Nudity, Shame, and The Donald: A Comparison of Finnish and American Culture & Politics

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A loaded title like that deserves a bit of an introduction. I moved to Finland in August of 2016 from the United States where I was previously working as a public school teacher in the state of Ohio. I’ve been enrolled in Helsinki University since August and I began working in Finland this January as a barista. During my undergraduate studies in the United States, I also did an exchange in Finland in 2012 for one semester; that 2012 experience, plus a wonderful Finnish man, brought me back to Finland for a longer stay in 2016.

So, what does nudity and shame have to do with Donald Trump and Finnish politics? Well, I originally set out to embark on the journey of answering the perpetually perturbing question that I receive steadily from Finns at the cafe: “Why, why, why did Americans vote Donald Trump into power?” Being from Ohio, a swing state in which I knew a lot of Trump supporters, I went to Facebook to pose this question myself, because I was just as stumped as the Finns who asked me.

The interesting thing about the Facebook post was that it wasn’t very interesting. The people who answered my question gave the answers that most of us have already heard: Hillary Clinton was a classic, corrupt politician with little interest in national security and cracking down on immigration, while Donald Trump was a successful businessman who offered security, prosperity, and success. Thus, the vicious cycle continued and my feeble attempt at research failed.

My failures brought me to the public swimming hall on Yrjönkatu. At this particular place, swimwear is optional, and if you choose to use the hall’s sauna after your swim, swimwear is actually banned. Yes, my fellow Americans, I have attended the sauna nude, with strangers, many, many times now. So, as I sweated my way through my Wednesday sauna session I inadvertently stumbled upon the things I wanted to talk about: nudity, shame, and politics.

I couldn’t think of anything to say about Donald Trump’s election that hasn’t already been said  before by much wiser, more qualified writers and critics. What I do know about is how my own politics have changed and grown since moving to Finland and how those changes are directly correlated to how both cultures handle nudity and shame.

For example: Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall. I mentioned earlier that swimwear is optional. If you ever go there you will see women of all shapes, ages, and sizes swimming nude. Your definition of breast stroke will probably change, and back stroke will certainly never be the same. On an important side note for my American readers, there are men and women’s days; nudity is almost always separated by gender. Although there are male lifeguards, which I admit is a bit odd.

However, the first couple times I went to Yrjönkatu I wore my bathing suit. Then the Wednesday came that I forgot it and so I did the whole thing nude: swimming, sauna, walking around. It was great. But it didn’t feel that way at first. My eyes were peeled wide open as I walked around in my birthday suit. I kept thinking someone was going to notice me, despite the fact that the whole  place was basically nude. I, self-centeredly, thought everyone would somehow sense my Americanness and point and stare and probably laugh.

Instead, what happened, and what continues to happen there, is that I run into the sweetest old ladies who are always willing to speak English with me, or help me with me Finnish. They tell me about their adventures and why they love that swimming hall after all these years. Even though I’m naked, they talk to me for me; I genuinely feel welcome at that hall.

The way that Finns handle nudity is reflected in the welfare state style of government. It doesn’t matter how old and wrinkly you are, or how diseased and troubled—you will be taken care of. Is the system perfect? Of course not. But what I find admirable about the Nordic welfare state is that people are always, always people. And I believe consistent nude interaction with your fellow countrymen and women wakes you up to this concept. When it is normal and natural to see a person naked, flaws exposed, acceptance more easily enters the mind.

In contrast, nudity is completely taboo in the United States. Well, sort of. It’s completely acceptable for a young, attractive woman to wear a string biking which basically covers her nipples and butt crack, but if anyone else would wear such a bathing suit, it is immediately revolting and disgusting. Americans specifically struggle with the female nipple and I’d wager that just reading the phrase “female nipple” makes Americans uncomfortable.

This attitude plays out in our governments. Where the  Finns see a person as person, flaws and all, Americans tend to see the flaws first and make a judgement based on those flaws. “Are you on drugs?” You don’t deserve welfare. “Do you work?” Because if you don’t you don’t deserve welfare. “How many jobs have you looked for?” “How much have you sacrificed?” The questions we ask to determine a person’s worthiness go on and on.

This constant search for fault that is something I rarely see in Finland. When I talk to Finns about the welfare state, every single one I’ve ever met has admitted that there are those who take advantage of the system. This knowledge has never led any of  them to say to me: “We need to cut welfare” or “those people don’t deserve help.” The talk usually revolves around incentive and job creation. “How can we get more jobs in Finland?” and “How can we encourage people to work and avoid getting comfortable living off of welfare?” The questions are totally different.

This is where shame comes into play. From what I’ve noticed in my short time here, Finns feel a huge sense of shame when they aren’t working. If they’re studying, that’s a different story, but many Finns I know at the university have part time jobs and attend university as well. I would argue that this sense of shame also exists in America. I have not met a single welfare recipient in the US who is proud to take welfare. The difference in shame between cultures lies in the type of job.

For example, I was a teacher in the US, and now I work as a barista in Finland. The only time I ever feel a sense of shame about being a barista is when I tell other Americans. There’s usually a slight frown. “A barista? Why couldn’t you find a teaching job?” I make a livable wage as a barista here in Finland. I turned down a teaching offer because I didn’t feel comfortable in that particular school. My Finnish friends couldn’t have been happier for me when I told them I got a cafe job. I’m not quite sure why Americans job shame so much, but it’s a real problem in the US.

This attitude of job shaming even seeps into American schools. As a high school teacher, I noticed every year that students would stray from technical school or trade jobs, thinking those jobs were somehow lesser. I would argue that the vast majority of my students felt a massive pressure to go straight to college from high school and to know exactly what they wanted to major in as soon as they entered university. Remember, Americans pay thousands and thousands of dollars for university so there isn’t much time to think about what you really want to do.

Conversely, it is completely normal for Finnish high school students to wait a year or two before entering university, which is free of charge. However, once students graduate, they are expected to enter the workforce immediately so that they can contribute back to the system that just afforded them so many opportunities.

So, we covered two major cultural differences: nudity, and job shaming, which leads to the mother of all cultural differences: small talk.  The stereotype is that Finns don’t “do” small talk, which is a favorite American past time. Finns are known for being notoriously straight faced, shy, and quiet, whereas the Americans are known for being loud, talkative, and hyperbolic. I think both nations could learn valuable lessons from each other here.

Take for instance, the simple, but important question “How are you?”. To Americans, this is just a greeting. We don’t actually want to know about your day at the check-out line in the grocery store. For Finns however, this is not the case; they will sincerely answer your question.

For example, sometimes I slip into this American habit at work and ask Finns “how are you?” while I’m moving around, making their coffee, or giving them change. I’m sometimes greeted with startled expressions and “umm, ohh, I’m okay.” One guy in particular actually informed me he really didn’t like small talk and didn’t know how to answer my question. We ended up having a great conversation about cultural differences in greetings. So it wasn’t that he wasn’t friendly or talkative, he just didn’t see the point in the kind of useless banter that arises from the American “how are you?”

