It’s our wedding anniversary today. Yay us! Six years and we haven’t killed each other. We’ve grown closer and happier, partly through having been so well-suited to each other in the first place, partly through adversity, partly because of shared interests and definitely because of our mutual roots in Finland.
When you have lived in two countries for pretty much exactly half and half of your life (I am 41 and came to the UK about 20 years ago), you are at risk of developing a sort of bizarre self-aware dual identity. Your cultural and genetic heritage makes you one thing and your surroundings and learned behaviours make you another. At times it feels like an out-of-body experience; I’ll either have my Finnish self smirking at the English self saying *“please” and “would you mind awfully if…” and generally dancing around the real subject of the conversation like any properly polite English person ought to. And making cups of tea. And apologising when someone bumps into me. At other times, it’s the English person rolling her eyes when the Finnish person breaks free and just has to correct someone who is breaking the rules or cut through the flourish and get straight to the point. The latter feels exactly like when Brian Griffin can’t help but act like the dog he is.
Being a Finn, I love forests (the largest forest in Finland is Finland. The whole country is a forest broken up by 155,000 lakes and the odd attempt at civilisation). Forests are sort of sacred to Finns. Not in a religious sense, but seeing as they’re eveywhere, most Finns tend to learn how to behave in them. Forests are a pain in the arse when you have to create arable land but they also provide valuable sustenance and an important economic commodity = wood. Most Finnish kids have gone berry or mushroom picking at some point in their childhood; skiing in the winter or jogging through them in a torturous gym class in school. When you land at the Helsinki-Vantaa airport, glance out of the window and you’ll see that the airport is pretty much a patch of asphalt carved into the middle of a forest.
One of the reasons we moved to Farnham was that there is a wealth of beautiful nature right on our doorstep, including some great forests. Alice Holt was used as a location for Gladiator and it’s a great place for a day out, but possibly a little too popular (although if you want to climb up in treetops like a monkey, there’s Go Ape and if you enjoy outdoor theatre or want to hire bikes for a bit of a ride through nice forest trails, Alice Holt is the place for you). Alas, it is usually packed on weekends and if one wants to emulate a Finnish forest experience, one does not visit a “forest experience”. So Bourne Wood is definitely our favourite out of the two and you can usually walk and climb around for a fair while before even encountering another human being, much less a crowd. It also happens to harbour a little bit of a hidden treasure for us Finns: real bilberies grow there. These are what Finns call blueberries and the variety sold in UK shops is referred to as a bush blueberry.
Today we decided to climb up to our berry spot and check how they’re progressing (still green or nonexistent; the delayed summer may have ruined this year’s harvest). Climbing up further, I suddenly smelled smoke.
Some absolute numpties had not only littered the forest with crisp packets, chocolate wrappers and empty cider bottles, but they’d set a fire around a dried up tree trunk and not put it out properly, so the fire had continued burning in the undergrowth and spread out from their original fire pit right out to the crisp, dry moss and sticks. The tree trunk was still slowly burning, too. A few more hours and the fire would have reached another dry tree or an area with nothing but dried sticks and we would have had a serious local forest fire.
This was like pressing a big Finnish-psyche-ACTIVATE-button. Not only is setting fires in forests illegal (Finns love to monitor that everyone is following the rules, however daft; even though in this case it really is a good rule) – those heathens had desecrated a forest. A forest! Not knowing how to behave in nature is one thing, but nobody messes around with a forest. I could see that the fire wouldn’t go out with what was left of our water bottle so I dialled 999 and called the fire brigade. We had to walk back to the entrance to meet them and direct them to the spot.
When we were driving home, I started giggling: “I feel so smug about that now,” I said, “and the English me is laughing her arse off.” Being on the same wavelength, my husband immediately understood what I was on about and started laughing, too. “Acting like a good citizen and calling in the fire brigade when someone not only broke the law but broke the law in a forest – and saving our forest from a fire in the process – my Finnish self is very pleased with herself and it’s like when Brian Griffin can’t help but act like a dog but is still aware that he’s acting like a dog, and it drives him nuts.”
But seriously. Teach your children how to behave in a forest. I’m not kidding. I have an axe.
* There is no word for “please” in the Finnish language. The sentiment is expressed by behaviour; by sometimes adding a “thank you” where “please” would go – and generally by either a quick nod or possibly even eye contact. When I visit Finland, the empty hole where “please” would go leaves me gasping for air in hilarious confusion. It makes me feel amusingly uncomfortable not to be able to add it. So I end up saying “thank you” a lot more than expected and staff members in shops and waitresses in restaurants look at me like I’m the woman who fell to Earth. Trying to explain to Brits that the lack of “please” does not make Finns rude; that the language and cultural norms don’t demand it, is a bit like trying to describe a colour that doesn’t exist. It is so deeply ingrained in the culture here that I’ve given up trying to explain it and now use the lack of “please” as a sort of gross-out party trick: “Yes, Finnish people go to the kiosk and just grunt Malrboro Lights… and nothing comes after.” Most people turn a little pale and laugh nervously; it’s way better than a ghost story.