Four months ago, I wrote “say yes to (almost) everything.” And while it was true then, as time goes on, the more I think… I was right. I was really right, and I will stand by that advice. It’s especially true if you don’t have a clue what you’re getting into, because those are the moments that create life. Life is in that transcendent feeling of the first morning flight across the Atlantic, seeing the sun rise before anyone else on the continent and watching the icebergs of Greenland fall away below you. It’s in the philosophy of watching the lights of Tower Bridge dance on the Thames at night, and in stepping off the bus in a new country, completely alone. It’s in making instant friends, sometimes out of mutual foreignness, sometimes connecting across many boundaries, often only for a moment. Sometimes it’s about staying home on a rainy afternoon, or wandering the city alone, knowing you can be and become anyone you want.
It can feel very isolating at first. It’s hard, when writing about my experiences, to convey a general idea of what it’s like, because the experience is filled with so many feelings that can shift dramatically in an instant. Sometimes it’s very lonely because my family and many of my friends are several time zones away, and other times I just don’t want to have to talk to anybody, because it’s taxing dealing with the language and social differences and it can feel like no one understands. Sometimes I feel like an outsider, and other times I feel perfectly at home. But I think that’s all normal, and having done this twice now, I’ve realized that the dramatic emotional swings of the first few months do tend to calm down as time goes on. There come moments when it sort of hits you that you live here now, this is your city and your flat and you suddenly find yourself very protective of it. Suddenly it feels like home.
In London it was when I realized I had the tube maps memorized and a usual lunch spot. I knew when all the grocery stores were open and had memorized the menu to my favorite Chinese takeaway, and I knew where to get fantastic coffee and a chocolate doughnut the size of your head for 70p. Coming home at night to the power out was no longer a cause of panic but a simple inconvenience to take the electric key to the 24 hour newsstand for a top-up. I knew how long it took the water to heat up for a shower in the morning, and how long before it automatically shut off. I complained about people who stood on the left, and I could top up my Oystercard in the blink of an eye.
I’m starting to feel that here. I’ve had three different flats so far and I’ll have to move again in December, but for the moment I have a home and a bit of the city to call my own. I think part of it is just familiarity, and the sort of nostalgia that comes about very quickly when you have to try to carve out a routine in a highly emotional state. Then when you get more adjusted to the surroundings, these everyday things take on a greater importance, a comfortable assurance that everything is as it should be.
I know I’ve been saying it a lot, but I love this city. My infatuation is only getting stronger as autumn has suddenly arrived. I love how different the districts are and how much character is in each of them. I love the posh city centre, its beautiful lights and fashionable window displays, the stunning Soviet architecture of the Senate Square and the twisting hills of Kruununhaka. I especially love the green buildings, the stone and the cobbled brick walkways, and how the yellow birch leaves make bright patterns on the red brick. I love walking along the marina on the east side of the bay, looking out and wondering what is happening on the other side. I love the markets, the piles of jeweled berries, small, tart apples, fresh pulla and smoked fish, scents of coffee and cardamom wafting from the kahvila tent, and the old woman who sells mushrooms and vihta in the corner of the square. I love crossing the Pitkäsilta twice a day, watching the sun set on the little boats in the west only to rise from the other side of the bridge in the morning. I love that my neighbor across the alley sits out on her patio every morning in a bright pink coat with a cup of coffee, moving her lawn chair to catch the sun that filters through the apartment buildings. I love that the little park by my flat has one climbing ivy that has turned bright red against the butter-yellow kerrostalo behind it, framing an old wrought-iron gate and making a colorful backdrop for the pallid snowberries that grow along the path.
But I think most of all I love walking the city in the crisp autumn air first thing in the morning, watching the sun creep across the city bathing everything in golden light, and catching the dark, acrid scent of just-baked rye bread wafting out into the streets. There is some combination of cardamom, coffee, smoked fish and rye bread that takes me back a year and a half ago, to the snow and the cold and the sense of overwhelming excitement I had about this place. It felt important to remember the little moments, like something special was going to happen to me here. So there is a kind of love-at-first-sniff nostalgia about it. Warm rye bread smells like Finland, like frosty ears and cheeks, hipster cafes and the train station full of many strangers, and the chilly, fishy saltiness of the bay. But more than smelling like Finland, somehow it’s starting to smell like home.