You can’t go home again.
What do you think has changed in Finland is a question I often get to answer. My honest – or routine – answer is: Not much. More cycle lanes, and more diversity in people. More gyms, and more people who run.
The strong feeling of not belonging here I had every single time during my visits to Finland is gone. It almost feels I’ve never been away, and life in Cape Town was just a dream. Have I become as resilient as Talky? Or am I just fooling others, and more importantly, myself?
CULTURE SHOCK FINLAND
There are only three things I found truly “shocking” when returning to Finland.
The first was number of drunk people regardless time of day or day of week. Drunk people of all sorts and allover. For Talky this was even a bigger shock, as he hadn’t really seen drunk people before. Yes we had wine. Often and plenty. Kids (almost) always present. There were a few occasions when somebody drank a little too much, but never ever did we see drunk people on the streets. I think the reason was they simply won’t survive in a society such as South Africa.
The second was, and still is, how attached people in Finland are to their phones. Buses and trams are filled with people staring at their phones. What used to be a romantic dinner for two is nowadays a romantic dinner for four as there will be two humans by the table and two phones on the table. When kids “play” together, they sit together staring at their phones occasionally poking each other to show something.
We strongly discourage primary school children from having cell phones. Please do not allow children to bring phones to school unless there is a very good reason. If they have to bring a phone to school, it must be handed in to the class teacher for the day. Cell phones should never be in your child’s room when they go to bed. Have you checked your child’s phone in the last couple of days? Kronendal Primary School. Oh boy do I miss this!
Thirdly, people use swear words a lot. A lot. Like in every sentence, sometimes twice in a sentence. Coming from a culture where using swear words is a sign of severe mental or behavioural problem, hearing them everywhere (business meetings, running events, fancy restaurants) from more or less everybody is, well, embarrassing. Last week Talky went to movies with his class. The movie was about hobbyhorses. The only thing Talky said about the movie, in addition to falling asleep, was that the girls used (the Finnish version of) the F-word a lot. Wow.
REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK FINLAND
The hardest part of moving overseas is the reverse culture shock of coming home. Returning home brings with it an expectation that everything will be the same, but the people I left behind have moved on. I’ve changed as well.
Brave was the word many used when we told that we would be moving Cape Town. I never felt brave. Restless for a change, yes. We reasoned that if it didn’t work out we could easily just come back. The decision that took real bravery only came when we decided to leave our home in Cape Town, and return to Helsinki.
To outsiders, this probably didn’t look like the difficult move. We were going back to Helsinki, the city where I’ve lived for almost all my life, to an extended support network of family and friends, to a more stable society, to easier opportunities, to “everything better on paper except weather”. But from discussion with my repatriate friends, I knew that remigration (didn’t know such word existed), or repatriation in their case, was frequently labelled the hardest move of all.
The world felt so much larger, and life so much freer in Cape Town. I know it sounds funny, but despite the restrictions in physical freedom, I felt free like I couldn’t even imagine. In a way returning home has felt like the world suddenly became much smaller again. Fresh perspectives and new experiences require a lot more work.
I Am A Triangle is an online group, evolved from a blog where Naomi Hattaway describes how a person leaves a country (Circle) and moves to a country (Square) turning into a Triangle. A Triangle no longer fits in either place. The problem of being a Triangle is that so much feels familiar and at the same time so strange, causing moments of complete disorientation and surreality.
Finland has been welcoming us back home (Thank You!). Still, I’ve been struggling with the realisation that I will always have a part of my heart 11,000 kms away. And this is the part that requires the most bravery, as people – quite understandably – expect us to just return to normal as if we’ve never been away.
REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK (FINLAND) – HOW I’M GOING SURVIVE
Finland sometimes drives me mad. All the rules, petty politics, general hypocrisy, rude people. For me ways of dealing with feelings of frustration, emptiness and even anger are running, writing this blog, and working. The latter one is so Finnish! When reality bites, we tend to become workaholics or alcoholics.
I’ve accepted the fact that some friends I had before I left no longer are there. They’ve moved on, they’ve changed. Why hadn’t they! That means I need to make new friends, and value the old ones that are still there for me and us. Just please be patient.
I’m also allowing time of aloneness to reflect. I’m hopeful eventually my social life will pick up and I will be oh-so-Finnishly busy again. For now I’m enjoying taking it easy and exploring my old new home like I did in Cape Town, one step at a time. Often alone. Running, or walking with my camera.
I try hard to play down my talk about “in Cape Town”. I know talking is an essential part of the re-adjustment process, but I also know there is a point when to stop. I’m also trying to remember how curious I was while in South Africa. I’m trying to consider people here as interesting foreigners, and try to remember to ask what’s going on in their lives. I don’t think I’m doing very well in this respect, but my intentions are good.
I’m gradually coming in peace with not being special anymore in the eyes of others. Not that being a foreigner made me or us very special in Cape Town, but we were definitely more special than back Finland. Nobody is the least bit of interested in how on earth did I end up living here. Nobody asks what funny language we are talking. Nobody wants to hear about the world famous South African education system. We’re back to “where do you go to school” and “what’s your job”.
Yet on the other hand I do think I am special, we are special. We did something most people never have the guts (or urge) to do. We picked up and left our cosy and comfortable previous life in Finland and threw ourselves into a foreign country and gave it all and even a bit more. We had life changing experiences. We were frequently humbled, we adapted, we grew, we laughed, we cried, we loved, we hated, we were scared and we survived like never before. That will never completely fade away, and I believe it will carry on directing my and our future until the very end.
I’m in a constant state of missing Cape Town. There are rough, and often surprising moments of meltdown. This week I was sitting in a train with two extremely smart colleagues, we were coming back from a successful customer meeting. The sun was shining, we were chatting and laughing. Talky called me telling he was at home waiting for me to come and read with him (his Finnish reading skills are developing fast!). All of the sudden I felt a physical pain. A heartache. For missing Cape Town and my life there. Everything was almost nearly perfect, yet I suddenly felt completely numb. Is this it? For the rest of my life?
I know it will get better with time. At the moment I feel my mood changes like Cape Town (or Helsinki) weather. Which means it changes quickly, and often. I’ve heard a culture shock has a lot in similar with stages of grief. At the moment I’m grieving the loss of a life abroad, a city, a mountain, a climate, people I loved. Loss of park runs, loss of Sunday hikes, loss of spontaneous braais, loss of waking up not knowing what will happen today. Loss of a future that will never be. That’s a whole lot to grieve.
I love Helsinki as much as I love Cape Town. The difference is I can always live in Helsinki, but I know I’ll never again be living in Cape Town.
If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of feet.
– Rachel Wolchin
Pictures below were taken today during my Sunday morning run. A year ago today I was running Cape Town Marathon. Both were beautiful and enjoyable runs. Completely different.