Just the other day, I sat on an overpriced lounge chair. One I had paid too much to rent for the duration of one afternoon of my stay a one of Helsinki’s newest “sea pools”: an attraction in a region that was previously occupied by dingy fishing boats and barnacle-coated piers, now one of central Helsinki’s gleaming new architectural pieces. In a way, when we arrived nearly four years hence, these previously unbuilt harbors were part of the charm of Helsinki, the lesser-visited northern capital.
There wasn’t much to see. There wasn’t much to do. But there was plenty of these grubby, scrappy corners to be experienced.
Even now, Helsinki has a far greater share than most European capitals of grubby, scrappy corners that beg being experienced. But nowadays, its ports and easily “tourist” accessible corners have been scrubbed clean of barnacle-y muscles and filled with gleaming cruise boats with six floors of deck space.
And so there I was on this warm, sunny day- a rare one in my own personal, albeit short, Finnish history- sitting on a chair that cost more than most Finnish lunch buffets, feeling this incredulous need to defend the city that I had once moved to. Four years younger, four years more displaced, four years less hardened by icy, dark winters.
“You know, there are better place away from the Center….”
“Well, when I moved here, there was no Mexican food.”
“You should be lucky you can even find that in the market now”
“These last few weeks are sunnier and warmer than all the last 4 year combined”
In a way, I was speaking my truth. I had meandered every corner of the city and, thus, earned my back-street favorites. We are experiencing an uncommonly kind and pleasant spring and early summer. So nice that I have left my flat on more than 8 occasions in shorts –without a jacket. Which is certainly more than I have in that last four years previous. Combined.
And I do feel strongly that you can readily chart multiculturalization of this northern city by its market offerings; I once walked to three different markets within my 8 block neighborhood in order to find cilantro (the English word for which I once forgot, given that it is some derivation of Corriander in most other languages) for one taco night. Nowadays, not only is there cilantro, but there is an entire wall of Mexican salsas, chips, beans, tortillas, and dips. Not to mention the fact that avocados can be purchased closer to a days notice and actually be something other than a green rock.
But I was also speaking to the defense of my person. Of where I am now. Of my experience.
All though I have lived in a foreign country for nearly four years, I have very little to show for it.
I have only a small number of local Finns whom I would call my friends (and who would claim me as likewise)
I speak a small smattering of the language, the extremity of which is the Finnish phrase for “I am sorry, I don’t speak Finnish.” (At a certain point, you get tired of saying “……..heeeh??” when approached in the local tongue and feel you need a more dignified answer.)
So there I sat, with a small handful of fresh faces who are enjoying their first honeymoon months in this charming country. Sitting at their favorite deck – a tourist and local stop for those wanting a swim in the Baltic, a sauna and (if lucky) some sun all within a stone’s throw of the central harbor (from which, I must admit, I live only three blocks)
Talking about how they would never want to leave.
Talking about all the things they love about this place.
Talking like they have lived here even longer than I.
So a deep part of myself felt I had to assert myself. I had to warn them. I had to be the voice of reason.
(In a way, I had to be the Finn. Because, all though I sat there in Nordic silence while their American voice levels tore throughout the mostly amicably silent air of the fancy new pool decks, I had to be the downing, winter force of all this joy)
But it wasn’t until later on that I understood my (rather unwelcoming) behavior.
It wasn’t necessarily my identity and worth as an expat. Nor was it my own adopted Finnish-ness (or lack thereof). It was the accumulation of experiences over the last 4 years, of hard-fought happy days, of finding contentment in the springs when the sun didn’t show up. And that the life in Finland that they will experience will be so different. I selfishly wanted my experience to be acknowledged.
I know when we leave, I will miss the city but I will miss something else more. It’s this time of our lives.
I will miss the naive early 20’s people we were when we moved here. Newly married, on an adventure. I will miss the early group of expats we met and spent too many mimosa brunches with. I will miss Saturdays wandering the parks and shops, Sundays drinking at the indoor volleyball park, extended weekends flying to unfamiliar cities, late evenings on the couch eating dinner and watching Netflix. I will miss costume parties on Halloween in a friends apartment (and then being kicked out) because no one else in the city celebrated (fyi, they do now…). I will miss hosting dinners for the newly arrived faces, telling them it will all be great. I will miss having no idea what my career will be, but still having an excuse to spend the day shopping local market halls and building relationships with my butcher because I had no one else to talk to and at least he listens.
