Language barriers

“There are no language barriers when you are smiling.”

– Allen Klein (who has clearly never been to Finland)

The Finnish are a quiet people. So far. It’s borderline impressive on occasion. Family-sized vans full of family-sized families pull up in a parking lot near lakes or other recreational areas, they all pile out, gather their things and then disappear into the surroundings without a sound. They can be sitting around a campfire 100 metres away, and you won’t hear a squeak. It was no different this time.

A group arrives, folds out grandma’s wheelchair and hauls her and the rest of their things off to the nearby laavu, a freestanding wooden lean-to shelter found almost everywhere in Scandinavia (gapskjul or gapahuk in Swedish and Norwegian, respectively). This one is brand new by the look of it; a large circular log structure with wooden benches around a fire pit in front of the opening. The sawdust from the logs is still on the ground around it. We can see them through the camper windows during dinner, but once grandma’s squeaky front wheel stops moving, the woods fall silent again. We finish dinner and head out in search of dessert.

Berry season is not quite over yet, and the sweet smell of raspberries is in the air. I love berry season in Scandinavia. One of my favourite memories of this trip is a random encounter with a huge patch of plump, ripe blueberries. As it turns out, Google loves blueberries too. We’ve developed a routine where I pick, and she conducts acceptance sampling. It takes longer, but I feel it’s important to be thorough when it comes to quality. The last few days have been hot, and most of the harvest near the laavu is past its prime, but Google doesn’t like raspberries, and we quickly have enough for two bowls of fresh berries and cream. It’s been a long day, so we finish dessert and decide to make the bed early and settle in with a book and a cup of tea. I squirm around on the bed until I’m comfortable and switch on my e-Reader.

Thump-thump

I look at Anne. She’s paused, halfway through pouring the tea.

Thump-thump-thump

Anne looks at me, confused. Nobody’s ever knocked on our door before. She opens the door and peers out, tentatively. A loud barrage of slurred words and sentences spills into the camper, followed shortly by the strong smell of stale beer, like a pub after closing, only in our bedroom. It’s a Finnish man and his bicycle. “Sorry,” Anne says, “I don’t speak Finnish.” The man with the bicycle is unfazed and promptly repeats his previous statement, loudly and in Finnish. There appears to be a correlation between volume and degree of inebriation. Anne looks at me questioningly, but my Finnish isn’t much better. “Do you speak English?” she asks. If he does, he’s not letting on. I can make out the word sauna, which is Finnish for sauna, but that’s about it. He’s smiling though, so he probably means well. He stops to think for a moment and then rummages around in a plastic bag. His hand comes out clutching a sealed 5-pack of sausages. Grillimakkara, according to the label. Traditional Finnish sausages, perfect for barbecuing. He thrusts it at Anne. She accepts it reflexively. He’s back on the words again. Gesturing now, pointing towards the laavu. “I think he wants us to join them,” Anne says softly, her face clearly longing for her book and a cup of tea. “Do you want us to join you?” she asks him. More words. The same level of comprehension. More rummaging. A can of lager comes out next, and then another. We’re well past Santa Claus village, but who knows how far his helpers can travel by bicycle. I get up off the bed. He’s a small, wiry man, probably nearing his sixties. His trousers are streaked with forest dirt on one side, as if he’s fallen off his bicycle recently. I reach out to shake his hand, but he stuffs one of the cans in my hand instead. I’m inclined to agree with Anne. He seems to want us to join him and his friends.

We’ve just eaten, and we recently went vegetarian. Grilling sausages is not high on my list of priorities right now. Nevertheless, when a friendly stranger gifts you sausages and beer and isn’t trying to get you into a white van, it just seems rude to thank him and close the door in his face. I sigh and lace up my boots. Maybe one of his friends speaks English. We head down to the laavu, clutching our beer and sausages and hot tea. His friends are Estonian. They speak good English, but they’re not his friends. They don’t know him. They’re just clearing up before going home, but they can get the fire going for us again if we’d like. I thank them, but that won’t be necessary. I explain the sausages and the vegetarianism and the Finn with the bicycle who has no clue what we are saying. The Estonians speak Finnish. One of them offers to explain it to him and return the sausages. She talks to him for a few minutes, and then their group says goodbye and heads off.

