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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Chili fries and homesickness

Several of the friends I’ve made here in Helsinki are American. Some moved here for love and are dedicated long-timers; others are expats whose days here are limited and who are quietly counting the hours. It seems, though, that this recent article (on the ten foods Americans miss most while abroad) struck a chord with all of them.  
 
I read through the list, thinking, seriously? Chili fries? Taco Bell? Breakfast cereal?

After reading the article and my friends’ enthusiastic Facebook reactions to it, initially I felt really disappointed. Angry, even. Helsinki has so much good food on offer, especially right now – fresh, sweet peas in the pod, an array of colourful berries, fresh salmon in abundance, my favourite Karelian pies, a wealth of delicious varieties of bread, every possible form of dairy product known to man – and yet apparently none of it is good enough; none of it quite matches up to the joy of a big greasy serving of chili fries. My friends’ longing for foods that sounded inherently unmemorable felt like a slap in the face for Finland.

On reflection, I realised how incredibly unfair and judgmental I was being. I am, after all, the woman who lives in this country of abundance, yet MUST have Vegemite in the house. I am the woman who bakes Anzac biscuits almost weekly and presses them on everyone around me. I am the woman who, while living in Tokyo (which has been named among the culinary capitals of the world) encouraged my husband to sneak Finnish rye bread and Oltermanni cheese through customs, sometimes a whole suitcase at a time.

I'd been practically accusing my friends of being obnoxiously pro-American when really, they were just homesick. Homesickness has nothing to do with culinary or cultural superiority, or rejecting local ways. It honestly is just what it is – a deep-seated longing for one's former home, and for those everyday, familiar things that suddenly are nowhere to be found. Certain very ordinary foods, or more to the point, their absence, can trigger strong emotions. Some tastes, like root beer and Vegemite, are learned in childhood and are deeply nostalgic. They are unique and irreplaceable.

We strangers in strange lands, in moments of feeling overwhelmed and alone, cannot help turning to the old and familiar – food, language, habits. It’s a conscious choice to look back and ignore local culture for a moment, and it smacks of real disloyalty to the country that is offering us a home in the here and now. Be that as it may, at moments like these, what we foreigners need (especially from each other) is sympathy and understanding, not harsh judgment and anger.  

22 comments:

  1. That's a pretty interesting list of foods; I think the only thing mentioned there that I crave occasionally is a good bagel with cream cheese. The thing is, most of those foods are incredibly unhealthy, and I didn't make a habit of eating them in the US, either.

    What I do desperately miss is having access to a variety of ethnic foods. Sushi and Indian top the list, though decent Italian (other than pizza) would also be nice. While Helsinki has these things, Lappeenranta doesn't (yet). Even the local Greek and Spanish restaurants have what basically amounts to a Finnish menu. Actually, there is a Mexican restaurant, and it's the one place that's rather authentic (and delicious!).

    My homesickness manifests itself in ways other than food cravings, I think. It is pretty funny, though, as I sometimes get asked if I "eat a lot of hamburgers." When I say no, the response is often, "I didn't think so. You're thin for an American." Sheesh, whatever must the world think of the Yanks? ;)

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    1. I'm not sure that Helsinki wins a huge number of points for having a wide variety of high-quality ethnic food - at least, not yet! - but there are still many great places to eat (and among other things I've found great sushi, Nepalese food, and Asian fusion). I'm so happy for you that Lappeenranta has a good Mexican restaurant!

      I was surprised to hear the comments you'd received about hamburgers and body size. I worked with Americans for years and I certainly never got the impression that all Americans were fat! - on the contrary, many were very health-conscious. This was, in part, why I was so surprised to read that article's list of foods that Americans allegedly long for when they're abroad. I guess the idea is that they're not necessarily the foods people eat every day, but they are the foods they'd love to be able to eat once in a while. Fair enough.

      I get kind of homesick for Australian accents. Once, in Helsinki, I overheard a backpacker on a train talking in an Aussie accent. I literally cornered him and forced him to talk to me until his stop :)

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  2. my OH is anybody's for a violet crumble and yet I think the chocolate here is fantastic. As you say, it's about sentiment as much as taste.

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    1. Kelloggs Ville, absolutely.
      I wish you hadn't mentioned Violet Crumble, though. OMG, I don't think I've had one in 10 years or more, and now I can't stop thinking about them! They are so good. I even used to have a specific system for eating them (bite the chocolate off one side at a time, carefully bite the chocolate off the top and bottom, and then let the gorgeous honeycomb dissolve in my mouth...)

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  3. Katrina,

    I too had vegemite when I was living in London :)

    Please remember whilst you reprimand yourself for judging others, you too must not judge yourself..... Sending you a little self compassion. Go on give yourself a hug. xoxoxox

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    1. As usual, Lakehouse Writer, you are so full of kindness :)
      I was just a bit disappointed that my first reaction was to criticise my friends' culinary tastes (even if only mentally) without stopping to consider the real reason behind their nostalgia for Taco Bell. Homesick people should be allowed to feel homesick sometimes (though not 24/7, obviously!)

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  4. You know what, I don't think it is disloyal to sometimes long for things that are from your own culture! Culture shock is a cycle with 4 main stages - honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery. Even in the mastery phase it is not necessarily about total conversion to the new culture, it is about adjusting to parts and retaining parts of your own. It is OK to be Australian (or American) in Finland, it doesn't mean that you aren't trying to assimilate. As Lake House Writer says, "don't be too hard on yourself!!".

