Home From My Homeland
When another land holds your childhood, there’s always the urge to go back. So Eva-Lis returned to Finland, and found that home is really where your heart is
IN TWO HOURS more I’d be in Finland, for the first time in 18 years. I stared out of the small window of the K.L.M. Flying Dutchman at the green fields of Denmark fading away, at the widening gap of Kattegat Strait. In about two hours, I thought, past and present would become one, and I would be home—or would I be home? I searched in my heart for excitement and found an oddly dispassionate wonder. It’s only about two more hours now, I kept telling myself. After 18 years.
Then the pretty East Indian stewardess with slanted black eyes came up. “The captain would like to see you.”
I walked to the cockpit. Two characters, a lean blond young man and a stocky, Humphrey-Bogartish one grinned at me. “Cheers,” the blond one said. “I’m Frank Rock, Edmonton, originally. This is Tuchak, he claims to be from Montreal.” Canadians—K.L.M. pilots.
The void of emotion I’d been contemplating began to fill up. I thought: How right, my new
countrymen taking me back to my old land. Here’s the tie. Here is a fact I can grasp.
We shouted above the roar of the engines, the accent three weeks in Europe had sharpened into a homey Canadian sound to me ringing staccato in the cockpit. You spoke another English to these guys than you did to foreigners. They knew what you knew. You didn’t have to explain colloquialisms.
“You better stay and have dinner with us in Stockholm. It’ll be midnight before you’ll get to Helsinki,” Frank Rock shouted.
Hey, They’re Speaking Finnish!
THANKS. Love to. Can’t.” I shouted back. “After moaning for years that I wanted to go to Finland, how’d I explain to Maclean’s I stayed in Stockholm for dinner on my way there?”
“After 18 years what’s a night?” Tuchak wanted to know.
It was Canadian, and familiar, and now the plane was coming over Stockholm and to the twilight of Bromma, the airport. I got out and there was another, a smaller ship, drawn close. Blue and white tail, “Finnish Airlines” painted on the silver side, in blue.
“A big, juicy, rare steak,” Frank Rock said, grinning, as he u’alked by.
“I’m getting on that thing,” I nodded toward the Finnish plane. “Thanks all the same.”
Two people behind me were speaking Finnish.
I had to keep myself from turning to stare at them.
Weleft almost immediately, but below the lights had come on. This was a smaller plane, less comfortable. A converted Dakota, I think. There was a draught. We headed east, into the night. For a while rain beat against the windows and
I remembered how I’d stood, 12 years old. and utterly alone, on board ship 18 years ago, and rain had come down in grey streaks, and Finland had drawn away from the ship. I don’t think I’d cried then.
Perhaps that was why I’d carried for long inside me a feeling that was like a stone, and dark.
Nobody but a Finn could ever understand this almost sensual love all Finns have for their land. I knew it to be ununderstandable for I’d tried explaining it often, to friends carefully, to acquaintances with examples. And yet, now, after nearly two thirds of my life away, coming back, I felt nothing. Nothing at all, nothing.
When we came out of the rain there was new land below. Black and silver in the moonlight. Black forests and headlands streaked liberally with moon-silvered lakes, flying through the night toward Helsinki.
I came out into the black northern night carrying the armful of Dutch flowers I’d got only some five hours earlier at the Schipol airport, in Amsterdam, and for a moment I felt like turning sharply back, and getting into the plane and saying, “Home, James.”
While my bags went without fuss through the customs I stopped to buy Finnish marks. I got the official rate of 130 marks to a dollar. They were huge, handsome bills worth, I was to find out, hardly anything. “No paper shortage here,” I said to the sleepy girl at the desk.
She looked at me in a puzzled way. It was a feeble joke but she appeared so perturbed I explained: “Such large bills. Obviously you have
plenty of paper here.”
She nodded seriously. “Yes. It is one of our main exports.” I remembered my mother. Sometimes even yet she makes a Finnish joke and it doesn’t come of! at all in English.
Lovers in the Leafless Park
THE AIRLINE BUS came through the dark, unfamiliar city, skirting the bays and inlets of the Gulf of Finland which fingers Helsinki. I’d never known the capital well. My city had been Viipuri, an ancient fortress town and seaport , now in Russia on the oilier side of the new border. Helsinki was utterly strange—yet, oddly, even at night, recognizable.
The few passengers in the bus were speaking Finnish and the whole thing felt like one of those dreams you recognize as a dream even while you’re having it. 1 wanted to talk to them and I was scared to open my mouth.
Everybody vanished pretty quickly when t he bus stopped, and I said in Finnish to the incurious young boy wbo was closing the airport office, “I want to go to Hotel Kamp. Would you get me a cab?”
