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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Vesta - musings on fitting in

Vesta is one of those vibrant personalities with a vast social network, that fit in any and everywhere. Having grown up in and lived in so many places, she herself doesn't know where she calls home. Even her family lives all over the globe, and by that I mean several continents.

"The key is to find a good group of friends and make it happen," she says when I ask her about this, then pauses to add. "It can be hard and extremely daunting. But find people with the same interests or, even better, something you've always been interested in." Though she is quick to add that she's not exactly a poster child for "perfect integration."

"What do you mean," I ask her, spying a group that is all set to snap her up. We are at a birthday bash that a friend - or in Vesta's case a friend of a friend - is throwing. I felt I could talk to her when she went out for a smoke and I decided to follow. We'd spoken before so it wasn't like this was a new situation but never more than a few sentences here or there, and never about deeper subjects. The group hovering nearby, is moving in and Vesta has noticed them as well. Her response is to move away, to a blind corner all the while rolling her eyes.

I nicknamed her Vesta after the Roman goddess of the home and the hearth and also because for a while, on Facebook, she had a statue of a Vestal Virgin as her profile picture. When I tell her about the nickname, she laughs appreciatively.

"I love the irony," she states firing up another cigarette. I grin when I get it, while she adds, "I actually have a thing for Roman and Greek mythology."

Before I can ask her what exactly that is, I can see three of the six Germans so eager to meet her, approaching. I catch her eye just in time and we move away again so that we're now standing around the corner of the venue.

"What do you mean, you're not exactly a poster child for integration," I ask because I am intrigued.

"I've moved around all my life," she says. "That gives me one hell of an advantage. At some point, you just figure out that people are equally shy as you are or can be. So just because they won't approach you, doesn't mean anything. Plus a lot of people suffer from what I call popular kids syndrome."

I look at her, willing her to explain.

"Remember back in high school when you had the popular kids and the losers and everything else in between? And everyone pretty much wanted to talk to the popular kids? They never lifted a finger, everyone flocked to them, so they never had to learn what it was like trying to make friends. So then they grow up and decide that moving to a new place is a good thing and they expect everything to be the same, people catering to them, everyone treating them like a beauty queen. But it doesn't work that way. So they're lost, they don't know what to do with themselves. Then you get those that have never really traveled abroad and a one-week packaged holiday, all tours included does not count. They expect everything to stay the same, there's no room for change. I'm not saying that's how it is for every body, it's not as convenient as that. But it gives you a sort of guideline, something that helps you understand them."

I mull this over and ask her which group she belonged to. It makes her laugh.
"I was a drifter. The minute they found out I'd traveled so much and lived in all these different places, I was okay. Hell, I even had close friends that were juniors and seniors when I was a freshman and that was pretty unheard of. But I always bonded more with the artistic people, so for the most part, I hung out with them."

This is true even today. I know that many of her friends are free spirits, and that is largely why the group of German girls, wants to be her friend. Not that they are free spirits but they are hoping that in attaching themselves to her, they can meet some of those friends. One of them has even been chasing her with a camera all evening, never even asking if she can take a picture. Vesta always managed to turn away. She never mentions this to anyone though, her easy way of integration, when people speak about how difficult it is to make friends here, rather than state that she has plenty of friends here, and most of them local, she sits there quietly, once it has become clear that the speaker is not after advice, just wants to start a bitching session. But social circles overlap and all it takes is for someone to see you somewhere and their opinion is made. I once saw her standing on a beer crate at a concert, very far away from the stage, talking to people around her, who were clearly part of a different group than the ones hogging the front of the stage. One of the girls from the German group was there as well, in the front, holding on tightly to the stage as if otherwise she would be dragged away. And even though Vesta never mentioned any of it (when people asked her what she had done that night, she answered them that she had been with friends, which, technically, was true), it was obvious that she had been there in a completely different capacity to the German girl.

"The other thing is," she goes on. "You have to be careful when you criticize the country you're in. I'm all for freedom of speech but look at it this way, you're a guest in their country, an Israeli friend told me that about living in Germany. The country is your host, you don't really want to insult your host. So you word things carefully. Besides, you only catch glimpses, you didn't grow up here, most of us have only been here for a few years. How can you even begin to comprehend all the intricacies? The way I see it is, it's like family. You can criticize the hell out of them, they're a part of you. But when someone else does, you suddenly jump to their defense and hate the other person."

