“Hey! Come eat with us!” they called in a strong Russian accent. I didn’t really want to. My friend Octavio and I were staying one night at a guest house attached to a church in Rovaniemi, Finland, a small city right on the arctic circle. We were on our way north for a wilderness camping trip and needed an early start the next morning.
“Oh yes,” they insisted, “delicacies from Belorussia!” There was no escaping. I shuffled over to the table to find a plate with a white substance in the shape of a small loaf of bread. The two men fixing this little meal were more permanent residents of the guesthouse. One was a big, bear shaped construction worker from northwest Russia; the other was a short, slender, church staff member from Latvia. Together they made quite a comical and hospitable pair. They cut off a slice of the white stuff and gave it to me. It was cold, soft but firm, and a bit salty. I thought to myself that this might be what fat would taste like if you could eat slice-of-bread-like pieces of fat. I stopped chewing, then inwardly recoiled as I realized I was indeed eating a slice of pure fat, just like the fat found on the edge of a slice of Christmas ham. My new Russian friend, between mouthfuls of eggs, rye bread, and fat slices, was extolling its benefits.
“Northern people eat this!” he said as he slapped a couple slices onto a frying pan. “For protection against the cold. Because, much fat! Siberia winters very cold. Minus 45 Celsius!” He put a new, sizzling piece onto my plate. Warmed up, it tasted much better, like bacon, just without the actual bacon. I might be able to get used to this after all.
A loaf of fat was not the only new experience I came across during my six-week adventure in Finland. The first that stood out to me was the language barrier. I am no stranger to language barriers, and have put in much time and energy learning how to overcome them. Between my French, Spanish, and more recently, Portuguese, I can go almost anywhere in the Western Hemisphere and speak with just about anybody. The thing is, though, that those languages are all primarily western languages, and out here on the eastern edge of the western world, they didn’t get me very far. Here was a whole new set of languages and culture—Finnish, Russian, Estonian, Latvian, and on the way home, Turkish. These were languages I had never been exposed to before, and for the first time in a long time, I was dependent on other people being able to speak my language, instead of me being able to speak theirs.
Along with new languages, of course, comes new people. And not just northern European people. The wave of migrants escaping the Middle East isn’t just arriving in Germany and the U.K., it has reached Finland as well. For the first time, Finland is seeing serious changes to its long history of homogeneity. I was surprised to see the new arrivals showing up not just in the capital, but also in small cities all over the country, even way up north, on the edge of the arctic. Talk about a different environment. Some have been there a while already. They run Kebab shops or other restaurants. They’ve learned to speak Finnish. Some are enrolled in the local universities. Others are the newly arrived, still living in processing centers and half-way houses while they get their bearings in their new country. I often saw them in groups, hanging out at the malls with nothing to do, and looking somewhat out of place. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them, plopped into a radically different place with mountain upon mountain of language and cultural barriers.
I had a chance to meet a few of them. On my last weekend in Finland, my friend and I stumbled across an African party around the corner from our hostel in Helsinki. To our surprise, it was mostly English speaking immigrants from Gambia (a tiny country in West Africa). Go figure. Along with them were people from Somalia and even South Sudan. Later that same weekend, we met a girl as she arrived at the hostel. Place of origin: Afghanistan. It struck me that this was the first time I had ever seen anybody from that country. The only thing I had ever seen were images of terrorists or destitute villagers, men disfigured by battle scars or women buried in burkas. And yet there she was, friendly, well-spoken . . . and very pretty too. I wish I could have met more of the migrants, learned some of their stories, and maybe a few phrases in their languages. Coming from a country known for being a melting pot, I never expected to have my world opened up by going to Finland.
One thing we should perhaps consider is how difficult it can be to arrive in a new country and try to adapt to a new language, culture, and value system. The thing that frustrated me the most when I lived in Martinique was not just adjusting to a new culture, but having to meet the expectations of people who had no idea of how it felt to do so. The same thing applies to us here in the USA. The vast majority of Americans have never had any viable cross-cultural experience, and wouldn’t be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes even if they wanted to. There is nothing wrong with not having travelled the world, and while I personally don’t understand the sentiment, there is nothing wrong with not really wanting to. It is possible, though, and unfortunately common, to take a sort of pride in being provincial. That is perverse, and has no place in the body of Christ. The stunning diversity of peoples and cultures on this planet is a reflection of the creativity of our Maker. When we become defensive, dig in our heels, and actively resist understanding those who appear different from us, we are actually thumbing our noses at the work of His hands. Let’s not be like that. Most of us will never run out of pages in our passports. Some of us will never have one at all. That doesn’t mean we can’t prayerfully consider how me might love our neighbor, whoever that might be. Jesus loved people. All sorts of people. He commands us to do the same. Let’s be like Jesus.
by Ian Bridgman