I clearly remember the day my father told me that I had Finnish ancestry. I was standing in my bedroom in my suburban Brisbane home, I was 9 or 10 years of age. I had just finished writing a letter to my Aunty Eleanor and I asked my dad what her address was. My father always encouraged me to write letters to his family in Victoria. People frequently wrote letters to each other in the 1980’s. I loved receiving letters from my Grandma Osterman as I knew her then. Her writing was so ornate with a swirly font that sometimes I struggled to make out the letters. She wrote to me in a way that grandmothers do, caring and warm. I have my grandma to thank for being able to read copperplate text, a skill that is an asset in all the archival research I do today. After I finished writing Aunty Eleanor’s address on the envelope, my dad looked at me with eyes that were about to tell me something important, “you know your grandfather is from Finland.” I was taken aback as only a child could be. I’d never met my grandfather, he died well before my time. I knew of a country called Finland, my 10 year old brain knew nothing about Finland, but I knew it was important to my dad by the way that he spoke about it. I vaguely remember my dad saying something else about his dad arriving by ship from Finland. That was the only thing my dad mentioned about his father, Edvard Jakob Hilli, who was affectionately known as Ted.
2019 was my fortieth year of being alive. I wanted to mark the significance of this milestone year. I wanted to connect with my Finnish roots. I also wanted to give myself the gift of time by investing in my arts practice. I remember seeing an Australia Council for the Arts residency grant in Finland a few years before. I applied and decided I was going whether I got the funding or not. At the end of 2017 I had been working at Museums Victoria for a year as a Collection Manager. I was on my afternoon break sitting at a table alone drinking tea when I got an email from the Australia Council for the Arts. This is it I thought. My eyes skimmed past the opening formalities of a government funded organisation preamble text, then I saw the words – Congratulations on your successful application. I stopped reading. I was going to Finland! I remember jolting up out of my seat and jumping around in excitement and shouting out loud YESSSS!!! Then realising that the internal security camera that monitors the museum collections stores was directly above me and that someone might be watching this joyous moment. That felt weird. Then I re-read the email to make sure I had read it correctly. Yep. It was 6 days before Christmas, this was the best news ever.
In early June 2019 my mother, my son and I arrived on the islands of Suomenlinna – Sveaborg, a short ferry ride from Helsinki. It had been a lifelong dream to spend time in Finland. Whilst waiting to board the ferry I immediately noticed how far apart people were standing from each other at the ferry terminal at Kauppatori (market square). Oh I thought silently to myself, people in Finland respect each other’s personal space. I sighed in happiness. It was approximately 17:30 when we got on the ferry to Suomenlinna. There was a gentle cool breeze as we ferried across the Baltic sea, Ngatia my son was blissfully taking in the view of the many islands dotted around Helsinki. I was curiously watching the large seagulls gliding at the same height as the upper level of the ferry, waiting for someone to throw them a scrap of food. The seagulls skillfully soared all around the ferry, with the picturesque view of pastel coloured buildings of Helsinki’s city in the distance, slowly disappearing out of view. Mum was feeling the cold and it was summer. She huddled herself to a seat next to a Finnish mother with two young children that was sheltered from the breeze. The mother and children immediately moved to another location. Mum had breached this woman’s personal space. Ah! I thought. Mum didn’t get it. She didn’t care, she was warm now and content. I thought back to our connecting Finnair flight from Asia to Helsinki, as soon as the seatbelt sign was switched off after take off, everyone who was Finnish immediately got up and moved themselves to a vacant seat that was not next to another human being. An instant dispersal of people took place calmly and quietly, whilst Ngatia, mum and I were all cozied up next to each other eventually becoming agitated due to lack of space and travel fatigue.
Connecting to Place through Birds and Wildflowers
The mornings arrive fast in a Finnish summer. Long daylight hours in the north equate with short nights that rarely got dark. There were some evenings where I was so energized by the additional sunlight I was absorbing, that my body physically had trouble releasing the melatonin to trigger the process of feeling tired and desire to go to sleep. Rather than fight it, I tried to tap into this energy and would stay up till 1 or 2am in the morning working in the quiet hours of the dim night researching and compiling lists of Nordic and contemporary textiles on Pinterest. There were some weeks where I would stay awake for two days then crash on the third. I also remember intentionally staying up as my body was craving the dark night sky. I didn’t see it for several weeks, not until well after Summer Solstice.
After my first nights sleep on the island of Suomenlinna, I awoke to the sounds of seagulls flying above, smaller birds chirping away and later the sounds of gandering geese that often gathered in our communal outdoor social space. After eating breakfast I walked around the islands and drank in the smell of the fragrant purple and white flowers that were bursting with colour and fragrance. I felt like I was in a summer wonderland, surrounded by the sea. The 18th century buildings of Swedish and Russian architecture and cobble stone pathways made this Sea Fortress a UNESCO cultural world heritage site. My 10 year old son was in military history heaven. I asked Ngatia what he remembers most about the Fortress of Finland which we lived in. His response. Geese. Not the K Market, not the eight museums, the hissing Grey geese.