Like nudity and shame, this is yet another quality I see reflected in our cultures and governments. Donald’s rhetoric and the way he perpetually talks around issues and not about them, just seems like another version of small talk. Instead of getting straight to the issue, he creates small phrases that are catchy, but don’t really mean anything, and the greater meaning of the issue is lost, just like in the case of “how are you?”

However, the midwesterner in me misses talking to neighbors and petting any dog that walks by on the street. Here in Helsinki I have smiled at people on trams, and said hello to dogs on the street and I receive looks that say “Are you crazy or a murderer or both?”

What it boils down to, in my eyes, is that the Finns see Donald naked, just as the person and conman that he is. His drive to acquire and acquire and acquire-money, votes, fame-this is what Finns find shameful about Donald Trump. When Finns set out to establish free and equal school systems, they created a government in which free and equal school systems actually happened. When you step into school systems across the entire country of Finland, you will find the same basic supplies and buildings. Their government did not use small talk to make empty promises.

The final point I want to make is about this notion that Finland, and all of Scandinavia, is able to have a welfare state government because they are small and homogenous countries. Finland has had a bloody and difficult history. They gained independence from Russia only in 1917, and maintained their independence even after battles in WWII. Finland left the wars extremely poor, but autonomous. They made a conscious decision as a nation to invest in education and welfare for all; none of that discussion was small talk among Finns. Each Finnish citizen sacrificed and continues to sacrifice a large portion of their salary to contribute to this welfare system. Paying taxes is not the epitome of evil in Finland.

That is a concept and decision that hasn’t been considered in America. As long as Americans believe a country is a business, money will continue to be placed above people. And as long as welfare states continue to see people for people, then humans will be more important than money.

My hopes for the future are romantic. I wish that America would stop shouting from the rooftops “We are the greatest country in the world!” and learn from other countries that have things figured out a little better than we do at home. And I wish Finns would be more vocal about their culture, and the things that work so well for them.

Is Finland perfect? Absolutely not. Battles are fought everyday in the wintertime in Helsinki about who will walk on the part of the sidewalk that has been shoveled and who will walk in the snowy sludge. I have lost every one of these battles. So, how do I combine the best qualities from both my beloved homes? I can’t be sure, but sauna usually solves all my problems. Maybe President Donald Trump and President Sauli Niinistö can sweat it out traditional Finnish style, in the nude, with some birch branches in case a certain someone needs an extra wack when they get carried away with nonsensical small talk.

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Least Worst Podcast Ever

The WEE Studios Logo (No, they are not underwater)

 

The WEE Studios Logo (No, they are not underwater)

The WEE Studios Logo (No, they are not underwater)

Long time readers will know that I’ve written about podcasts before on a couple of occasions (and even attempted to host my own podcast for a little while, which, unfortunately, fell by the wayside), but today I want to focus on one in particular that is a bit different from some of the other podcasts I’ve talked about. Actually, that might be putting it mildly…

Most of the other podcasts I’ve mentioned before, such as This American Life and Get Up On This, are juggernauts in the podcasting world. This particular podcast does happen to be based on a juggernaut, namely The Simpsons, but is more like an indie production than a blockbuster.

Worst Episode Ever is a podcast “for people who love The Simpsons, by people who love The Simpsons, about how much [the hosts] hate The Simpsons.” Don’t take that the wrong way though, both Dan Mulhall and Jack Picone, the hosts, are diehard fans of The Simpsons. You’ll routinely hear them quote obscure jokes off the top of their head and Dan Mulhall himself even hosts a Simpsons trivia night at a bar in New York. The idea behind the podcast is to watch a “post-classic” episode (usually meaning something beyond season 8 or so) and then have an in-depth discussion about it before running it through their HIPPO grading system to place it in their list, the list being the ultimate goal of the podcast: to find the worst episode of The Simpsons ever.

So, I’m a diehard Simpsons fan too. Who knows how many times I’ve watched (and will continue to watch) episodes from season 2 to 8, and my friends have definitely heard me on a couple of occasions say “oh, this is like that moment in The Simpsons where…” However, before this podcast, I hadn’t watched the show in years, because, quite frankly, it’s a shell of its former self. I don’t think you can even compare the two anymore and I kind of hate the later seasons for being so bad, so, admittedly, there’s a bit of fun to be had hearing them tear into a particularly awful episode.

However, Worst Episode Ever, contrary to its name, isn’t actually a podcast of negativity. The hosts, along with any guests they might have that week, go into each episode trying to give it the benefit of the doubt. Better yet, their criticism isn’t limited to just saying something sucked. They actually try to understand why they disliked something, going to great lengths at times to discuss issues. Sometimes, they’ll posit a theory in one episode and then expand upon it in consecutive episodes. Jack Picone is himself a screenwriter, so he also tends to understand the inner mechanisms at work.

So far, so good, right? Well, it gets even better (though it might depend on who you ask…). Worst Episode Ever is ostensibly a podcast about The Simpsons, but it’s also a podcast filled with random characters and tangents that the hosts follow at their whim. A simple slip of the tongue with mispronouncing a word might lead to the creation of a cult-favorite character who appears throughout the rest of the show, examples include Groophic, Hemus, and Freet (more on them soon). Occasionally, Dan and Jack will even tell stories about their own childhoods or personal lives that are sometimes related to the episode they’re discussing and sometimes not so much… But they’re always hilarious.

The hosts, Jack Picone (left) and Dan Mulhall (right)

The hosts, Jack Picone (left) and Dan Mulhall (right)

This leads into one of the best things I can say about this podcast: Dan and Jack are relatable. They were just a couple of dudes living in New York who decided to create a podcast about The Simpsons and they’ve never lost that sense of being humble. They’re easy to reach on Twitter or Reddit, if you want to say something to them, and they’re also genuinely fond of  their fans.

If you’re interested in checking them out, and I highly recommend you do, you can find their podcast through any regular podcasting app as well as through weepodcast.com. They’ve also recently started a Patreon page so you can help support them with a monthly donation. Finally, if you have no interest in the Simpsons (and have still made it this far), they also have a 90s themed podcast called 90s Percentile that’s had a lot of great guests on it, including Laura Jane Grace, a previous subject in one of my own articles.

Jack and Dan just recently released their 100th episode of Worst Episode Ever (congrats, guys!) and a lot has happened during those 100 episodes: episodes have been ranked; theories have been made; trends have been observed; and characters have been created. As a starter’s guide for all of you, I’ve created a brief glossary of some of the more important terms you’ll need if you decide to hop in from where they are now (though I suggest going back and listening from the start).

