I haven’t written for a while.
I find that as I live here longer, my experiences are changing. It’s definitely not that I’m having fewer experiences, or fewer in relation to Finland; it’s that they’re getting more complex.
At the moment I’m in a trough of the rollercoaster that is my relationship with Finnish language. I’ve recently had the opportunity to talk about it with people who know less about it than I do, and have been thinking about people I know who live here but have never bothered to learn it. On the other hand, I find myself annoyed by people who claim it’s easy, exchange students who use baby words enthusiastically, foreigners who haughtily insist on speaking Finnish at me, or people who claim that the only way to learn is to set up an immersive experience for yourself where you refuse to communicate with people in any other language until you’re forced to learn. Sure, that’s effective, but who has the time (or emotional fortitude, or brainpower!) for that? Maybe I’m weak, or stupid, or misallocate my cognitive resources, but a full-time PhD in cognitive neuroscience plus teaching and proofreading jobs while maintaining friendships, relationships, and my own physical and mental health is about enough for me. Anything else should take away stress, not add to it.
I think I’m also really picky about how I learn from friends. There’s something about expectancy that makes my brain just stop processing, so it’s hard for me to practice in real situations. It makes me supremely uncomfortable to spend that extra beat staring into the face of someone who has just said something to me in Finnish and is waiting for my reply, and myself trying to parse the little blurry blobs that are their words enough to even respond in English, nevermind blathering something with offensively terrible grammar and pronunciation in response. It’s not better with friends, because they tend to explain things or translate things to me, and there’s no good way to say “yes, I’ve know that since day 2 of the intro course” without sounding incredibly defensive. At the same time, it’s disheartening and frustrating to have people I’m close to seemingly assume so little of my language learning abilities. I’ve had a few people lately question my comprehension after I’ve already responded appropriately and intelligently. How would I know what to say, or bother to respond at all, if I hadn’t understood the information in the first place? I know that’s not what it’s about, I know they’re just being inclusive and trying to help, but that’s how it feels, and I hate feeling frustrated towards people I like and respect.
Does that sound like I can’t be pleased? Probably. It’s one of these small things that wears on you over time. I think ideally I would be surrounded by Finnglish. Ideally, I could tell everyone–if you can’t find the word in English immediately, say it in Finnish. It’s easiest for me to learn words that way, sprinkled in context. If I don’t know something and want to know, I’ll ask. Use words and phrases as you like, don’t apologize and backtrack and translate. It feels artificial and spoon-fed and embarrassing that way. It’s emotionally challenging to not get the joke–don’t make it worse by translating things for me like a child. If I really want to know, I’ll ask. If I don’t ask, do me a favor and assume I understood. Sometimes I get really tired of the whole situation. I’m tired of being afraid of speaking in public, I’m tired of not understanding, I’m tired of being pressured to try harder, as if it’s sheer laziness on my part, I’m tired of the bragging of people who have learned enough and still speak in thick accents. I just get tired, so I refuse to use it at all. It’s my little act of rebellion.
Okay, rant over. Clean out your ears. For now.
I do occasionally still learn little tidbits of Finnish culture that blow my mind. I was taking a walk around the area called Merihaka, where there is a little floating wooden pier jutting out into the bay area. There are long bench-style tables on the pier, and some differently-sized wooden sawhorses on the beach. I mentioned to my companion that it was a bit odd that there was a large Persian rug hanging off of one of them and thought that maybe someone had a fancy picnic and had forgotten their rug there. Imagine my surprise to learn that these piers are actually set up strategically around the bays and lakes for the express purpose of washing rugs. They’re called mattolaituri and there’s even a natural pine-based soap (picture above) used to wash the rugs that is available in nearly every shop.
It’s officially winter in Finland.. It’s cold enough to close the windows all day, getting down to below freezing at night, and to wear fluffy slippers in the office. There are mushrooms and lingonberries and apples and pumpkins and knitted things in the markets, and packs of rowdy university students in brightly colored patch-covered overalls roaming the streets. Leaves have changed, the wind is chilly, and it gets dark sooner every afternoon. The air smells like rye bread.
Mostly I’ve been thinking and writing about traveling. At the end of September I went to a conference in Paphos, Cyprus. It’s always an adventure. I think I have an aversion to doing things the easy way, or maybe the universe likes to give me a personalized experience. Because of some frustrating delay in my travel grant paperwork, I ended up having to make last-minute plans for flights and accommodation. But things worked out, as they always do. AirBnB options were running low but I found an actual BnB, a little grouping of small villas run by an older couple. It was a half-hour walk to the conference venue and in an area of town that turned out to blend locals with a neighborhood of family holiday villas catered to British tourists.
I think I was most impressed by the hospitality. I can’t say whether it’s an artificial product of the tourist industry or an example of actual Cypriot culture, but I’m already planning to go back and stay at the same BnB. I arrived late in the evening after three flights and long layovers, tired, hungry, and ready to scarf something down and hit the hay. I took a taxi from the airport and the driver was interested in the conference, and made sure I knew how to get to the venue and had a ride back to the airport at the end. The husband of the couple who owned the BnB, George, was waiting for me when I arrived. It was in a little cul-de-sac of white villas tucked into a garden lush with palm trees, large tropical bushes, and happy-looking little cats scampering around. The reception had a small staircase up to a tiny room with a big glass door out front and goldenrod-colored tile. George greeted me warmly and gave me a map, even taking the time to circle things I might like to see and routes I might take, and gave me directions to the nearest kebab shop.
He let me into the little villa and it was spacious and warm, as big as a hotel suite (and a fraction of the price) with two twin beds and a mirrored vanity, towels folded into swans and little soaps in the bathroom, a large bathtub, a kitchen table and full kitchen with dishes, pots and pans, a large refrigerator, and a gas stove. There was a television and comfortable couch, coffee table, and armchair in the kitchen/living room, and a curtain over a wall window that looked out onto the private patio.
