Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Finns are everywhere

Growing up, I knew my home-life was different from those of my peers. It was sometimes embarrassing to have parents who spoke with an accent  and who believed a can of coffee and a loaf of pulla was a perfect gift to a neighbour. Canadians never gave coffee as a gift; coffee is a simple food staple, giving it as a gift is like offering a cup flour as a hostess gift. Strange. And I never explained the sauna to Canadian friends who asked about the building in the yard.

Metsakyla

Birch-lined drive of my mother’s childhood home.

It wasn’t until later that I started see the Finnishness of my upbringing as something unique. I collected Iittala glasswear, and searched for Finnish food stuffs tucked in the back of European delis; pear pop, Fazer candies, salmiakki, Turun sinappia and cardamom were always on the list. I learned to make cardamom spiced pulla and finally started to eat my mother’s Finnish rye bread. I longed to have my own sauna built in the basement of my home, just like the one everyone else in my family had: cedar benches and an authentic stone stove with a bucket and ladle to throw water, a birch vihta.

In grad school, I looked for evidence of Finns in Canadian literature and was always thrilled to find them, lurking in the shadows, revealing a spot for me within a cannon of English canadian-ness that “fit” the Canada I grew up in.   I began to re-create in my mind a beautiful landscape based on memories of a trip to the family homesteads taken when I was nine years old.  The stories told by my family of growing up on a farm in Metsakyla started to fill my imagination with the green of young birch trees, dairy cows emerging from the barn after a long winter, and gypsies lurking beyond a frost rimmed window. For years, I planned a trip to Finland that I would take to revisit these places. In 2005, I finally took this trip and spent 6 weeks touring Finland on my own. The first thing that became apparent as I walked the streets of Helsinki, is how much I looked like everyone else there. Until that trip, I did not realize how rarely I have looked into the faces of my Canadian neighbours and seen my own nose, forehead, cheekbones and eyes mirrored back to me. I was at home there, marveling at the grocery stores and restaurants that served the food I had grown up with and often complained was so dull, so un-Canadian.

Upon my return, I came to realize the Finns are everywhere. Recognizing them had become easier; the blonde or dark hair, distinctive eyes and cheekbones. Shopping, I overhear Finnish being spoken in secret in the same way my mother and I speak while shopping, so that others in the store would not hear our critic of someone’s hair or outfit. I hear these secret conversations and immediately want to chime in in Finnish, to let them know I, too, was in on it, and I had seen that ill-fitting pair of pants and also wondered why the wearer would ever consider buying them.

When I reveal the origin of my name to people I meet, invariably there is a discussion of the other Finns they know, or the books or films they had read/seen with Finns or Finland featured. Finnophiles were everywhere; some, like me, are the children of Finnish immigrants, others are simply admirers of the art, food and customs of this small nordic nation.  Some of the most fervent Finnofiles I know are Finns themselves, who while loving their Canadian home, have already figured out what I took so long to determine;  Finns got it going on. This blog is dedicated to revealing those bits of Finnishness that show up over the course of my travels through literature, film and the people and places I discover.