Thursday, March 29, 2012

Not as young as I was

Sometimes I feel young. I mean, good grief, at 36 I am still young by most people’s standards. However, lately life has done its darndest to remind me that I’m not as young as I was…

Item 1: HOW long ago were the 90s?
Today Big Sister and I were finding our favourite songs on youtube. I suddenly thought of “It Must Have Been Love” by Roxette, which featured on the soundtrack of that unforgettable 1990 movie “Pretty Woman”.

It was a shock to realise that 1990 was 22 years ago.

Item 2: I know that song on the radio because I’ve heard it before, as in, ‘before you were born’.
There are way too many songs coming out lately whose lyrics I know word for word - unsurprising, since said songs are covers of hits that are 20 years old or more. Fame. Creep. Billy Jean. Like a Prayer. In Your Head. I have to hold my tongue to stop myself airing opinionated middle-aged-womanly comments like, “Oooh, it’s a brave person who would do a cover of MJ/Madonna” or shaming myself by using words like ‘travesty’ or ‘disrespectful’ when pointing out bold and ill-advised alterations of lyrics.

Item 3: Why are you dressed as an 80s tragic?
Everywhere I look, people are wearing stuff that I remember (not very fondly) from the 80s. I am officially old enough to be seeing a retro rehash of my early teenage years. Oh dear God.

Item 4: Mirrors and other harsh critics tell me I’m looking old
I have suddenly found myself in the target market for anti-ageing creams and potions featuring words like “repair”, “transformation” and “miracle” in the title. I will buy just about any product that promises to “reduce the appearance of wrinkles and age spots” because suddenly I have a whole bunch of wrinkles and age spots.

Some time ago I was discussing my crow’s feet with Big Sister:

BS: Mummy, why do you have all those things around your eyes?
Me: You mean my wrinkles? Well, as we get older our skin gets weaker, and it gets lines and wrinkles. When I smile you can really notice them, can’t you?
BS: I can really notice them even when you’re not smiling.

Item 5: Even impartial bystanders think I look old
In Japan, even when I was still in my 20s, if people guessed at my age it was not unusual for them to pick a number in the 40s. I still remember attending a meeting as a first year associate in Tokyo, and being mistaken for a partner. To be fair, the average 40- or even 50-something Japanese woman is ageless and fresh-faced and has so few wrinkles it defies belief. Being told I look as old as these graceful women is not insulting.

I had long reassured myself that this over-estimation of my age was mere cultural error. I had blissfully believed that among other white-skinned people I still looked on the young side. It was a shock, therefore, when earlier this year my doctor remarked disingenuously that although young women didn’t need regular medical check-ups, I should be bringing myself along for one every year. He realised his faux pas immediately and hastily tried to backtrack: “By ‘young women’ I meant women in their 20s!”

I had almost recovered from this blow to my womanly confidence when, less than a minute later, he brought up the subject of menopause. Hello??
Overall, in recent weeks I’ve been made aware that the transition from spring chicken to speckled hen is well and truly complete.

Now that I’ve had this cathartic rant, I’m going to promise myself to read this post again 10 years from now. I predict that I will laugh. Hard. I predict that I will look at photos of myself taken this year and think, woman, what were you on about? You looked young and gorgeous!

Age is all relative.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to slather myself in Miracle Potion and google “hormone replacement therapy”.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lone Wolves

Since moving to Finland, one thing my Finnish husband has told me repeatedly is Not To Get Involved. It turns out that Not Getting Involved is a characteristic distinctive of Finns.

Finns don’t actively communicate with strangers on the bus, on the street, or waiting in line beside them. Finns don’t ask personal or searching questions of people who aren’t close friends. If a Finns sees someone asleep on top of a wall or wearing a bathrobe in the Helsinki city centre, they don't pursue the matter. They go about their business quietly, keeping themselves to themselves. They live and let live.

Australians (myself included) are decidedly opposite in nature.

When I am visiting my hometown, I’m always struck by how relentlessly talkative and friendly Australians are – in stores, on public transport, at the supermarket checkout – wherever I turn someone is cheerfully engaging me in conversation. In Finland, without ruthless self-editing I come across as over-effusive and a chatterbox. Even friends often look a bit taken aback when I’m talking to them. I sometimes see actual fright in people’s eyes when I’m enthusiastically explaining something, gesticulating with wild abandon.