This is in fact the first commentary on living in Finland as a foreigner, or any country for that matter, that actually makes sense. The others are all about trying to fit in as many random Finnish words into a conversation as possible, to show how integrated they are, while at the same time listing all the negatives of the place they can think of, mainly how it's impossible to make friends in Helsinki. These comments of course, being thrown about in a group of expats that consistently meets up on its own and unless it is to hit on a girl, will never make a move to talk to Finns. I have been around them and heard their conversation too many times to actually care. Though, I try to avoid the expat community like crazy, there is still one occasion or other, on which they all come together, like this birthday party or else, an evening out with friends in a pub when some expat, who can't get into their usual haunts, end up at the table next to yours. Vesta doesn't hang with a pack, at least not with the expats. I remember her saying once that most of her friends are Finnish, "give or take about five foreign friends."

Mulling over what she said about fitting into a new environment, I can't help thinking as we walk back inside, where she once again, successfully dodges the German girls, that maybe her nickname isn't so ironic after all.

The sports fan

My former roommate looks at me and very eloquently states, "eh?"

I can completely understand her surprise, being as how when we lived together, I never even once, expressed the remotest interest in any sport. She herself, being a self-proclaimed sports nut, had a strong preference for soccer but would watch pretty much anything. I have fond memories of us sitting on the couch in her living-room, both of us with our laptops, while she focused on the game shown on TV, alternately commenting on the game to me and commenting via skype to her friends abroad. The only other time I'd watched a sports game was in high school and even then I was more there for the socializing than the game itself. Knowing that our school's football team pretty much sucked and that none of my friends there knew about or even cared for the rules, helped in not paying attention to what was going on. I figured that I'd get all that I needed to get out of the game just from her reaction and that was already enough. She couldn't stop laughing at that but decided to spare me a lecture on how the interesting thing was to actually watch the thing as it developed. Even now, when we're meeting, it's not in a sports bar but an average coffee place. So her surprise at my latest request is perfectly understandable.

I repeat my request if only to see the look on her face again. "Could you give me a crash course in ice hockey?"

She starts grinning at me and it's pretty much the same grin she sported when I got all excited about a picture I found of someone I'd been crushing on when we were living together last year. The internet can be a blessing that way, though I can still hear the word "stalker" coming out from somewhere underneath the mock-cough that followed my "discovery". It still makes me laugh, today.

Mercifully she spares me a speech this time though her eyebrows do shoot up. Especially, when I add that I need a crash course for dummies.

Last year my best friend really wanted to see the ice hockey game, when Finland played Russia. I don't remember when it was, some time during the spring, though we were still (for the most part) wearing our winter jackets, that's how little I know about the whole thing. I was rooting for her country as well but since I didn't know the rules, it was hard for me to follow. We ended up at another friend's place of work, a bar that usually doesn't show ice hockey but for this, they were making an exception. A very big exception since the whole thing resulted in a lock-in, with about six people remaining. They tried to explain the game to me, my best friend, with one eye on me and the other one on the screen, turning to our other friend for help. Each time they gasped, I looked at my friend and asked her if what had just happened was good or bad. I tell my roommate all that, adding that I didn't want a repeat of that, this year, I wanted to actively participate.

"Isn't there a big ice hockey event coming up in February?" I ask before adding, "I want to be prepared."
I know this, because the Monday after Christmas, coming home from a concert, a random drunk guy stopped me on the street and told me about it.

To her credit, I have to state that she is trying to hide her grin. But I know her, so I can see it dancing around the edges of her mouth and in her eyes.

"The big ice hockey event . . . ," she begins and - again I have to give her credit for that - her voice is perfectly even. "the winter olympics in Vancouver. The Finnish team is expected to fight for gold in that competition."

I nod, glad that I don't even have to pretend that I knew this already and that we already established when I was living with her that when it came to sports, I was basically an idiot. I can follow a tennis match and I played floor hockey once in my life and really enjoyed it but other than never playing by the rules to begin with, team sports were never something I'd followed actively, never mind passionately. When pressed, I'd pick the teams of the places I liked. I love everything about Finland (and my own country doesn't even have a team) so with ice hockey, Finland it is.

