Shortly before my first trip to Finland I stumbled across a cartoon. The drawing was of several faces, each labeled with a different emotion, such as Happy, Sad, Angry, Excited, etc. It was supposed to show the variety of Finnish facial expressions and emotions. The joke was that every face was exactly the same—neutral, showing no emotion at all.
Soon after, I was in Finland, along with my parents, for Octavio’s wedding. As many of you know, Octavio, my best friend, is married to a Finnish woman. As my Dad walked everyone through the rehearsal, he mentioned that people would probably clap at the conclusion of the ceremony, when the couple is finally announced as husband and wife. Mari, the bride-to-be, started to laugh.
“No, they won’t clap,” she said. “They are Finns!” We were told not to be dismayed, however. The guests would certainly be “smiling on the inside.” It’s true, Finns are not known for open displays of emotion.
Fast forward almost 3 years. After spending close to 8 months of that time in Finland, I was accustomed to the Finnish face, Octavio even more so, and that is why our encounter with the “Waffle Man” was so surprising. The Waffle Man, as he was affectionately called, was the closest and friendliest of our neighbors among the food vendors in the city square. This was not our home city of Kajaani, but a larger city to the south, where we had repeatedly set up shop on the weekends, bringing traditional Mexican food to central Finland. Together, along with the “Thai Girls” and the “Burger Boys”, we had formed a sort of culinary cartel, often swapping tacos for waffles, or quesadillas for pad Thai. Over the past month, we had shared plenty of good food and good times, but especially so with the energetic, white haired purveyor of Belgian sweets. We learned about his years spent in the mining towns of northern Minnesota and his failed first marriage. He told us how he found it hard to trust outsiders after watching his eastern European wife run away with their son to her native country, and of how he brought his son back to Finland in similar fashion. He mentioned often how much he enjoyed having us as neighbors, and how sorry he would be to see us go at the end of the season. In fact, he told us so many times that we began to doubt his sincerity.
Our last day came eventually, in the last week of August. Octavio and I had finished a long 5-day “weekend” in the city center, our last time working together for the summer before Octavio returned to Kajaani and I left for good. It was getting late as we hitched our trailer to the car and turned around for a final goodbye. And there was the Waffle Man, standing beside his own truck, the last vendor in a now deserted city square, just looking at his feet. When he looked up, his eyes became watery and his face contorted as he tried to play a proper Finn and keep his emotions in check. He hadn’t been insincere after all. After a final round of farewells, back in the car, Octavio and I processed what we had just seen. This was Finland, after all, and neither of us had seen that coming.
I’m convinced that just as individual people have strengths and weaknesses, so do entire cultures. The Finnish people have produced a remarkable society that is prosperous and peaceful, organized and modern. Their government is probably one of the least corrupt on earth. It is a place where parents leave their infants outside and unattended at naptime and where young women can walk down a dark alley at night with nothing to fear. Yet over the 3 months I spent at the window of our little trailer, it seemed that despite these blessings, something was off. Many of our customers lived comfortable, physically stable lives, but they often seemed so lonely. The Finns may be good at many things, but I had to wonder if they were bad at relationships. The evidence was everywhere. What does it look like? It looks like the curiously high number of Finnish men in modern-day mail order marriages to women from Thailand. It looks like all the neglected spouses and cynical exes that shamelessly vented at our window. It looks like some of our young customers, drifting in and out of alternate sexual lifestyles desperately looking for connection only to return unhappy and even more confused. The evidence was at the karaoke bar, filled week after week with the same crew of senior citizens, many of whom lived alone, carousing like college students for a few hours before returning home again to an empty house or apartment. Statistics show the notoriously high suicide rate, second only to Belgium among non-former-Soviet European nations. And then, finally, there was the Waffle Man, staring at his shoes and holding back tears as we rolled out of town for the last time.
Relationships, whether romance, family or friends, are a big deal and for good reason. Consider God’s own character, one God in three Persons. Our own capacity and desire for relationship is one of the ways we are made in His image, a reflection of God Himself. Then in Genesis chapter 2, God watches Adam growing lonelier with every animal brought before him and declares “it is not good for man to be alone” (v18). And when Adam and Eve, through sin, break the special relationship they have with their Creator, God sacrifices his own Son that someday we might have a more perfect relationship with Him than even the one in the Garden. Relationships are a big deal to us because they are a big deal to God. Most Finns don’t know this. They may know it in the same way any country with a long history of cultural Christianity knows the basics of the faith, but they don’t know it. When a city of 40,000 people has only one small Bible preaching church, it’s safe to say that although most people might know about Jesus, very few really know Him.
As tough as it was to leave the Waffle Man behind, he is in good hands. Among our many customers there were two older Christian women, who faithfully made the rounds among the sellers in the square, sometimes as customers, but sometimes simply as a friendly face and a listening ear. They were well liked by everyone and they were not shy about their faith. Octavio and I enjoyed their frequent visits to our trailer. These two women were not unhappy and confused. They had hope and were ready to give a reason for it—because know their Savior. By God’s mercy, I know Jesus too. So does Octavio. And we know the Waffle Man, and many others hurting like him. I hope we get to see our friends in the square again, both our vendor neighbors and our food-court missionary friends. I hope that God will remind us daily that we have more to offer than just tacos. And I pray for the Waffle Man to know Jesus.
by Ian Bridgman