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When the Sun's So Slow to Fade

Helsinki

sunny 19 °C

I first noticed the problem on the airplane. I’m used to not being able to understand the second language on a plane. But usually I can pick up some words- cognates with French, Japanese I’ve studied, first grade lessons about Lulu and a friend in the garden...

Finnish is like no language I’ve ever been exposed to. And that bothered me. I don’t like being completely cluueless about a language, but by the time we landed, it was kind of too late to change that.

However awkward I felt, I must not have been doing all the blatantly wrong touristy things, because people kept speaking Finnish to me. The downside of that was that I would need to respond to what they were saying, which was usually some equivalent of “Hi,” by speaking in English and admitting I had no clue what they were saying.

They were nice about it, and spoke very good English. Still, it bothered me. So, by way of compensation, I eavesdropped on other tourists.

There were some Japanese people, probably businessmen, in the hotel lobby when we checked in. They spoke to each other formally, two of them had sisters who were the same age (or one of them had a sister who was the same age as someone...) and they were doing something at 2:30. They repeated that time, so I assume it must have been something important.

Merely eavesdropping on a Japanese conversation wouldn’t have been so bad if on the way out of the airport I hadn’t gotten excited each time I read a Japanese sign. Europe, not Japan. Still, it’s nice to know that my Japanese hasn’t completely atrophied with how little I use it.

I also overheard fragments of three different conversations between Russian tourists. The parts I understood were far less interesting that the Japanese conversation. (Conversation 1: “What? What? What?.... “No.” Conversation 2: “I understand.” Conversation 3: “I think that...”) Still, it was nice to hear a non-English language that I understood, at least a little.

If I’d wanted to hear more conversations between other people who didn’t speak Finnish, I could have taken a more touristy approach. Instead, I went to one of the places that make least sense to go when you don’t know the language- a bookstore. It makes sense though, because bookstores are a great way to learn languages. I mean, where else could you pick up vocabulary words like “Masterbuilder?”

I was looking for bookstores, and Helsinki did not disappoint me. But where Helsinki won
special points was when I stumbled into a store that sells yarn without even trying. That doesn’t usually happen to me. But today, I was exploring Helsinki, so when I saw a sign for a “Supermarket” I decided to go in. I’m pretty sure that was supposed to be two words. When I went down a flight of stairs, I was drawn instantly to the surprisingly big and varied selection of yarns. It was a very pleasant surprise, even if it did lead to one of the aforementioned “Oh. You just spoke in Finnish. I have no idea what you said. Umm... American, please?” exchanges.

To avoid another interaction like that, I stayed away from stores and found a nice park. In the park were several statues, and seagulls had apparently decided the statues needed hats, because every statue I saw had a seagull perched on the top.

While I was listening to a trombone play Finlandia,* I overheard half a conversation between a Finnish woman sitting with her friend and two English-speaking tourists.

Woman: You don’t need to be polite.
Woman: We’re drinking wine. I just got fired.
Woman: We’re not into pictures. We don’t like taking pictures.

And I thought Americans were supposed to be loud and rude and Finns were quiet and reserved...

  • Any time I hear music here, I assume it’s Sibelius. So trombone player in park? Finlandia. Violinist in street? Finlandia. Soft music in hotel lobby? Finlandia. Pop-esque music during lunch? Finlandia.

Posted by Soseki 09:13 Archived in Finland

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