"Ice hockey games start on February 17," she says. "That means, you have at least three more weeks to learn more about ice hockey."

I nod again. Three weeks isn't that bad and the "more" in her comment, sounds encouraging. At least I didn't decide this three minutes into the game.

"I'll send you a link with the rules and some general knowledge," she says as she needs to go in a short while.

I thank her and promptly ask her about the two city teams, Jokerit and HIFK.

"They play in the SM league," she explains. "That's the highest level of ice hockey played in Finland. Listen, would you be willing to come see a game with us next weekend in Tapiola even if it doesn't involve Jokerit and HIFK?"

I nearly start jumping up and down at this. It's hard for me to plan anything that far in advance so we arrange to confirm this next Friday. And I'm really looking forward to the following weekend, confident that by the time the winter olympics roll around, I'll have a pretty good idea of what's going on and will really be able to get into the games when I watch them with my friends.

Until the thought hits me that all games take place in Vancouver and with the time difference, active participation is pretty much a moot point since I won't be watching the game with anyone anyway.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The hanger-on

Iphigenie came to this country because of the music. This is of course perfectly understandable, many of her friends have done or are doing the same, and it is the music of some of the bands that "has helped tremendously with my English." Iphigenie is after integration. She wants to be a part of it, wants to belong but not so she can fit in but rather so that she can meet the musicians whose music she has "always admired." That this is hard to do in a country where friends are carefully chosen (and I might add for good reason) quickly becomes evident, when after a year of being here, she has only met some of the locals by attaching herself to a more outgoing personality from abroad. Iphigenie's tactic to achieve integration is to sit and wait and follow the more outgoing personality around, so as to get a foot in the door as it were, then snapping up the other person's friends. Should someone introduce her to a new person, she will however not share the favor and do anything to keep that person for herself, not granting her outgoing friend(s) any access.

Iphigenie now has a boyfriend, a pompous ass, the outgoing friend has named Thoas. He is the kind of person who will post photos of concentration camps on his social network page among holiday pictures and consider it part of the general landscape. The kind of person who knows that all foreigners are of course rich and that life abroad is so much better than here. But he is local, and for Iphigenie that is all that matters. That he is a huge fan and admirer of her home country, merely constitutes an added bonus.

They met, the same way that Iphigenie meets all her friends that are not from her country, through her outgoing friend or rather acquaintance, waiting for the latter to strike up a conversation with them, engage in general banter and then move in by standing quietly at her friend's side so as to be included in the conversation. This usually works especially at gatherings of other expats, in which mutual inclusion is practically a fait-accompli. Thoas is much the same, and being half a generation her senior, has taken it upon himself to guide her.

Iphigenie knows that she is young and has much to learn and rather than rely solely on her boyfriend, she looks to her outgoing acquaintance for guidance, following her around the room when they happen to run into each other at parties, to see who her acquaintance is talking to and to position herself next to them within five seconds of her acquaintance striking up a conversation. Her boyfriend is quick to follow this act and so an interesting game of tag ensues at a birthday party held in a popular venue. When a film crew filming a documentary for a national channel shows up, both are quick to position themselves at an angle that is sure to capture them frequently, so that later they can brag to the people in their immediate vicinity about how they have been captured on film.

Both Iphigenie and Thoas know that their outgoing acquaintance has interesting contacts and they are keen to get them. There are hints to "meet up for drinks" and requests of "can I have that photo you guys were taking because I want to surprise a friend" as well as liking status updates no matter how mundane they might be, yet these only occur right after they have heard of said acquaintance being in what to them is an interesting environment and invitations to their events are never extended. Their own circle of friends consists of people from Iphigenie's home country, met at a social networking event, again, having waited for someone else to make the introduction. When one of them, on a visit to Helsinki after having returned to his home country, mentions to their acquaintance that it would be nice to meet up, they do everything in their power to make sure this meeting doesn't happen. It is a life style that seems to work for them even though they are often at home alone or only go out when specifically invited by someone or other. They are easy to spot at all types of parties, the ones standing in the background, wearing a style slightly similar to what they think is the local fashion and yet, never quite the same. And yet, despite all that, they have their advantages. They are primarily there to make those in their vicinity truly appreciative of their real friends, the ones who will call you in good times and bad and will stand by you, whether you're happy or sad.