“Sometimes I feel like I was born by mistake in Italy”

Paola, 40

“When I came here as an exchange student some people considered me a wild horse, and I still probably am. I’m from Lecce in Italy. Socially it was very different there, I had a lot of friends around me even though I was already living on my own. My house was called “refuge of sinners”. Everybody was coming there. My friends and other students.

Then I came here and I started to realise that I didn’t have a lot of things in common with other Italians. They wanted to stick together and be together and I thought this might be the only opportunity to be abroad, so why should I just hang around with Italians? I met a couple of Finnish people: Pasi, for example, is one of my best Finnish friends, and he’s from that time. He moved from Hanko to Turku to study the same year I arrived and he didn’t know a lot of people, so we stuck together to go to discos and bars and we became friends.

One very important moment was when I moved into the student village. We were 12–15 people and we each had a single room with a private toilet and a common kitchen. My other foreign friends in Turku told me they never usually met their neighbours, but for me it was very different because I had three neighbours who were quite often in the kitchen: Marko Kukkaro from the United States and Timo and Olli from Finland.

All three guys were older than me and whenever they saw me coming in from parties and stuff they’d ask, “what did you learn today, Paola?” I’d tell them “perrrkele” and all the other swear words I’d picked up. I would tease them that they were boring because they were always home, far from people. This Finnish way of living. Always isolated. Timo was always asking me why I said this. I told him why, of course! But this “why” entered my head at some point.

“Marko, Timo and Olli have had a big impact on me”

I don’t know, after maybe one or two months I began thinking a lot about this. For me it was logical that they had to meet people. But why? And then I started to think, “Damn, he is right”. My foreign student friends found it interesting that even if my neighbours were Finnish they were talking to me and we had discussions.

Timo, Marko and Olli would tell me that “tonight we have a Kaurismäki night, do you want to come and watch?” I started to learn things from them and realise that I was not really right with my ideas. I began to see how their life was and how they were not as lonely as people thought, nor as shy as they looked in the beginning. I think it’s a big myth the shyness. Of course, they care about their private lives and private things and the silence is respected. I understood that maybe I was wrong. And after many years, I realised then for the first time that I could accept who I was: not for belonging to a group – because In Italian culture you are someone if you belong to a group. Here you are free, free to be yourself. Marko, Timo and Olli have had a big impact on me.

I knew little about Finland when we were planning the trip in 1999, so we decided to call people to see how they answered. We phoned random Finns from the phone book just so we could hear what they sounded like, and then we were surprised because they said something different every time. We could not understand. But when I came here I understood that they said their name. In Italy we just say “pronto”.

I divide the world between Finns and non-Finns. There are some peculiar things here. Here you have a great life if you are an honest person, because Finns understand who they have in front of them. I think Finns look very silent and you never know to a certain degree what they are thinking about, but they think all the time. They meditate a lot – maybe because of the empty spaces, this “being lonely” or alone for a long time. According to my experience, they understand immediately if you are honest and have good intentions. I have amazing relationships here. I’m a very direct person and this made for a very hard life in Italy. There you can’t be direct.

“I really love the coldness. You understand how small you are as a human being compared to the nature.”

After I left Finland following my exchange I lived in other places and moved back to Italy in 2009. I crashed against Italian society because I had changed very much. I also started to read a lot during the last year I spent there. I read about bilingualism and I started to see how some brain areas change, probably caused by bilingualism experience. I began to write, kind of an article. I didn’t really know what I was doing.

A psychologist, Gaia Carata, told me that my ideas were not obvious and she told me to ask a neurologist. Surprisingly I got an appointment in a week. After he read what I studied he asked me how many years I’d studied it. I said four months. He told me that he couldn’t tell me anything. He wanted to keep my papers and research how studying languages changes your brain. I took my papers from his hands and told him I’ll be back.

I thought it was time to go back to Finland. I needed to be surrounded by honest people. I knew that the University of Jyväskylä was one of the best places to study second language acquisition and education. I called Ari Huhta [Professor at the Centre for Applied Language Studies] and he thought that my ideas were interesting and and he told me they wanted to start those kind of multidisciplinary studies here. Thanks to him and the Department of Language and Communication, supervisors, advisors and really all the people I have met in the university I am conducting this PhD research in Applied Linguistics and Neuroscience today. Multidisciplinary research is not easy, and being in a supportive environment is important. Here I found an environment that sometimes feels like family.

I have been very welcomed in the neuroscience group. Occasionally we go to ‘neurodrinks’ and in Spring we had a ‘neuropicnic’. And once we also had ‘neurovision’. If I ever feel lonely I go to this jazz bar and have a drink. The waiters and owner are really nice and there are jam sessions and concerts. If you feel lonely you can speak to someone because they will respond – this is something that maybe Finns don’t realise. Finns don’t ask for help and they don’t know how nice they are. I think they don’t realise that they can say if they feel lonely; I say when I am. I go out and tell people I’m lonely and then we speak.

I like Jyväskylä a lot, one third are students and it’s the city of Alvar Aalto. During the first winter it was between –30C and –38C for three weeks. I really love the coldness. You understand how small you are as a human being compared to the nature. The strength of nature, you feel it here. You need a lot of time to think. The darkness with a lot of snow around you. It’s like you need space and straight lines. You need something really clean and neat. And that’s why functionalism fits here. It lets your brain relaxed and give time to think.

I plan to stay here forever, to continue my research here forever. I want to do everything here and give the results of my research to Finland. It can be important or it can be nothing, but everything will go to Finland to thank this country. I love this place. Sometimes I feel like I was born by mistake in Italy. Here in Finland I love the place, the nature, history, and art, and I found acceptance of who I am. I didn’t come here for a man, but a few months ago I met a man, and we are in love. I think I have really everything now.”


More like this: 

Michael, England: “For me home is now Espoo and England is a place I very much like to visit”

Andruta, Romania: “There’s all this kind of body shame, but not in the sauna”

Joffrey, France: “A third of my life has been spent in Finland”

This interview was recorded in 2017 in Jyväskylä by Peter Seenan. If you’d like to be involved in this official Finland 100 project please visit our contact page and submit the form.

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