Consciously tuning in to the sounds of an environment is one way of how I connect to a place. The sounds of birds were the first thing I heard in the Helsinki International airport terminal toilets, a digital visitor experience called Aukio designed to bring nature indoors as well as creating a calm environment for long haul travellers outside the Schengen zone. This was one of the reasons I wanted to spend time here. I knew that Finnish people have a love of nature, much like the people of Papua New Guinea. The sounds of birds that inhabit the lands of Suomi Finland have stayed with me. At the end of summer I became so acquainted with the sounds of the birds daily that around mid to late August, many of the sounds disappeared. The territorial Grey geese who were raising their young goslings had flown south. I stopped hearing and seeing them meander around the island. They knew the cold was coming. I knew it too. My summer residency was coming to a close and I was ready to fly south with them.
When I got back to Melbourne I tracked down the local Finnish Society in Altona, they have a sauna for their members. I attended the Baltic Festival with a work colleague who was interested in Finnish culture, the festival year theme was all about Spring. We gathered in the Finnish Hall, a community building that was packed full of people whose lineage connected them to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland. Each nation group represented their Baltic cultures through songs, dance, traditional clothing and musical instruments with some healthy competition thrown in. There were flowers on every table and hoops hanging from the ceiling. I was happily tucking in to some rye bread and cured fish, Finnish food that I appreciated and missed eating, when I suddenly heard the Finnish female Master of Ceremony tell a short story. In the old times, Finnish people didn’t use time or go by a seasonal calendar. She said that people knew what season it was by the sounds of the birds. I froze. My ears were pricked and my brain was buzzing. I knew exactly what she was talking about. She said that the different sounds of birds marked the seasons and people knew what time of year it was based on what birds were visible or audible in Finnish environments. Reading the environment, through listening and observing is something Pacific and Indigenous people have done and continue to live by.
Attending the Summer Solstice and celebrating it with Finnish people further emphasised this connection to nature that Finnish people have. I was falling more and more in love with Finland and its people. By this stage I had made a friendship with two Finnish women, one of whom was the local librarian, who had a knowing look in her eyes. Riitta assisted me in locating english books for Ngatia to support him in his homeschool learning. After learning that we would be on the islands for three months, Riitta asked me if my son wanted to have a playdate with her nephew Sakari, who was of similar age, spoke english and also lived on the island. Ngatia and I browsed around the library for books to borrow. I remember being impressed by the design and furniture in the library. Riitta was already on the phone speaking to her sister Kaisu about organising a day and time for the two young boys to spend time together.
I had read a few things about making social connections with Finnish people. There’s a few comedic social media pages that generalise Finnish mannerisms, some of which are very true. Look up Finnish Nightmares by Karolina Korhonen. The thing I love most about Finnish people – they don’t do small talk. In fact they hate it. This is something that I can’t stand either, I will do small talk to a degree but honestly, I want meaningful conversation or none at all please. It was little things about Finnish culture like respecting people’s space, beautiful, considered functional design and meaningful conversation that made me feel like I had found a part of myself that I’d always known. It was a relief. I kept discovering little things that Finnish people do, that I did that were very Finnish, things that were very nuanced that only made sense to me once I was in Finland.
Celebrating solstice is an important event for Finnish people. Kaisu, Riitta’s sister, invited mum, Ngatia and I to have a picnic dinner on the beach. I remember eating the delicious rhubarb pie that Kaisu made, served with non-dairy vanilla cream, poured on liberally. I was blissfully drinking rhubarb cider with frozen ligonberries chatting among a few artists from the Helsinki International Artist Program who were also there for the summer. Kaisu was a creative spirit who at the time was working on a musical theater production based on a well known Finnish story called Peka, a cat with no tail who ends up in New York City to save a beloved female feline. Thanks to Kaisu, we watched this musical production in an outdoor theater, among beautiful birch and pine trees edging on the baltic sea. After the show, we sang, laughed and shared our creative talents in whatever way we chose with the theater artists and production crew, whilst the mosquitoes whizzed around pricking our bodies in the night. My favorite creative performance was a solo acapella rendition of Don’t You Want Me by The Human League with vocalised synthesized keyboard sounds. It was impressive and had all of us clapping our hands and singing the lyrics.
Our solstice celebrations moved to a local bar on the island. There was a live band playing and people were dancing on the bare earth kicking up the dust on a warm summer evening. The band was playing well known cover songs and Finnish pop music that were crowd favourites, sung in a melancholic key. I remember seeing Finnish men with small portly bellies moving around. The shape of those male portly bellies were familiar to me. They were the kind of bellies of men that drank a little too much. All of a sudden I had rushes of memories flood back about my late father, the combination of seeing these men’s bodies combined with the melancholy music triggered childhood memories. It was an unexpected emotional moment. As a child I witnessed my father numb his pain and trauma with alcohol. I see the inherited pain he transferred onto my family through other inflamed bodies of family members, some of whom use the same self prescribed medicine. All that pain held in that sacred core part of the body, carrying it around like nobody can see. When we experience pain or trauma, physical or psychological our bodies become inflamed. This is what I’ve learned over my lifetime. I’ve also learned that the way through pain is to feel it. It was unexpected moments like this that kept happening during my time in Finland. They were contemplative moments that caused me to reflect upon my patrilineal connections to this land. Quiet moments that have become foundations for new artworks that I’m developing post – residency.
It was 11pm, the band was still playing, more people were dancing, the sun was still high in the sky, although it felt like 4pm. Riitta explained to me that for solstice Finnish people break a fresh branch from the birch trees and place it on the front doors of their homes. The boats and ships moored close by all had fresh birch branches attached to their masts. I walked back home alone to my residence. Before I left I was told to pick seven different flowers to put under my pillow that night. A Midnight Sun spell that I was not to share with anyone.
All images and text by Lisa Hilli.