Worst Episode Ever Glossary for Newbies

  • Groophic: Originated from a mispronunciation of “graphic,” Groophic started off as a Muzzy-like creature lecturing kids on remembering to wear their bike helmets before transitioning into a conspiracy-theory believing creature who still occasionally lectures kids on remembering to wear their bike helmets.
  • Hemus: A hillbilly prospector who started life by ending every sentence with “It’s me, Hemus!” Sadly, he doesn’t do that as much anymore… But is a cult favorite nevertheless.
  • Freet: The introduction of Freet was something that Jack was definitely not amused by and it also gave-way to their new rule of each character needing to have three characteristics in order to be a fully-fleshed out character. Here are Freet’s: he likes to collect stamps; he’s never been in love, but he’s putting himself out there; and he enjoys cryptograms.
  • Lala: A term for lawyers that only lawyers are allowed to use. Dan himself is a lawyer, but Jack uses the term sometimes, much to Dan’s chagrin.
  • Little Ghost Girl: A little ghost girl who was eaten by Groophic and sounds like Werner Herzog.
  • The Bus Stop: Where all of their characters hang out. As they wait for the bus to get home, they’ll occasionally pop in and join the podcast for a bit. The bus never seems to arrive so that stop is pretty crowded by now.
  • HIPPO: The official ranking system. It has four categories, which are humor, integrity, production, and originality. Each gets a grade from 0 to 5 though humor and integrity are given more weight than production and originality. In the very early days of the podcast, the hosts used to simply add each episode to their list based on their gut feeling, but about 15 episodes in, they started using this system.

Wanderlust Au Naturel

Elina Wanderlust Cover

 

We’re all familiar with the stereotype of a young girl who goes travelling alone, oftentimes in Asia, and reports back home with Instagram photos of majestic mountaintops and awe-inspiring waterfalls. The captions include inspirational quotes and ooze strong, universal love for everything and everyone. The phenomenon of exceptional desire to explore is known by the term wanderlust, and this trend of discovering faraway lands and curious cultures has been strikingly visible in the western world for years. Sure, the urge to unearth what is new is a natural part of being human – the fact that in recent decades we have grown to know this trend of travelling is not telling us anything fresh about us people per se. We have wanted to see and conquer since ancient times, I daresay – but moving on from all the clichés, in this article, I am going to explore wanderlust itself.

Photo by Elina Virva

Photo by Elina Virva

The biggest and most straightforward reason as to why travelling has become more and more popular during the age of airplanes, and beyond, is simply economic growth. The development from such small salaries that they only cover every-day necessities to plumper wallets and affordable plane tickets may have had its ups and downs along the way of hundreds of years. However, spending on amusement has been self-evident for decades now, mostly in the western  countries, to be exact.

Thus, we can easily argue that travelling has become mundane years ago, partly because of monetary reasons. Contrarily, backpacking in foreign forests and admiring our earth from thousands of metres above is not every-day life for each young high school graduate, who form the majority of wanderlust campaigners. Take me, for example. I grew up in a small town, or to tell the truth, some country roads’ worth outside of a very small town. My quotidian view was a tall pine forest, a couple of birds flying about the backyard, and a silent lake. It took a car ride to even step out of the land owned by my family and relatives. I lived there for some 15 years, and the same year I graduated from the local high school, I was off to southern Europe, alone. Having spent a year volunteering and travelling around France and a little bit of Italy, having met and said goodbye to people from all around the world, having sensed something very different from the pine of the past, I now claim to understand wanderlust.

Photo by Elina Virva

Photo by Elina Virva

Discovering doesn’t always have to be cheesy and Instagram-captioned, it can also be silent and slow. Leaving family and Finland was hardly an easy step to take for the 19-year-old small town girl that I was, and during the first six months I didn’t encounter many #nofilter worth moments. It was mostly feeling helpless, homesick, lonely and tired from the constant combat with French and the French. I had a hard time learning how to do la bise and master the lengthy politeness poetry that was needed to act natural amongst the natives. It shocked a Northern newbie how every shop closed their doors at 7 pm, well before what would still be wonted working time in Scandinavia, the empire of efficiency. I struggled with being forced to take two hours for la sieste at lunch and then working late, while my inner self of the thousand lakes was crying for a faster pace.

This is a part of exploring a new culture that doesn’t always get exactly highlighted, but it still is a crucial part of the process. It is impossible to understand a different culture without trying to get accustomed to it, making mistakes and learning from them, and eventually, reaching that point where you feel comfortable within your brand-new home. For me, the process of fitting in peaked at around 7 months of living on French soil, and when it was the time to leave again, I had become so much of a stranger to my Nordic roots that I had to adjust again. When I, the grand, grown globetrotter, dragged my overweight valise again across the humble Helsinki-Vantaa airport, my family made sure to comment on my eccentric intonation and use of unnatural idioms in Finnish. Meanwhile, I had to gather all my strength to remember how Finns greet each other and, on my way back to life pre-wanders, to bury the idea of dropping by a boulangerie to purchase some Sunday croissants. Only after having been back in Finland for some three months, I felt at home again.

My French discoveries may not have always been Instagram worthy, but the sense of wanderlust I had been secretly growing inside of me for all my teenage years finally got satisfied.  I have come to learn to adjust; I have seen whole new types of trees, houses, manners, work ethics, coffee makers and dinner times; I have conquered a curious culture by adapting to it and learning from it – just for me. I travelled alone, and even though I made unforgettable friends along the way, it was still I who took the steps forward, who waited for the bus that was four hours late to go on a holiday on the coast by myself, who learnt which wine to order with a goat cheese salad in a Bordeaux restaurant, who found a way to an unseen place, who looked at it, and who remembered how to get back.

Photo by Elina Virva

Photo by Elina Virva

Above all: the grass still smelled the same, the sky still looked the familiar shade of blue, the every-day life still felt as ordinary as ever. Only the details were switched around just a little, so that I had to either adjust them or myself. I commenced what became the most difficult journey that I have ever taken, but it also taught me the most about life that I could have ever learnt in one year. And now, I’m happy at home, though as a little changed version of myself.

So, as certainly as is wanderlust a fundamental part of human nature, it doesn’t always equal what you see nowadays on glorious photos in social media. It takes a lot of effort to really explore, and most often than not, you will actually end up exploring yourself instead of a park, a city, or a mountain. One thing’s for sure: if you ever meet this magical motivation to go and see, the one that is known as wanderlust, you should listen to it. Instead of a foreign land, you might learn to conquer yourself. Now, if that is not a healthy hunger – wanting to grow as a person through learning to understand what is different – then what is?

I Left It In Myles Bay

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The snow fell in heavy lumps that really couldn’t be described as flakes. Nothing about them was flaky; they stuck to the ground and onto the windshield even though Diego had the windshield wipers working like the heart of a hummingbird. The inconvenient white powder continued to slam against the glass only to be wiped away, revealing a glimpse of the road ahead.

