I was 16 years old and spending the summer in Finland. Like most people in the world, I had never given a thought to Finland before the fateful day when word came that my American Field Service Exchange would take me to this foreign land. Finland? Why not Norway, or Sweden?
But I was a brave, fearless child, longing for adventure, believing that nothing bold or brave could happen in my hometown of Hardin, that I had to travel as far as the winds of fate could send me to have a REAL adventure.
Of course I know that’s not true—now that I am old, and now that I have had people ask me to write about my childhood in Montana. But that is now, and I digress, I am thinking and writing about then.
The summer of 1971 I missed my brother Robert’s wedding, because I left for New York City, en route to Copenhagen, Helsinki and ultimately to the little town of Kiikka, Finland. I joined a family in Kiikka, Aiti (Mother), Isa (Father), Airi (my host sister), Kari-Matti (host little brother) and Tiina, my little sister. I used to know quite a bit of Finnish, a difficult and complex language, unlike any in Europe, and said to be related to Japanese. Hulu Poika means Crazy Boy, which is what I used to call my little brother.
My Finnish father worked at a bank. My Finnish mother was a stay at home mom. We lived in a row house, what we would refer to as a townhouse today. It was one level, three bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. The laundry was shared with the rest of the tenants, and my mom had a loom in a common room where she would weave wall hangings of wool.
The family had recently moved to Kiikka, probably a work transfer for the bank. We went on a family vacation in the family sedan, three kids in back, Aiti and Isa in the front seat with a kid in the middle. Isa would have the radio on, I remember classical music, and he would drive and “conduct” the orchestra with is pointer finger, and hum along.
We drove to Iittala to a famous glass factory, stopping at tourist sites along the way. One stop was at a county fair—I was fascinated by the small tractors. One Finn wanted to take my picture because he had never seen an Asian person—Isa scolded him and chased him away, protecting me from voyeurs. A lot of those sites were churches. At the end of one day, I had maxed out on churches, and refused to go into the last church of the road trip. It turned out that church had some famous painting by some famous guy. Oh, well…
The highlight of the summer vacation was the road trip to northern Finland. We drove to the family cottage on a lake. Finland is so like Minnesota it is eerie. The cottage was on a lake with a sauna on the lake. The sauna was heated with wood, and we had these sticks that we hit ourselves with to stimulate the blood. We sat in the sauna, the kids after all the adults were done—and we would then jump into the lake. We had little socks we wore so that the joints wouldn’t hurt so much when we went from the hot dry heat of the sauna to the cold lake water.
After sauna, we ran to the cottage, where the adults had delicious sausages heated up for us. We ate them dipped into mustards, juice dripping off the fat sausage and down our chins and onto our swimsuits.
It was at the summer cottage that I taught my host family about S’mores—roasted marshmallows and half a Hershey’s chocolate bar sandwiched between two Graham crackers. I was so proud I was able to share an American food, so uniquely ours.
I remember sitting between Aiti and Isa in the front seat of the car when it was my turn to sit in front. As we passed lake after lake, Isa would tell me this lake or that lake was more beautiful than the last one. I would look at the lake and only see a lake. They saw the trees, the shore, the color of the water.
Now that I have a lake place in Minnesota, I know that some lakes are more beautiful than others. I see the trees, the shore, the color of the water. I now understand the power of solitude, the beauty of less is more. I have a fish house on the shore, and dream of turning it into a sauna. The local meat market makes prize winning sausages. I have Dijon mustard. I have all the fixings for S’mores.
All I lack is being 16 again, dazzled by the wonders of an adventure 4000 miles from home.