When we decided to move to Finland, I envisioned it as a sort of writer’s retreat. My wife Katie had been accepted to graduate school in Central Finland. The taxi driver that took us from the airport in Helsinki to the train station, upon hearing that were were headed for Jyväskyä, said it was “a nice little town”. In my mind I had some romantic notion of spending a couple of years in the middle of nowhere, snowed in, not speaking the language, with nothing to do but read and write.
My laptop was loaded with music to listen to, almost exclusively jazz and classical. The sort of music I anticipated putting on while I wrote, or curled up with a book while the snow fell outside. I brought along Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain, with the intention of revisiting them, and consuming some of their works for the first time. While Katie was away in class, I could focus on being a writer.
Reality, of course, did not conform to my whims.
While we’re on the same parallel as Siberia this is not, by any means, some mythical, isolated wilderness. It’s a university town, and an international community. 70% of the people speak English. Roughly half of the television programming is imported from the United States and Britain, the same things you’ll find on TV in America. The public library has a respectable section of English-language fiction. There’s also the small matter of the internet, access to which is included with the rent, bringing the same social media and streaming services available across most of the planet.
Finland is touted as having the best education system in the world, and the University of Jyväskyla is where the country trains its teachers. That’s why we’re here. Katie was an elementary school teacher for a decade, and wanted to get her Master’s degree. My expectation, somehow, was that the students would be serious. Out first apartment, in student housing, was filled with foreign exchange students — tourists, as I’ve come to call them. They’re not here to study. They come for one semester to party. Loudly. Our first few months here were nothing resembling a quiet retreat.
We moved to another student housing village as soon as we could. This apartment has a beautiful view of a lake, and most of the other residents are degree students with families. No tourists! The apartment is probably the nicest place I’ve ever lived in, which is kind of sad as I’m comparing student housing here to homes I’ve owned in the U.S. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in the kitchen as the snow falls gentle outside, and it’s gorgeous. That aspect lives up to the idealized version of things in my head.
It’s still student housing, so I’m still a man in his 50’s surrounded by kids in their 20’s. The couple upstairs, high school sweethearts, are still learning how to be adults. They fight a lot, which involves screaming and occasionally throwing things. Below is a couple of mixed origins – an American and a Finn. When they argue, it sounds like some surreal version of The Honeymooners. Down on the ground floor is an apartment full of stoners who tend to forget that they’re not the only inhabitants of the building. You can tell how wasted they are by how loud their music gets. They’re white kids with dreadlocks. They’ve been more social since I rang their bell at 1 a.m. and threatened to call the police if they didn’t turn down the Finnish-language reggae they had turned up to 11.
Even though this hasn’t turned into the writing retreat I wanted, I’ve still gotten a respectable amount of writing done. I’m happy with the work. What I’ve learned is that I need to create my own space, define my own ideal conditions for working. And then after I recognize that there is no idealized state, I sit down and do the work anyway.