“You had to pick this day, of all the days in the world, to have a mental breakdown,” Diego grumbled and fiddled with the radio, trying to catch a decent station. “If you weren’t my favorite cousin I’d be at home, watching Netflix right now,” he declared.

“At least there’s no traffic,” I said, offering what little positive input I could.

“Joanna,” Diego said and turned to look at me with sincere wide brown eyes, “That’s because no one in this whole wide universe is dumb enough to drive in this weather.”

“I’m sorry,” I said and put my gloves on. The car was warm enough but my fingers still felt like icicles from running into a gas station and buying the huge map that was folded out on my lap.

I had to give Diego some credit; he had only started to complain after a full two hours of driving in silence. He was the kind of person you called up in the middle of the night and asked to get in a car and drive to an undisclosed location with no questions asked. He was also the kind of person who insisted on red Twizzlers for road trips, which is why we had to stop by a 24/7 Seven Eleven before we could head for the highway.

“Hey, didn’t you guys use to rent that summer cottage?” Diego asked.

“Yeah,” I answered.

Diego sighed audibly and danced his fingers over the steering wheel. “Joanna, Joanna, don’t tell me we’ve driven all this way for you to tell me we’re going to be doing some breaking and entering.”

“I know the code for the key,” I said and shrugged my shoulders, “It’s not a crime if you have a key.”

“Yeah, remind me to never hire you as my lawyer,” Diego remarked and went back to staring at the road, glaring at the snow as if he could melt it away with his stare.

“I need to go there,” I said, my voice quiet, almost washed out by the sound of the radio. “You don’t understand, but I need to.”

“Trust me, I don’t understand why you need to go to some shabby cottage in the middle of nowhere, but I do understand that you need to go there.”

Foggy roadI guess I felt thankful. He didn’t need to know why, and he didn’t ask. I wanted to tell, but I was afraid that it would ruin the trip and it wasn’t a very good trip to begin with. But I had managed to push It away, just for a while. And I needed It to stay away. I was so scared of It coming back. I’d kept It away by thinking of happy times and happy moments. Each one gave me only so much time. It ate away at my joyous memories and eventually burned through them like fuel. But I knew. There was one place, with memories too good, a place where every room rang with laughter and held the warmth of sun rays in the floor, a place where I had always been happy. It had always stayed away, never daring to enter this place, secluded by tall pine woods and water. I was out of fuel. I had no other choice but to go. So I packed a bag at five AM and called Diego. Then it was the concerned looks and awkward explanations.

“I need to go to Myles Bay,” I’d said.

“Yeah and I need a week in Cuba,” Diego had laughed, standing in my driveway on Markham St. his dark curly hair flailing in the wind. “What else is new.”

“I need to go,” I had insisted and looked back at the house, noticing my parent’s bedroom light switch on. “I need to go now and you can’t ask why.”

He’d given me this look, this look I’d seen on his face many times before ever since we were little kids. When I’d had tantrums in Walmart, embarrassing his mom who swore it was the last time she’d babysit me niece or no niece. When I’d spent my entire sixteenth birthday locked in my room. When I yelled and cursed at my parents, which was unheard of in this family. And when I’d come back from our trips from cottage country, he saw It settle in, and the look was there to tell me so.

“We are at Owen Sound,” Diego announced, snapping me out of my thoughts. “Are you sure we can’t stick around here for a while, it’s the first decent station I’ve found in ages,” he laughed triumphantly. And indeed the radio didn’t screech and rattle with bad connection, but played clearly, filling the car with a beat and melody.

I looked at my map, ignoring the music. “Thirty more minutes or so if we don’t stop,” I tried a smile, “Next pit stop is Wiarton, they have that huge statue of a mouse I’ve been telling you about.”

“Ah, the infamous Wiarton mouse statue,” Diego rejoiced, “Seeing that damn thing better make up for this trip, cuz.”

“It’s pretty glorious,” I said and smiled.

“Full speed ahead,” Diego declared and indeed did go above the speed limit. The drive to Wiarton passed in a blur. Diego was happy and excited about the music and seeing the mouse statue and I didn’t let myself think. When we finally drove passed the Wiarton mouse named Willie, Diego slowed down and gawked in awe. The thing was completely covered in snow; it looked like Santa Clause with a heavy beard of white. “How can you even tell it’s a mouse?” He exclaimed. “This, this is outrageous, Joanna.”

I gave him an apologetic look, tracing the roads on the map. “You gotta remember we’re on six not on ten anymore.”

“Wha- What does that have to do with the mouse?”

I furrowed my brow. “N-nothing?”

“That’s it. I see a Timmy’s ahead. We’re stopping for coffee. Who knows when the next opportunity will come along.”

“I don’t drink coffee,” I protested as he steered the car into the abundantly empty parking lot. “No drive through…We’ll wish me luck. I’m going out there.”

I waved him a meek goodbye and shuttered as the car door slammed closed. Diego was my oldest cousin. We had two others; Janine and Amber. They were twins. The lived with Uncle Harry and Aunt Connie in Brampton. We saw them for Christmas and birthdays and all the big holidays. Diego and I, however, had grown up in the same neighborhood a couple blocks apart. We’d gone to the same school and we’d played in the same soccer team. Both of us quit after a year. I’d known him all my life and he was more of an older brother than a cousin to me, but that was because my parents were very busy people and Diego’s mom, Christine, got stuck with me after school and on the weekends. I couldn’t remember a week that had gone by without us not seeing each other, except for those that I’d spent at Myles Bay with mom and dad. Four weeks out of the summer in complete isolation from the city, from Diego and Christine and from work and school and everything that messed things up. So I felt a bit guilty, for letting him come along this time. And I was scared that maybe the place would lose some of its magic having him there. But he had a car. And a driver’s licence. Two things I no longer possessed.

The door opened and let in freezing air. At least the sun had gone up while we made the drive. It made everything look so bright in a fresh coat of snow.

“I got you hot chocolate and a muffin,” Diego said and handed me a greasy paper bag. “And don’t tell me you’re not hungry because you haven’t eaten anything since we left.”

“Blueberry,” I noted. “My favorite.” I accepted the food and the warm hot chocolate because I saw no point in arguing, which was unusual for me. I had a tendency of always finding something to argue about. But Diego was very disarming with his concerned looks and his blueberry muffins and radio stations. So I settled with nibbling on my muffin as he continued to navigate us up a road that took us through fields and shaky looking buildings.

“You gotta make a right turn here,” I said.

“Into the woods,” Diego remarked. “Meryl Streep was great in that movie. Meryl Streep is great in everything.” He laughed to himself as we drove on a slippery sand road through a thick forest. I knew it wouldn’t be long now. Five minutes tops. I sat at the edge of my seat. Leaning in to see through the snow covered windshield. We broke out of the mess of pine trees and I saw the water. “Oh,” I gasped, “Look at that.”

