday life.  If this trip were a movie, it would not be a block buster.  Maybe it’d be one of those patient, gentle foreign films, with a lot of cloudy skies, a subtle plot and subtitles, lots of subtitles.

Emily and I have a protocol for arriving in a new place.  We go to the grocery store and just look around.  We commit to not buying anything on our first trip.  We developed this protocol after visiting many islands living on Fezywig.  Scout the landscape.  Do reconnaissance first.  Then come back to spend money.  After Emily and I did our recon, Eli and I came back with a list and did a proper shop. It was challenge enough to find whole milk instead of skim milk when we didn’t know the Finnish words.  We had to learn how to weigh produce and print the label so it could be properly rung up at the register.  We had to find the sour cream, which was with the milk and dairy, rather than with the cheese and spreads.  Was it a good price?  What was the best value?  Working in a different language and currency made the basic task of grocery shopping an adventure.  

Ironically, I also learned that saying, “Puhutko Englantia?” [do you speak English?] wasn’t doing me any good. I’ve grown up listening to spoken Finnish most of my life, so though I don’t speak the language, I have a pretty good accent. Everyone seemed to think I was curious about their language skills rather than asking for help.  They would rattle off something Finnish that I didn’t understand.  I had to switch to, “Anteeksi.  En puhu suomea.”  [I don’t speak Finnish.]  Then people understood and would speak to me in English.  

Reading parking signs. Reading freeway signs.  Knowing in which bin to recycle plastic, glass or metal was a challenge.  These were the daily puzzles.  We were back to basics, but we really had it easy.  Most people under forty-five speak very good English here in Finland.  Many people over that age also speak very well. We have all kinds of translation apps that we simply hold up to a sign and it tells us what it says.  Google Translate is far from perfect but pretty amazing in my opinion.  And in Finland so much is printed in Finnish, Swedish and English.   

I suppose this is the point I’m getting at:  what’s easy for one person is difficult for another person.  Judge not.  What’s easy for you can be a genuine challenge for me.  And what’s easy for me may be a mystery to you.  I think it’s so important I don’t compare myself to others to see if I’m succeeding or failing.  If I’m learning, growing or progressing, I’m succeeding no matter how far ahead or behind I may be.   The beautiful thing about life is it’s not a race.

If there are moments from this trip that make the cut of this hypothetical obscure foreign film, here are a couple:  Emily and I stand curbside downtown next to our car.  For five to seven minutes we stare up at and discuss the sign with the parking stipulations.  I make three or four trips back and forth to the parking meter before putting the receipt on our dashboard and walking away from our car. 

Another scene:  We are driving in our small white car, racing into downtown Helsinki.  We are late. Alison and Jane are about to miss their bus.  We stop at a red light.  I tell them to just get out and run for it.  Cars honk as they cross traffic at a non-cross walk.  The light turns green and I press the gas.  I proceed to drive down the bus-only ramp at the bus station, coming face to face with a line of twenty buses heading the opposite direction.

Last clip:  I ask the cashier at the shopping mall if she speaks English.  I am hoping to change a ten euro bill into coins.  Puhutko Englantia? She speaks to me in Finnish and holds out both her hands, one hand with one kind of coin, the other hand holds another kind of coin.  I freeze and don’t dare speak.  My eyes widen.  Everyone behind me in line is staring.  Here’s a forty-four year old man who looks completely Finnish, yet can’t decide whether he wants change in 1 euro coins or 2 euro coins.

En puhu suomea.  But I’m learning.  We leave tomorrow, but we’ll be back.

 Helsinki Cathedral / St. Nicholas Church, Helsinki, Finland.

Helsinki Cathedral / St. Nicholas Church, Helsinki, Finland.