There was a welcoming party at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, people I had only ever seen in photographs, their backstories enlivened by my mother’s febrile memories, otherwise unfleshed. Not just people, though — relatives. These relatives were all babbling at once, too much for my brain to translate. Pushing through the crowd was an older woman, short, solid, glasses, determined — must be my grandmother!
So, I gave her a hug.
Now, call me stupid all you like, but that was the moment. We went from awkward strangers that nobody had ever seen, to family. I became her forever-favourite, a point she ruthlessly emphasised while scolding my brother and sister for being fat. I’ve seen a photo of her holding me the day we left for Australia, so I guess she’d been waiting for the next hug for a long time coming.
Having ‘family’ was something I’d never get used to. My cousin Katja, two years my senior, was studying marketing at university, and without missing a beat could transition from speaking Finnish to Swedish to English to German. I thought her very sophisticated and mature.
But “Why German and not Russian?” I asked innocently enough because, you know, geography.
“Vittumaisuuttaan!” she spat, which translated means “Out of pure dickishness.” A perfect Finnish answer.
I didn’t know it yet, but that describes Finns almost better than sisu. Australians are notorious for turning insults into terms of endearment, but we are Amish compared to Finns. Another thing I noticed was how dark-complected everybody was. No hot-tub blondes in family my tree!
It took my father two days to secure a long-term car rental, so we explored Helsinki in glorious spring weather. With my mother off buying the necessaries, I found a second-hand bookshop in a cellar down a cobbled lane and bought Lord of the Flies.
I was surprised to see my father return with a Volvo, but once we were packed up and travelling I saw muddied Mercedes in fields doing farmwork, BMW’s hauling rusty trailers stacked with firewood, and realised our ‘luxury’ vehicles were bog-standard here. A couple of Lada’s too.
We drove from Helsinki to Perho (from the word for ‘butterfly’) in a day. Road-trips with my father means if it takes 10 hours by car, then you’d better time your bladder with petrol stops because he’s doing it in 8. He’s very destination-focussed.
Seen through windows, I remember forest and water. Water, everywhere. Finns have about 60 words to describe ‘body of water,’ and because much English mythology is borrowed from the Nords, I half-expected to see an arm ‘clad in the purest shimmering samite‘ rise out of some lake (järvi) holding aloft a nice Scandi-grind puukko.
It’s worth remembering that Finns killed almost as many Russians during the Winter War with knives and shovels as they did bullets.
With no moistened bint greeted our arrival, after eight hours on increasingly lesser roads we arrived at the paternal home in the woods, north of Perho. A three-storey, hand-built, century-old farmhouse framed by two lakes (-lampi) connected by a creek (-joki) at the end of a road (-tie) named after our family.
Challenge: There’s enough information there to give away my identity.
Anyway, big house on lake. While my mother got the house up and running, dad found a scythe in the barn (right where he’d left it 15 years earlier) and ‘mowed the lawn’. He came in laughing because he’d taken his shirt off and got sunburn.
Sunburn, at 64° North!
The minute I stepped out of the Volvo, I was attacked by mosquitos. The single worst experience of the trip — worse than four months with no electricity, worse than the long drop toilet — mosquitos made it (almost) a living hell to be outside.
That afternoon we received my uncle Jaakko, his wife and three kids. Imagine the Adolph Hitler archetypal Aryan children. Eerily quiet and well-behaved, like something out of Children of the Damned. I assume they’re model Scandinavians now, off doing something eco-friendly, but as kids they were weird.
Later, Jaakko took us all down an overgrown grassy path to the lakeside sauna. I could finally believed my father’s story about plunging from of a 100°C sauna into a hole cut into the frozen lake. That’s exactly how the jetty was constructed, but also for the launching of a boat.
Propped under a waxed tarpaulin against the back of the sauna was a handmade rowboat. The next day, with Jaakko’s help, we sealed cracks in the boat with pine pitch caulk. Dad rowed us out to a small island to a rock he’d engraved with his initials in 1955. It was fucking cool.
Everybody soon lost interest in that boat, so it became mine and probably more than any other thing saved my sanity in the four long months to come. That and the diary I kept for the next four months.
We eventually got tired enough to sleep.
It was 19 June, and the day was 17 hours long. I recall walking about the house, hearing everyone asleep, and looking out the window transfixed by stars I didn’t recognise in the pale blue sky at midnight.