It’s more than just wanting to talk, though. I want to HELP. If I see someone on the street holding a map and looking lost, I feel compelled to ask if they need directions. If we’re at the park, I’ll quietly keep an eye on that kid who’s wandered away from his mum, and stop him from eating snow/mud/his own snot. One summer’s day we were playing on the beach, and suddenly a woman nearby started yelling, saying that she couldn’t find her two year old son. I felt her horror so keenly that I almost rushed into the water myself to start the rescue effort (I would have, actually, except that my Finnish husband implored me Not To Get Involved). Eventually little Simo was spotted playing happily in the sand further down the beach, oblivious to all the fuss. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that if this was Australia there would have been half a dozen dads already in the water searching for Simo, while their wives gave his mum hugs and moral support and big brothers and sisters scoured the beach, shouting his name. All that fuss would somehow have felt comforting.

Aussies really are officious enthusiastic participants in other people’s lives. If an old lady slips on the footpath, or a small boy is lost, people rush up to offer assistance and concern. If a group of teenage kids is making trouble in Queen Street Mall, it’s only a matter of time before an older bloke wearing wraparound sunglasses marches up to them and commands them to get their shit together. You could call us busybodies, but really the average Aussie is just a “people person” through and through, and gets immense pleasure and satisfaction from interacting with others. More than that, though, there's a sense of wanting and needing to reach out and make sure others are ok, and a genuine belief that offering someone a kind word and a smile will make a positive difference – even only temporarily.

In Australia, if you see a stranger in trouble, and you ask, “You ok, mate?” what you're really saying is, “I see you’re having a hard time, and I feel for you. I hope you can find your way through it.” You aren’t trying to set yourself up as a new friend, or a guardian angel (let’s face it, you probably won’t even tell that person your name). However, you do connect for a moment - just long enough to give that person a little kick-start towards helping themselves. Just long enough to show them that another human being noticed and felt their pain.

And it truly does make a positive difference - to the person in trouble, yes, but also to you.

Even after two years in Finland, I’m still not sure why Finns are so hesitant to reach out in the same way. I don’t believe they are cold-hearted, lazy, or indifferent (and for the record, if you do initiate conversation with a Finn who is a stranger, their response, though wary at first, will almost always be a positive one). I think it’s mostly about uncertainty – not being quite sure what to say, not wanting to take the liberty of anticipating someone else’s needs, and not wanting to be seen as officious, interfering, or a know-all. These sentiments are fair enough. My best guess at a Finn’s thought process is: “This person has their own family and friends; if they want to talk to someone, they will talk to those people; if they need help, they will seek it from those people. There is no place for me in this person’s life, so it is appropriate that I do not interact with this person.”

All the same, as a nation, Australians come across as reasonably happy and smiley and cheerful, whereas Finns are seen (even by their own) as solemn, melancholy, and even somewhat depressed.

Finns often seem to me like lone wolves, stoic in the face of hardship and terrible weather, reluctant to burden others with their troubles, hesitant to reach out even when another person’s suffering hits them right in the heart.

Poor little lone wolves. I want to help you not to be so alone.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hitting back at the demons within

Bad head-state last night.

I was doing well earlier in the day. Big Sister had a friend from Japanese school over for a playdate. At first I was speaking to them in Japanese, but Little Sister was getting annoyed (she was so young when we left Japan that she didn’t learn any Japanese at all). Big Sister finally admonished me, in Finnish, “You are going to Finnish school now, Mummy. You should speak to us in Finnish!”

She was right, of course. And so I did, and surprisingly, it wasn’t the unmitigated disaster I thought it would be. The kids understood me. I understood them. They corrected some of my more glaring errors. All good. My confidence levels were high.

That was, until later in the day, when we went to a friend’s house for dinner, and all the adults except me were Finns. I realised, yet again, how far I still have to go with Finnish. I can’t deny that I understand fractionally more than before, and these days I feel slightly braver than before about trying to say things in Finnish rather than jumping straight to the comfort of English. But still. I realised, with a pang, that there is just such a lot more I still have to learn just to survive basic conversations. Last night, feeling wrung out and demoralised, I couldn’t even bear to think about the long road I still have ahead of me.

