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June 21, 2008

Midsummer Eve and Suomi

-Helsinki Airport, August 1980, Me and Johanna before my return to Canada

Their cottage in the country

Finland will celebrate the longest day of the year and its Midsummer Eve weekend this weekend. Midsummer Eve is celebrated on the Saturday that falls between 20th June and 26th June marking the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

On June 13, 1980 I went to Finland as part of an exchange program called Youth on the Go. I'd read about it in the Vancouver Sun and applied. I didn't know anything about Finland. That was the appeal. I'd never been on an airplane. I recall waving a slightly fearful goodbye to my parents at a much smaller YVR and hopped on an Air Canada jet that landed in every major city in Canada. I finally disembarked at Mirabel Airport in Montreal and waited to board a Finnair jet.The time? 6pm. I'd been travelling since 8 am and I hadn't even left the country. Who booked that?

Having led an extremely sheltered existence, I'd never travelled anywhere alone before. I recall being met at the Helsinki Airport by Johanna and her dad, Veikko. We'd be spending the next two months together. They were holding up a sign with my name on it. It was an awkward meeting with lots of silences, smiles and hand gestures and then it was out to their first car, a Toyota Corolla, for the hour or so long trip to their small apartment in Lahti, famous for its ski-jumping.

When I arrived two things stood out for me. They couldn't really speak English and this was going to be more challenging than I'd anticipated. Their apartment was so small. Upon arrival, I was introduced to Issa(pronounced eesa) and the word for mother. I remember that word Issa because Johanna used it a lot. She also gave up her bed for me that entire summer and slept on the floor of her tiny room beside me. That strikes me as amazingly nice of her now.

Upon arrival, her mother had prepared a special Finnish dish. By this time, I was barely able to focus my eyes having been awake for what seemed like 3 days. But, I recall that it was something like liver in milk with boiled potatoes and herring. I'm sure it was very special. I could barely look at it, let alone eat it I was so tired.

After a quick dinner there was no time to rest. It was time to head out to the cottage in the country. Finns are famous for their country cottage escapes. We piled into the car, I recall Johanna and I in the back seat with the pet budgies. With the tiny car loaded down, the budgies in their cage on her lap twittering happily, we set off.

The cottage was another hour or so away from Lahti and when we arrived, I went to bed almost immediately. It was right around the time of Midsummer Eve, a time when the sun never sets. Therefore, I didn't realize when I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the outhouse that they hadn't all abandoned me. It was light out but they were nowhere to be found. It was probably about 2 am and the light outside confused me. It had been a very long day nearing the longest day, literally. So, I just returned silently back to my little bedroom in the cottage and wondered a little anxiously why I'd thought this trip might be a good idea in the first place.

Mostly I remember the quiet and standing in my clean, new pyjamas looking out across the field. Their cottage was on a large piece of secluded property. There was a big barn with a sauna attached to one side of it. We spent many hours in that sauna.
It's where Johanna really learned to speak English actually. It's where I also experienced the supreme delight of an authentic Finnish sauna including the customary self-flaggelation using birch leaves. We'd slap ourselves with vastaa and an earthy yet astringent aroma would arise from that activity would mix with the the seething sound of a cloud of steam rising off the hot rocks when she'd pour water on top of them. Imagine being wrapped in warm birch leaves after a rain.

We spent hours aiming at the dart board on the side of the barn. If we wanted ice cream we'd run to the nearest little corner shop about a mile away because her mom and dad in comparison to mine, were young, barely 40, and they were fit.

We helped a nearby farmer put his hay into bales the old fashioned way - with pitchforks. Then, at lunch we sat down to a feast of roast beef served inside the farmhouse at a long table in which wives and daughters served in two shifts the workers and other locals who had helped out. It was so hard. My arms ached. I slept later as if I'd travelled to the bottom of my dreams and back again.

We ate delicious sausages that had been cooked over the outdoor fire, listened to Voice of America on a transistor radio at lunch on cloudy days, played cards, ate Pirrikka (Finnish pastries) made by her grandmother and tried to communicate.

There were no cell phones. No Ipods. No laptops. No personal computers. There was no Internet. There was no Skype or Youtube or E-mail.

In hindsight I marvel at Johanna's parents' willingness to host me. Her mother could not speak English at all. For the entire summer she smiled and was gracious and waited impatiently for interpretation and cooked for an extra Canadian daughter. She had a beautiful smile and gorgeous brown eyes. That's what I remember most about her.

Johanna's English speaking skills improved immensely. Veikko's did too. She went on to become a flight attendant for Finnair and speak 6 languages.

I acquired only the most basic of basic Finnish words: Greetings. (Hyvaa Huomenta or Good Morning pronounced Hoova Huomenta). Numbers. Food. Slang. Please.(Olka Hyva) Thank you or Kiitos pronounced Keytose.

One phrase that has never left me is what her father used to say quite often to her mother, especially in the car as we were driving to and/or from the cottage.

"A la huppeta," he would say sharply looking at his wife and sometimes staring at us through the rear view mirror. I'm not sure how it's spelled but apparently it translates into something along the lines of: "Why must you talk about nothing?"

That summer I learned that it doesn't really matter where you live, families have their similarities the world over.

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