Column: Naked Cavalier and The Smugglers of Finnish

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Oh the cruelty of nature – the week that school starts coincides with is the week that summer has finally decided to show up.

Ideally in this weather I should be half asleep in a rowing boat, in the lake next to the summer cottage whilst lazily sipping a large can of lonkero with a fishing line tied around my big toe, soundtracked by a calm breeze and an occasional squawk from the family of loons that live on the other side of the lake.

Alas, no, I am getting the 122 bus to Espoo, Olari to be specific. And I must be honest, where my school is located resembles a giant Lego set which at first might seem cool, but then try to imagine a gruesome, grey carpark type lego set, with many broken and missing pieces, all made from concrete. It would be the sort of Lego you would give to a naughty child as a punishment.

Although not aesthetically pleasing, the brutalist architecture through its oppressive presence alone beats any sense of fun or joy out of you, preparing you for a day of accumulating knowledge and information.

Finnish language classes have started again and it is my first week back for 10 weeks. It is a very nerve-racking time as we also have tests coming up and I must confess, it has been more than a few days since I last looked at my text books. In fact apart from the occasional chit-chat the only real “revising” I’ve done is reading the subtitles on The Simpsons with the sound turned down as I rock the youngest to sleep.

I assume at least some of you reading this article may have experienced integration training for immigrants. It is a unique experience, so many strangers from strange lands thrown together in a classroom environment.

My first day at one of these classes was about two years ago. The first day was a very bleak winter’s morning in Espoon keskus. My girlfriend came with me as I was still having trouble with the busses (I even managed to swipe my bus pass incorrectly), and when we found the building and entered the foyer I became part of a perfect visual resemblance of the tired poor huddled masses Lady Liberty is apparently so fond of.

I stood against a spare bit of wall as a lady mispronounced surnames in thick Finnish which demonstrated the global representatives present amongst us; Singh, Souza, Sobolev, Sibbald. Once we each finally realised it was actually our names being called we would walk off down a corridor and be led to the allocated classroom.

I stood against a spare bit of wall as a lady mispronounced surnames in thick Finnish which demonstrated the global representatives present amongst us; Singh, Souza, Sobolev, Sibbald.

My first group of classmates were a very mixed bunch of all ages and from everywhere in the world. Despite the many differences we all had one goal in mind which was to survive the course and our new lives here. Throughout my experiences in these classrooms I have found many Friends For Life.
Spending hours together every day my classmates and I became a strange clique, we were like a rag tag UN delegation and I’m sure we could’ve fixed a lot of the world’s problems between us.

It can be quite an odd feeling talking to people whose life was turned upside down because your country bombed theirs. , or people that are insulted in the media by your government – on a few occasions I did have to stress that I was very against a majority of what the UK government says.
But as friends and comrades before nationalities together we fought against the oppressive winter and took on the Finnish language forging borderless friendships along the way.

Throughout my experiences in these classrooms I have found many friends-for-life. Spending hours together every day my classmates and I became a strange clique, we were like a rag tag UN delegation and I’m sure we could’ve fixed a lot of the world’s problems between us.

I remember on occasions lunchtimes would be mini banquets; students would bring food for everyone to share, we would push tables together and all gather round to eat. The food would start at one end with Thai curry and slowly work its way through countries and continents until you got to the Ukrainian potato salad at the other end.

Going to school in itself says quite a lot about the experience of being an immigrant, it’s like having a second childhood as you re-experience all the excitement one has when preparing to face the ‘real-world’ after leaving school all over again. And of course like a child, we’re still quite helpless with a lot to learn about the world we are entering.

You also get to try out a new school identity, so this time instead of being the *ahem* coolest kid in class that I was back in the 90s, I had an opportunity – purely out of choice – to be the dimwit. I’m not going to write an OFSTED report so I won’t go into a huge amount of detail, but teachers at these places – somehow putting up with a bunch of 30+ teenage wannabes of all various backgrounds and cultures, maintaining peace and happiness in the class whilst simultaneously smuggling Finnish into our brains – are amazing.

How they managed to get us all talking in this new language is beyond me, it’s like teaching a fish to climb a tree.
As I sit down in the classroom on my first day back I see my classmates for the first time in over two months and we share tales of our holidays and work experience, conversing totally in Finnish. I get a massive boost of confidence when I start to notice that some of the better students in the class seem to have become a little rusty over the holiday period.

How they managed to get us all talking in this new language is beyond me, it’s like teaching a fish to climb a tree.

The teacher enters. I must explain a special fear that I believe only occurs in these school environments: If the teacher asks you a question and you manage to answer correctly, it is a very wonderful sense of achievement, ruined only by a follow up question that you totally do not understand. It is a verbal game of tennis batting back and forth with harder and harder shots.
Attempt a nod-and-smile answer for a question you didn’t understand and she will see straight through it and destroy you with the pitying disappointed look that you deserve.

We are asked by our teacher who would like to go first in telling the class about their work experience and holiday. Everybody looks at their desks in silence as though we’ve been asked who wants to dip their hand in lava.

Finally a student is chosen and he begins his tale, I count three more people before me which gives me time to think what I’m going to say. I work together some sentences that I keep repeating in my head. My stomach is tense with stress – I can’t disappoint the teacher! – not now, when we only have a few weeks of class left, I must prove I’m ready to fly the nest. Finally it is my turn; I start talking, I make a quip and get a few laughs, she asks a question, I answer. She asks another question, I squint and rack my brains, finally I answer.

We do a few more back and fourths, the whole time my toes are tightly curled up in my shoes, stomach tense, perspiration.  I’m on the precipice of comprehension, one mispronounced word and I will fall into an oblivion of confusion. I keep praying that she will stop asking questions and move on to the next person but obviously this is a test of my endurance to see how far I can go!

The mistake comes finally but I am happy that I managed to converse for as long as I did. Teacher finally moves on to the next student.

I feel battered and exhausted as though I’ve been beaten with hardback copies of English-Finnish dictionaries. I uncurl my toes and fingers, sit in the back of my chair and let out a breath and relax my stomach.

I wonder to myself if the Finnish language can actually cause physical damage as my body slowly recuperates from the verbal jousting I’ve just undergone.

Three and a bit more weeks I have of this until my classmates and I will be re-released into the wild. I will miss them, my teachers and the whole experience of being an adult school boy again.

Attending Finnish language classes has been an incredible rite of passage that kept me sane and focused on arrival here. It also allowed me to meet some wonderful people and have some wonderful experiences, but most importantly I got quite a lot of Finnish smuggled into my brain.

 

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