Being unable to do something well used to hit me right in my sense of ambition. A poor performance would only spur me on to greater efforts. But lately, I seem to slip far too easily across the fine line between Stimulating Challenge and Overwhelming Burden. Too often lately, I don’t feel like I’m enjoying this journey; rather, I feel as though I’m getting my arse whipped by the Finnish language in no uncertain terms.

I spent last night feeling deeply and pathetically sorry for myself. I say “pathetically” because at the end of the day I really, really do want to learn this language, and therefore I just have to bite the bullet and move ahead, one word and one new grammatical structure at a time. Feeling sorry for myself is only going to make things that much more difficult.

This morning, in the bright light of a new day, I choose to push back against the mocking naysayers and the defeatist voices within my own head. Dammit, you guys, just shut up and let me get on with it. In an effort to cheer up and remember the fun side of language-learning, I am listening to one of my favourite Finnish songs of all time. I love this song, even if it is, strictly speaking, a kids’ song, because I can understand the words, and it makes me think, smilingly, of my children, and because some days this is who I secretly want to be – Kuningas (or, more accurately, Kuningatar) Ei!
Have a listen, even if you don’t speak Finnish. This song is catchy and irresistible, and transcends linguistic barriers! Just in case, below is a rough translation of the lyrics. Enjoy!

Finnish-speaking readers: comments on my translation are warmly welcomed! I think that the more correct translation of the title would be "King No", but somehow I like the sound of "The King of No" better in English :)

Mä en tahdo syödä muumilautaselta, '
I don’t wanna eat off a Moomin plate
Mä en tahdo syödä mitään. 

I don’t wanna eat anything!
Mä en tahdo istua ruokapöydässä, 

I don’t wanna sit at the dinner table
Mä en tahdo tehdä mitään. 

I don’t wanna do anything!

"Otatko sämpylää?" - Ei.
“Would you like some rolls?” NO!
"Otatko omenaa?" - Ei.

“Would you like some apple?” NO!
"Palanen juustoa?" - Ei.

“A piece of cheese?” - NO!
"Vai lasi maitoa?" - Ei.

“Or a glass of milk?” – NO!
En tahdo, eikä mun tarvitse. 

I don’t want to, and I don’t need to!

Olen kuningas,
I am the king
Suuri kuningas,

The great king¨
Kuningas E ja I.
The king of N and O

Täällä hallitsee Kuningas Ei.

Here rules the King of No!

Mä en tahdo laittaa sukkahousuja,

I don’t wanna put on my tights
Mä en tahdo laittaa mitään.
I don’t wanna put on anything!
Mä en tahdo laittaa kumppareitakaan,

I don’t wanna put on gumboots
Mä en tahdo tehdä mitään.

I don’t wanna do anything!

"Mennäänkö puistoon?" - Ei.

“Shall we go to the park?” NO!
"Saat ajaa polkupyörällä." - Ei.
“You can ride a bike.” – NO!
"Muutkin on ulkona." - Ei.

“Other kids are outside.” – NO!
"Puetaan päälle." - Ei.

“Let's get you dressed!” – NO!
En tahdo, eikä mun tarvitse.

I don’t want to, and I don’t need to!


Teitä hallitsee
You are ruled by him
Kuningas Ei.

The King of No

Ja mä voin soittaa rumpuja

And I can play the drums
Keskellä yötä puoli neljältä.

At 3:30 am in the middle of the night
Ja teidän riemuna

And what joy for you
On tehdä töitä pussit silmillä.
To work with bags under your eyes
Ja näin se käy,

And this is how it goes
Näin se käy.

This is how it goes

Mä en tahdo pestä hampaita,

I don’t wanna brush my teeth
Mä en tahdo pestä mitään.

I don’t wanna brush anything!
Mä en tahdo mennä nukkumaan,
I don’t wanna go to sleep

Mä en tahdo tehdä mitään.
I don’t wanna do anything!
"Pää tyynyyn." - Ei.
"Put your head on the pillow." No!

"Hyvää yötä." - Ei.
"Good night." No!
En tahdo, eikä mun tarvitse.

I don’t want to, and I don’t need to.

Olen kuningas,
I am the king

Suuri kuningas,
The great king
Kuningas Ei, kuningas Ei.

The King of No, The King of No