Shades of green flash before my eyes in a final encore of scenery as I sit in the backseat of the silver Honda, speeding over these long country roads for the last time. Skinny, gray trunked trees line the road in perfect procession, standing erect like soldiers awaiting orders. Occasional barns and small houses painted bright colors- mostly red- dot the green pastures as a proud period proclaiming its presence at the end of a drawn out statement. “Rachel, what time is your flight back to the states?” My host mother, Helina, asks from the front seat of the vehicle. I can always rely on her to make conversation during a silence. This silence, however, is a rare occurrence. Between my host sisters- Maria and Heidi- and I, car rides are usually full of giggles from the backseat and the spontaneous intellectual interjection from my host dad- Aki. However, this time a heaviness hangs in the air which everyone refuses to address, but knows we must face in a few hours: my departure from my family of the last eight weeks, and this beautiful country of Finland that I came to know and love.
Before arriving in Finland, the group of American students that I traveled with had received an extensive orientation of Finnish culture and society. I fully expected to meet my host family and experience the cliché Finnish silence and lack of small talk that my orientation leaders had prepped us on. Unlike Americans- the Finnish did not really practice the art of light conversation making for the purpose of filling silence. I was pleasantly surprised when I was embraced by my two thin, beautiful blonde host sisters and they began chatting excitedly and asking all kinds of questions. The bus was a different story. The silence on public transportation amazed me, as did the lack of even a simple hello to a stranger. In this country, the people were much more private and closed off than Americans. Silence was considered a part of communication, and boisterousness, rude and annoying.
While the Finns were closed off in their speech, they were much more open in other aspects of their lives. “Would you like to come into the sauna with me today?” Heidi asked during my second day at the house. Each home in Finland contained a sauna. As an old Finnish proverb goes, “First you build your sauna, then you build your house”.
“Sure!” I was enthusiastic about trying everything I possibly could. Heidi then completely undressed, catching me off guard and entered the heated room. Hesitating for a minute, I then followed her lead and entered the wooden cove with the hot coals set in the corner. Taking the ladle out of the bucket of water nearby, she poured it over the hot coals producing steam. The ritual of the sauna was seen as a cleansing process in Finland and many went into the sauna daily to relax and cleanse from the day. As the heat enveloped me, I felt my muscles relax in disintegration as my mind floated off, closing my eyes.
Walking the streets of downtown Helsinki, the night is alive! It is 10 pm, yet the light still in the sky makes it appear as dusk. Every two blocks, we come across a café with tables outside that are each full of people as secrets float away in the night air on the aroma of coffee and cigarette smoke. A man break-dancing in the streets draws a small audience around him to celebrate the culture of his moves. I hear loud laughing and outbursts from a bar down the road- the kind of loud noise that would only come from Finns after some alcohol consumption. The cobblestoned streets lead our way forward.
My mind is swirling during the ride. I recall each sight, sound, taste, and touch of Finland, and try my best to lock it up in my mind. I try to burrow it in a special place so that I may recall these memories at the most needed times. There are tears in Helina’s eyes as she gets out of the car and wraps her arms around me. Finland will forever be mine and I will forever be Finland’s.