He stared at me for a moment as though az deaf-mute had
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spoken. He waved a hand carelessly. “It’s just there. Close enough to walk.” “Well, phone them and ask them to send for my stuff,” 1 said.
He turned back from the phone. “They haven’t, a reservation for you. So they aren’t sending anyone.”
„ What a home-coming I thought. This couldn’t happen in Kdrnonton. Tlu* night breeze stirred and was cold.
“Where did you say Kamp was?” I asked. “They must be wrong.”
“Down there, just before that blue light,” the boy said. I stared at my luggage at the curb and I remembered the times I’d preached of Finnish honesty in Canada, and 1 thought, well, now’s the time to prove it.
I walked away from my possessions, carrying only the Dutch flowers, down tin* echoing night-held street, by couples loitering home, whispering Finnish words of love. This must be the Esplanade, 1 thought, choosing the park side of the street. In Holland, five hours ago, there had been flowering fields, blossoming trees, here the hart branches were black against the moonlit sky. And it was cold.
Well, things straightened out. 1 had a reservation. A boy found my hags, including a typewriter, precisely where I’d left them on the curb. 1 telephoned an aunt, in another city and she said, with the lovely Finnish stoicism, completely ignoring the 18 years between and my surprise arrival; “Do drop in when you get the chance.”
1 went to sleep smiling, the Finnish
words of the young man and woman under the leafless trees of the Esplanade singing oddly in my ears. “Rakkaani, rakkaant,” he had said. Which means, “My love, my love.”
I sometimes believe you think most cleat ly that moment before you are ¡ quite awake, when you are struggling to leave the freedom of whatever dimension sleep is. Everything is possible then, and understandable, and simple.
So, that first morning in Finland, coming out of sleep to listen for a moment for the sound of the dulcet j chimes from the Mint Tower, across j a canal from my room in a hotel in j Amsterdam, I recognized the univerj salit v of my position which I had often, egotistically, considered unique. I was one of millions of people in the world with a dual heritage. Mine was Finnish j and Canadian. I had two countries, ; two tongues, two utterly different back¡ grounds. What I had set to find out for myself was the extent of each one’s | hold on me; the possibility, or impossibility of dual loyalties. For that matj ter. being completely personal about j the whole thing, I wanted to root out a j few complexes.
The Finland I had constructed in 18 years, for myself and my friends in Canada, was quite a place. The two Finnish wars had helped in the idealization program. Here was this northern Eden, with honest, freedom-loving, upright people who hadn’t even a minor stain on their escutcheon, fighting I valiantly for their belief in man’s right ; to live as he wishes. A modern, literate, ¡ sane country, peopled by stoic courage! ous folk.
A good friend once said that, whenever 1 spoke of Finland flags plumed bright against a blue sky and the trumpets blew. I recognized now I'd handicapped my birthland. Here I was back, at a difficult time, to check up on a child’s lost land of green summers, on a song and an ideal.
I was back as a Canadian, familiar of northern Ontario wilds, of the old white villages of the St. Lawrence shore, of Cape Breton hills and Laurentian trout pools and Newfoundland outports. I was back, a Finnish Canadian—unable to go back to my own city, or to the Isthmus or the Viipuri Islands I had known through childhood summers, for these, now, were in Russian-held territory.
I considered all this that first morning in Finland, beating my own chest as I’m doing right now, figuring out the cosmic significance of a spot such as this. The only reason I can think of for writing this, besides for figuring it out for myself, is that there are tens of thousands of my fellow Canadians more or less in the very same spot. Dually beholden. And, personally, I don’t think the old-type immigrant who came out to “America” merely to make enough money to live comfortably somewhere else is worth bis salt. I think it’s logical to acknowledge a debt to the new land that gives you your home, your living, and security, at least in loyalty, if not always in love. The pull of the first love is an undeniable fact.
Lunch Tab for Two: $30
So that’s what 1 thought about, standing barefooted by the window (in Canada I’d always said Finns were so clean you could eat off their floors) looking at the Esplanade park and a small child in yellow, feeding the pigeons. And that’s when there was a knock on the door and a little man in a long, worn leather coat walked in before I could even open my mouth to say “enter.”
He greeted me by name and announced I probably needed money. I got behind a chair and asked his name and business.
“I came to buy some dollars,” he said. And gave an Italian name, explaining be was born in Finland, despite it. Sun came pouring in, he looked incredibly cheerful and I began to be amused.
“How much would you give me?” I asked.
“Three hundred and twenty marks for dollar bills. Two hundred and seventy-five if it’s in travelers cheques. Both of them are more than double legal value.”
“How can you afford it?” 1 asked.
“People need money going traveling,” he said. “There are restrictions on how many dollars you may buy. Simple?”
