20 Years from Finland

A kitchen timer is an indispensable tool.

I don’t have one. Instead, I use the timer on the stove. It works well because it’s digital. Although, the smallest available unit is minutes, which is sometimes too long.

I digress.

There are a number of dates that are particularly important to me. At each anniversary, something fills the air and makes me a little uneasy. My id is enlivened, I suppose. This is especially true when my ego is being forgetful.

One of them, August 18, 2001, is such a date. It’s the day I got on a plane to begin my student exchange in Finland. It was the day that my life started to change in unexpected ways, inasmuch as life is predictable.

At the very beginning of this year, I started looking forward to August 18 because I wanted to make sure to take the time to commemorate what was, and still is, an informative sojourn. As it approached, I thought about preparing something in advance but decided against it, thinking that it’d be better to wait. As the 18th got closer, I would wake up in the mornings thinking, There’s something special about today, but could never quite put my finger on it. Incidentally, I know a fair number of people — probably close to five — who have a birthday in August. This tripped me and my memory up a bit. The day passed without incident.

This morning, I saw a picture on Instagram that one of my host-sisters reposted. It was a picture of her holding her older sister’s — another one of my host-sisters — baby-child which had originally been posted on her older sister’s Instagram. In total, I had three host-sisters and one host-brother. We look nothing alike. The picture reminded me that I missed my commemoration of August 18, the 20th anniversary of the day that set in motion a new direction for my life.

When I was visiting my folks earlier in the summer, prior to August 18, I saw my graduation photo sitting on the mantle. I hardly recognised the young man in the picture, with his shiny, gelled hair, sharp jawline, high cheekbones, hairless ears decorated with earrings, and immature necktie. I remember thinking, That’s a good-looking kid.

He was the boy who left his parents’ home to embark on a journey that would show him himself by taking away the things he knew.

The boy who returned, some 19 years ago, is still growing up.

Before leaving, in March of 2001, we exchange students went on a retreat in Red Deer, a small town between Calgary and Edmonton. While there, exchange students from across Alberta told us about their experiences and shared youthful wisdom. I remember exactly two things from that weekend:

  1. Eat in small bites because people will ask you questions while you’re eating.
  2. Don’t leave with a girlfriend left behind.

On March 15, about a week after the retreat, my greatest teenaged love affair began. We were together for five months and three days.

I called her from a Finnish payphone while at an introductory retreat in late August — there were a lot of retreats — after a Swedish lesson. I called to tell her, “‘Jag älskar dig’ is how you say, ‘I love you’ in Swedish.” It was the first of many collect calls.

When I got back from Finland, I gathered everything I had that reminded me of her, put it all in a box, taped it shut, and labelled it: M— IN A BOX. I opened the box a few years ago and put everything back.

The tragedy of my Finnish experience is that I was unable to reconcile my experience abroad with what I knew of the world at home. When I left, I took what I knew with me. When I returned, I brought what I learned back.

On the surface, my 18-year-old identity was solid. I was a straight-A student because I didn’t take gym beyond the mandatory half-semester. I was good-looking, as I established earlier. I was faithful because I still believed in God. And, I was good, because I cared. But, I was also naive, which was my undoing.

For the first time in my life, I couldn’t escape a challenging situation. The power balance had shifted on me.

Before leaving, I was finally gaining some longed-for independence at home. I had a job and access to a car. I had a smoking hot girlfriend who I loved and was loved by. I had multiple offers from leading universities in the country. The logical next step was for me to leave home and find my way.

In Finland, I was under the care of a host family. There were rules to follow, the four Ds: no drinking, no driving, no drugs, and no dating. I broke all of them because I turned into a badass. School didn’t matter because I had already graduated. I didn’t understand the language and couldn’t learn it fast enough. 9/11 happened just two weeks after I landed and the world started looking at people with my complexion and facial features differently.

None of these are excuses. It’s all experience.

Ultimately, what my exchange experience did was uncover a world I was unaware of. It’s hard for me to believe that I’m still dealing with the fallout of such an awakening. When I think back on the moments that changed my life, the experience I had in Finland, taken in its entirety, stands out. It ungrounded me while setting me on a new path, one that is my own.

There’s no telling how things could have been different. I used to have regrets about my experience but no longer do. It’s the experiences we have in life that shape us. It’s how we respond to those experiences that define us. The difference between how we’re shaped and how we’re defined is slight because having an experience and responding to it must necessarily coexist.

Only recently, maybe within that last two years, have I started to turn over chicken wings and fries when I cook them in the oven. I’ve always read the instructions to set the timer for 25 minutes and then flip the wings and fries over halfway through. I was too lazy to get up from waiting for them to cook. But as it turns out, they taste better when you make the effort to flip them over.

Sure, you have to set the timer twice but it’s easy enough to reset. Sometimes, I just ask Siri.


Leave a Reply