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The lake thrashed with wild waves, the body of water too large to freeze even during the winter lows. The snow hurtled into the dark blue and sunk to join the waves. Behind it, in the horizon, a beach followed by the edge of yet another enormous patch of trees colored in various dark greens covered in snow dominated the view. Rows of summer cottages lined the other side of the road, I recognized every single one. I remembered walking up and down that road with dad, inviting people over for a barbeque. I’d never see him wear an apron anywhere else. Or flip-flops. Not even in the summer when the city sizzled and bubbled with heat.

“This place looks deserted,” Diego said and slowed down on the icy road.

“No it’s not. It’s so alive it’s almost scary,” I said and pointed towards a house with a wide terrace and a sloping roof, “That’s the one.”

Diego pulled over and I stumbled out of the car. The cold stuck to my skin as I scrambled for the door, carefully navigating the stairs. “Hold these,” I said and handed my gloves to Diego who was right behind me. I punched in the familiar code and opened the little vault, the key dropped onto my bare palm, the metal so cold it felt like hot needles. I tried the lock and it opened without any issues. Both of us hurried inside.

“The heat isn’t on,” Diego complained and quickly took in his surroundings. The whole place was very tacky, decorated with the most extravagantly horrendous furniture. For some reason the owner had decided on a rainforest theme for the living room. “I’ll go see if I can do something about that.”

I stood in the hallway. Looking at how the familiar tiles zigzagged on the floor. It was a little better. Not how it used to be. But that could have been because of Diego. Or maybe the snow. I hugged myself and pulled my jacket closer. “Something…” I mumbled and walked further into the house. “Why is this…” I opened the door to my bedroom. The bed was stripped and all the linens folded neatly in the closet. The wall was still as pink as it had ever been. But something, something was wrong, because I could still feel It. And It shouldn’t be here. Shouldn’t be able to come here. I became frantic, going through the rooms, the drawers, the kitchen cupboards. I could feel my pulse sky rocket and my face flush. I knew that wasn’t good. Knew it from experience. “Stop it,” I told myself, but my hands kept rummaging through the utensil drawer; I spilled forks and knives and spoons on the floor. They rattled like instruments on the tiling. “This is…this can’t be. It’s supposed to be good, so good…” I muttered and moved on into the living room. I stopped abruptly as I found myself staring at Diego, kneeling in front of the fireplace. He’d managed to get a fire going, effectively warming up the space.

“Check this out Joanna, I fixed it,” he exclaimed as he turned to look at me, his smile faltering as he noticed my current state.

“You didn’t fix anything,” I said, my voice strung high with panic. “There’s something wrong. There’s something wrong with this place. There’s something WRONG,” I couldn’t stop it. My plan had failed, the last scraps of power I’d clung onto were gone. It was over. It was here and I’d brought It here.

“Jesus, calm down,” Diego said. I waved him off and stormed out. I shed my jacket on the porch and enjoyed the numbing wind. I could hear him following me. “Wait, Jo!”

I kept walking until I reached the water. Dead plants and frozen soil made a barrier between me and a rickety dock. I slouched over the remains of weeds and stopped to wedge off my winter boots. “Oh shit,” I squealed as my feet hit the cold wet ground. But I didn’t care. Because I was going to drown It. Just like those snowflakes drowned, dissipating under the layers of dark and freezing waters.

“What are you doing?” Diego called. “Are you insane? Are you out of your goddamn mind? You’ll freeze to death, Joanna!”

I kept moving, keeping my steps quick. I glanced back and saw Diego hesitating on the road. He saw me look. “I’m not gonna come after you. I’m not gonna die of hypothermia because you’re having one of your freak attacks!”

I cringed. He wouldn’t?

He wouldn’t. That was good. I didn’t need to drag anyone else down with me. Let him go home and eat his Twizzlers and listen to the good station in Owen Sound as he drove down. I waded through the water, holding on to the slimy side of the dock so the waves wouldn’t wash me away. The water was up to my stomach. It was paralyzing cold. It was hard to keep moving so I stopped when it was up to my shoulders. My hands dropped under the surface and I found my entire body had gone numb. I couldn’t move if I wanted to. The dock was just a couple of steps back, but I couldn’t will my legs to move. I felt It. Stronger than I ever had. Clenching its fist around me, squeezing out my breath, holding me still even though the waves around me splashed and raged. It’s just a lake. It’s never been this angry. I’ve never been this angry.

“Joanna!” Diego called, he stood at the very end of the dock, peering at me. He was holding out a hand, but I couldn’t grab it, couldn’t move. “Grab my hand!”

“I can’t” I sobbed, not sure if the wetness on my face was due to the water or tears or the invasive snowfall. “I can’t. I can’t anymore. I can’t stop It.”

“Jo, Jo, please,” He begged and reached further. “Just get out of the water.”

“But it didn’t work,” I screamed.

“I know, I know. But we’ll fix it.”

“I can’t fix it! I’ve tried, but I can’t. It’s all over me and It won’t let go,” I breathed, my teeth rattling and my body violently shaking.

“Try just this one time, just one more time. You’ve been doing so good,” Diego coaxed, “You’ve been doing so much better…And mom’s not mad about the car anymore. I swear, she’s all giddy buying a new one. We can start having Sunday dinners again. Roast chicken and lime beans.”

“She’s not mad about the car?” I asked, sniffing.

“No, she’s not mad about the car. Just like she was never mad about Walmart or baking you a birthday cake you never ate. More frosting for the rest of us,” Diego argued, “Now, get out of the water.”

I stared at his hand sure I could reach it if I tried hard enough. The look in his eyes was pleading, convincing, bargaining.

I wondered for a second if grabbing his hand would be like reducing a hurricane into a gust of wind, tucking it neatly into a drawer in my bedroom, waiting for it to gain strength so one day it would burst out, wrecking everything in its path. I wondered if it would feel like crashing a car into a brick wall, pointless, splintering, and anticlimactic. And I wondered if it would cause more trouble than do good.

“Please.”

I Was Wrong About…Early Mornings

Photo by Inka Vappula

My friends and family know that early mornings and I have never been in cahoots. In some circles it’s even my unfortunate claim to fame: “Oh, you’re that Inka, the one who threw a punch at someone for trying to wake you up. Yeah, I’ve heard about you”. For the record, it’s been 10 years, it only happened once, and I missed. So put down the sticks people, that horse is mulch by now.

Photo by Inka Vappula

Photo by Inka Vappula

Grossly exaggerated stories aside, I truly have always hated early mornings. I don’t feel grumpy per se, although I have been told I look like I’m ready to murder, I’m just slow to start—like an old PC. I don’t think I’ve ever woken up naturally with the sunrise. And I’ve always had a strong distaste for those inspirational morning quotes: “the morning is full of possibilities” and all that crap.  The whole day is full of possibilities if you ask me. Silly morning-person propaganda, I thought.

