Finn & Swede

What is Finnishness?

Is it the ability to speak a language? To say “Joo” and “ei”? Is it something in the DNA? Is it a shared experience? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Just what is it to be Finnish, anyway?

Is it the ability to speak a language?  To say “Joo” and “ei”?  Is it something in the DNA?  Is it a shared experience?  Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  Just what is it to be Finnish, anyway?

It used to be very simple indeed for me to define, back in another time.  When we all seemed the same, like a big extended family; those were the days.  I could count on the experience being the same no matter whose place I visited.  The old mummelis treated me kindly with candy and sandwiches, would pinch my cheeks and say “Sä on niin kiltti!“, and the men, with a twinkle in their eye, would ask “No mitäs Henrille kuuluu?

I knew their values, and that they had some kind of integrity, even if they were not perfect people.  I felt that if I were ever truly in trouble, I could go to almost any one of them, and they would help in whatever way they could manage.

This was all during my childhood in a Finnish-Canadian community in Ontario, Canada.  In my twenties I moved to Sweden, and at the time, expected to be further reunited with my own kind.  At first, it seemed as though that might happen; familiar rough-accented voices rang out periodically in the streets, and now and then I’d spot a brand or some kind of odd knick-knack from the fatherland.  Places like Helsinki became more accessible, saunas a bit more common overall, though the actual visits, less.  I learned that Swedes and Finns were supposedly some kind of rivals – some even said enemies – but I don’t believe that one bit. It became clear though that we thought very differently in some ways and valued different things.

My quest for finnishness is becoming a real hang-up.
My quest for finnishness is becoming a real hang-up.

In Helsinki, my girlfriend and I attended Tuska, a heavy metal music festival.  In the crowd were faces which looked like they could be the long lost twin brothers and sisters of friends from Sudbury, Toronto, Timmins, Sault St Marie, Vancouver or Thunder Bay.  Here though, they dressed in black with spikes and leather, publicly flogged each others bare arses with whips, and shouted “SAATANA PERKELE!!”  …well, at least during this particular day.

I moved north, near to the border with Finland.  There seemed to be considerably more Finns here – but it became apparent that they were not the Finns that I was used to.  Dark hair was more common, and some could be disheveled, rowdy, even brutish.  Our apartment neighbors were not people who I could drop in on for Juhla Mokka ja munkkeja; at 3 am, I’d hear furniture crashing into walls and bottles breaking amid shouts (again) of “SAATANA PERKELE!!” – this time, weekly for four years, accompanied by screams which could have come from the depths of hell itself. I wish it were an exaggeration, but it isn’t.

We escaped there, moving south.  I learned of the Forest Finns at the Finnskogsmuseet in Hälsingland, learned of their trials living in Sweden from the 16th century onward, with slash and burn farming their primary means of living.  I examined old photos and tools and all manner of relics; I listened to their runesongs on an album called Tirun Lirun, a mixture of old Scandinavian tongues with archaic Finnish, over what I presume to be Kantele strings – fascinating and sad, but it left me with an empty, unsettled feeling of unfamiliarity. These, again, were not my Finns.

I visited the countryside of the Kokkola region, where some of my cousins reside.  I felt a familiarity, having been there before when I was young, and also being among relatives. When I looked at their old pictures in military uniforms and such, I saw myself.  We communicated in an awkward manner; rejected lessons during childhood came back to bite me as I fumbled with Finnish grammar.  But, at least I understood most of their dialect, as it remained much like that of my mother.

My father died.  I learned that I am an Ingrian Finn.  I wondered what it all meant, and could no longer ask him.  I learned more about the term “Finno-Ugric”.  About the Sami.  About the Estonians. About the Izhorians.  About the Karelians.  The Votes and Veps.  I learned about the Inkeri, and their peculiar dialect and craftsmanship, which although I’d never known by name, felt familiar.  Eino had passed these down in his own peculiar sayings, habits and hobbies.

I learned about American Finns, and how their ancestors arrived in America.  I learned what “Yoopers” were, and “Finndians” too.  While slightly different, they are much like the Canadian Finns.  Their Finnglish is much like ours.  We also lived alongside native cultures, our parents and grandparents also forgot some of their Finnish and had to improvise. In Sootperi, “Rupperpoots” talkat like tees in ta noospapper koolamn he wrotet. Utters who peen movink frumta Finland also pee talkink tat vey, toe tey don’t pee likink to atmit ass muts tat tey do.  Eino apolloguysta for it alvays.  Ray Kaattari, onta utter hant vass ratter prout of it.

Rupperpoots In Ta Sit-House

So what is Finnishness? I’m left with no more of an answer than when I began. I’ve thought about sisu and sauna, characteristics and cultures, beliefs and politics and all kinds of stuff, dagnabit!  What makes my experiences any more “Finnish” than those of the Forest Finns, or the gypsy Finns of Norrbotten?  Than the city dwellers in Suomi’s most famous and populous place? Surely it’s a complex and diverse history we have, brought about by tumultuous times, tragedies of war, poverty and famine, and finding new hope somewhere else on this big rock which floats about in space.  None of us have sprung up from a simple and idealized past… but then, who really has?

The more I see in this life, the more I wonder how I am different from anyone else, and how we could possibly be the same, all at once.  I wonder what it all means, to be Finnish, and also to be a human.  Sometimes I think I have the answers.  Others, it seems I have none.

But, that’s exactly what this blog is about, and shall continue to be: exploring the Finnish experience in all its forms, and Finns in all their forms – even the minorities, the unsung ones, and the ones who wander.

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