Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Finland in my heart

I am in Finland. I am not sure what I am doing here, and I am a square peg in a round hole. It's a huge conference with 25 strands, and I haven't discovered anything of interest. I am here to give a paper and support my research team. The paper I am giving tomorrow was supposed to have been written by our research assistant (a very strange practice for me), only it hasn't, so I spent this morning drafting some hasty notes. But this is another story.

I am in Finland. I have a very special relationship with Finland. My mother's maiden name is Tiain, which we learned was a shortened Tiainen which means bluetit in Finnish. It must have come somewhere, but I haven't figured out how and when, even with my vast genealogical investigations. So it has just been: we are diluted Finnish on my mother's side.

I spent most of my summers when I was young - up to the very last when I was expecting a child - in Karelia, once part of Finland. That's why I love midsummer sun, conifer forests, small cold lakes, the vast Ladoga lake, endless islands, fishing, picking mushrooms and blueberries. I feel at home in Finland.

For many years, Finland, in particular Helsinki where I am now, was my transit on the way to and from Russia. Ferry from Stockholm came at nine in the morning, and the train to Moscow departed at five, and I had to spend the day at the railway station with two, later three children. I hate this railway station. (It's otherwise interesting architecturally, looks like an old-fashioned radio). On the way back it was slightly better: the train arrived at one, and the ferry left at six. I cannot imagine now why this seemed the best travel arrangement.

Then I started going to Åbo (Turku) for professional reasons: guest lectures, conferences, intensive courses and finally a guest professhorship. I can confidently say that I know Åbo well. But not Helsinki. A couple of times, when I did't have the kids with me, I walked around between train and ferry. A couple of times we went to Helsinki for a birthday party and had some time during the day. I know the department store, the bookstore, and the Market Square. 

My love affair with the Finnish language is unhappy. When I lived in Finland I honestly tried to learn some Finnish; I attended a course for visiting scholars, but gave up. For those of you who don't know: Finnish is not related to Swedish. Or to any other language except Estonian and possibly Hungarian. So knowing Swedish only helps a little. Swedish is supposed to be an official language in Finland, and at least some signs are in Swedish, but more and more people don't speak it at all, so I don't even try. I do try to say kiitos (please) as often as I can, and I take every opportunity to say anteksi (excuse me) and huomenta (good morning). I once tried to ask for water in a restaurant, which caused LOL from my table companions as well as the waiter. Apparently I put the word in one of the wrong - of the fifteen possible - cases.

I know some people who learned Finnish as a second language. I admire them.

Anyway, here I am, in Finland, in Helsingfors (to show my Swedish identity), with nothing to do for three days except give a paper; every now and then it's torrential rain, so going for a walk doesn't feel an attractive option.  Maybe I should go to a museum. I've never had time to do that.

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