University is a paradise for slow starters, such as myself. During my first semester, I made the mistake of enrolling in a linguistics course, which ran at 8:30 am on Fridays. Mostly I remember having a stiff neck all spring from sleeping sitting up. I rectified the situation by planning my schedule so that I never had to be up and about before noon. Ah, bliss!

However, during the past year, my optimal, late-riser schedule went topsy-turvy. I began a teacher-training program, which meant that most weekdays I had to either be attending classes or teaching them by 8 o’clock. It was my Everest.

In the beginning it was a twisted form of torture, I’m not going to lie. Even with a dangerously high coffee dosage, I felt—and probably looked like—the living dead, dragging my cumbrous feet from point A to point B, dazed and unaware of my surroundings. And I was constantly finding myself in the toilet, due to the unlawful amounts of coffee I was consuming. Torture, I tell you! I was miserable and much more adamant in my hatred of early mornings than I’d ever been.

Photo by Inka Vappula

Photo by Inka Vappula

As the year has progressed, however, strange things have begun to happen. First, my body stopped resisting the new rhythm of life, and then my attitude began to shift as well. I’ve come to relish the way my senses are attuned to the morning and the routines I’ve adopted: the softness of woolen socks as I slip them on and tiptoe downstairs to make coffee; the familiar drip and gurgle accompanied by the rich aroma of a fresh brew as it falls in the pot; dark winter mornings, eating breakfast in the candlelight; or in the spring, watching the sun put on a splendid color display as it climbs lazily across the horizon.

The stillness, the serenity.

I’m a long way from becoming the person who jumps straight out of bed into running shoes. I doubt I’ll ever be that person. But I will admit: I was wrong about early mornings. They are okay–dare I say–even enjoyable, as long as they contain coffee and solitude.

On (The Importance Of) Housekeeping

A rare photo of my place. Bookshelves not pictured. My grandmother, who was over for Christmas, described it as "strangely neat".
Photo by Petteri Konkola
"A photo of my bed without the covers. I’ve had a conversation with a uni friend regarding the use of bed covers: while I agree that they are mostly useless, they do produce a pleasing aesthetic effect." Photo by Petteri Konkola

“A photo of my bed without the covers. I’ve had a conversation with a uni friend regarding the use of bed covers: while I agree that they are mostly useless, they do produce a pleasing aesthetic effect.”
Photo by Petteri Konkola

Cleanliness is next to godliness is an ancient aphorism I suddenly bumped into whilst minding my own business on the magical world of the Internet. It prompted me to question the very nature of housekeeping, which until recent times has seemed to me a package of chores one simply has to deal with. Still, since my social life has greatly been revitalised by the fabled uni experience, I’ve come to see all sorts of households over these past few years – and the states of those households have varied quite considerably. And I wonder, why do I find myself surprised by this?

I grew up with two brothers, both of whom can be said to have subscribed to an unquestionably messy way of life in their youth. I cannot state with honesty that I was any better – I certainly never had any aspirations to become a godly, or even a cleanly person. As a child, I distinctively remember complaining to my mother about having to perform a weekly cleaning of the room I shared with my dear brother.

The stove. He is a formidable ally in daily life, but requires regular cleaning. Photo by Petteri Konkola

The stove. He is a formidable ally in daily life, but requires regular cleaning.
Photo by Petteri Konkola

Well, the complaining was of no use. Her trump-card for overruling any argument I ever made was expressing the possibility of the President of Finland coming over for a sudden visit. It would be far too embarrassing to present the household in that current state for the head of state, so cleaning was absolutely necessary, she reasoned. To a child this made perfect sense, although, at times, I must’ve questioned the validity of her rhetoric.

Like most every other boy, my brother and I eventually discovered the seemingly flawless strategy of relocating various objects that lay on the floor under our beds. Out of sight, out of mind – right? Alas, our mother, ever-vigilant, always made sure to check beneath the beds, rendering our genius stratagem obsolete. Eventually, we got a large wooden trunk from our father as a gift; with the trunk came a certain household truce. Unneeded belongings swiftly found their way into the trunk – and lo, the floor beneath the beds could be vacuumed once again! The actual purpose of said trunk still remains unknown to me, to this very day – in any case: thanks, dad.

As time goes by, boys become men. However, their habits do not always change. My brothers never grew unaccustomed to their gleeful neglect towards maintaining order. As teenagers, we used to joke about the second law of thermodynamics applying to housekeeping; in view of this, cleaning became redundant. Still, after moving out, I feel as though housekeeping suddenly became a way for me to express myself.

The bucket. Sometimes, he is your best friend. Photo by Petteri Konkola

The bucket. Sometimes, he is your best friend.
Photo by Petteri Konkola

Moving out and starting studies at the university was a game changer in many ways. I no longer had to do things just because someone else told me to or expected them of me; the world was finally my oyster. Well, the flat, anyway: a whole new world of possibilities, contained in just some fifty five square metres.

But like ever-so-often, with the opportunities came the responsibilities – while I was out on a night of heavy drinking with new-found friends, the flat collected dust. As I crawled home, I neglected the dishes, the laundry, and the general disorder. And all of these things had the audacity to remain there when I woke up! Even worse, sometimes they seemed more disorderly than the night before! Yet, I have to admit: this was no conspiracy against me, but the comeuppance I deserved.

And so, just like that, housekeeping became something I had to allot time to – just like any other activity. However, with all the deadlines and stress modern university education provides to a student of English, housekeeping also became a convenient way to take my mind off of things. Somewhat unexpectedly, I gained insight into this during a session of Literature Tutorial. Our wonderful instructor, Nely Keinänen, offhandedly asked the class whether we felt an urge to take care of household chores before taking on any writing process. Whilst the question was seemingly nonchalant, I raised my hand, to my amazement, along with most of the class. This is when the realisation hit me: these people all face, more or less, the same experience I do in housekeeping; yet, few students seem to pay it the respect or attention it is due to.

How can we accomplish this, then? Those of you who have had the (dis)pleasure of ever having me visit your home must surely have noticed that I have a tendency to praise an orderly household or any cool decorative objects housed therein. I, personally, rarely admit any visitors to my flat, but those that have visited have likewise commented on the tidiness – I firmly believe these are not just empty words of politeness, but genuine gestures of good-will; as such, they must warm the hearts of the recipients.

The room of a friend of mine. He is kind enough to let me crash his floor at times, and also granted me permission to take this photo for the article. I wouldn’t have. Photo by Petteri Konkola

The room of a friend of mine. He is kind enough to let me crash his floor at times, and also granted me permission to take this photo for the article. I wouldn’t have.
Photo by Petteri Konkola

My fellow students and human beings, it is imperative that you pay attention to your surroundings and do not feel prohibited by any social code to make such pleasant remarks, embarrassing as they might seem. Men in particular seem to have difficulties in doing so: whenever I visit a male friend for an evening of casual beer-gulping, the state of the household is rarely discussed. Of course, if your fellow student’s flat is in disarray, it might be a difficult task to find something positive to say about it. Also, let us not forget that there are arguments to be made for healthy messiness, too.

