What Keeps Me Anchored

It’s not always easy to identify what has gone missing in our lives. Inevitably, we gradually move away from certain things as we become adults. This week, I talk about the Finnish life I took for granted growing up.

Sometimes, it’s hard to identify what has gone missing in our lives. It may be that we’ve gradually moved away from certain habits and activities or the presence of certain people or things. Other times, we simply don’t think, and poof! But we’re too busy to notice.

In turning my own life upside down nearly fourteen years ago, embarking on a new adventure with a steep learning curve on the other side of the globe, many things fell by the wayside – some of it very intentional, and some I didn’t expect. You see, part of my reasons for moving involved dumping all the old baggage of a life which I was very much dissatisfied with and starting fresh. I sure did get a “fresh” start in many respects; I’m still only just clawing my way to some sort of new normalcy…

The one thing you can’t run away from though, is yourself.

For my first few years in Europe, life was an absolute blur of taking in new experiences and completely unexpected situations. I barely had time to think about my former life in Canada even if I wanted to (which I didn’t, really). There are certain elements of course, which on looking back, I took for granted would always be available – that everything I needed to feel “at home” would be right at my doorstep, or at worst, down the street. As I’ve stated in the past, I was a Finn going to Sweden – right next door for crying out loud, to Finland. How hard could it be? I convinced myself that I might just as well be going there, for all the differences there’d be. I had romanticized the idea, because of my parents having both lived in Sweden at one point, and my sisters having visited, too. It felt like it was somehow in the culture of the family.

I myself had spent half a month here before the real move, yet must have looked through rose colored glasses due to newly found love, and the magical adventure of it. When culture shock later really began to set in, I said: Well, ok – I’ll adjust. And I tried… but the truth is that I underestimated just how important certain elements of my past had been to me. This can’t be pinned down to any one thing, but moreso the general idea of maintaining routines I’d been reared in from a very early age. So in trying to run away from my past, it turns out that I left behind the good with the bad.

Now that I’ve done my usual thing and waxed philosophical for four paragraphs, I’ll come clean about what this post is really about… ok… it’s a post about food. Sort of. And I feel a touch hypocritical for that, because just a couple of weeks ago in “Regroup, Simplify & Deploy”, I was busy chastising myself for a reliance on food to create a sense of comfort. Well, as someone once said:

This isn’t purely about comfort, actually. It’s about having some sort of anchor in your life. It doesn’t have to be food. Heck, it could be faith, or a bunch of things. Over the past decade plus, I’ve looked for an anchor, any anchor… and I’ve looked in all those places. But even my faith has gone through some sort of evolution, to the point where I barely recognize myself in some respects. So I needed some other anchors too. I’ve realized that humans can really only take so much change, and that this is one big reason why culture and nationality is so important.

There’s a quote from an old book by Thomas Wolfe that goes:

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time…

There’s truth to this. I recognize that I have to move forward. So why, why oh why, do I dwell so much on the past? The simple answer is that I think there’s so much that we can learn from an honest examination of it. Because while you can’t go back to it, it never really goes away from you. It’s in your DNA, whether you want it there or not. The brain wires itself according to our first experiences, and even those of our ancestors. Those are the model for that which becomes our life.

So… you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t fight yourself. So you may as well work with what you’ve got. And remembering those anchors? There’s no other way to put it really: It keeps you sane. When used correctly, far be it from a limitation, it can lead you to other, bigger places. So I kid, really – the post isn’t just about food. But close. Food is part of this much grander cultural entity – and it does come up a lot! Every culture, including that of the Finns, has its own foods.

It was years before I tasted anything resembling my mom's Finnish blueberry pie again.
It was years before I tasted anything resembling my mom’s Finnish blueberry pie again.