Once I figured out the best path, I really enjoyed my morning walks. It was 30C or higher already at eight in the morning, and many of the locals were already out and watering their gardens or just sitting on the porch. I passed through a little local neighborhood at the top of the hill with sand-colored houses, the gardens filled with small palms and yuccas, citrus trees with orange and green fruit splitting on their twigs, white and red pomegranates weighing down the boughs, tropical flowering shrubs making the air smell like perfume. A chicken coop, a music therapist, a barbershop, a cafe with ten old men drinking coffee and arguing on the terrace; crossing the road where the sidewalk ended on one side and crossing back where it ended on the other side, passing a field of squash plants and turning the corner to the British quarter where pubs and kebab shops filled in the gaps between holiday villas.
The road went over the top of a hill and then down with a view towards the sea, and the villas on the hill seemed less modern, more local. Each one had a garden full of fruit trees and tropical flowers, and in every yard there was a well-worn clay oven. The ovens came in all shapes and sizes, tucked into whatever corner seemed least flammable. I even saw one built inside an old rusted-out wheelbarrow. Then down the hill towards the sea, looking out over a valley of olive trees. The road down the hill met the main road at a local general store, a kind of bodega that sold food and beach supplies, postcards, local fruit. I liked to stop by there in the morning, and I bought a kilo of sweets and a sundress, and some badly needed new sunglasses there. The older couple who owned the shop were friendly and chatted with some of the local tourists who seemed to come there often before heading to the beach.
I checked out in the morning on Sunday, and George’s wife took my key and invited me for coffee with the family. I was already running late and had to decline, but she gave me a hug and told me to come back so we could get to know each other better.
I’m not really a resort type of person, and although it would have been more convenient to have stayed at the conference hotel, it made me feel better to be only visiting it for business. Sometimes it’s better to have the less convenient experience. It’s usually more personal, a better story.
The conference itself was huge, almost a thousand participants. It was well-organized and full of interesting talks in several parallel sessions grouped thematically. The coffee breaks and poster sessions in the evening were held on the terrace which overlooked groups of tables and the pools, and farther out, the sea. There were some kind of tropical-looking ficus trees on the terrace that were pruned to spread out flat, creating natural shade umbrellas, and above them, towering palms that had netted bunches of small pink fruits that smelled vaguely of warm sweat. The sun set early, around seven in the evening, and we would watch it from the terrace as it sank behind the cliff that led out to the sea and we transitioned from coffee and biscuits to cocktails and glasses of sweet Cypriot wine.
Realizing I was woefully unprepared with my Finnish-academic thick black skirts and dresses, and with the half-hour trek from AirBnB to conference venue and late lunchtime leaving me wanting both breakfast and some snacks, I was a daily morning visitor at the JJ’s General Store about two blocks down the road towards the conference hotel. There I bought a sundress, new sunglasses, halva and Cypriot sweets to bring back to the lab, Illy iced coffee in a can, fresh pomegranate and mango and green lemons.
The “start of conference reception” turned out to be a luau in the lawn, with purple lights and hors d’ouvres stations set up under giant palms. I met some people from a lab in Germany and we chatted for a while, and (typically) I found the Finns at the bar.
My poster presentation went well; there weren’t that many people interested, but those who were had constructive things to say. Going to conferences alone forces you to socialize and network, so one coffee break I struck up a conversation with a researcher who had presented a talk about a topic fairly peripheral to my research but that’s interested me for a very long time. We ended up talking through the next session and lunch, and getting in contact to start setting up a collaboration.
The last dinner could have been a cut scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I started talking to a researcher from Aberdeen on the bus to Aphrodite’s Palace near Tomb of the Kings in the town centre, and then I found myself at a table with her colleagues and some researchers from Germany. It was relaxing and enriching to have conversations with inquisitive, creative people from different places–we talked about mindfulness research and therapy, about the wisdom of traditional medicine, about city planning and economics and politics and the weather. As always, it was exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, interesting, informative, enlightening.
The trip back was long and frustrating. No one told us that taxis don’t take cards, and that there are few cash machines and only in the city centre. My taxi driver back to the airport understood and stopped by one on the way. He explained to me that it was the Greek economic crisis that changed things; the banks just went bankrupt, and there are only cash machines at branch locations. Paphos airport is tiny and travelers are herded through a series of mazes to get to a single terminal and 7 gates. Security people were very suspicious of my cardboard poster tube. Eventually, I got home.
And I’ve been working since. I got the review back from my first article–overwhelmingly positive–and am trying to resubmit the revisions as soon as possible. The second experiment’s data is ready for final analysis, and that paper nearly finished. A third paper, a methodology write-up, should also be submitted before Christmas.
Teaching is going well. I feel less anxious at each lecture, and I’m filling the time almost too well now. Four more lectures until the exam. On the home stretch. I’m trying to cram in some courses of my own to get caught up on credit hours, so there’s research ethics and information management and articulatory phonetics and neuroepigenetics and programming in Python. And seminars, and guest lecturers, and colleagues defending theses.
And it’s getting dark. Sunrise still around 7.30 due to daylight savings, but sunset is in full swing by 4.30 in the afternoon. It’s so dark just after 5 that you might think the sun never existed.
But I’m thinking about the next Restaurant Day which is November 21, and about Thanksgiving, which will be hosted by yours truly the weekend after that. And then there’s Christmas parties and holiday markets and presents to buy and delicious things to cook and friends to catch up with before I leave for the US. Three weeks of American-ness and a new year. And then who knows.