To continue on the topic of disarray, I have conversed with a student friend of mine who lives in a flat arranged to him by the great HOAS. I’ve known this particular friend for some year and a half now, and only once (he ardently claims otherwise – I do not believe him) has he cleaned his apartment. I find it truly baffling.

A rare photo of my place. Bookshelves not pictured. My grandmother, who was over for Christmas, described it as "strangely neat". Photo by Petteri Konkola

A rare photo of my place. Bookshelves not pictured. My grandmother, who was over for Christmas, described it as “strangely neat”.
Photo by Petteri Konkola

One time after a night of drinking, with me sleeping over, I engaged him in a conversation about the plight of his place. I questioned whether he felt that his living situation, due to it being a HOAS flat, felt temporary, therefore leading to his neglect of what I deem proper housekeeping. I cannot recall his exact answer – to paraphrase, he must’ve bitten his thumb at me.

Still, I wish he’d clean up the pad, even if the President isn’t coming around any time soon.

Meet Modern Primitive

Modern Primitive--The Kin

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to an entire album. It’s a shame, because an album creates a whole; a collection of songs that together tell a story much wider and complex than they would alone. It feels like nowadays I just tend to listen to individual songs and kind of miss the big picture that an artist or a band is creating with the whole of an album. But every now and then I’m lucky enough to stop, take a moment, and listen to the whole story instead of just hearing the beginning.

The Kin is a band formed in New York in 2001 originally comprised of two brothers, Thorald and Isaac Koren, performing as an acoustic duo and later joined by a talented ‘stickless’ drummer, Mark ‘Shakerleg’ Nicosia. As far as genres go, they can be described as an alternative rock band with the mentality of a partners-in-crime collaboration. From the first album to their last, their music has been filled with intricate rhythm, raw emotion and undeniably beautiful melodies. Combining the talents of the Koren brothers in vocals, guitar and keyboard with Nicosia’s unique mastering of percussions has earned the band loyal fans and followers from around the world. There’s a kind of honesty, explosiveness, liveliness and humble pride in the music they play and preform. It’s no wonder their music has touched so many hearts and been embedded in so many souls considering that when listening to it you can practically feel all the hard work, joy, sweat, tears, pain and creativity that has gone into creating it. All this talent and passion seems to culminate in their latest and last album –Modern Primitive.

Modern Primitive--The Kin

Modern Primitive–The Kin

What is it exactly that makes Modern Primitive so spectacular? Well first off, you can’t deny that the Koren brothers sing like angels, it’s just a fact. The music is what it is in its purest essence. It’s a strange thing to try and put in words, but there’s nothing sloppy about any one track on Modern Primitive nor is there a track that is too polished or meant to fit into a cookie cutter copy machine mold. Every song is unique and each time you listen there’s something new to be found. Then another fact, Mark Nicosia, as a barehanded drummer, is undoubtedly a genius. To someone like me, who can’t figure out coordination and could barely play a basic beat if my life depended on it, a drummer with such precision and innovative ways of playing seems like a higher being. I mean playing without sticks and sounding that amazing in the process, talk about literally bleeding into your work. So we’ve got the voices, we’ve got the beats, and we’ve got the explosiveness of what The Kin is. There’s energy, there’s emotion, there’s something that makes you press play for the fiftieth time today, but in addition, we’ve got something that tops it all off – The lyrics.

I personally think I should be featured on BuzzFeed’s weirdest misheard lyrics, because my track record on hearing them correctly is quite honestly horrendous. However, having listened to The Kin since elementary school, I’d like to believe I hear at least 98, 6% of their lyrics correctly. And boy do I like what I hear. There’s a lot that can be said by just instrumental music, it carries meanings in itself. But combining solid instrumental tracks with mind blowing lyrics is what makes me smile like a kid in a candy shop. From tracks like Mary, Never be the Same, Together, and Nowhere to Now here to Modern Primitive, The Kin continues to put out lyrics that create the most astonishing pictures and elicit emotions with their straightforward style. I explicitly remember sitting on my bedroom floor waking up early in the morning to a new album by one of my favorite bands. I remember being nervous to press play, don’t ask me why but I was terrified of being disappointed. Luckily I was hooked from the first lines. Relying on the shuffle option the first track from Modern Primitive I happened to hear was called Week of the Disaster and the first two lines were immediately burned in my mind as something that went a bit like this; Could have been an early morning/We were like a child inside a dream. Instantly the song caught me in its delicate web and had me under its spell. It was the kind of song that had me remember all the ‘could haves’ and ‘should haves’ and the myriads of ‘whys’ attached to all those moments I was so eager to hold on to only to watch them slip through my fingers. All those happy endings sailing away rather brutally, the things I didn’t see coming for the sake of being content in living in a happy bubble of my own, all those “fairy tales hanging on a string”. But it wasn’t a sensation of defeat that the track had me feeling, it was more of a recognition of ignoring the ‘whys’ and ‘should haves’ for the sake of maybe even defiantly accepting the disaster, striving to do better next time.

Just like that I knew I would not be disappointed. The tracks kept coming, each one…not better than the next, but complimenting each other. And what I realized was that each track was relatable and they carried messages across a broad lane of emotions: love, obsession, overcoming hardship, and maybe fittingly for a last album, a sense of centering oneself. Whether these emotions came across in flourished metaphors or plain and straight words they latched on to me as a listener and forced me to think about what this music was making me feel. For instance, Ashes, possibly one of my favorites from this album, to me is a song about overcoming hardship. It’s about enduring and fighting through what seems impossible to overcome. And it’s not just about surviving but it’s about pleading for someone else to keep fighting. The track, being very powerful itself, ever so amusingly reminded me of how powerless and helpless you feel at times when you want desperately to do something to help the ones you love, but all you can do is ask them to persevere and not give up. I think we can all relate to moments when it feels like darkness takes over light or when fire burns in paradise and you think you’ve definitely lost the fight. This song makes me feel thankful to those who have pushed me to “walk through the ashes”. It definitely takes you on an emotional rollercoaster from feeling helpless to empowered and back again in the best way possible.

However, interestingly enough, a curiosity for this album was figuring out that even with the importance and brilliance of the lyrics, it was just as important to notice where they were missing. On Modern Primitive there are tracks such as Week of the Disaster and Anchor, that in the end acting as a sort of outro, have a snippet of music that taps into the primitive side I guess, a counterpart to the heavily structured base of what ‘a song’ has turned into. And I guess it’s there to keep a balance, between the Modern and the Primitive. And for me I think that’s ultimately what makes me so happy to listen to this album. I interpret it as an album that taps into something primal, and primitive in innovative modern ways.

