I came downstairs to have breakfast and was offered a glass of champagne. I accepted it. For a moment, I stopped and thought about why I’d said yes. I’d never said yes before. And then I decided I didn’t need to know exactly why I had said yes. So, I had a glass of champagne for breakfast.
Comfort had snuck up on me in Finland and instilled an inarticulable change in longstanding inhibitions. I felt at home and comfortable in a society that was somehow still recognizably foreign. I felt my mind reconfigure to automatically call my professors by their first names, to say moika instead of hello, and to no longer feel awkward silence during conversation. And then somehow, by redefining silence, Finland gave me permission to accept my first glass of champagne.
Finland spoiled me with its silence. It allowed me to develop both a comfort with loneliness and an aspiration to connect. During my first year at Amherst, loneliness often felt like failure—a failure to garner the interest of others and to connect with people who should become life-long friends. In Finland, loneliness lost its association with these failures. Instead, when I felt trapped in isolation I began to feel connected to my dark and frozen home. I took a breath of loneliness and coated my lungs in rime, but instead of being frozen in hopeless desolation, I was frozen with the barren beauty of my home.
Melting in the heat of Amherst’s summer, I feel loneliness’s comfort fading. And as my discomfort grows in this area, I find discomfort blossoming elsewhere too. I have begun to experience sudden bursts of conflict with my homeland. I have felt myself grow irritated and angry when I can’t remove myself from constant conversation. The sounds of Amherst are no longer a comforting background hum because they are now heard with newly sensitive ears. White noise has separated itself into a full spectrum of colored sound, scribbling chaos on my attempts to read, study, and follow conversation.
I have also remembered that I “look gay” here. In Finland, my gender presentation did not feel connected to my perceived sexuality. Because I was unable to paste the usual categories of sexuality stereotypes onto people in Finland, a buzz cut became just a buzz cut and lipstick became just lipstick. Since I could not categorize others, it felt like I was not being categorized. I felt seen primarily as a person rather than as a sexuality. Coming back to Amherst, and particularly Northampton, I once again see people that look like me and I remember that they can see it too. I am the same person, but now I feel exposed.
I want to hold onto my new found Finnish comforts, but they are slipping away from me quickly. My discomfort at Amherst this summer has made me nervous about my ability to thrive here during the academic year. Right now, I wake up to the noise of cars and slamming doors instead of to the giggles of my landlord’s two-year-old Finnish son. I look outside my window to a parking lot baking in heat instead of a Red Twig Dogwood made pink by a sprinkling of snow. I wake up in the heart of a busy town instead of on an island in the quiet outskirts of a city. While these things are real and articulable differences, it feels like such superficial changes in my environment should not impact me so substantially. They shouldn’t make me question my ability to succeed.
The happiness that these small environmental changes brought me was authentic, but many of the things that made me comfortable in Finland were simply shifts in my perception. I felt connected to a frozen landscape, in part, because I expected loneliness to exist while living abroad. I could not see categories of people in Finland, but that did not mean that Finnish people didn’t see categories among themselves—I simply couldn’t see what they could. For a few months, my eyes got the chance to regain some of the innocence of childhood; they were unable to categorize people into society’s artificial boxes.
Now, I can see again, and I can feel myself being seen. I feel seen as gay, I feel loneliness being seen as failure. This is my perception of how Amherst sees. But it doesn’t have to be how I perceive myself. Even without Finland I can see loneliness without seeing failure and I can see myself as a person and not a sexuality. And sometimes, I can even choose to have champagne.