IntroductionOne might think it would be easy to write a Christmas story related to this - to be totally honest - crazy year of 2016. I have had several ideas during the past few months to play with, but none of them have carried me anywhere I would like to go. Time was running out, but the brilliant idea never came. No, nobody is forcing me to do this, I only have the urge to write Christmas stories. Those of you who are writers do understand.
Yesterday morning I was reading Helsingin Sanomat and in his essay, one of my favourite writers, Heikki Aittokoski reflected his feelings on the events of this year. He says he is a fan of Europe. Then I realised, that this time I cannot write a traditional Christmas story but gather the themes that I have been playing with recently under the title: How I became European.
How I became EuropeanI became European in July 1988 in Berlin but I did not know it yet, not in a few decades. Whenever I sit in a cosy café, I remember that rainy summer day in Berlin when I was in a "real European" café, for the first time in my life. Now that Turku has a few of those too, it has been convenient for me to think that something from Europe has finally landed here. And before you get started: I know we have always had cafés, but now I am talking about certain kind of atmosphere. The certain smells, feelings and tastes. It is an entirely subjective experience, not any café, no matter how fancy, can take me back to the Berlin of 1988.
A year later the Wall came down but my European identity did not wake up yet. I was excited, of course, about the changes that took place during the next few years. The only disappointment for me was the Velvet Divorce. In my opinion, Czechoslovakia should still exist, for various reasons, but let's not go there now. Our continent was shaking and it all touched me very deeply, but I only saw myself as a Finn, not as a European.
For nearly 30 years, I kept telling (mostly) Americans that there is no such a thing as European identity. All nationalities have their own, very strong identities and Europe is just our continent where we at least try to coexist peacefully. During the past 70 years we have also succeeded in it relatively well.
Then came Midsummer this year. Unlike most Finns I (still blind to what had happened to me in Berlin 1988) was in Prague. I followed the news from my dear home country via Twitter. I can tell you that Finnish Midsummer sounds mad when you observe it from outside. A Man Was Arrested for Riding a Moped with a Sheep on His Lap, said one title.
I know that Finland is beautiful on the Midsummer night, but so is Prague, I can tell you. This is a picture I took on a tram late on Thursday evening, 23 June. It was an evening with friends, just like any other for me when in Prague.
While many of my countrymen were enjoying themselves at their cottages, I made myself a big mug of tea, took my tablet. I listened to the trams which pass my apartment every 10 minutes even at nights, talked to some friends online and followed the Brexit referendum on BBC. I went to the Ikea bed where I sleep most of my nights in Prague at 2 am when my last Finnish friends online decided that they must sleep at least a couple of hours until the next beautiful day of Finnish summer. Stay votes were leading.
I woke up at 7 to one of the biggest shocks of my lifetime. Brits really think they do not want to play with us any more. All this talk about working for our continent has obviously been just words for them. I tried to sleep a bit more but couldn't and I certainly did not want to be alone. As soon as Shakespeare a synové opened in Malá Strana, I was there. The guys who run the shop were equally puzzled, and they were not the last puzzled people I encountered on that day, Friday 24th of June 2016. We felt abandoned.
As we all know, the shaking did not stop there and I fear it has not ended yet. Brexit has led the way to other things too, not only in Europe but also elsewhere. I never believed that populism and fake news would really have much impact when people are actually standing in the voting booth. I have been proven wrong and to be honest, the feeling of defeat is bitter.
However, there are weak signals that people like me are waking up. Elections can lead to crazy and unbeneficial results if the voice of reason cannot be heard anymore. And it must not be whispered, it must be shouted.
Back to me finding my European identity. In autumn this year, after I had recovered from the shock of Brexit but before the shock that the US presidential election would still give me a few weeks later, I met with my writers' group. We sat in a café which again brought Berlin 1988 back to my mind. And the memories of that moment and the similar moments to come returned, clearer than ever.
Eating my ice-cream and talking to the waiter made me European. It took me 28 years and many incidents to understand it. Writing helped in this. Now, my reader, you may ask, why I still believe in the idea of Europe. Should not these struggles and challenges have the opposite effect? Maybe I could just toss my newly-found European identity and continue my life as a Finn only. Those who know me and the situation(s) in Finland understand why I would not be happy like that either.
What, however, I have abandoned, is the idea that Finland is not part of Europe. Europe is more than the nice cafés and mulled wine at Christmas markets. Europe is our home. The forests where I grew up, quite close to the Soviet border are Europe too. And so is Cambridge, the first city I fell in love with in the UK. No matter what the Brits vote, they are still stuck with us. There is not only one real way of being European that the rest of us living at the edges should follow.
I actually do not even know where that "real Europe" would be located. Even in the Czech Republic, in the heart of our continent, some people talk about their own country as a separate entity that should learn "the European ways".
Hence, we need to accept it that we do not share the same European identity. There is always something new to explore in our own continent for each of us, and it can be that way. It must be that way. I struggle against the mcdonaldization of Europe the best I can. However, I still find myself explaining to my friend in let's say Holland what she can find in her nearest Ikea and where it is located, based on what I remember seeing in Turku Ikea. We really need to protect our culture(s) and variation the best we can.
But now, finally, you will hear the ultimate reason why I still believe in Europe.
Why I still believe in EuropeOn the same Midsummer week when I woke up to the life-changing Brexit news, I also met my good friend, Mr. Srdečný. He always gives me presents, usually research-related. This time he had something else in store. He wanted to give me a Christmas decoration, so that I would always remember him when decorating my tree. This clay horse used to hang in the Christmas tree of his childhood home and he has had in his own tree for decades. Now he decided it is time for the horse to move to Finland.
This, my friends, is the reason why I think we need to stick with our continent. Mr. Srdečný suffered from the consequences of totalitarism and the occupation of his own country, even twice. At the age of 97 he is still enthusiastic to meeting a previously unknown Finnish researcher, whenever she is in Prague. He loves the Finnish berry powder I bring him, admires Finnish conductors who frequently visit Prague and introduces me to his favourite cafés.
With this rambling I wish you all a very merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to my family and friends. Thank you all my readers, Europeans, new Europeans and those on other continents.