When I moved, my diet changed immediately and radically. When that happened, if you think about it, I literally lost part of myself. That part of my psyche was starved. Pile on top of that, having to figure out yet another culture’s unspoken ways, learn a new language, adapt to new philosophies of the new people around you, and pretty soon a person is at risk of becoming unhinged completely. When we have too much pressure and not enough anchoring us, we act out in tragic ways, like becoming alcoholics or drug addicts, sex addicts, gaming addicts or whatever. It’s an escape into something else familiar.

“A memory of the Swedish Children’s Foundation fundraiser for the war-affected children of Finland, and as a thank you for your sacrifice toward this cause.” …I don’t Know… it just spoke to me.

I met a stranger in the park just a few weeks ago – a rather built fellow, and obviously drunk off his ass. First he gave me a big strangling bear hug, and then his name. An odd order of events, if I might say so. I replied with some enthusiasm, “Oh, you’re Finnish too!”

To my disappointment, he kind of brushed it off – a sign to me that this Finnish identity maybe something he’s trying to run from here in Sweden; it certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve run into that sort of thing. He invited me over for some beers at his place though, and I politely declined, not wanting to encourage his habit – also knowing that he’d probably sooner want to forget the whole encounter after sobering up.

I could kind of identify, though we were clearly different types of people. He obviously worked with his hands, a low-level industry worker. And most of my own life as of late has been full of the mundane pursuits of a globally connected world, where people in Tokyo are now in some ways at least, hardly discernable from people in New York. Some design jobs here, some gaming related events there. One side of me was up until recently completely immersed in this technological rat race, while trying to navigate my way around Swedish society at the same time, with its own whole set of quirks and demands. Failing hard at both. I knew something had to change… but what?

naukku_featWhile I pondered, now and then little glimpses of my roots graced me, like beacons in a dark night. Oh… I’d almost completely forgotten about that. The smallest things which might seem comedically trivial brought me great joy. Like a visit to the Röda Korset (Red Cross) second hand store, where signs that other Finns still kept their identity somewhere near, could be found almost on every shelf and clothing rack.

These simple things are for me, reminders of home, of my Finnish upbringing, and even deeper than that – who I am. They began to speak to me somewhere under the surface. Foods I’d long ago stopped eating, like riisi pirakka, or mustikka piirakka, or pulla, or mojakka, or riisi pourro… these are all attached to so many memories and even forgotten things which make up my identity. In Finland during 2013, I drank the first cup of Juhla Mokka I’d really had the chance to compare to other coffees, as I never drank much coffee before moving (Swedes are absolutely nuts on coffee so good luck not starting). Well let me just say that it was the stuff! Seriously, the best coffee I’d ever had hands down… That was what my parents drank… now did I like it because they did? Or because it reminded me of home? Or is it because Finns just know their coffee? Some things we may never figure out. 😉

Where I get my boyish good looks.

While on that same trip, I saw some old family pictures from my mother’s side, the Hautamäkis. It sure made me wonder some things about how my life would have gone, had I been born in Finland instead of Canada. That’s a thought that’s gone through my head a few times actually, but spending a week at the place where your mom grew up really gives some extra time to dwell on such thoughts.

Below is one of the saunas at our cousins’ camp near Kokkola. That’s right, I said one of them. And during that one week trip, I took no less than six at three separate places. Each was very different in character, and reignited my determination to get my own again.


All of the above, from food to family heirlooms to saunas and even a cup of coffee, have been important elements which, once I re-introduced them into my life, kick started a process of reminding myself who I was and am, reconnecting me with a source of strength that I wasn’t sure I had. Better preparing me to try new things with an open mind… like salmiakki, for example. 😉 And better preparing me to figure out what it is I’m really here to do.

only in the past year have I begun to have any of these regularly again.
only in the past year have I begun to have any of these regularly again.

Stay tuned for my upcoming offshoot blog Odd Sweden, a decidedly much less serious look at idiosyncratic discoveries I’ve made during my time here.

[stc-subscribe category_in=”Forgotten Finland”]