I have been an expat for almost half of my life. I rarely miss the country where I grew up for the first (almost) 20 years (I left for a year when I was 17). Nowadays when I travel to Finland and the plane starts its descend and I look at the waterfront and the forests and the light and, well, the endless forests, it almost feels more exotic than nostalgic.
There are days when I do not use my first language at all. I cannot use my mother tongue for anything useful in my daily life – none of my immediate colleagues speak or understand Finnish, and I obviously cannot get anything done in Belgium in Finnish. It’s an odd thing sometimes, to realise how many of my friends and colleagues are able to carry on with their lives using the language of their emotions.
I keep up with reading books and news online, chatting with friends and family via social media and of course by catching up live with local compatriots (so liberating to swear to your heart’s content in a fancy restaurant without anyone understanding! To be able to gossip about anything without the hush! The luxury of mastering such an obscure, good-for-nothing language!).
An interesting thing happens whenever I visit Finland. I become a different person. This new person is very fond of linen tea towels adorned with unaesthetic symbols, quite possibly derived from a national epoch or similar, as well as of decorative objects made of different types of wood. As I walk the streets of Helsinki I Oh! and Ah! at totally random things, praising the Scandi freshness and the innovative take together with the other tourists. So many clever things, such as that little, overpriced (but handmade!) box made out of, um, birch bark. Look at that darling mug, carved out of burl! Needs to have!
I find myself elated at any clothing store that sells garments designed and made for Nordic women, because we are ginormous compared to our central European sisters. I can fit my ass into a pair of trousers just like that! This never happens in Belgium! I run around, blinded by bright things with bold patterns, will quickly conclude them to be a spectacularly good idea, and return to Brussels with meters of cotton that, depending on how I finally install it on my corps, either looks like a circus tarpaulin or an unfortunate pair of curtains from a 70s movie set.
Then there’s the food. I suddenly feel obliged to savour every single obscure regional & traditional dish that comes my way just because. I lunge at pierogis and concoctions made of tiny Baltic fish. Yesterday I ordered a coffee with a cinnamon bun (which is gluten free for the purpose of this story, thank you for your understanding), and was given a choice of four different kinds of cinnamon buns, which means that I have to go there every day now, to try all of them, because what if they stop making them? I will haul back delicacies, causing my Rimowa to smell rank for weeks, because while I have been away, food has stopped being available in Belgium.
While I’m high on Finnish folklore, there’s really only one thing to rapidly bring me back to Earth and to remind me where the home truly is. That would be the bill following an afternoon glass of rosé at a Helsinki eatery. Dear reader, you’ll get a decent glass of wine for under half a million euros even in Paris, but not in Helsinki you don’t.
Which is probably a good thing. A drunken rampage at a birch bark-shop would surely not end beautifully.