I’m in Finland for two weeks, from May 31 to June 13.
And it’s not my first time in this Arctic country, located around the top of the world from northern Canada: when I was young I lived there and learned the language, which I talked about in an earlier “date.”
But here’s what I have learned so far during this trip — which I didn’t really expect to learn:
After years working as a broadcaster and journalist, I finally understand something I’ve been told, retold and then retold to others — that if you are writing a story about an issue, make it a story about people.
How do I finally really understand why this is so important?
Well, my reading skills in Finnish are at about a Grade Six level, so suddenly I’m in the situation of a person with low literacy.
But when I’m in Finland, I still try to practice reading.
Here’s the kind of stories I read at first:
• a 22-year-old Finnish man is killed in Goa, India under mysterious circumstances;
• a couple’s premature baby struggles to survive;
• a woman who is overweight becomes a chaplain and then discovers she’s gay;
• Finnish celebrities, whose names mean nothing to me, talk about their divorces, affairs, tattoos, etc.; and,
• people who own and renovate a typical Finnish “mökki” or cottage show what they did.
Why do I read these? Because people-oriented stories are easier to read and far more interesting than others.
As my reading skills improve, I start to read stories about politics (Russia’s close presence makes Finns very nervous) and climate change (a journalist from the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper goes to California, where he finds a Finnish woman who talks about the state’s water crisis.)
In the Nunatsiaq News, people stories also prove to be more popular — for readers, whose first language is often not English.
But we also have to encourage people to improve their reading skills, like me, so they’ll dare to read a story about something else, such as climate change, or even international politics.
Here’s what else I learn:
My brain keeps a lot of Finnish somewhere on its back-burner — but using the language and immersing myself in it is the key to bringing this out.
When I get on the airplane to go to Helsinki, I hear people speaking Finnish and the language sounds so strange, like Klingon almost… and yet, somehow, I understand it. But can I speak it after a year?
I don’t even ask the flight attendants for drinks in Finnish.
On Day One, I wish I’d brought a Finnish-English dictionary along as I stumble over the simplest explanations; by Day Two, I am able to baby-talk Finnish.
Someone asks me for directions on Day Three and I can answer. although I don’t know where they should go.
By Day Four I stay up with friends, until the sun is almost at the horizon (and ready to rise again.) I’m talking and making jokes in Finnish, with half-remembered verbs somehow appearing again — verbs like cut down, suggest, disappear or suffer.
I also relearn, among many other words, the following: dandelion, rainbow, otter, design, crow, insurance, wheelbarrow and pine cone.
On Day Five I still look for right endings when faced with saying things like “in the house of my friend’s brother” — ystäväni veljen talossa. Television, where everyone speaks fast, starts to make more sense, and I start to read magazine and newspapers more easily.
I talk to myself in Finnish sometimes and random words pop into my brain. Finnish now longer feels strange but more like the rushing water of a brook that I usually think about when I’m listening to Finnish or speaking it.
I wish I had more than two weeks here — what would that do for my language skills? I wish I had that same fluency in Inuktitut, which I’ve spent more than 20 years trying to learn. And I wish there were easy-to-read celebrity magazines in Inuktitut and more things that I would want to read — in Roman orthography.
My best find from a Finnish magazine: a recipe for a cucumber-lime-mint drink.
Here’s how to make it:
Cut up four limes into circles and mash them in a bowl.
Add a bunch of fresh mint and continue to mash it up.
Press out the juice through a sieve. Put the juice in with a chopped up cucumber (English) into a blender.
The result is very green.