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I should be in school right now, steeling my ear canals against a six-hour onslaught of Finnish verb conjugation, suffixal agglutination, and phonemic molestation. While there, I’d watch the sky go from black to leaden to wan and back again. I’d pour coffee in one end of my body and drain it out the other. I’d envy the reindeer begging for alms outside the nearby train station. I’d weep.

Four weeks ago I woke up in a cold sweat. By my fourth cup of coffee I’d broken into a hot sweat. And after pedaling myself over to a nondescript building near the railway station, I was glistening with a gooey, stinky sweat. It was, you see, my first day of Finnish school.

I locked my bike to the paw of a sleeping polar bear and sought out my classroom; it was empty, but students of all nationalities were waiting just outside the door. I assumed this was some sort of European thing. Being American, I went inside and chose the best desk and spread my belongings over a wide swath. I then marked my territory and drank some more hot caffeinated beverage. By the time the teacher showed up, I was panting heavily and stewing in a puddle of my own bodily fluids.

We didn’t actually learn any Finnish that first day, but we did learn not to wear perfume, and that our teacher is pregnant (which she conveyed to us by gesturing toward her nether regions while saying, “plop!”).

One month later, things are a little different: I can now say, in Finnish, how old I am. I can count to one hundred and I can tell time. Life is really progressing for me. This is exactly where I wanted to be at age 35.

I also now know that Finnish is not actually the most difficult language on the planet. It’s second, after Penguin. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of it all. Just trust me on this one. Finnish is mouth murder.*

Fortunately I’m not alone. I’ve got twenty-two courageous and fantastic classmates. In fact, the rapport between us is frighteningly cordial. We greet one another with “hyvää huomenta” (“good morning”), handshakes and even slappy-hug-but-not-quite-hug things, even though many of our countries are at war with one another.**

It’s almost creepy. I’ve never been that type of person – the type who gets along with other people. I’ve always seen classmates as an obstacle between myself and the bathroom. But this is Finland, where things are different. Immigration is a relatively new concept for Finns (who aren’t quite sure why anyone would move here), often leaving us foreigners as befuddled as drunken elk. We foreigners stick together because we’re engaged in war of our own against this nation’s violent, spasm-inducing language.

And our teachers? They’re the language’s ninjas – hefty, female, Caucasian ninjas who replace one another without warning. Some of these ninjas are old and mean and loud, while some are ancient and aloof and Magoo-eyed. Some charge one euro every time a cell phone rings, or when an English or Arabic phoneme leaks out, while others freely quote Sex and the City or Serpico.

But one thing is for sure: you don’t mess with ninjas, and you don’t mess with Finnish teachers. The teaching profession is, for Finns, as serious as swordplay. Teaching is not only an honor, it’s a highly competitive field that puts one in the realm of lawyers and politicians.

Despite all this, Finnish teachers are no better paid than in the U.S. and their jobs require half a lifetime of education and certification. For many, it’s simply an honor – an act of patriotism. Yes, Finnish teachers are somewhat bad-ass. Our main teacher, despite being close to plopping, rarely sits down, doesn’t fill our hours with busy work, and after class arms herself with a thick binder and yardstick and prevents Russian samurais from infiltrating the country.

Her main job, though, is to prepare us for our first real test, which takes place one month from now. If we do not pass this test, we will be cut from the class. If we are cut from the class, we may be cut from the labor market program that oversees our integration. If we are cut from the labor program, we will be left to wander for all of eternity on the frozen banks of a country where we have no idea what anyone is saying. (Plus we won’t get our 25 € per day stipend, which is about what Finnish teachers are paid.)

I shouldn’t be worried. I do my homework, study, and honor the ninjas for five hours a day. I’m learning so much Finnish that it gurgles in the back of my head like a sewage pipe. I should be able to make the grade. But throw in words like “suuryritysrypäs”*** or “epäjärjestelmällisyydellis tyttymättömyydellänsäkään,”**** and all bets are off. I might as well take up Penguin. At least they tell good knock-knock jokes.

Ninjas and tests aside, here’s the thing that you’ll never here me say out loud: although I rebelled and sweated and suffered an infarction or two, after a couple weeks the truth became as evident as a big fresh reindeer turd – I like learning Finnish, despite having to leave the house to do so. It’s nice, after being in this country for 14% of my life, to be able to understand the label on a can of beans (contents: beans). It’s nice to be able to swear at the kids who are using a stolen lawnmower as a bongo at 4 a.m. It’s nice to pretend I have a future in this strange arctic wonderland. I’ve always been a dreamer, and soon I’ll be able to delude myself in two languages. Wish me luck.