As sad as I am to say farewell, I can’t help but do it with a smile on my face because Modern Primitive truly is a last hurrah that deserves a round of applause. As The Kin have announced that they will be waving goodbye to the music business at least for the time being, Modern Primitive seems like the perfect album to bring them full circle, a closing chapter for a story richer than most fairy tales.

 

 

 

 

From Benin, With Love

Beach at Grand-Popo
Photo by Caitlin Barán

Plenty of students experience internships and living abroad during their studies. Most of them just don’t experience these two simultaneously and in as an exotic and different environment as does Caitlin Barán, who is currently doing her a five-month internship at Villa Karo in Benin, West Africa. Villa Karo is a Finnish-African cultural center and artist residence located in the picturesque little seaside village of Grand-Popo. Barán ended up interning there by applying for traineeship through the CIMO traineeship program last fall. Talking with her, it is evident that her time in Benin has been a profound experience for her.

Marketplace at Comé Photo by Caitlin Barán

Marketplace at Comé
Photo by Caitlin Barán

“The culture here is very different, but it’s not too difficult to adjust to. Obviously, I’m always a bit of an outsider here, but I’ve gotten somewhat used to it. “

For Barán, the biggest cultural difference has been how much people care about others. She feels that the people in Benin are so much more interested in each other, and so much kinder than what she is used to in Finland, where, she admits, it often feels like people simply don’t care about others’ daily concerns such as flus, stressful life situations or funny everyday occurrences.

“Here, it’s just really different. Strangers greet each other on the street and always stop to ask how you are doing or how your day went. Every morning my neighbor asks me if I slept well and every day when I return from work she will ask me how my day went. One day, she was offended, because I had gone out of the house to do something without sharing my plans with her first, and she was worried about me. It’s just a whole another level of caring and it has also changed me as a person.”

When it comes down to it, however, Barán says that people are interested in the same things in everyday life as at back home, even though so many things in Benin are different. Beninese people want to read, eat a good meal, follow a football cup on TV, travel, attend concerts, and get time off work to go visit their families, just like in Finland.

“They just often have another kind of attitude towards life, and while there are so many people who have practically nothing, it seems to me that they are so much happier here than us in Finland who have everything, and still want more and more all the time.”

Baràn’s work days at Villa Karo vary quite a lot, sometimes involving staying in the library for the entire day, organizing books and talking to people – mainly children from the village, who come by to look at the books – while sometimes doing tours around the cultural center and its museums for all of the tourists that come to visit the place. She does other things too, and says it really depends so much on so many different factors.

“My most important task, however, is translating and interpreting back and forth from French to Finnish, and sometimes also English.”

French is an official language in Benin, and the locals in Grand-Popo speak it, though it is not their first language as they also speak the local language of Mina.

“The French is slightly different at times, as there are some words and idioms that I am not used to, having learnt my French in France. At first I was really confused when returning from work people would ask me: “Tu as fait un peu?”, meaning: “Have you done a bit?”. I was like, “a bit of what?”, until I finally googled it and found out that it’s just a way of saying “were you at work?”. It’s just a direct translation into French from an idiom in the local language.”

Barán spends her free time mostly with her friends, either driving out to nearby villages or cities to explore, or just hanging out in Grand-Popo.

“Last weekend we drove out to a village called Comé and had lunch in a little restaurant. Then we drove to a city called Possotomé to go swimming. It was a really hot day, so it was just wonderful to float in the pool and have a cold drink afterwards!”

Barán also does her laundry by hand and finds that it is such a pleasure to help the kids in her house by doing all the laundry with them on Sunday mornings. She is surprised at how well and quickly she was accepted into the community. In her house next door to her apartment there lives two sisters, the 2- and 5-year-old children of the younger one of them, and the teenage daughters of two of their other sisters. In addition, there is also her landlord who normally lives in the city of Cotonou, but stays with them during the weekends. Along with the people, inhabitants of the house also include three cats, the youngest one of which, Pekka, is only 2,5 months old.

Barán in front of her neighbor's restaurant La Légende Photo: Caitlin Barán

Barán in front of her neighbor’s restaurant La Légende
Photo: Caitlin Barán

“I’m so happy with my little community here, our house is simply the best place to live and my neighbors are the funniest and kindest people ever. And they just took me in, like that! They have a little boutique and a restaurant, and we always have so much fun there, listening to music and talking about stuff.”

She shares a little anecdote about the local people and their love of Lipton tea, which demonstrates the relaxed Beninese way of life.

“People drink a lot of Lipton tea here, and you can buy it pretty much anywhere. I went to buy some from a little store, because I wanted to drink it at work. The lady at the shop gave me a tiny box of Lipton teabags that had been opened and over half of them were missing. I am obviously getting used to the Grand-Popo way of life, because instead of complaining and wanting an unopened box, I just asked if I could get the opened box for half the price. I got my tea and everyone was happy!”

Despite enjoying her time in Benin, Barán misses her family and her cats back at home in Finland. In addition, she confesses to missing some of the normal, everyday things, such as going to a grocery store to buy things to eat and cooking them at home.

“Here there are no grocery stores like in Finland, and cooking is a lot of work and takes a lot of time.”

She also misses certain foods. In Benin, she tells, her diet consists of mainly bread, rice, couscous, spaghetti, canned food and the occasional fruit, because fresh vegetables, for example, are harder to come by. Additionally, she misses doing a lot of sports easily, as in Finland she is accustomed to doing something everyday, for example going to the gym, going jogging, or attending a dance class.

“Here the easiest option is waking up practically in the middle of the night when it’s not too hot to go jogging, and it’s sometimes a bit tiring.”

When Barán returns home, she says she will miss above all the great friends she has made in Benin, as well as the way people interact with each other, greeting, smiling, and shaking each others’ hands. According to her, people are also a lot more outspoken in Benin, and will not hesitate to tell others how they feel. She says she will miss the children as well, and how they are not told to be quiet in situations where they could just as well enjoy themselves and be kids.

“I love children! Here, they are around wherever you go, and if a child cries, people will not scowl and sigh in annoyance, but instead they will help and try to comfort the child.”

Benin has changed Barán. She has learnt to be more patient, as sometimes the Internet connection, for example, will be down for a week. Calling the repair man is an option, but he will possibly come that day, or the next week, or maybe not at all. Sometimes there will be no electricity for three days, and it just has to be dealt with. She also cites being forced to relax as another important lesson Benin has taught.

“In Finland for years and years I have been working constantly, often two jobs at a time, while simultaneously completing as many study credits as possible. I always need to be doing something. Here, sometimes there is simply nothing to do, and it has been a valuable lesson to learn. I have been forced to sit down, grab a good book, and relax, relax, relax.”

Beach at Grand-Popo Photo by Caitlin Barán

Beach at Grand-Popo
Photo by Caitlin Barán