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A trip to Finland uncovers the chance of a lifetime
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A trip to Finland uncovers the chance of a lifetime

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“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” –Henry David Thoreau

In the 45-minute drive to Tampere, Finland, it occurred to the four passengers in the blue hatchback sedan that they were from four different continents. Patricia, the driver, was a performance artist from Brazil. Swain was a painter from South Africa. Morgan, a travel and adventure writer, hailed from Australia. And then there was me, a poet from Wisconsin Dells.

The four of us, as well as five more at the house that didn’t go along for the day trip, were the March residents of the Arteles Creative Residency program, located in the countryside of Hämeenkyrö, Finland. We all applied months before, and all were chosen to attend this quiet artist’s retreat three hours northwest of Helsinki.

Like most of my Arteles friends, I never in a million years thought I’d get in. It is a very competitive program. Most of us were there for an entire month; one or two were there for two months.

Going halfway around the world wasn’t an easy decision. My husband, a very supportive guy named Jesse, insisted I go. I raised enough money on Kickstarter.com to cover my airfare and my half of my housing fees. (Arteles covered the other 50 percent of my fees.) I had 49 people back my endeavor, something that truly shocked me. There are some truly generous people in this world. Food and incidentals were covered by Ebay auctions (bye bye Coach purses, pretty jewelry, antique professional clarinet in mint condition). I liked my worldly possessions, but I liked the idea of adventure more.

I had reservations about going. I am not only a writer, but a wife and mother of three. I was very worried at how it would affect my family. They are always my priority in life.

But, as it was pointed out to me, this was a chance of a lifetime. One that may never present itself again.

The more I thought about it, the more I decided I needed to put my money where my mouth was. I want my kids to be fearless, to be adventurers, to know that there is more to life than Wisconsin. I want them to have confidence in their abilities and to take every opportunity presented to them. And as anyone with kids knows, they are always watching. I could tell them all of those things, or I could demonstrate how to do it. Someday, I hope they can say, “My mom had a really fulfilling life, and I want to do the same.”

The Wisconsin of Scandinavia

The place looked a lot like Wisconsin—especially along Highway 16 between the Dells and Portage, or County Road A between the Dells and Baraboo. The weather was similar. Finland may have a higher latitude than Wisconsin, but it was warmer there than it was here when I left. They use the pesky metric system, but when converted to Fahrenheit, the temps there were in the high 30s and low 40s for most of my stay.

When it did snow, my southern hemisphere friends lost their minds. They ran outside with no coats, barely shoes on their feet, but all with a camera. “Take a picture of the snow in my hair!” my friend Morgan asked me. Later, she admitted that she was terrified that when she woke up the next day, all of the snow would be gone.

Some people went up to Lapland (northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway) to see more snow and wintery things. Having come from America’s version of Lapland, I politely declined.

I had a room in what my house-mates and I called “the little house.” Arteles has two houses — one large house with several bedrooms and bathrooms, living space, a kitchen and studio space, and one smaller house with three bedrooms, a bathroom, a small living room, and a kitchen. The houses were next to each other.

I loved my little Finnish cottage. The walls were wood, insulated with things like sawdust and old-school building materials in between the wooden planks. My room was large, larger than my bedroom at home, but sparse. It had a double bed, very low to the ground, a night stand (equally as low), a desk which was made out of a large plank of wood and two work horses, a chair, and an old armoire that looked to be as old as the house.

They take their IKEA very seriously there, as it seemed like everything was from the store. Everyone’s bedroom was different, and I heard that the staff there put a lot of thought into where people stay. For example, the writers get rooms with big desks, whereas the performance artists get larger open spaces to practice. Every room there had a yoga mat, too. I don’t know how much yoga actually got done.

The bathrooms were very different from home. For one thing, the whole floor of my bathroom was the shower floor. There was no separate shower, other than a shower curtain that hung from the ceiling. After your shower, you were to squeegee the floor with a super long device that kind of looked like a golf putter.

The other main difference I noticed was the spray hose attached to the sink. This was not an anomaly for my bathroom, but rather every private bathroom I encountered in Europe. At first, I was just thinking it was interesting to have a spray hose in the bathroom. Like, who would do their dishes in there? After a few days, I realized that, uh, it wasn’t for dishes. No, I didn’t use it for its … intended … purposes, and neither did any of the other residents I spoke with.