The other day, I walked into the small organic grocery store on our corner. I hadn’t been there in a bit, having been traveling and dieting- considering that I mostly shop there for meats and fancy goods. The shop owner was busy when I walked in but sought me out just moments later to ask if I had been traveling. Had I been in the States? We weren’t moving, were we? We chatted; he’s been playing gigs as a troubadour. He hasn’t traveled much but wanted to know about me. I had been in the States. And Turkey. And the Maldives. And then the States again. And I was looking for special pasta flour so I could roll my own pasta and he said he would include it in the next order.
In that moment, I could have cried. I skipped home and greeted Jimmy with a big smile and a kiss on the cheek and skipped back out again to grab a few things that I had forgotten. I belonged. I damn well belonged. People noticed my absence. They addressed my presence. I felt so a part of a community that I could have asked them all over for dinner that night (though, by Finnish standards, may have been rather forward).
It was everything.
And then just 24 hours later, I remembered how hard being an expat can really be.
I had finally signed up for the beach volleyball club on Helsinki’s best city beach. A membership I had made excuses to avoid for the three previous summers.
We are traveling so much, it just doesn’t make sense…
I am not good enough, I just don’t think I can keep up…
But I finally did it. One sunny morning, both Jimmy and I signed up and we grabbed a net with a friend, met up with others (Ukrainians, Finns, Americans) and played 4 hours of volleyball on the beach. Totally part of the community.
But just a day after my local market victory, I anxiously walked to the beach for the Women’s Day game-play. I hovered long enough to let the woman behind me pass so I could watch the way things were done.
Ok, so I find my name on this list and I check it off.
Towards the bottom of the list, I began to panic and thought about my exit strategy if I wouldn’t find my name: Surely no one would know if I just left? Do I tell Jimmy or just go bide my time in shops till I am supposed to be home? Are the liquor stores open because wine sounds like a good remedy….?
But there was my name. A clipped, short, American first name and Swedish-Germanic last name amongst -inen ending Finnish names: Koskinen, Nieminen, Heikkinen…..
After marking off my name and some time-wasting ambiguous stretching, I asked the only official looking man there -in an uncomfortable “Anteeksi” – “Sorry” – before abandoning my “I don’t speak Finnish” preamble and going full “help me please” American English, begging for direction. I was given ambiguous instructions to pair up with another net and set up a new one if there were too many people.
…but everyone seemed to know each other.
Everyone was warming up and laughing. Everyone had a net and a partner. All the nets were occupied. It felt like freshman tryout except that I hadn’t even the means to even communicate. It felt like I was wearing neon in a sea of black (despite my demure heather gray- a color lesson I had learned years before for blending-in in Finland). Do I jog around til we start? Every second was an inner battle that ended will me coaching myself into manning up and being a good expat. Stay. Play. It’s now or never. Buck up, old girl.
When the organizer called us in, I waited for all the announcements to end before revealing myself as the foreigner- I hadn’t understood anything. I gave my very well practiced self-deprecating smile and laugh –Yes, I am the odd one out. Sorry for that.- and pressed on. I winced at every missed pass because not only was I playing poorly – I was different. They had to call the score in English. They even had conversations with the group in English because of my presence. I felt so very….oh gosh…
At the end of the day, I had some good chats with very friendly women. One’s sister lives in Montana, so she actually could place Idaho on a map. The other wanted to play some extra games. I played terribly- a fact I attribute to my overall nerves as well as the prevailing winds- but I didn’t care much. I had done it. I toughed it out. I integrated.
But as I furiously rode my bike home, I told myself that the person who walked onto that beach today was not the one who had stepped off the plane on September 6th, 2014. The last 3.7 years had stood for something. I had earned something, damnit. And that this was another experience to take in full stride; to log into my experience bank; to learn from, to grow from and to build my person.
I was ok to be the outsider. I was even happy to flash my perfect self-depreciating smile. I certainly took myself less seriously.
And, of course, I thought of the poor girls whose experiences I had measured against my own. How dare I qualify their experiences with mine?
I remember the 2-hour shopping trips to the market, just to find dinner, discretely typing words into Google Translate, hoping that it was the last ingredient on my list. I remember taking the wrong tram all the way around the city- fearful to get off and be more lost. I remember the excitement of the small, daily discoveries. Those are all so valuable.
This expat journey means different things for different people at different times. It means making your own course. And it certainly means gleaning from it something that you need for you, in this season of your life.
In the end, I think I learned a bit of Grace. For myself- to treat my memories more tenderly, to appreciate how their sometimes sharp edges fit and fill my soul. And I learned some Grace for others- for how their time is filling them, in the sweet and tender ways that it does with fresh eyes.
So I suppose, nearly four years on, I am still an expat who doesn’t have it figured out yet. I am not there yet.
…unless that was the whole point, in which case, I have this thing down pat.