Found in Translation

Radio Dei Ulla and Salla

Matthew Univ of Lapland

A really good interviewer gets you to forget everything except the conversation. You get so comfortable you just say how you feel. As a documentary maker I’m usually on the asking side of the microphone, so during my radio interview I was surprised to fall into that forgetfulness.

Salla was my translator. She’s a student I will always be grateful introduced herself to me when I was still bumbling through my first evening in northern Finland. She’s personable, intense and intelligent, and speaks English almost like a native. She volunteered (or was coerced?) to do the simultaneous translation for my interview with Ulla M. Despite their difference in age, as soon as I walked into the studio I could feel the warmth between the two women.

Ulla, the driving force and talent behind Radio Dei, has the perfect FM radio voice: a deep alto, unrushed, with always the hint of a smile. She also has a quiet charisma that may come from her performances of poetry and song with her husband, the music director of the parish (for her singing, think Ute Lemper or even Marlene Dietrich, minus the scandalous German lyrics). She sat me down on the other side of the desk, put a microphone in front of me, looked me straight in the eyes and I was quite lost. If I were a criminal I would have confessed.

Fortunately, the questions – at least at first – were rather easier.

Why are you here in Rovaniemi? Partly by accident. I looked at the farthest point north on the map that seemed to have an airport. Where I might have contacts. Sari Kuirinlahti has been a wonderful host. For people who think of themselves as unfriendly, the Finns have been very welcoming.

Why are you interested in Finns? I wasn’t. But every year more I work with them, I find the country, its people, its emigrants – and its music, more fascinating. And I think the sauna is a great invention.

Just when I thought I was safe, the zinger: So, you asked all these people where was home? You seem to travel quite a bit. What’s YOUR answer to that question?

Finally, when the mic was turned off, I was afraid I’d said too much. Then again, I wish I’d said more: about the soppa, or warm blueberry soup, that Ilari made me, his smock over his clerical shirt. About skiing around the pond looking at the devotional signs that Sari and Matti designed and put up, and how I got cocky thinking about Canadians on cross country skis and almost wound up flat on my back. About meeting Milla in Helsinki, the director of the press unit for the Finnish Lutheran church, and sharing an evening of laughter and conversation over some kind of Russian pancakes with caviar I’ll probably never taste again. About the strangeness of an altar fresco that shows wolves tearing apart a reindeer and the familiarity of wood curved so smooth by handwork you feel you are touching the essence of the tree. About Pekka Simojoki’s music and Levi’s snow and reindeer soup as a staple, about Lestarian faith and not ever getting proper wifi. About being Canadian at the Arctic Circle of a land I have never known.

So much more I could have said. How can one ever sum up even a week’s life in a few short minutes? One thing I made sure to say: even when we think our lives are small and unimportant, we should know that they are grand, and every one full of drama and hope and fear and promise.

“I’m afraid the interview won’t be any good,” Salla blurted out when we said our goodbyes. “You’ll be able to hear us smiling all the way through!” What a wonderful experience this Suomi-conference sponsored trip was. My one and only task was to experience Finnish culture. I feel I barely got started.

Pekka and me suprised

Mari and Matthew selfie Helsinki

Milla and Matthew

waiting at the baggage Helsinki

You’re What? An english-speaking Finnish pastor from Canada? How does that work?

Helsinki harbour in ice

When I walked by the Fazer chocolate shop and teahouse, there were two young women standing outside, shivering in heavy coats and aprons. “Do you have hot chocolate?” I asked them in English. They nodded enthusiastically: yes! And for free! So I had some hot chocolate and drank it while looking for the Kappeli, where I was meeting my afternoon appointment, a professor from the Greek Institute.

What a great welcome to Helsinki. And in February, too.

My first full day in Finland was a busy one. At breakfast I met Teemu, who came with two of his children. He was to be my “barefoot” (as the Helsinki locals call themselves) guide. But a last minute situation meant we could only visit over breakfast. “I love Thunder Bay,” he confided. “I go there often. Canada is a good country. Almost great.” He smiled, that same quiet, ironic smile I’ve seen on so many Finns. Waiting for me to get the joke.

I bought a one-day transit pass and hopped the #9 streetcar to the Kallio area. I was treated to lunch and my first Laskiaispulla, or Shrove Tuesday bun, by Heidi R., a pastor, journalist and passionate interfaith worker. The pulla was amazing – but really, really hard to eat! And hard to eat during a radio interview. We spoke about Finns in Canada and the USA, my two documentaries, and the Camino de Santiago. The interview, once edited, is supposed to be aired on Finnish national public radio at some point in the next few months.

After, Heidi took me on a quick tour of a building I’d passed and wanted to see, the Kallio Church. The style, inside and out, is “Finnish Art Nouveau”, says the pamphlet. It looks a lot like Art Deco to me. It’s beautiful, and I loved the altarpiece of Jesus with the local working people of the neighbourhood.

Then it was back downtown by metro to meet Mari R-S, an academic whose work I had seen in the library and whom I had contacted. She brought her new four-month baby, and I managed to steal some time to hold him while we talked about tourism and pilgrimage. We also talked about rashes, and allergies and how much babies sleep (or don’t)! There was more Laskiaispulla, which of course had to be eaten.

After Mari left I walked up to the Cathedral. There was a pastor sitting in the corner, to whom I introduced myself. She seemed a bit confused, but friendly. “You’re what? An english-speaking Finnish pastor from Canada? How does that work?” I told her I wasn’t quite sure how it works, but that it does. She smiled and shook my hand. I’m not sure she believed me, just showing up like that, unannounced. Finns would never do that.

On the way back to my hotel I did some tourist shopping, and then had just enough time to change before meeting Kati B, a former church council member from the Finnish church in Montreal, and Mari T, a journalist who worked at Isien Usko and Kanadan Sanomat, for dinner. Both have now returned to Finland. Over salmon burgers and fish we talked about Canada and Finland, about how long one can be away before they ‘stop being Finnish’ and how long it takes to be Finnish again after coming home. “Maybe our generation is more used to this in-between feeling of never completely belonging in any one place,” said Mari. I believe that in our globalized world, that might be true of many people.

After dessert I walked the two of them to their tram. Tomorrow I fly to Rovaniemi. I’m thankful that the Suomi Conference has sent me here “to experience Finnish culture”. There seemed to be quite a bit happening, even in what was just my first day!

laskiaispulla Shrove Bun

Heidi Rautionmaa Kallio church

Jesus and working class clearest