* But let me bore you anyways: for starters, there are some 16 cases, which are all suffixal and conditional and constantly mutating according to context. The language is phonetic, meaning that one must pronounce each and every letter within a word. Finnish does not naturally use B, C, F, X, Q, W or Z, and A, E, I, O, U and Y (“eeyuu”) are all pronounced differently than English vowels (plus it contains Ä and Ö). Many words have double vowels and double consonants, and sometimes entire rows of these pairs are lined up just waiting to humiliate you. As well, the arrangement of letters within a word determines (in addition to the case!), what its respective suffix will be. IT’S F***ING INSANE.

** I suppose it’s more accurate to say that the U.S. is at war with their countries.

*** Pronounced something like soor-eeuw-reet-oos-reeuw-pass.

**** Seppuku is more preferable than trying to pronounce this, though it’s likely that any four-year-old Finnish child could tear through it with one eye closed.


As I mentioned in my wildly popular first column (nine different Viagra spammers linked to it from southern China), my wife and I agreed that if I moved into her little yellow house on the edge of the Nordic floe known as Finland, she’d sort of support me while I kind of wrote my novel. Happily, we both fulfilled our contracts. Sadly, as many of you writer and reader types know, the publishing industry moves at the curmudgeonly tempo of a thawing mammoth. Which is another way of saying my Golden Ticket® has yet to arrive. Which is another way of saying I’m broke and desperate.

Thus I’ve come to an icy, vague, windswept crossroads of sorts. One path leads to some horrid, rend-your-soul-in-half corporate serfdom; the second leads to language school; the last one leads to a computer where I can sit and repeatedly email my agent to see if any editors have changed their minds.

While learning the native language of the country in which I’m living seems like a good idea, after seven years of higher education I’m not exactly itching to squeeze my aging skeleton into a kiddie desk for the next – not kidding – five hundred weekdays. For six to eight hours per day. Plus studying time.

Despite the rich, multi-textured dread that language school evokes, I’ve begrudgingly begun the enrollment process, which begins with an interview and some paperwork. That interview is then followed up by a meeting in which you fill out more paperwork discussing your most recent interview. That meeting is followed by an interview discussing the most recent paperwork. If all goes well, and the door to the office you’re in actually unlocks, you then return for another interview and a “language test” that can best be described as a “circle-the-word-that-is-spelled-identically-to-the-one above” test. It’s so easy that our Insane Russian Dogs could do it while gnawing on the underside of the sofa. It’s so easy you leave feeling deeply, truly stupid. I really hope I passed.

During these interviews and meetings and paperwork sessions I have been repeatedly asked what I do for a living. I won’t lie: I live for this question. Despite the fact that I rarely get paid to write, and despite the fact that my book doesn’t yet exist, and perhaps never will, I still like to give myself the cute little label of “writer –novelist.” (Some days I spend hours making these labels with my wife’s glitter pens and posing in the bathroom mirror. My author photo alone will win awards.)

So when an interviewer asks this question, my eyeballs start to shake and my heart hopscotches. I sit up straight, tilt my head eleven degrees to the northeast, and tell them exactly who I think I am.

Interviewer nods, types.

You might think such an inarguable testament of identity would be grounds for further discussion. You might think that in a country where the literacy rate is 100% – a country that reads more books per capita than anywhere else in the world – some might consider it interesting to find an aspiring semi-young American writer in their foggy midst. Fantasy and reality, however, rarely feed from the same trough. Outside of these bureaucratic settings – in two years of living in Finland – only a single person has asked me what I do, or don’t do, for a non-living. Family, friends, the children we hire to clean the polar bear’s cage – doesn’t matter. Instead we discuss: hockey, snow, snow-hockey, hockey pucks made from compacted snow, and hockey that is played on the pavement during the five summer days in which there is no snow. If I want to talk about my meta-career, I have to corner some reindeer in the back yard and bribe them with fried blueberries.

Making matters worse is the fact that my wife, who never dreamed of writing books, has not only published her first hugely successful cookbook, but has begun work on her follow-up. Instead of asking about my non-existent book, people ask me which of my wife’s dishes I am going to massacre tonight.

I am humbled by my inadequacy.

Most days it feels selfish and petty to complain about such problems when so many people are involved in much direr circumstances – revolutions, earthquakes, polar bear attacks. At the same time, writing is my own personal anarchy, a way to subsist outside of systems. Of course such a notion is purely illusion, as the only way my writing will make it to publication is via a series of systems – agent, publisher, retailer, etc. And yet again it’s a system I can abide by, one that is leaps and bounds beyond the systems I’ve spent my whole life trying to escape. Systems like the ones in which I’ve found myself entrenched since arriving in Finland.

