Three weeks ago, I had never been to Finland before. I have a dear friend, a Finn-turned-American and writer. When I read her stories about her homeland, I imagined a place full of ancient smells —gingerbread, berries, also dark corners, old places, history. But it was still elusive (as she was, too). What better way to get to know a new place, I thought, than trying to understand more about a mysterious friend.
My three weeks here have been quiet, productive, dreamy, cosy, and wonderful. I’d like to thank the city of Sysmä, the wonderful women of the library, Nuoren Voiman Liitto, and especially my fellow writers — Maria, Ruut, Ola, and Alejandro — for all this lovely time.
Here are my field notes:
One version of the story of Finland is all about light.
When the snow arrives, the sky lifts to make room. A gift — the snow gives light to the town just when the days are shortening.
When the snow leaves — sun burning off the stripes on the roof opposite my window — it reveals the earth again, but brighter, burnished green and brown, as if lit from within.
Finns must be finely attuned to light, I think. You can see it in the colours they choose. Our garden gate is old peach brown. The roof over there is pale, marshmallow green. The houses are lavender, paper yellow, purple — the window ledges dark as damson jam. They’re familiar, pestled out of nature’s colours.
When the misty days arrive, Sysmä is grey but glowing.
Lately, the days have been drizzly and clouded-over. Now the sun sets behind the mist at ten minutes to four. The streetlamps blink on and glow wetly through the night, turning the lake festive.
A neighbour hangs candles in the vestibule. The light bounces generously.
On All Saints night, people light candles and fill the graveyard, giving their flickering loves to the dark.
On the night of the new moon, Ola and I light a candle and write down our intentions. We feast on soup and stew. I like the idea of us seen from the town, just another glowing window.
The plots of Sysmä sprawl and weave around the houses. The boundaries marked — barely or not at all — by autumn shrubs that have grown to purple gum. We foreigners accidently stride through our neighbours’ gardens to reach the supermarket. The gardens are different to the ones at home. Here, objects are placed like scenes in a story. A miniature house, a chair, a stuffed bear, a bush with white berries I think might be mistletoe.
With each other, the neighbours are familial. A lady grabs the elbow of her neighbour in the S-Market and tells her a tale. There’s no word for “please” here, my housemate tells me, beaming, which tells you a lot. It’s true, the rhythm of neighbours here is different. They don’t excuse themselves — either they talk or they don’t. But the lack of ceremony doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate each other. The word “thank you” becomes more important. You can see it as they walk away, moved by one another, grateful.
To us, as foreigners, the people are secretive. Walking in their private scenes with quiet, watching faces. It makes me ache for drama. A declaration, a kiss, a fight. But these are always happening offstage.
The high school kids, who are also neighbours, find each other across the street and go off towards one of their houses. I watch after them. The boys’ newly-broken voices are like bells in the mist.
While the villagers light candles in the graveyard, the women of Villa Sarkia take their saturday sauna.
My first ever sauna. It’s been heating up all evening. Now Ruut has taken hers, Ola has taken hers, each emerging calm, skin baby-plump. I take my turn.
At first, it’s just hot. Baking. Breathing up into the steam tastes like salt. Hot sand on a beach. Then, without any exertion, a single bead of sweat plinks to the surface of my skin, rolls over my ribs, to the wooden bench.
The thing about the sauna is that it happens to you. All you have to do is decide to go in, heat the stones, lay down… and if you just stay there, the heat will happen to you, your skin will bounce like rubber, the sweat will come pouring. This feels like a lesson, and I close my eyes to try and learn it.
Afterwards, padding back to my room, I feel sleepy in a way I haven’t for years. Pure sleepy. We stay up a while, quietly drinking Christmas beer and eating our roasted vegetables. I decide to take as many saunas as I possibly can before I leave.
When I looked at Sysmä on the map while completing my application for the residency, I imagined a land like lace. Porous and movable.
On the bus from Lahti, we cross the lake Paijanne in the dark. At first the thin trunks of the silver birches hide the water, but then two horizons of blue appear beside us. Our journey becomes mystical. We are half bus, half boat, half asleep, half awake.
In my first few days at Villa Sarkia, I realise the role the lake plays here. In summer, it is a livelihood. A pleasure boat parked up beside a grill restaurant, picnic benches. In winter, the lake is a constant friend. Multiplying the light, trying to spread it wider.
The lake is not like the sea. When you come upon it, it doesn’t knock your breath away, or remind you suddenly of the size of the world. The lake appears quietly at your feet. But the more you look, the more it shifts and grows and deepens, source of myths, ghosts, hallucinations.
As I take my last walk around the island Ohraseerie and back along the lake, I try to take something of it back with me— some daydream stuff I can use later.
When I get to the house, something’s cooking. In the kitchen, I find Alejandro dressing a fish. He’s been fishing the last few days, but hasn’t caught anything till tonight. The fish is large, upside-down, splayed in two, its grey lip curling like a blade. Alejandro has gutted and cleaned it. Its flesh is shocking white — strange treasure, gift from the lake.