“But it’s black market,” 1 said.
“It doesn’t harm anybody,” he assured me. “Everybody does it.”
Well, I thought to myself as he left: honesty is the best policy.
And then I got dressed and went out on the street and the magic began.
First of all it began with my ears. All around me there was the soft liquid sound of Finnish, spoken by all the passers-by. Odd phrases floated to my ears. The people in the shops, the streetcar ticket collector—they all spoke Finnish. You turned on the radio and music you’d gone far to hear for 18 years, if you had heard it at all, came pouring out. It was, literally, the most fantastic acoustic performance I’ve ever put my ears through.
Yet, in this scene that was so familiar while being so foreign, realities kept popping up.
I went to lunch, that first day, with a man from the Foreign Ministry. The restaurant was called Monte Carlo and was like any pleasant spot in New York. We had schnapps with the hors d’oeuvres, white wine with the omelet, a Finnish liqueur called “mesimarja likonri” with the coffee. I asked to see the hill. It came to 2,862 Finnish marks. That’s nearly $30 for two people.
“It’s only in the last year we’ve had enough food,” my host said. “Up until then it wasn’t much fun. Just turnips for breakfast, turnips for lunch, turnips for tea. An alert publisher brought out a cookbook full only of recipes on how to disguise turnips.”
He smiled. “We had a story at that time about a Finn and a Russian talking. The Russian said, ‘Really, you Finns are boors. You only talk about food. We Russians, we talk about culture.’ The Finn said, ‘Why not? People always talk about the thing they haven’t got.’ ”
He spoke in a perfectly normal, reasonably loud voice. The waiter permitted himself to smile too. There didn’t appear to be a single shadow cast by an eastern curtain.
“Is it safe to tell those sort of stories in public spots?” I asked.
My host looked puzzled. “Why not?” he said.
“Are there many Russians around?”
I asked hesitantly.
“No,” he said. “They know we don’t like them. Also, I believe they have orders not to fraternize. We might teach them to think.”
Everywhere I’d been in Europe I’d heard talk of “the next war.” During my fortnight in Finland I didn’t hear if, mentioned once. The nearest I earn«* to a warlike crack was one night at a popular cabaret. An entertainer turned up swathed in a sacklike, bright red cloak. “1 am the Red Shadow,” he announced in heavy tones. “1 hear all, see all, know all hut what can I do about it?” The audience chuckled approvingly.
“Of course you know that the Red Shadow is the hero in an old Hungarian musical comedy,” a member of the party explained to me, eyes twinkling. “That’s the story and we’ll stick to it. If necessary.”
As far as I could figure it out these people, forced into extremely heavy terms by the Allies, had made their pad with the Russians, so they were keeping it. They don’t have time to complain, nor do they have time for fear. Their native ability to take a day at a time, rather fatalistically, has turned to good advantage.
I think the fact that I had come home hit me at a perfectly mundane cocktail party. There were lots of people there, Finns, Swedes, few British, French. It could have been
Canada, except for one thing. Even after 18 years in Canada there wíl 1 come a moment at each group, at tea or dinner or during an evening’s conversation, at which I suddenly recognize myself excluded. It’s not done unkindly and when sometimes I’ve spoken of it I’ve got my ears pinned back by friends and told I was imagining things.
But it isn’t so. I think it’s partly the common background, partly thinking formed by shared experiences that unites happy, fortunate people into a freemasonry from which—with no desire on their part, I repeat—the foreigner or the stranger is excluded.
Well, here, in this strange Finland, upon a spring afternoon of pale yellow sunlight, a tall fellow told a story, and 1 was inside the laughter, not outside.
I noticed it again and again after that. For the first time in my life I consciously recognized the joy of being a 1
part of the pattern, accepted without explanations, included without question or hesitation, despite the fact that this was a land and a people 1 knew only with my heart. Despite the fact that I was a visitor.
The past tugged at me, the bonds were strong. This, too, I realized the morning the three Karelians came to see me.
Karelia is the eastern province, almost entirely in Russian territory now. When they took over they invited the population to remain in their homes. Of the some 450,000 people concerned 12 stayed behind. The rest of them are Finland’s biggest postwar problem, and one of the reasons for the desperate housing shortage. 1 am a Karelian myself—Viipuri, the city where 1 was born, was the ancient capital of the province. Karelians are gayest of the Finnish tribes, the singing gay fatalists, poets, musicians and soothsayers.
On the telephone I’d been told about the Karelian Society and the point of the visit was to tell me more. But when I came down to meet the three serious men who waited for me in the lobby, we talked of the land instead, pored over photographs of destroyed Viipuri, and recalled spots and scenes I ached to see again, and probably never shall.
