The road taken...

Finland is MUCH more than Marimekko
Twenty five years ago today (August 16th, 1985, this was written a few days ago, published on the 18th) my life completely changed course. It was a turn I would never undo. I traveled with AFS International Programs to Finland to be a foreign exchange student for a year. Everything I am, everything I have experienced came out of the choice I made to get out of my seemingly broken life and begin anew in a country I'd barely heard of, with a family so different from my own. It was worth every tear I shed and every bit of effort.

Many kids travel "on exchanges." They board airplanes, and take tours. They see the sights in Rome or Paris, maybe staying with a family for a week for a small taste of life, and then they return with a suitcase of over-priced souvenirs and some new buddies. A year is a different kind of commitment. You build a life in a new culture, immerse yourself in it, learn a new language and miss home in a very visceral way. You return with a few prized possessions that you collected over the year, but in your baggage you bring newly formed opinions, a new way of seeing and doing things, and hundreds of pictures - real and in your memory.

Who was I before I left? A skinny, insecure teen with bad skin and frizzy hair. Already at the orientation I found a new me forming. I was the loud one - the secure one. The one who was first in line for every adventure. Naked in the sauna, and then jump into a freezing lake? (*it was girls only, but still a shock for us Americans*) No problem! It's part of the culture... and when I jumped into the cold lake from the steaming wooden house in nothing but my birthday suit, I truly felt alive. This was a special treat - as part of the orientation. Every single-family home has a sauna, but my host family lived in an apartment building, so we shared the sauna with other apartments (everyone has to reserve a time in advance) and there was certainly no jumping into a lake in the middle of downtown Lahti!

A few days into the orientation we had to repel down a small area of a mountain (probably a hill about the length of a 2-story house) as part of a team-building activity. I completely panicked. A fear of heights came over me and my insecure self, the one who was hiding inside me, came out full force. Tears of panic, tears of angst overtook my body. I was shaking, convinced I was going to die in the Finnish forest, six hours north of Helsinki. I exposed myself to the others. I guess looking back now, becoming vulnerable with one another was part of the program, to build us up to deal with challenges that lay ahead after the orientation. None of the others knew I was so vulnerable, but I did.

But I didn't die. I didn't even break an arm. The beginning of a hundred learning experiences, some were easy, others hard. It was all part of a year where I would feel so alone. Not speaking the language or knowing the culture is a very humbling experience.

Maybe I was subconsciously reinventing myself as a strategy to have a great year. Maybe I became outgoing to hide my insecurities? Either way, my new attitude served me well most of the time, and stuck with me when I got home.

I often wonder what my life would have been had I not boarded that plane. But I did. Through that year I made some bad choices (never try koskenkorva- it's pure evil) and some fantastic ones (my many new friends, the closest are still part of my life!).  I actually chose picking the interesting girls who wanted to share with me "all things Finnish" over the popular girls who spoke good English, and wore trendy clothes... Perhaps I ruined my only chance to be part of the in-crowd, but the artsy kids were clearly a much better choice. Partially it was a choice made for me. The popular girls partied with older boys in rich people's homes, even on weeknights. My host-family were extremely religious, and this would have never worked. It wasn't that I stopped drinking (which would have been the smart thing to do), even at age 16, but my goal was no longer to be the party girl with popular girls. I wanted to make friends. Not the superficial kind. And I did. They are still part of my life. Five years ago I visited Julia, Maarit, Piia, Paula and Sari, of course my host sister and her husband Pia and Krisse. I still love my host parents Seija and Pertti - and I still call them Mom and Dad.

Even before the internet we kept in touch through letters and visits. Thanks to Facebook and e-mail I am in contact with all of the people or at least the families (except a few) who were closest to me then. Surely the best part of my exchange year was making the friendships, and learning a new language with which we communicated.

I made mistakes. I did things I still regret to this day. I was cruel to one girl. I got into trouble for drinking and I helped my friend host a party that became a free-for-all the likes of which I'd never seen before or since. I might have broken a boy's heart. I had my heart broken. I fell in (what at 16 seemed like) love. I got lost a million times. I skipped school. I hitchhiked home when I got stuck somewhere (twice, and it is an offence that gets you kicked off the AFS program). I got thrown out of a cafe (with the other kids) for not buying enough and then taking up tables for hours at a time. I listened to music. I missed home. And after I came home, I missed Finland even more.

I worked hard to learn the language one word at a time. Puhun suomea. Melkein sujuvasti. (I speak finnish. Nearly fluently). It is the hardest language with our alphabet! I lived with a family where my host father was kind, but spoke no English. I taught my host sisters and host mother lots of English, but not as much as they taught me.

The winters were cold. A cold I'd never known could exist. From experience I learned that -40F = -40 C. Who knew? It got down to -42 Celsius when I was in Rautalampi. The car froze on the way home from a "Friday night disco" (a restaurant that let teenagers dance until 11pm) in the middle of the farmland. Of course there were no cell phones, but it was miles from the closest house. On that freezing January night I remember Paula's Mom's strong presence. I felt safe with her. She died about 10 years ago but I will never forget her or that night. 

At Easter one of my best friend from the US came to see me in Finland. She met my friends and family and visited my school. I even brought her to see my "2nd family" (we did a 2-week exchange with a family in rural Finland). She summed it up something like this: you built a new life for yourself and it was fantastic. 

One of my favorite songs is called "Double Life" (you can hear Kaksoiselämää By Juice Leskinen).
The words to refrain are:
Kunpa sinut tuntisin paremmin
Silloin ehk oppisin itsenikin
Vaikken koskaan luotasi poistunutkaan
Tulen uudestaan

I'd like to get to know you better,
Then maybe I'll get to know myself better
and if I ever leave, which I won't
I'll come back

Far beyond my expectations, far harder than I ever thought, far more influential than you'd think. Twenty-five years ago today my life changed.  If my experience could be summed up by two poems, going to Finland would have been akin to Stopping by the woods in a snowy evening and taking the road less traveled. Without doubt I was the better for it.  Finland's with me for the rest of my life... I haven't shaken it yet!


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