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.