An Interview with a Finn
Kukka and I became friends the summer before my senior year of high school. We spent a few years together studying violin at the Manhattan School of Music, but eventually both of us left MSM. Kukka went to Finland and I went to community college. Four years have passed since we left MSM and now I am also in Finland.
Upon arriving in Helsinki, I met up with Kukka at Musiikkitalo, the Helsinki Music Centre, and she offered a piece of Finnish candy—salmiakki. Salmiakki is not candy. Salmiakki is salty licorice. While I was inclined to spit it out, Kukka insisted that I suffer through the experience. She said it was an acquired taste and that getting through a piece of salmiakki was like getting through a Finnish winter. She then offered me some chocolate to help cover the taste.
While I am currently living outside of Helsinki, Kukka has spent most of her time in Finland living in Kuopio, a smaller city in Eastern Finland (about a 5-hour drive from Helsinki). I have yet to visit her in Kuopio but Kukka has met up with me several times in Helsinki. We’ve talked about music, I’ve listened to her play Prokofiev, and watched her perform in an orchestra concert with one of the Sibelius Academy orchestras. But we’ve also talked about culture, about America versus Finland and English versus Finnish. For this blog post I wanted to share the sort of conversations we’ve been having so what follows is an interview about Kukka’s experiences in Finland.
E: What is your favorite memory in Finland?
K: My favorite memories of Finland are definitely from summers at my grandparents’ summer cottage as a kid. Everyone has a summer cottage and theirs is by a lake about 40 minutes from where they live in Kuopio. My cousins, older brother, and I would go exploring nearby islands after rowing the boat to shore, and then have lunch on an island before getting back to the summer cottage, chased by an impending thunder storm. I’d read Donald Duck comics in the hammock and upstairs in the little attic room with all our toys. One time, my grandpa let my brother and I drink tea and stir it with little sticks and then we had a tea party outside sitting on tree stumps. Every summer at midsummer’s eve we’d go to the sauna with branches to hit our backs with, I don’t know what they’re called in English. We’d stay up late and after all the kids went to bed, I’d watch the adults stay up and play badminton past midnight through my window.
It was so amazing. Now, I see the summer cottage as magical and ideal, but as a kid, my favorite part was that there was, and is, always something to do when we go there. My grandma taught me how to swim “frog,” aka breast stroke, when I was around 7. It took me a few years to get it right after first learning doggy paddle. Our cousins and aunt and uncle would be there with my grandparents, brothers, parents, and I, and it was a once-a-year get-together for everyone since my cousins lived in Espoo and we lived in New York.
Once, when I was little, my grandma remarked after a week of my tangly hair getting increasingly more tangly, that I WAS, you know, allowed to brush it every once in a while. I’d just fallen off my bike onto rocks on the driveway and my face was all scabbed up and I felt like Pippi Longstocking or a kid of the wilderness. Which was pretty legit. When I became a preteen, and finally felt American enough to match my school friends, I brought my hair straightener with me which was totally unnecessary but nobody said anything outright except my mom.
E: How do you like to spend your free time?
K: I spend my free time reading, practicing, or staring at pictures of Emma Watson on Instagram, mostly trying to learn by osmosis. I’m trying to cut back on the last one a bit.
E: When you were growing up in the US did you want to go back to Finland?
K: I once started crying in the super market in New York because I wanted to go back to Finland so bad. My mom tried to understand, but she didn’t entirely get it, saying that not even my cousins spend time at the summer cottage except when we go there over the summer. It’s a totally different lifestyle, though, and I wanted to grow up like one of the kids from Astrid Lindgren’s books.
E: How has living in Finland influenced the way you see the world or the way you see yourself?
K: Finland is my spiritual home in so many ways, even though being away from America for a bit has brought out the American side in me and helped me to see the US in a different light. Finnish people believe in the woods and sauna and trolls, whereas American kids are told to get good SAT scores. Moving back to Finland was like coming back to reclaim something I’d forgotten—at first I thought it was the Finnish lifestyle that I’d learned from my parents, but the longer I’m here the more I feel like it’s the very essence of my personhood and how to be a human being that I’ve come back for. Which is very dramatic and a bit of a statement, but I feel that it’s true. It was like a second childhood.
I’m exaggerating a bit of course. At their best, Americans have a love for fellow Americans, no matter where they’re from originally, which is very in-the-moment and thus cool.
E: Helsinki versus Kuopio–where is the ‘real’ Finland?
K: Helsinki is the face that Finland puts out to the rest of the world, but I don’t know if there’s a real versus not real Finland. Kuopio is definitely more authentic. Although I don’t feel qualified to make a statement since I haven’t lived in Helsinki that long. So I’ll pass on this question. Helsinki isn’t imaginary.
