Friends Across the Globe and the Bug

I’d say one of the most special things about my study abroad experience is the group of close friends I developed over the course of my stay. The experience of packing up and starting new in a foreign place is a profoundly unique recipe for friendships that enter strange and visceral pathways in the heart. When I think about my closest friends and what they are most likely up to these days I am overcome with a profound sense of connection and compassion. It brings me so much pleasure to imagine the ongoing story lines of each my peers and how many other stops and stories they have ahead of them. I love the way that the details of their stories are far away, but the love I have for them is alive and well and makes me feel as though a part of me is still with them as they move through life and a part of them is definitely still with me. I let a lot of people into my life and I’ll never be fully rid of them. All of the small newness that they displayed has been swallowed by my concept of what is possible in this world and so I take them along to every new excitement and adventure.

My best friend back home recently offered to take me along with him to visit his siblings in Myanmar. People have warned me that the bug for travel is stubborn and hearty. I definitely felt that pesky addiction fire up when I got that invitation. I can’t even begin to imagine all of the small sensations and emotions that I could be signing up for. All of the people and moments I will be letting into my life, for good, makes the 1000 dollar round trip ticket rather hard to turn down. I might be hooked!

The Smaller Details

Back in the comfortable swing of my closest friends and oldest habits, everyday I feel like I lose another memory I promised I would never forget about my time abroad. It is so easy to go on with things and never give a lot of second look back. If I think about my most memorable moments stateside even,  the ones that stick aren’t necessarily the most vivid or intense, just the ones that my friends and I have recounted again and again and set them into a collective story. That’s is one of the ways that this experience is different than life stages of the past. When I arrived in Finland, I didn’t have anyone to remind and be reminded by, all of my stories where just abstract tales, and that’s is exactly what I have now, a bunch of stories filled with textures and sensations I can’t really explain and can’t expect anyone around me know to just intuitively understand.

I tried to explain the time I spent at Varrio Subartic Research Center to a friend recently. I described the night Laura ran inside screaming about the northern lights see caught on her long hike up the snow covered stairs from the lake and the sauna nested on its shore. She didn’t even say ‘northern lights’ just ‘lights’  and ‘now’ and ‘outside’ all while skipping down the log sided hallway from the kitchen to the library. I ran out the front door, which up to that point I never even knew opened, in my loose wool socks and fell knee deep in the snow bank. I pointed up and said, “Wow, they are gorgeous!”, waited a moment and then said, “Ummm.. actually where are they exactly?” The lights were so faint near the cabin that I could hardly make them out. At midnight, we all looked at each other and decided that we had no choice but to bundle up and head to the research tower on the top of the nearest fell. We hiked to the top and climbed the tower stairs. The metal ladders were sticky with frost and we all paused to let each other pass underneath, so as to avoid sprinkling snow down each others necks. It was Laura, who was afraid of heights “a little”, on the 5th floor, and Aleksi on the 6th floor, who watched nervously as I climbed timidly past them to the second floor from the top. We all sat there watching the lights tower over the Russian border (3 km East) as the tower swayed and shook in the cold dry wind. I remember thinking then, I will never forget this. And I never will. I just hope I never lose the smaller details: the dusty smell of the red wool bunk beds and green canvas curtains, the stacks of evening newspapers the station staff cast aside after the  20 year tradition of 4:30 pm sharp dinner, the wordless bond between cook and guest over reindeer jerky aged on the roof for months with “only salt”, that graceful lull around 9pm in the library each night that overcomes a group of busy people set into a breadth of complete stillness, which can take your breath away even in the short amount of time it takes to make it back from the outhouse.

First Days in Finland: Running Backwards

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Early in the morning, I arrived in Finland with bags of expectation, desire, and fear. I didn’t realize it at the time, though, because I made it very, very clear in my head that no matter what I would be at the whims of fate in this new country and that I would have to focus my energy on adaption. I missed my bus connection, so I calmly walked to a nearby gas station and asked the attendant if she could call me a cab and bought some salty licorice. ‘First problem averted, no biggie, I’m doing great’, I thought. Looking back, it’s funny how wisdom can act like a safety blanket, as though if we expect something or call it out it stings a little bit less. This is true, in the long term, but I held this abstract concept of going-with-the-flow like a shield and it turned into a prism in a room of mirrors, compounding every string of worry, loss, and sadness into anxious cycle of ‘holding it together’.

I remember my first week being so so so hard. I had a lot of free time and free space, because I moved in on a holiday into an unfurnished studio apartment. The first few days were great, but this strange tinge started to build, like there was layer of eggshells between my spine and skin. I realized once I arrived how I’d never really been alone before by circumstance, instead of choice, and that feeling was a lot to handle. I knew consciously that it was all OK and that this would pass, but it was the incongruence between the worry that I felt and this peace which I grasped intellectually that pushed me deeper and deeper into panic. Scary thoughts and images would flood in and I would try to blot them out with better ones, thinking, ‘You’re in a brand new country, stop feeling worried, and appreciate this opportunity’. Soon enough, I pushed my body into a kind of numbness and this ambivalent fear engulfed the images of the people I loved and my own future, and terror seemed to follow me everywhere.

I want to write about the lesson I learned from this. I want to call out the silver lining. I want to remind myself why this doesn’t have to happen again in the future. But, I know I’m writing from the edge of the storm. I’m in a lot easier position now, but I won’t always be. If there’s anything Finland has taught me about myself it’s that the storm is what keeps me alive. The wind underneath all the stability we associate with ourselves, family, and circumstance doesn’t have a resolution or harness. Ever. It’s the wind which rubs me raw, and if I’m honest with myself, it’s the only thing which compels me to act. I don’t need to be calm, I don’t need to be confident, I don’t need to be collected. The fuel of life as I see it is a vitality which comes from the rawness of doubt, not the comfort of trust. Again, I wish I could stand by something which I’ve learned here to help me ride this energy with grace and awareness, but the truth is we are all running backwards. You can be mindful of this condition, but it doesn’t help it go away or change the fundamental condition. You can fall or you can jump, but don’t expect either to feel like standing.