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    1. Aspire Coaching, thank you as always for your kind encouragement! I do honestly think people (even those at "mastery" level of a new culture) are allowed to feel homesick sometimes and retain bits of their old culture. I do admit that sometimes I still have trouble being gentle on myself and others in the face of more extreme Homesick Behaviours (e.g. importing months' supply of basic groceries) - I find myself thinking, at what point does it stop being homesickness and start being Finland-bashing? Maybe the fact is, though, that it really doesn't matter either way. Being abroad affects different people in different ways, and there isn't always the freedom to leave immediately if you're feeling it difficult to be in a new environment. We need to live and let live.

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  5. Hi, I just found you via Sanity or Bust.

    I too am a foreigner (American) living in Finland, although after almost 13 years here (and Finnish citizenship), I'm not really sure you can call me a forienger any more. (I think it depends on the situation. LOL)

    I'm so glad I read this article the whole way through, as the first paragraph had me saying exactly what you conintued on to say. Exactly as you wrote, I love the fresh berries, mushroom picking, Karelian pies, rye bread, Fazer chocolate, etc and yes, even salmiakki. But I also miss the nostalgia of Taco Bell, cinnamon candies, Doritos and other things that are from my home country and can't be found here. I'm definitely not saying one is better than the other, but both definitely have their pluses that aren't found at the other.

    I also agree with Aspire Coaching very much. Glad to have found you, I think I'll be sticking around to see what's up. :)

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    1. JustHeather, thanks so much for stopping by, and thanks for your comment! Are you in Helsinki? I'm impressed that you went as far as citizenship (I've only been here two years so far, so I'm a real newbie, but citizenship is one of my long-term goals).

      Looking forward to getting to know you!

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  6. When I went travelling I missed good old English cadbury's (the Australian version is NOT the same ) and hula hoops, probably because they are my comfort foods. As much as I loved all the new flavours, sometimes I just needed the familiar. I even ate in a pizza hut in Thailand!

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    1. oh gosh yes - when I first lived in Japan (in a fairly rural area where I was pretty much the only foreigner) I almost cried when my mum sent me Australian chocolate. As you say, however wonderful all the new flavours are, sometimes the familiar is what you need at that moment...

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  7. What about Tim Tams? Don't you miss them? I am in the US and they sold them for a while at Target and I became addicted to them dunked in tea and was glad they discontinued them because they were beyond yummy and also fattening as hell!!

    I missed a lot of English foods especially the bacon when I moved to USA but I guess my taste buds have adapted after 11 years and luckily I can get Branston Pickles here.

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    1. Emma, you're right, they are a superb biscuit. For some reason, though (probably due to extreme over-consumption over three decades) I no longer crave them all the time the way I used to! In Tokyo I missed salt and vinegar crisps, basil pesto, and Minties (do you have these chewy white lollies in the UK/US?). My husband was worse than I was, though. When he went on business trips to Finland he'd bring back everything from bread and cheese to big jars of pickles, fish paste, his favourite brand of tomato ketchup, and once even a whole smoked fish! (to this day I do not know how he got it through quarantine...!)

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  8. Funny thing for me is that after having lived here for 5 years (and probably due to the fact that I don't really cook authentic Asian cuisine anymore due to the lack of ingredients/veggies/etc. etc. etc.), my taste buds have changed, but of course there are always some food that always reminds me of home - esp. my Mom's food. My Mom's an EXCELLENT cook (born in a family of people who sell food in markets), so even though my taste buds have changed, my Mom's food will always have a VERY special part in my heart (also 'coz the cook is the BEST Mom ever!). :-D :-D :-D

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    1. Oh, but whenever we travel (either inside Finland or outside), I ALWAYS have to go to at least one Asian/Indian/Chinese/Japanese resto HE HE HE HE HE HE HEEEHHHH...

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    2. Sometime when you're in Helsinki I will have to take you to Farang! My friend from the Philippines loves it - she says the tastes are very Malaysian. I have no idea about the differences between Indonesian/Malaysian/etc. dishes, but I can testify to the fact that everything I've eaten at Farang has been delicious!

      I do miss my mum's cooking, too! Mum's signature dish is beef filet steak served with creamy bacon and mushroom sauce, and it is to die for :)

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    3. OK, it's on! The last time we were in Hki, we went to an Indian resto somewhere (forgot where it is, but it's a very small place) and had the lunch buffet there. VERY delicious!!!! :-D

      I haven't been to Malaysia, but I think it would be rather similar. :-))) My Mom's signature dishes are too many to count 'coz she used to sell food in a traditional market he he he he...

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  9. Taste and smell... far more than views or sounds... evoke the feelings of home like no other sense. You just can't fight it.

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  10. We've been talking about this too. As a parcel shipping company, we find that British expats especially will send things like Tetley tea, Bisto and Marmite overseas to them for a taste of home.

    https://www.forward2me.com/blog/survey-2/daily-mail-story-shows-more-insight-into-expat-life/

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  11. So right! When my parents come to visit they bring a cooler full of karnemelk, dutch buttermilk. And dutch cheese (real one, not the 'dutch' crap they sell here) and peanut butter (so much better than UK brands) and raw, salty herring. I miss it all.
    At the same time I have notice my taste in food has been much influenced by the UK. I am starting to appreciate the cooking, although I still use about a quarter of the fat in recipes.
    I's love to taste some finnish food too, it sounds very exciting!

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