Right now the Finnish Language System is on the horizon. Fortunately, since all of Finland remains encased in three meters of ice, I’ve got time to sit and fret and scheme. Unfortunately, Russia recently sent over a nuclear icebreaker to smash apart the ocean and bring with it the first rays of spring sunlight. In the process they’ll probably run across my career. I can only hope that when it thaws out, it isn’t already dead.


Recently, while teaching my pet polar bear and two Insane Russian Dogs how to sculpt ice with a chainsaw, I spotted a young woman dragging a baby carriage through a foot of hateful, sludgy snow. She appeared flummoxed and frustrated, snow pouring over the tops of her Ugg (ugh!) boots, icicle towers crashing to the ground all around her. The baby carriage’s wheels soon clogged to the point of complete immobility, and when the woman stopped to dig through her purse for a spare ice axe, she let out an audible whimper.

Being a typical American afflicted with some innate savior-samaritan complex, I rushed over to help. But – perhaps because Finns are markedly tough and resourceful, or perhaps because my Insane Russian Dogs were snuffling at the little human covered in its own frozen drool – the woman presented me with an uncommonly horrified expression. Despite my offer in three different languages to assist, the woman simply said “no,” took out her cell phone, and presumably bided her time until the spring thaw. There was no: “Thank you, but I’m ok,” or “Be gone, creepy Yank.” Just a well-rehearsed turn of the shoulder and a brutally disdainful sideways glance. I was offended. And in the typical reaction of someone who judges that which he doesn’t understand, I stormed back inside and updated my Facebook status.

Not two days later the scene repeated itself. This time I was busy filling the neighbor’s mailbox with snow (we’re at war, it’s a long story) when another woman, mistaking me for a smart person, ventured into our yard to ask for directions. She also had a baby carriage in tow. Before she could hand over her map of Finland (a monstrous white sheet with a tiny “You Are Here” in the middle), her two-inch heels gave out and she and the baby carriage splashed into the snow. The dogs howled. The reindeer scattered. The polar bear strained at the end of his chain. The baby wailed with joy.

After we pried her carriage loose, the woman asked me how to get to a particular church. I’ve heard of these things called churches. I believe they’re the pointy white things on the horizon. I directed her toward the nearest one (which actually ended up being an electric tower) and made the sign of the cross. The woman thanked me, stepped out of the yard, and promptly vanished into a crevasse.

This, my first uncut Finnish winter, has hosted many such events. While it hasn’t been particularly cold, the snow has been unholy and merciless. There’s so much that there’s really nowhere else to pile it. Neighbors can be seen tossing it back and forth over their fences in an infinite loop of futility. If you throw the snow into the street, the plow shoves it back into your yard. If you pile it against the house, the white stuff seeps into your basement and creeps up the stairs. Often you’ll be trudging to the store and will stumble over a shopping cart, an airplane wing, or the mail man.

Fortunately, the Finnish landscape is flat enough that we don’t get many avalanches. Unfortunately, the land is so flat that snow can’t be bothered to melt. Last year in Helsinki, the country’s southernmost city, the Municipal Snow Dump didn’t fall below the one-meter line until September 15th. All of Finland celebrated by peeling their snowsuits down to the waist, then got back to shoveling.

While the country may be big on snow, that’s about all that’s big here. Kitchens, roads, stores, sodas, stomachs, etc. are much more humble in volume. Even in the thick of winter, Finns drive around in cars not much bigger than a bicycle. (Often you’ll see forty or fifty clowns climbing out of them outside Alko, the state-run booze store.) SUVs are used as school buses and tow trucks. Houses that are large by Finnish standards would be considered foyers in the U.S.

Yes, Americans could learn a lot from Finland. Especially humility. But that’s not to say that Finland couldn’t learn a lot from the U.S.: the last time I was visiting my homeland, I stood in line queue behind a woman who wanted to know where she could throw out a coffee cup. Because she was above average in aesthetic pleasantness, an assortment of male courtesans appeared from the sky to assist her. None quite had a plan for the trash though, and the man who “won” it ended up shoving it in his coat pocket (perhaps to be used in future Voodoo rituals). Conversely, upon returning to Finland I saw a man try to help an old woman out of the path of an oncoming train. The woman spat, swung her handbag at him, and called him a “smelly c***.” And that was her being polite.

I guess in Finland being helped is ultimately a sign of weakness. It’s just not in their nature. Which is why I’m piling snow in the trunk of the neighbor’s car. I just can’t help myself.