E: Do you have a favorite Finnish word? Juoksentelisinkohan?
K: I like words like onkohan which means “I wonder if” or “could it be that.” I like words that say a lot in a short space. Also, juoksentelisinkohan obviously. Also, I don’t curse but Finnish curse words are really good.
E: You’ve mentioned how you’re a different person when you speak Finnish versus English. Who is this Finnish Kukka that I don’t know?
K: I think my Finnish and American selves are finding their way back together, like re-merging after years apart. In a shallow sense my Finnish sense of self is my true identity while my American self seems to be my personality, but that changed after I left my parents’ home. I was trying to seem more American my whole childhood while feeling really, really authentically Finnish at heart. But then I met a Finnish guy at MSM who was there as an exchange student and I sort of had a complete crisis about what it means to be Finnish and what it means to be American.
E: Are you Finnish?
K: Now, I feel very Finnish in the sense that I speak it and behave Finnish and also think like a Finn, but America opened me up a lot and has given me this sense of idealism, vision and possibility and fellowship for other people who seem different from me that I might not otherwise have. Sorry to sound idealistic. The culture shock I experienced moving to Finland sort of brought out an American patriotism in me that I really didn’t know existed until I’d find myself humming the American anthem (which I don’t even really know all the words to) at random moments totally inappropriate for expressing cultural fidelity. It also somehow seemed to help my American and Finnish selves diverge for a bit—they’d been two separate worlds for most of my life but not as starkly in myself. Now as I learn more about my values and what I believe in, they’re finding their way back together—Kuopio has helped with that somehow. The stillness and peace is a good place to do soul searching.
But to go back to that earlier question about how I see myself, Finland has increased my self-confidence and sense of self and changed how I think of the world in humanitarian terms. Before, I believed in equal rights and fellowship and yada yada, but now I live it more definitively and see that we are ALL really, truly human and want to be loved and respected for who we are. Finland is big on respect from a distance. It’s cool.
E: You’re cool. Do you have any other stories you want to share?
K: Yes actually, I have a good story about the ‘real’ Finland question. I was participating in a film festival for Valentine’s day in Helsinki and interviewing people at Sokos on the big, black makeup chair where people sit and get transformations. I asked people questions about love and most people told me they were too busy or not interested, but a few agreed to be interviewed and they told me these really idealistic stories about love and life. I had to go back to Kuopio for my orchestra internship on Sunday so I had to miss the film screening and hadn’t yet finished making the movie but I wanted to wrap it up somehow and perhaps send in the video before the deadline even if I wasn’t there in person. Since I missed the 1:00 AM bus to Kuopio I had to wait and take the 1:30 to Jyväskylä, which is in between the two cities, where I could wait at a gas station and take the next bus to Kuopio from there. Since I had 5 hours to wait at this 24-hour gas station, from 5:35 am to 10:45, I got coffee and got to work asking people about love.
The first guy I approached said that I could ask him questions and write down what he said but not video him, which is very Finnish. So, I started asking him questions about love and he answered mostly yes or no, which is also very Finnish. Then, I stopped writing and we just started having a conversation. He’d answered “I don’t know” when I asked him about the first thing that comes to his mind when he hears the word “love”, but now that I had stopped writing he wanted to go back and explain his response. He asked, “did I mean a place or a person?” He then told me that he’d just gotten divorced and that he’d moved back to his childhood home—his grandma’s house in the woods, as his grandma had just died. He said the house was in the middle of the nowhere and that you could see in the dark at midnight with just the moon to guide you. He showed me some pictures of the sun behind these long pine trees, it was so beautiful. He told me how his 4-year-old son comes to stay with him sometimes and that he doesn’t have a shower, just water to be fetched and a wood-burning non-electric sauna. They go sledding together and he’s trying to teach his son the old way of life without technology and rushing and this hurry that is incorporated into city life.
He said that his son’s mom, his ex-wife, can teach him all the ways of modern life that he needs to know. He said that he was still heart-broken about the divorce but he was adapting and learning to be with himself and by himself. That he was no longer running around trying to please everyone but living from his heart and putting his own needs first. It was so touching. He was so open and trusting and just wanted to connect with someone even though it was at a gas station at 6 am. If one day his son no longer wanted to come visit him in his ancient house in the woods, he said he would probably still decide to stay there. We ended up talking for an hour, over an hour and then he said he should probably get going. I didn’t ask for his contact info but just sort of tried to hug him. I think I fell in love a little.