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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.

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