And then the big man, member of Parliament still for a riding that no longer exists in Finland, spoke of his home on the Isthmus.
“My goodness,” I said, “that’s where we went for summers.”
“It’s really not at the station,” he ! said, “our farm was by Suula Lake.”
“So was our villa,” I said, and described the point and the elaborate, towered, balconied wooden monstrosity that had been the house.
Slowly a vast smile spread over his face. “I used to bring fish to sell to your house,” he said. We beamed at j one another.
“If one could only go back,” I said.
Takes Time to Get a Visa
The three of them looked at nothing. Then the most loquacious of the three said. “T rain to St. Petersburg stops two hours in Viipuri. You can get. out and walk around. Some people have seen the city. Nothing much there now. Ruins. You must get a visa from the Russians.”
I called the Soviet Embassy that day and explained who 1 was and said I’d very much like to go and visit the city where I was born. The press attaché, Colonel Pakkanen, spoke Finnish and suggested I call the consulate.
“I haven’t got much time,” 1 said. “Can you hurry up the matter?”
“If you haven’t much time,” he said, “l don’t think there is a chance of you getting a visa. These things take time.”
1 called the consulate for four days in a row and never got anyone who’d speak anything but Russian. I couldn’t reach Pakkanen again.
But one day, on a train, I spoke to a man about my unreasonable anxiety to see again places I had known as a child. He smiled. “The nights are too light now,” he said. And changed the subject.
Despite the housing shortage and the compulsory boarders (one room per person by law) the Finns entertain in their homes. But even at restaurants, or formal dinners, they will burst into song at merest suggestion. 1 think it was this singing that completely cemented my return.
1 can’t carry a tune myself, but I like to sing all the same and to hear others sing. In Finland it isn’t necessarily a planned group around a piano. For example, soon after arrival I spoke of a song that I’ve always loved, “To
Karjalan kunnailla lehtii puu . . .” —“On Karelia’s hills the trees are turning green.” This was at a formal dinner, with perhaps 50 people, but quite simply they all sang it right through, part singing beautifully by the second verse. A group of young university students got together one night, just to sing through their vast repertoire of songs. No accompaniment, no refreshments.
Many of these songs I had known as a child. Peculiarly they bridged, in* sound, the years, as I don’t suppose anything else could have.
Canada’s My Home for Keeps
The songs were there, as a key to familiarity, too, when for Easter I went north to visit an uncle I had not seen since I was eight. Here were cousins and their husbands, and small children who said “aunt”—the first time I’ve ever been called aunt by anyone—absolute strangers to whom you didn’t have to explain anything, because they knew everything, from family skeletons to all your Christian names.
Here, too, by my uncle’s 500-year-old church, was the old churchyard and between the moss-covered, centuriesold stones there were crisp rows of small white crosses there only since 1939 and 1940. And there a tall young cousin who’d been four and full of devilment when I’d last seen him. Even a grave is singularly moving when, on a churchyard hilltop, above the lake and the village, the church bells ringing—you find it belongs to you.
So it went for some 10 days. I was finding that roots are not destroyed in 18 years; that race knowledge stays acute if latent in your mind through long separation; that whatever the circumstances and whether in the cities and hills I’d personally known or not Finland could never be strange to me.
And then, my last night in Finland, I was asked to make a speech, quite impromptu. So 1 got up, and I told them about Canada. And I found that with no second thought, and with utmost sincerity, I spoke as a Canadian. I was explaining about my country, wanting it to be understood and loved, to good friends.
I thought about this often, in the three, four weeks in Holland and England, before an aircraft again approached another shore. Again there was a Canadian pilot, Alan Stroeve of Montreal, in the controls of the big Dutch airliner, and from the cockpit the view spread vast.
It was with sudden excitement 1 recognized the coastline. Why, there was Sydney ahead, and there Bras d’Or, that salty inland lake that had awakened me, soughing, one misty morning last summer. And 1 had sat on a silvered driftwood log by the beach there and contemplated life. And there the white winding road we drove down to Baddeck, and the point with the white church where we’d picnicked.
Now, beyond the Gut of Canso the Gulf of St. Lawrence sprawled blue and huge, and southward, on the horizon, the thin blue line would be P. E. I. basking in the memory of slow days by the sea. I took a long breath and I found myself thinking that perhaps that house 1 wanted to have when I was old I’d have here, by the sea, instead of in Timagami, or on that ridge of hills just north of Toronto, or, as I sometimes thought, on the St. Lawrence.
And it was then something struck me. I loved Finland. I couldn’t be prouder of the part of my personal heritage I owe her. But not once at any time had it occurred to me that I might have a home, for keeps, anywhere but in Canada. ★