thicker than water

An introverted Finn looks at his shoes when talking to you; an extroverted Finn looks at your shoes.”

I traveled recently to Finland, the country that my mother’s family left several generations ago. I’ve never been particularly in tune with my cultural heritage, mostly because I’m not just a mutt but a generic, whiter-than-white-bread mutt: “Half Finnish, a quarter Italian, the rest English, Irish, and Scottish,” I would say in elementary school when the topic came up, which it did strangely often given that I went to school in the whitest neighborhood in Las Vegas. (In third grade, we had a potluck where you were supposed to bring a food from your heritage to share with the class. The one Filipino kid brought adobo and the rest of us brought… mostly variations on coleslaw, if I remember rightly.)

Las Vegas—at least the part of Las Vegas where I grew up—isn’t much for rich cultural traditions. It’s more a place for reinvention, somewhere that you land by some accident of circumstance rather than of heritage. We all lived there with our parents but we went to visit our grandparents and cousins out of state during summers, to California and New Jersey and Illinois, in neighborhoods where every kid on the block had a Bar Mitzvah or went for meatballs at Grandma’s house on Sunday. I knew about Bar Mitzvahs from reading Judy Blume, I knew about Kwanzaa from reading The Baby-Sitters Club, but I thought maybe that the authors were taking artistic license because the closest thing I knew to any of that was going to Achievement Days at my Mormon friends’ houses, where we glued cotton balls and googly eyes to empty Cool-Whip containers and stuck cards that read “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” on top of the whole mess. I had a couple of friends whose grandmothers were “Yiayia,” but it wasn’t until many years later that I connected that with being Greek.

In college I met kids from places that weren’t my white suburban neighborhood in Las Vegas. I was well-read enough by that point that it was hardly mindblowing to learn that there are Americans in the millennial generation who are connected to their cultural heritage. It was more disappointing to realize that having grown up as I did—in a satellite family that had split off from the whole, where the most I had to go off was the occasional story about how it smelled when Grandma Joyce made lutefisk or a bag of pizzelle that my Italian great-aunt sent over from California—I was missing something that other people considered fundamental to their narrative.

This doesn’t really bother me. For one thing, I recognize that in return I get to benefit from centuries of white privilege, which seems like a reasonable tradeoff. For another, growing up in Las Vegas is a formative experience that is unique enough to supplant the absence of a longer cultural tradition: my identity is rooted heavily in the bizarre combination of alien desert and gaudy neon and the idea that when you’re done with a building you can blow it up and all-you-can-eat buffets. I don’t need stories about how my family celebrates the winter holidays when I have stories about how I used to dance The Nutcracker in the same theatre where Penn and Teller used to perform. I glom onto others’ traditions: I show up at my best friend’s family’s gut-busting Italian Thanksgiving table, I follow along in the Haggadah at my sister’s in-laws’ Seder.

And so in the absence of cultural stereotypes to point to, I have always believed that my family and me are our own special brand of weird. Buttoned-up, introverted, antisocial, uncomfortable in crowds, happiest without sunlight, suspicious of strangers: that’s us, I thought, and nobody else.

Then I went to Finland.

Okay, that’s a little dramatic. We are not dyed-in-the-wool Finns, although I’m pretty sure I could have stayed in the sauna for way longer than my boyfriend wanted to. But I have never felt more at home than I did walking down a street where nobody tried to make eye contact with me or, God forbid, small talk. Nobody swore at me—at least not to my face, although I assume that any American blundering her way through a foreign country where the only phrase she knows is “kiss my bellybutton, you pancake-head” (thanks, Grandma Joyce, for that valuable childhood lesson) is getting a few words tossed after her on the street—but it’s a great relief to discover that I can blame my sailor mouth on my heritage, not the fact that I’m too vulgar to be allowed on playgrounds. And it’s socially acceptable there to drink coffee all day long, just like it is in Silicon Valley, only I still didn’t discover some long-dormant genetic trait that lets me drink coffee after noon without finding myself still awake in bed fourteen hours later. (I trust that after enough months with only a few hours of sunlight each day, I would adapt. I may explore this hypothesis one day.)

Before I traveled to Helsinki—which, for the record, is actually kind of boring, although I maintain that I don’t need much more than a beer bar with library shelves and old typewriters and coffee shops on every block, both of which Helsinki has—the only Finnish trope I knew was also my favorite. It’s called sisu: a sort of inborn stoicism that imbues Finns with the wherewithal to keep going in the face of things like months-long winters and Viking invasions.

I’ve taken sort of a WebMD approach to this inner strength: if the Internet tells me that according to the symptoms of my origins I have it, then I have it, even if the quarter-Italian-the-rest-English-Irish-and-Scottish half of me is urging me to give up and eat some pasta. I think it’s probably also supposed to imbue me with the strength I need to do things like actually kill the cockroach in my apartment myself instead of running away for six hours and pretending it was never there, or put on my big-girl pants and board the freaking turboprop, but I use it mostly to help me get through my versions of Viking invasions. I have sisu, I tell myself when I am feeling particularly vulnerable to the image of my weight-restored stomach in the mirror, I will eat this burrito and I will enjoy it. (I think perhaps my Finnish ancestors would roll in their graves to hear that I invoke sisu to get me through the hardship of eating a burrito, but in the absence of Vikings to combat, I have to make do with the dramas I can find.)

“You rejuvenate like Wolverine,” my coworker said to me once, maybe a week or two after my life fell apart at the seams, when I was sitting at my desk and gritting my teeth through some assignment that I probably could have turned down if I had mentioned that my boyfriend dumped me in Palo Alto (PALO ALTO!!!) and also I had been starving myself for several months. I declined. I declined at any point over the course of that year to mention to anyone at work that I was anything less than full speed ahead, ready to roll, not malnourished and miserable and the emotional equivalent of your iPhone when the battery icon turns red. Possibly, that was the Silicon Valley ethos whereby you don’t quit until you’re dead or you’re out of Pellegrino in the kitchenette; I like to argue that it was sisu. I am a Finn, or at least part of me is. I don’t need anybody to yank me back up the canyon. I can claw my way back from the brink.

Finland was serene. Nobody is walking down the streets of Helsinki gritting their teeth or growling at their demons under their breath. Everyone is going silently about their business, speaking when spoken to, drinking their coffee. I like to think it’s because we have to save the mental strength we’d otherwise expend on small talk so that we don’t have to cry uncle when we could otherwise call up our sisu. I found it very comforting to be in a place where everyone spoke at a volume that my ears could handle, where the loudest thing I heard all week was a guy playing Neil Young covers on a guitar in the doorway to a bar on Roobertinkatu. It was the first time that I’ve been to a place where I felt like people operated at the speed and volume that I wanted to, except for when we used to visit Grandma in assisted living. (This was better mostly because there was more beer, although arguably the food was as mushy.) I did not feel compelled to make jokes with the barista about renaming coffee “bean juice,” unlike the last time I went to Rebel Coffee on Eighth, which will probably be the last time I go to Rebel Coffee on Eighth, because it hurt my soul. Nobody dared play their music without headphones on the train, nobody elbowed their way in front of me to board the plane before I did, nobody stuck a clipboard in my face trying to get me to donate to Greenpeace on my way to yoga.

And best of all, everyone is always on time.

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