Rovaniemi church

English is so Difficult

ski trail Psalm 23 Finnish

Several times now while walking downtown I’ve walked by a children’s park on the river with colourful images of the game “Angry Birds”. Wow. These Finns are really commercialized, I thought. Until Sari told me: did you know that Angry Birds was invented here in Rovaniemi? The creators donated money and play equipment.

I walk past the lonely little fast-food “grilli” where, my first afternoon, I bought a sausage and stood in the snow in the middle of the empty parking lot to eat it. Then up the pedestrian walk, past the display of reindeer antler jewelry, imitation Sami shoes with their upturned toes, and ice sculptures. I wander into one of the local “Safari in the Arctic” waiting areas. There are two friendly young women at the reception who tell me they don’t mind if I use the wi-fi. As I work, a United Nations of tour groups pass through. They are back from snowmobile and snowshoe journeys, and are returning their helmets, gloves, and full-body suits. There is a long wall of packed snow blocks that the city has required the companies to erect to muffle the sound of so many snowmobiles taking off. I hear Chinese, Hebrew, French, Russian and English, and some languages I can’t identify.

My few phrases of Finnish are already growing stale: “Mina olen pappi ja professori montrealista” “kiitoksia” “hyva paiva”. But I’m at least starting to be able to identify a few words better when Finns say or sing them: “makara” (sausage),   “kirkko” (church), “kotti” (home), “karhu” (bear), “lapsi” (child), “laulua” (song) and “rakasta” (love). I guess the words I’m learning reflect my visit. Or maybe Finnish culture, at least here .

The fluidity with which Finns switch genders in their speech is often funny, and sometimes disconcerting. Because there aren’t different words for “he” and “she” in Finnish, when speaking English to me, the Finns here may just choose one at random: “Oh yes, my husband is a tall man and she is strong too.”

I’ve also learned that there are many different words for “bear”. The reason, apparently, is that in the “old religion” you were never supposed to say that word. They came up with synonyms and other ways of describing the powerful creature, which not so many years ago had the status of a god. I think about the Bible, and the way that Yahweh’s name was never to be spoken aloud.

My host for the last day in Rovaniemi is Ilari K. He is a pastor in the church that is hosting my second set of documentary showings. Although he looks to be barely out of his twenties, he tells me that many years ago he and his wife and first two children (they now have five) spent a year in Saskatoon. Immediately we start comparing memories. He takes me to the university where I meet the chaplain, Heini, and tour the building. We three have lunch together. After, when I ask him to drop me at a wi-fi spot, Ilari simply takes me to the family home.

I walk in to meet a very young-looking woman whom I assume to be Ilari’s wife Kaija. I give her the flowers I bought at the supermarket while Ilari picked up groceries. “This is my daughter,” Ilari says as I hold out the flowers. Then, just when, stammering, I start pulling them back, he corrects himself: “I mean wife.”

English is so difficult. Either that, or it’s that Finnish sense of humour again.

Heini Ilari and Matthew

Ilari Kaija and family

The Accidental Ambassador

poster at Wiljami theatre Rovaniemi      movie is starting

Even though the Suomi Conference of Canada sent me to Finland to experience Finnish culture, I’m realizing now that I’m here, that I’m representing Canadian Finns to the homeland. Which is ironic. Who needs an ambassador who can’t even speak the language?

But the pleasure – and the privilege – is that I’m meeting relatives of Finns in Canada, who come to see my documentaries just because I’m a living connection to their family. “We are cousins to Heiki and drove 100 km to see you,” says one man, in carefully-practiced English. I hope that he will get something from the (not-Finnish-language) films. There are Finns who spent a winter, or two years, or a few weeks, in Vancouver or Toronto, who have come because I represent that land they left behind. Or Finns who might be coming to Canada for a term or a job, because they want a sense of the place.

First there are local singers who perform. Then my documentaries. After seeing the movie, the people shake their heads: “it’s not easy being an emigrant,” they say, “being caught between here and there.” Then, through translation, some of them talk about being caught between Helsinki and Lapland, or about their grown children traveling to the United States or to South America – and how they’re afraid that they will meet someone and settle down there, away from parents and home. A few in the audience know someone in the film. One woman cries, quietly.

When they hear that the Suomi choir in the film is coming back to Finland, I hear murmurs: “they’re coming here to the north I hope!” I answer “We’d love to!”, even though I then have to add that I know nothing about the choir’s schedule and have zero power to change it.

Then, the lights lift, and people move to their coats and after a few more “kiitos’s” they are gone. I collect my things. Sari – who has been such a wonderful host throughout – will drop me back to my apartment. She knows I haven’t eaten since breakfast. “Are you hungry?” she asks. I still haven’t figured out the eating patterns here, which seem to include lots of food in the late evening after sauna, and sausages outside following every snow activity. But neither of those is the situation today. I think perhaps this will be the occasion for more Lappish cuisine. “Sure,” I answer. “Great,” she says, leading the way out the door: “I was thinking Chinese”.

singers at presentation