Somewhere in a dusty book there is likely an agreed upon point at which an ex-patriot makes the graceful transition to being, simply, a patriot minus the paperwork. I’m not there yet, but after three years living in Finland I begin to wonder about such distinctions. Not that I was ever an ex-patriot anyways. Perhaps an also patriot.

March, 2011

The third anniversary of my arrival here has been on my mind for a week or two now thanks to a stalwart reminder in my calendar. Trusty, that. In the modern world we never forget dates, even the ones that are probably best left to the leaves of discarded calendars. In this time I’ve reaffirmed my own particular interest in noting such events on a yearly basis. No need to take a personal holiday or anything, but it is nice to have a nudge to reflect on the previous 365 days in a way that is free of Hallmark.

October, 2011

The story of my third year in Finland was largely a domestic one. In both senses of the word I spent more time here, in my apartment and in the country.

Living alone in the center of town I am struck by how quiet Helsinki can be even on an average work day—how excruciatingly quiet, and how marvelously quiet. It has taken me until now to enjoy it, but I am grateful that I can appreciate the nothingness without needing it or becoming addicted to it.

I have met people who claim that even Helsinki is too loud for them and I wonder where such delicate creatures will ever be happy. After visiting a cabin in Lapland I do have a deeper appreciation for the addicting ring in your ear of nothingness, but for me this remains more of a salve than a solution.

While I spent more time than usual at home it was not always my home. I also enjoyed many visits to the gracious households and neighborhoods of friends around town. Especially Dan and Celia, whose move to Helsinki was during this period under consideration, and Justin, who despite living elsewhere occasionally shows up for a week or two and makes a go of ‘apartment’ living when he’s here.

My third year has been more about cooking too. Lohikeitto, pastas, cakes, and giant piles of roasted vegetables were most common. The most successful venture was probably a jar of cocktail cherries made at the tail end of summer and which I have been enjoying since. The bump in cooking has been less about food and more about being OK with being home. Being at home. And testing out the arch-Finnish trait/habit of being alone.

July, 2011

It was also pragmatic, as I spent the first half of 2011 engrossed in writing a book with my colleagues Marco and Justin. That mean’t a lot of time cooking so as to remove for myself the temptation to socialize instead of writing. The irony of locking myself away to complete a task that is inherently collaborative is not lost on me. 2011 was a year of connected isolation at home and in the city.

April and then September, 2011

In Helsinki it’s easy to feel alone, even when you are not. Here the blocks in the center of town present uniform street walls ranging from 125-150 meters. These almost-square blocks are divided up into a number of buildings around the perimeter and again on the interior. The result feels like a massive, solid chunk of inhabitation that has landed next to the sidewalk. But weasel your way into the block and you are likely to find a circuit of 6, 8, 12 or more courtyards, some of them stunning and many waiting to be wonderful just as soon as the parked cars are removed.

My apartment here on the 5th floor looks onto one of these courtyards. From my window I can see four housing blocks each with about five floors and in total perhaps 20-30 units. From what I can tell, two of these units are inhabited regularly. Another two have occasional occupants. Some almost never show signs of life. One set of neighbors across the way have had holiday lights on their balcony since November. And I don’t just mean physically present, I mean on and shining continuously. I noticed that they were home once when they briefly opened the blinds and then shut them again.

Cutest dog in town?
March, 2011: the owners are visible once every 5 days or so

So who lives in this block? Apparently not very many people, despite what the apartment nameplates say (they are full). Or perhaps people who do not care much for electricity, with the exception of the absentee holiday revelers.

At times it feels like I’m watching Rear Window but without noticing I’ve accidentally sat on the pause button. Where’s the action? Where’s the life?

In observing this tableau I’ve accidentally derived a basic truth of life in Finland: the thing about those that live here enjoying quiet, silence, and being alone? It’s a coping strategy for a place that has very low effective density even in its not-so-bustling center. It’s like a tall person that is happy about being able to reach things on high shelves. Tall people are good to have around. Fair enough.

February, 2012

The mystery of Where Did Everyone Go? is one that I have yet to crack. On the other hand, the mystery of What Else Is Here? is one that I enjoyed exploring during the past year with trips to Rovaniemi, Saarisalkä, Hamina, Högsåra, Lahti, and Fiskars.

With most of these trips being conducted in the cold months, I’ve gained a few extra shades of white as a kind of chromatic upgrade to my internal palette. Perhaps the light eye strain I’ve been experiencing of late is the feeling of new rods marshaling themselves at the backs of my eyes.

This is probably the sum of my experiences so far: if years one and two were about seeing new things, year three was about seeing old things in new ways.

1 Comment so far

  1. Hello, Brooklyn - etc on September 17th, 2013

    [...] a newcomer to Finland I was alone in a quiet place. After months searching for the cafe or corner joint where a density of my people could be found, I [...]

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