Anne and I are happy to be heading back to our bed and books, but the Finn with the bicycle and the sausages doesn’t seem to have understood. He hands us the sausages again, gesturing at the fire. “Grilli,” he says, loudly. The fire is all but dead. Nothing but a few glowing embers remain. I try to explain again that we don’t eat meat, but he seems intent on feeding us. I get the impression he doesn’t think we know how to prepare it. He’s gathering wood for the fire. A few split logs from the pile next to the laavu, a few smaller branches, a handful of kindling.

The dogs are barking at something from the camper. Communication seems impossible anyway, so Anne heads back to the camper to calm them and read her book. I figure I’ll hang around a while to be polite. The fire is soon burning again, and the Finn seems pleased with himself. The flames are far too high to even think about grilling yet, so he throws on more wood. “Grilli,” he says, pointing at the sausages. I pull out my phone. I just remembered I have the Google Translate app. We mostly use it for translating Finnish road signs to find out if we’re allowed to drive down roads, but it also has a conversation mode. I’ve never used it. I tap the mic button and tell my phone that I don’t eat meat. There’s a brief pause before it repeats my statement in Finnish. The Finn is delighted. He shows me his phone. It’s an old Nokia flip phone, probably older than me. Another torrent of slurred Finnish sentences. I gesture to him to wait. I press the mic button and hold my phone up to him. He yells his previous statement into it. The software struggles to interpret his words. Maybe he has an accent. It’s picking up sauna, three kilometres and 120 degrees. I’m not sure what to do with that information. “That’s pretty warm,” I reply. He starts talking into the phone before I can press the mic button, so all I catch is Mr Sauna. I guess that’s his nickname.

We converse amicably for a few minutes; him yelling into the phone, me trying to decipher his cryptic clues. Something about fishing. We’re getting nowhere. “I’m going to bed,” I tell him, miming sleep with my hands under my head. “You enjoy the sauna.” His face lights up again. “SAUNA,” he cries and scuttles off into the woods to collect more firewood. It feels like a natural break in our conversation, and I leap at the opportunity to bow out. I call out a goodbye, but he’s too busy to notice. I wonder how long it will take him to knock on our door again. He doesn’t. He’s found a new friend within ten minutes. We can still hear them a few loud hours later, sharing sausages and steamy stories. So much for an early night.

The Finnish are a quiet people. So far. It’s borderline impressive on occasion. Family-sized vans full of family-sized families pull up in a parking lot near lakes or other recreational areas, they all pile out, gather their things and then disappear into the surroundings without a sound. They can be sitting around a campfire 100 metres away, and you won’t hear a squeak. It was no different this time.

A group arrives, folds out grandma’s wheelchair and hauls her and the rest of their things off to the nearby laavu, a freestanding wooden lean-to shelter found almost everywhere in Scandinavia (gapskjul or gapahuk in Swedish and Norwegian, respectively). This one is brand new by the look of it; a large circular log structure with wooden benches around a fire pit in front of the opening. The sawdust from the logs is still on the ground around it. We can see them through the camper windows during dinner, but once grandma’s squeaky front wheel stops moving, the woods fall silent again. We finish dinner and head out in search of dessert.

Berry season is not quite over yet, and the sweet smell of raspberries is in the air. I love berry season in Scandinavia. One of my favourite memories of this trip is a random encounter with a huge patch of plump, ripe blueberries. As it turns out, Google loves blueberries too. We’ve developed a routine where I pick, and she conducts acceptance sampling. It takes longer, but I feel it’s important to be thorough when it comes to quality. The last few days have been hot, and most of the harvest near the laavu is past its prime, but Google doesn’t like raspberries, and we quickly have enough for two bowls of fresh berries and cream. It’s been a long day, so we finish dessert and decide to make the bed early and settle in with a book and a cup of tea. I squirm around on the bed until I’m comfortable and switch on my e-Reader.

Thump-thump

I look at Anne. She’s paused, halfway through pouring the tea.

