Finding my Family, and Myself, in Finland

By Olivia Koivisto

Last summer, I spent seven weeks interning for the Fulbright Finland program in Helsinki. I went there alone, not knowing the language or much of the culture, and I wondered what would be in store for me in a country I knew very little about.

In the United States, people explain their heritages with “I am…”

“I am Swedish, French and German,” or “I am Russian on my mother’s side and Greek on my fathers,” etc. etc.

We are a country of endless combinations of cultures and I myself have always felt connected to my Italian side. Yet, for some reason, I never really sympathized with my Finnish half.

Perhaps it is because my Italian background had always been louder (literally): the rich foods and familial customs were tied tightly into my life and it was clear where my Italian heritage influenced me. (Plus, my mom made me watch Moonstruck like, eight times).

In fact, throughout my entire life, people assumed my last name was Italian, even though it is one of the most common last names in Finland. I habitually corrected pronunciations, but I never really cared that my last name was being mispronounced.

When I arrived in Finland, no one mispronounced my name. In fact, my first interaction with a Fin was on arrival in the Helsinki airport. He read my passport and asked if I spoke any Finnish. I shook my head “no” but instead of dropping it, this man insisted I must speak Finnish. I looked like a Fin. My name was Finnish. It was a no brainer. I politely reminded him I was an American and he finally succumbed.

This, or a similar interaction, happened four separate times in the airport and many times outside of it.

So, Finland welcomed me with open arms. Even in my first few days, I never felt like an outcast. Without really knowing why, I felt like I belonged.

During my time there, I learned more about the Finnish people. One thing that so stuck out to me was the Finnish people’s almost spiritual connection with nature. Even though I worked in a bustling city, our office was next to river that bled into the Baltic Sea. Tree-covered islands dotted the water and I walked along the sea on running paths that led to thick forests not three miles outside the heart of Helsinki.

My coworkers would discuss their weekend plans of berry picking and hiking in Lapland. I was told I had to have a true Finnish sauna (this includes being lightly slapped with birch branches and then jumping into a cold lake- oftentimes naked) because it “breathes life into you.”

Every day a farmers market stood on a square outside my building. Walking through it I saw little old women that looked like my great grandmother selling handpicked strawberries and wild mushrooms. A fish market behind the square displayed daily catches and served the most delicious soups and homemade breads.

I once took a ferry to a small island called Suomenlinna. Both tourists and locals went out there on beautiful days to have picnics and explore an ancient fortress that still stood there. Finns laid themselves out like seals on the rocks and I remember feeling the salt water in my hair as I sat in a field of daisies looking out at the sea.

I know it sounds like some sort of cheesy fairy tale, but the country really is this beautiful. What was so refreshing about it, though, is that its own people appreciated its nature so deeply.

I, myself have been surrounded with nature my entire life. I have strong memories of camping and swimming in lakes, visiting family cottages and making tree forts. I have always loved the outdoors and appreciated its serenity. This, I got from my father.

Looking back, I realize why I felt so comfortable in Finland. It was my childhood personified. The people were thoughtful, quiet and kind, like my own extended family. The land was serene and respected, just asking to be explored. It was the calmest adventure of my life.

Finland also allowed me to be on my own. I took day trips into the city and quietly explored foreign stores, found small coffee shops and visited festivals. I listened to the buzz of the city and learned a great deal about culture through museums and landmarks. For whatever reason, I do believe that I was meant to do these things on my own. Because of it, I actually listened to my thoughts, truly felt the emotions I was experiencing. I absorbed everything like a sponge and my memories are still incredibly vivid because of it.

Going to Finland, I didn’t expect much. I knew I wouldn’t have trouble communicating and had heard of its beauty, but I had no idea I would fall so deeply in love with the country. My trip allowed me to reconnect with my heritage. I not only learned a great deal about the Finnish culture, but also recognized characteristics in my family and myself that are 100 percent Finnish. I used the serenity of the country and solitude to truly get to know myself better.

Now, I am even prouder of my last name and insist on the correct pronunciation. In my short trip, I connected to my family history in a way I never anticipated. Now I know the significance of my heritage and how it has affected who I have become, and that’s one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in college.