Finland looked a lot like Wisconsin, but it was quite evident it was not. All I had to do to be reminded of this was go to the grocery store. Finnish people speak, well, Finnish. It’s a language unlike any other. It’s not Germanic or Romance, its origins are not any like the rest of Indo-European languages. Most Finnish people I encountered spoke English as well, which was a relief to this ignorant American. Finnsh is a tough language to learn.

Even though many people speak English (englanti) in Finland (Suomi), it doesn’t mean their groceries are labeled in English. Most things at the store had three labels on it — Finnish, Swedish, and Russian. There was no wifi at the grocery store, so I was left to figure things out just by pictures. Some things I did okay with … the red carton with the cow on it that said “maito?” Milk. Some other things were way more difficult, like the yellow can in the refrigerated section with pictures of pancakes on it. I thought it was pancake batter. Thanks to my Swedish house-mate Susanne, I learned that it was actually the oil to make pancakes.

I love trying new things, so I was very interested in Salmiakki, which is pretty much the Finnish national candy. There are a lot of different varieties of Salmiakki, but all start with the same base — black licorice, salted with ammonium chloride. Even as someone that likes black licorice, I couldn’t stomach it. The only one I could even finish eating was the kind flavored with mint. I sent my kids a care package while I was there and included a package of Salmiakki for them to try. It’s still full now, sitting on a shelf in my living room. No one was a fan. I brought some home, too, and keep it with me in my purse. I like to have people try it. Of the 50 or so people I’ve given a piece to, only four have said they would eat another.

Sauna

People from home that are familiar with Finland have asked me if I tried the sauna. Sauna is an important part of the Finnish lifestyle; one statistic I heard was that there were more saunas in Finland than cars. According to Teemu, the Arteles director, a sauna was about the best thing for you: you could sweat out illness in there, relax, and meditate if you wanted to. Back in the olden days, Teemu told us, women would give birth in the sauna because it was considered a sterile and healthy environment.

The nine residents were given detailed instructions on how to set up the sauna, from gathering the wood to tips on how to keep the fires going. We were also told to make sure we went into the sauna with wet hair. After disrobing but before entering the sauna, everyone was to pour a bucket of water over their heads. Someone asked why, and the answer was “because if it’s not, your hair could burn off your head.”

I found the whole thing fascinating. Yes, I did it nude, as did everyone else. This point seems to shock people here. Nudity isn’t as taboo there as it is here. For this modest and somewhat body-image concerned American, it was a lesson in “Who cares?” The first sauna, with all of us undressing rather embarrassedly, I had to put on a brave face. As I entered the sauna, I said, “Well, I’m the only one here with children, so this is going to be more traumatic for any of you than it is for me.”

Inside the sauna, the optimum temperature was between 100 degrees and 115 degrees Celsius. Hotter than water to make tea, someone pointed out. It was a very hot and humid little room, made hotter with each ladle-full of boiling water poured on the rocks. When the heat was too intense, you left the little sauna room and either went into the wet area for a cup of cold water, or outside to roll in the snow. I personally did not roll in the snow, but many of my friends did.

Head Lice and Other Natural Phenomenon

It was two weeks in, on a Saturday night, that my friend Morgan said to a group of us, “Man! The back of my neck itches!” She asked me to see if she had a rash. She put her beautiful, long curly hair up in a pony-tail so I could take a look. I had to tell her the bad news: she had lice.

Years ago, my whole family had lice. Once you see a nit, you never forget what it looks like. I even wrote a guide to lice online that still gets hits six years later. I brought up this article. That’s when the line formed. I had to check everyone for lice, including myself. (No one else had it, but psychosomatic symptoms kept us all itching our heads for days.)

One downside of rural Finland is that nothing is open on Sundays. Sure, maybe in a bigger town the pharmacy (or apteekki, as it is called) is open, but not in Hämeenkyrö, Finland. The only thing open there on Sunday was the grocery store. Poor Morgan had to wait until Monday, which also meant that the rest of us kept a significant distance from her. Monday morning, after her trip to get Finnish lice shampoo, she approached me with a nit comb and a Twix bar — payment for my services. We spent a glorious 45 minutes together, just Morgan, me, and several of her illegal tenants.

