Tag Archives: disorientation

On being an alien

Even after coming to Finland for nearly a decade, with stays lasting up to 3 months, there are certain things I find it impossible to get used to. Some of them are just an obstinate failure of motor memory such as trying to open doors the wrong way (in Finland, front doors open outwards. Otherwise snow would fall off them onto your nice clean wooden floor).

So, I offer the following post as a kind of hommage come antidote to the well known list, You Know You Have Been In Finland Too Long, When…


You know you’ll never get used to living in Finland when..

(1) You hold open the door for the person behind you when going into Stockmann’s and expect them to say thank you.

It still throws me that they don’t even take the door from you but walk past quickly as if you might ask them for a tip.

(2) You buy a piraka from K-Market for 49 cents, hand over a 50 cent coin and stand there  waiting for your change.

Happened to me today and all I got was a faintly pitying look and the reminder that I had given her 50 cents. Forgot of course that in Finland 1 and 2 cent coins aren’t legal tender. Such prices are either a devious marketing ploy or a charming bit of nostalgia, depending on your attitude.

(3) You drive up to a crossroads in a town and wonder who has right of way.

Answer: both and neither. You give way to the right unless there’s a give way sign on your road or on the road to your right so in all other cases the traffic with priority is the traffic which has traffic coming from the left but none from the right or in other words it is the traffic on the right of the traffic coming from the left of the original traffic flow which has priority. Or maybe it’s not that simple.

(4) You can’t understand why people are waiting to cross a road with no cars in either direction just because there’s a red man.

Every Finnish person is assigned a personal internal policeman at birth. If you as an alien cross against the red man, people will at best give you dirty looks. At worst they will follow you on the basis that they must have not noticed the man turning green, otherwise, surely no one would cross..Then you will have it on your conscience when a car shoots out of an underground car park ploughing into a group of innocent pedestrians led by you.

(5) You think about popping out to buy a bottle of wine at 8.30pm. Or on a Sunday.

Alko (the Finnish State Alcohol retail monopoly) has the same opening hours everywhere. They close at 8pm (6pm in some places), 6pm on Saturdays and don’t open on Sunday. As everyone knows this has been fantastically successful in reducing alcoholism in Finland.

(To be continued…)

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Going round in Arctic circles

Today, the heating came on in the flat with a soporific vengeance. Unable to remember the dreams I had while nodding off over Freud’s On Dreams, I went out with Mrs. K. in search of fresh ones. At 5-Corners, we stopped into Digelius looking for an old disc, Lännen-Jukka by J. Karjalainen.  The kindly grey-bearded gentleman-proprietor whose name is Emu, said he didn’t have it but sent us across the road to Popparienkeli – (Pop Angel) who did. Listening to it now. It’s a wonderfully strange concoction of the Arctic and the Appalachian, Karjalainen sand-and-glue voice perfectly complementing the rhythmic chopping of the banjo.

Mission accomplished, Mrs. K wanted to go off to photograph buildings. I tagged along until she abandoned me, heading off to a meeting on the other side of town.

And as ever, I drifted into dreams, Helsinki revelries — confusion setting in with the long slide into dusk. Although everything was familiar, I was lost as usual — standing below St John’s Church in front of the Design Museum. I thought I recognized Punanotkonkatu where once I retrieved a much-prized coat from the Police Lost Property Office. But even with my love of recursion, I baulked at the thought of such a complex sentence as I’ve lost my self, has anybody handed it in?

If all else fails, I thought, I can follow the tram routes home but suddenly Number 10s seemed to come from all directions and I was as disorientated as ever. Finding myself outside an expensive kitchen shop where only yesterday we bought a little espresso machine, I thought I could go in and buy a spare washer. But there among the designer wettexes and banana holders, I couldn’t remember the size. The man who sold it to us wasn’t there and how could I form a a question in the perfect tense, with my imperfect Finnish, which would make sense to the fresh-faced boys fawning over their well-healed customers?

But as I walked out into the fresh air again, the mechanisms of dream formation became clearer and I knew their meaning, the alternate logic of their relations. I dodged the bullets on Tarkk’ampujankatu and found myself back outside Digelius. As I entered, Emu asked me, Oletko löytanyt? — Did you find it?

And in a moment, like a man who is truly lost, I couldn’t remember…

…what it was that I was looking for.