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Archive for February 10th, 2009

A National Elixir

A small change in behavior set off an unexpected chain of events during my recent trip to Finland. Because I’ve recently stopped smoking I’ve stayed away from booze as a way of keeping the desire to smoke in check. As much as I enjoy beer, a good vodka or a good scotch, I’ve stayed away. An occasional glass of wine with dinner, but for the most part and by sheer coincidence, I’ve nearly eliminated booze.

Questions arose when I declined beer before, and cognac following, a dinner with former colleagues. I explained my situation and left it at that, then watched as the remaining three polished off two bottles of wine and countless beers.

Up north, a friend had a six pack waiting for us behind the barn. My train arrived at 18:30 – a typically perfect time to down three apiece.

When I arrived at the home where I spent the majority of my time, my hosts greeted me with a choice of beer or gin. I had a sip of gin and explained why I didn’t want one of my own.

In addition to declining the free booze, I choose not to plan for the afternoon happy hours or late nights at local bars – times and places where I knew I could run into people I know. This time I used public transportation not to get to and from various bars, but to get to and from various sources of wireless Internet service. Not unlike my days in Columbus, I spent the afternoons at coffee shops and public plazas reading, writing and keeping up with the news and blogs.

With a new set of behaviors in place, it took less than twenty-four hours for me to see what I’d been able to ignore in the past. What I noticed was the evidence surrounding sadness and social isolation that leads Finland to having one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

Blank faces were at nearly every turn and the lack of smiles became downright disturbing. Listless heads held up just enough so the eyes could look out the windows of the metro when it was above ground, then turned to stare just below the chin or off to the side of whomever was across from them when below ground. No talking, except for the recorded female voice calling out the names of the stops, first in Finnish then in Swedish.

In crowded aisles of department stores or supermarkets no one bothers to say “excuse me”. Clerks and cashiers ask the same questions, repeatedly, to everyone they serve.
Along even the narrowest country road there are no “good mornings” or “hello’s” when passing other pedestrians. There is cultural silence.

In every setting pairs of eyes glance up quickly and in the event that contact is made they dart away to stare off into the distance. Within these eyes and from the surrounds of silence I began to hear the piercing screams of loneliness.

My daily ride into the city on the metro became the most terrifying part of my day. People forced into close proximity but unable to respond socially to one another left me feeling isolated as well. I began wearing my earphones and listening to my music while going to and from. The soundtrack didn’t match the movie making things that much more disturbing.

Thoughts of sealing myself into a hotel room for a couple of days entered my mind as I tried to figure out what was happening. I felt a tremendous need to escape but I had no where to go. Walls of grayness started closing in around me. Walking. I had to keep walking and better to do so in the darkness so as to see fewer faces. The darkness is meant to be silent.

The keys of my Blackberry clicked throughout the night to friends across the ocean as I tried to make sense of what was happening. I came to realize that because I wasn’t in pursuit of alcohol or hanging out with friends while consuming alcohol or dealing with the after effects of alcohol, that I was witnessing what those who consume it are trying to escape. Drinking makes the feeling of isolation go away at least for awhile. A little bit longer when drinking together. I had used alcohol to do the very same thing in Finland, year after year. I’d confused that with having fun. But it was, and still is for many, a method of survival wrought with its own self-contained problems.

A friend in Chicago responded by e-mail to my silent screams.

“You have seen the evaporation of your enthusiasm for a culture and country (its customs) and your past interpersonal relationships vanish before your eyes…that must be disorientating.”

He said it best.

To escape, I scrambled to fill my remaining nights with different types of social engagements. I went to see a movie, the first Finnish film I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. I dodged small clans of drunks outside of metro stations, moved out of the way for others stumbling down the street and listened to the cursing from another when he fell off his bicycle due to the ice. Ironically, the movie was about the organized crime that surrounded illegal alcohol sales during the 1960’s in Helsinki’s Punavouri neighborhood.

Two days later I went to a musical performance by Siiri Nordin (her sound is seductive!)- a concert hosted by the city, just two metro stops north from where I was staying. A large room of smiling faces was hugely therapeutic, though my usual set of friends didn’t wish to participate.

During my remaining jaunts to and from the city I made it a point to make eye contact with whomever I could and then smile or wink at them. I made an extra effort to liven my step and walk to the beat of my music. I looked into every face as I ascended from the metro stations hoping to find the exceptions or at the very least, find a smile in return. One night I rode home next to an Indian couple I’d seen the night before. When the woman recognized me, she smiled.

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