A few days later, I saw that the Northern Lights were going to be in rare form. I didn’t hear about this from the local Finnish news (didn’t watch any TV while I was there), or in the local newspapers, but rather on my Facebook feed from back home. Baraboo Scanner reported that conditions may be ideal to see the Northern Lights from Wisconsin. Well heck, I thought, if you could see them from Wisconsin, I would surely be able to see them from southern Finland!

The kp (not sure what it stands for) in Baraboo is a 7. The kp where I was in Finland is a 5. The lower your kp, the better chance you have in seeing aurora borealis.

At first, it just looked like clouds. It was a very clear night, so I knew they weren’t, but that is what it looked like. They moved and danced and throbbed, appeared and disappeared, jetted across the sky and then retreated. Quite cool.

Later I looked up and it absolutely took my breath away. I ran back inside to grab my phone. As I told some friends back home, I was completely speechless (aside from the initial audible shock) as to what I saw as I stepped outside my north-facing door. The colors were so cool and so dense then. Absolutely the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen in the sky or in nature. Pictures and descriptions don’t do it justice.

Later that week was my 36th birthday. My birthday is my favorite day of the year, and I was nervous about spending it abroad. However, my friends there made it extra special. It started with my housemates waking me up to “Happy Birthday” in both English and Swedish. Susanne, my Swedish housemate, told me that’s a tradition in Sweden. I walk into the kitchen, and there are balloons decorating our IKEA cabinets, and a breakfast feast — Swedish pancakes, served with jam, butter, and ice cream! Ice cream for breakfast? Uh, yes please.

As we were eating, Lucie, my Australian housemate said that they scheduled my eclipse to start by noon.

Yes, March 20, a total solar eclipse happened over Northern Europe. Where we were in Finland, we saw maybe a two-thirds or three-quarter eclipse. I joked that it was proof the world really did revolve around me.

Writing

I started as the extroverted writer, setting up shop in the communal work space. I loved watching other people work, especially those so different from me. Do I know how painters operate? Nope, but I got a little taste of it. To begin with, I told my friends back home that I was a lot like Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,”because “I want to be where the people are!” But later in the residency, I holed up in my bedroom. I found I liked the company of others, but it was nerve-wracking to have the noise while I was writing. So mid-way through my time there, I’d spend two or three hours working in my room, go out and socialize for a little bit, and then back to my room. It was like if Emily Dickinson had wifi.

I would write three pages about anything I like every day. When my time there was drawing to a close (one could say was Finnish-ing…), I went back through my notebook and transcribed my notes to see what I had. As someone who very rarely writes about nature, I was shocked to see that most of what I had was about, well, nature. Many of the poems I wrote there ended up being about the Aurora Borealis and the solar eclipse, not only the natural phenomenon of both, but also some poetic metaphors where both played a big part. There may have been no time-clock or paycheck, but I was doing what I was supposed to. By the end of my time there, I wrote and revised 15 new poems, as well as sent out work to places for publication.

There are people out there that may not understand or agree with my trip to Finland. That’s OK. I consider writing my job. Have I been paid for it? Not as much as I’d like, but I’m working on the future paychecks. And even if I never earn one red cent (or silver euro) from this, it will still be my job. I also consider being a mother as my job, another position I will not see much money from. I am pouring my life into both unpaid jobs. My time away will ensure I can do both a whole lot better.

At one point, the other artists and I went around the table and shared our past work and accomplishments. I was there with some seriously talented people. Private shows? Films at Cannes? Artist grants? I felt like the biggest impostor there. But when I read my stuff, there was a silence, and then one of my talented painter friends let out a sigh and said, “Damn.” I still have a hard time considering myself an artist, but that helped tremendously.

I am a published poet and a trained journalist. Writing is what I do. My time in Finland achieved two things: it gave me a better world-view, and it allowed me a little space to stretch and work. No one was coming at me with permission slips. I had no mail to open. It was me and my desk, and I could choose how I spent my time. It was absolutely glorious, but I am also very aware that this experience was a true gift. Very few people have the ability to pause real life for a month, and I am so grateful for the chance to do so.

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