Thump-thump-thump

Anne looks at me, confused. Nobody’s ever knocked on our door before. She opens the door and peers out, tentatively. A loud barrage of slurred words and sentences spills into the camper, followed shortly by the strong smell of stale beer, like a pub after closing, only in our bedroom. It’s a Finnish man and his bicycle. “Sorry,” Anne says, “I don’t speak Finnish.” The man with the bicycle is unfazed and promptly repeats his previous statement, loudly and in Finnish. There appears to be a correlation between volume and degree of inebriation. Anne looks at me questioningly, but my Finnish isn’t much better. “Do you speak English?” she asks. If he does, he’s not letting on. I can make out the word sauna, which is Finnish for sauna, but that’s about it. He’s smiling though, so he probably means well. He stops to think for a moment and then rummages around in a plastic bag. His hand comes out clutching a sealed 5-pack of sausages. Grillimakkara, according to the label. Traditional Finnish sausages, perfect for barbecuing. He thrusts it at Anne. She accepts it reflexively. He’s back on the words again. Gesturing now, pointing towards the laavu. “I think he wants us to join them,” Anne says softly, her face clearly longing for her book and a cup of tea. “Do you want us to join you?” she asks him. More words. The same level of comprehension. More rummaging. A can of lager comes out next, and then another. We’re well past Santa Claus village, but who knows how far his helpers can travel by bicycle. I get up off the bed. He’s a small, wiry man, probably nearing his sixties. His trousers are streaked with forest dirt on one side, as if he’s fallen off his bicycle recently. I reach out to shake his hand, but he stuffs one of the cans in my hand instead. I’m inclined to agree with Anne. He seems to want us to join him and his friends.

We’ve just eaten, and we recently went vegetarian. Grilling sausages is not high on my list of priorities right now. Nevertheless, when a friendly stranger gifts you sausages and beer and isn’t trying to get you into a white van, it just seems rude to thank him and close the door in his face. I sigh and lace up my boots. Maybe one of his friends speaks English. We head down to the laavu, clutching our beer and sausages and hot tea. His friends are Estonian. They speak good English, but they’re not his friends. They don’t know him. They’re just clearing up before going home, but they can get the fire going for us again if we’d like. I thank them, but that won’t be necessary. I explain the sausages and the vegetarianism and the Finn with the bicycle who has no clue what we are saying. The Estonians speak Finnish. One of them offers to explain it to him and return the sausages. She talks to him for a few minutes, and then their group says goodbye and heads off.

Anne and I are happy to be heading back to our bed and books, but the Finn with the bicycle and the sausages doesn’t seem to have understood. He hands us the sausages again, gesturing at the fire. “Grilli,” he says, loudly. The fire is all but dead. Nothing but a few glowing embers remain. I try to explain again that we don’t eat meat, but he seems intent on feeding us. I get the impression he doesn’t think we know how to prepare it. He’s gathering wood for the fire. A few split logs from the pile next to the laavu, a few smaller branches, a handful of kindling.

The dogs are barking at something from the camper. Communication seems impossible anyway, so Anne heads back to the camper to calm them and read her book. I figure I’ll hang around a while to be polite. The fire is soon burning again, and the Finn seems pleased with himself. The flames are far too high to even think about grilling yet, so he throws on more wood. “Grilli,” he says, pointing at the sausages. I pull out my phone. I just remembered I have the Google Translate app. We mostly use it for translating Finnish road signs to find out if we’re allowed to drive down roads, but it also has a conversation mode. I’ve never used it. I tap the mic button and tell my phone that I don’t eat meat. There’s a brief pause before it repeats my statement in Finnish. The Finn is delighted. He shows me his phone. It’s an old Nokia flip phone, probably older than me. Another torrent of slurred Finnish sentences. I gesture to him to wait. I press the mic button and hold my phone up to him. He yells his previous statement into it. The software struggles to interpret his words. Maybe he has an accent. It’s picking up sauna, three kilometres and 120 degrees. I’m not sure what to do with that information. “That’s pretty warm,” I reply. He starts talking into the phone before I can press the mic button, so all I catch is Mr Sauna. I guess that’s his nickname.

We converse amicably for a few minutes; him yelling into the phone, me trying to decipher his cryptic clues. Something about fishing. We’re getting nowhere. “I’m going to bed,” I tell him, miming sleep with my hands under my head. “You enjoy the sauna.” His face lights up again. “SAUNA,” he cries and scuttles off into the woods to collect more firewood. It feels like a natural break in our conversation, and I leap at the opportunity to bow out. I call out a goodbye, but he’s too busy to notice. I wonder how long it will take him to knock on our door again. He doesn’t. He’s found a new friend within ten minutes. We can still hear them a few loud hours later, sharing sausages and steamy stories. So much for an early night.

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