I was studying at Sussex University in England in 1971. I was a very typical monolingual English person with no aspirations or ideas to go to any foreign parts or do anything very different. But my time at Sussex University was coming to a close and I didn’t really know what I was going to do next.
I had been all over England and Scotland with a little car, a 1956 Austin A30, that I bought when I was 18. But I had never really been abroad, so I thought, “Right, I’m off to see the world. I’ll go somewhere for a year.”
I sat down one night and wrote a letter telling who I am and what I’ve been doing and what I might like to do during my year abroad. In fact I wrote three identical letters and posted them the next day to the national Employment Exchange: Helsinki, Finland; Oslo, Norway; and Stockholm, Sweden. Surprisingly, I got two answers.
“I remember it was the day before Midsummer’s eve in 1971 when I arrived in Finland. I came on a Russian boat that sailed from Leningrad to Le Havre, via Helsinki and London”
The phone rang one morning in April and it was a little lady from the Helsinki employment office. “This is Helsinki, we know there is a postal strike in England and I thought I’d phone you. We have a job for you, would you like it?” I dropped the phone and picked it up again. And that was it, I was on my way to Finland!
I remember it was the day before Midsummer’s eve in 1971 when I arrived in Finland. I came on a Russian boat that sailed from Leningrad to Le Havre, via Helsinki and London, and I arrived in Helsinki harbour at 11:00. There I was met by somebody from the company where I would be working. She took me to my accommodation for the long Midsummer weekend and all the time she was fretting about how lonely I was going to be there – living in these barracks on my own for four days.
Of course I had no idea about Midsummer; that it might be a big deal.
A little time later that day I took a bus to Helsinki central railway station and asked for a train ticket with a reserved place to Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle. The woman at the ticket counter looked at me like somebody from Mars and said, “We don’t have any place tickets now, it’s the Thursday before midsummer”.
I got to Rovaniemi on the Friday morning, and after some adventures I found myself at Ounasvaara in the evening, where there was a big Juhannus dance festival. As an ex-folk dance teacher in England I had no difficulty at all with the Finnish polkka and jenkka. I was dancing the girls off their feet, a very considerable tactical advantage. More action, less talking. That was my first full day in Finland.
“Finns generally go along with the notion that their language is intrinsically difficult to learn.They should disagree with it and say, “no, it’s not hard””
I distinctly remember people saying, “Suomen kesä on lyhyt, mutta vähäluminen” [The Finnish summer is short, but with very little snow], In fact, the summer of 1971 was very hot for six weeks in a row, but I was hearing people talk about the Finnish summer “with very little snow” and I didn’t know what they were on about. I had rarely experienced better summer weather in England all my life.
Finnish isn’t a difficult language, it’s actually a comparatively easy language. Any language has a system called grammar. But most languages have a list of all the exceptions to all the rules. Finnish language has fewer grammatical exceptions than just about any other language under the sun, and it’s one hundred per cent phonetic. I think there’s also an inhibitory influence to learning Finnish coming from the native population: Finns generally go along with the notion that their language is intrinsically difficult to learn. They should disagree with it and say, “no, it’s not hard”.
At work I used to talk a lot to a German guy in Finnish because that was our common language. We used to pick a topic from the daily newspaper and talk about it, positioning ourselves so that we were on different sides of the subject matter. Our Finnish colleagues thought that it was strange because it seemed like we were having an argument. This has been a recurring issue for me, over the years: in my own opinion I’m having a discussion, but Finns think I’m arguing. That seems to be one cultural difference between England and Finland.
I never actually made the decision to stay in Finland. Sometime in the middle of the 1970s I met my girl, who became my wife. We had our first child in 1978 and still I thought that we were going back to England. But for me it was relatively easy to stay. By 1981, I was married and our second child was on the way. I had a very good adopted family, my wife’s family, and a successful life here in Finland.
I spoke Finnish fluently by that time and I had no problems, but I do remember sometimes, just before our second child was born, waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat of pure, absolute nostalgia when I realised that I was actually never going back home.
“I think I gained more than I lost from my dual allegiance – even if I am sometimes recognised as a foreigner in both countries”
There was nothing negative about that because I knew, or in fact I reasoned by saying, that if I were to go back to England there would be all sorts of things – people, places, job – that I would miss from Finland. I think I realised that in fact I had become a citizen of two countries and a become a member of two communities, and I would always to some extent be missing one or the other.
I think I gained more than I lost from my dual allegiance – even if I am sometimes recognised as a foreigner in both countries. It’s not very encouraging to be chatting in a pub in England and after a while hear someone say, “By the way, you speak very good English”! Here in Finland people speak to me in English because I don’t look ‘Finnish’.
I still have several good friends from England. They never questioned why I stayed, but I did have a bet with one of them: six pints that I’d never go back. I said I would! After some time I had to pay up. It is important to maintain relationships like those, and to try and meet up with old friends.
My father is still going strong in England, he is 94. He wrote me an email on his computer and said that he went with his girlfriend for a little walk in the countryside, “only about 5 km”. He was also preparing a seminar that he was going to give to the Somerset philosophical society about Philosophy of art. He is quite a guy.
My daughter lives in Espoo with her three children and my son lives in Denmark with his Danish wife and also three children. I have one sister. She lives in Boston, USA. Her son, my nephew, lives near Boston with his Indian-origin wife and two children, and my niece is currently in Madagascar on a post-doc scholarship. So my all-English family is pretty well spread over the planet. For me home is now Espoo and England is a place I very much like to visit.
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This interview was recorded in 2017 in Helsinki by Peter Seenan. If you’d like to be involved in this project please visit our contact page and submit the form.