Recently, while escorting my Two Insane Russian Dogs on their afternoon feeding rampage behind the local playground, I stumbled across a scene of domestic chaos: one snot-faced child clamoring over a fence, another escaping through a gate, and a mother-type person pounding on the back door of a house while screaming into her cell phone. So I did what every other Finn was doing: ignored it.
At first it was difficult to suppress my American Hero Complex, but in truth not that hard. I’ve realized, after two years in this wonderfully strange Nordic land, that getting involved with such situations only makes for an embarrassing clash of oppositional cultural mores played out in broken English and mangled Finnish.
Privacy, you see, comes at a premium in Finland. It’s less of an aura than it is a veritable force field. Unless you’re sardined in a train car on a Friday night – in which case every drunken hobbit feels obligated to rub their butt cheeks on your arm – then two meters of separation is generally expected (as evidenced by Exhibit A, “Scene from a Finnish Bus Stop”):
I sensed that something was different on my very first day visiting Finland. While out hiking on a remote windswept isthmus, I passed only one hale elderly couple with poles strapped to their hands (which I assumed were for fending off ravenous penguins); the couple not only didn’t say hello, but in order to maintain the two-meter boundary they veered to the far side of the path, plummeted into a deep gulch, and scrambled up the side of a steep thorn-covered hill (where they were swiftly disemboweled by a pair of nesting polar bears).
When I had told my future wife about the unnerving coldness of her comrades, she merely laughed. What did I expect, for the strangers and I to actually, you know, acknowledge each other’s existence? No, Finnish Wife said, she finds the opposite to be more terrifyingly criminal: how Americans and Brits will speak to strangers for no reason other than the overabundance of love in their hearts. Life is much easier when one simply suppresses their emotions until they congeal into vomit.
Still, this screaming-pounding-wailing display I was witnessing was particularly disturbing, and a bold one for the (stereo)typically modest Finns. Had it been winter, the noises would have been attributed to vampiric reindeer and the mountains of snow would have shielded the action from voyeurs such as myself. But right now, and for months to follow, Finland is awash in near-constant daylight, making it downright impossible to have a wizz on the bumper of the neighbor’s BMW without the entire country witnessing it through the misty windows of their saunas.
It’s no secret that the majority of Finns don’t like attention. When they were slapped with the label of “Best Overall Country”, a Finnish newspaper did some quick math and determined that Switzerland should actually be the winner. Indeed, Finland’s aversion to attention is so great that they are now building their cities not outwards and upwards but downwards.
Such modesty is, for a supercilious hermit such as myself, infectious. More and more I feel myself adopting the disposition of my new comrades, and with each conversation become more attuned to the fact that my emotions dominate my speech. Conversely, Finns will rarely, if ever, reveal their inner workings to someone who isn’t related to them by blood or beer.
Emotional withdrawal, of course, easily becomes passivity or outright ignorance. After dragging my dogs off the merry-go-round, we passed through a horde of drunken grade-schoolers, one of which lay face-down in a pile of something brown and steaming. Again, I felt compelled to act: chide them, berate them, throw gang signs, but again I did nothing. When I spotted my stepson and his friends using a stolen grocery cart to push their books home from school, I closed the shades. When my dog came home with a freshly exhumed femur, I helped him pry up a few floor planks to hide it underneath. Life is so much more peaceful when you mind your own business!
Eventually the screaming woman got back into her house. I know this because the truth is that I turned around a block later and spied from behind some trees. The screaming ceased; the children were corralled back into their pen; no one seemed to have lost an arm or eyeball; my dogs urinated on a tricycle. I felt better about myself. Everything is ok. Never doubt that a single, thoughtful citizen can change the world, even if he isn’t a citizen and hasn’t done anything except stand by and observe someone else’s private parts.