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From the UP to Porvoo – My Finnish American Connection

The melting pot of America is home to people from every country on Earth. Where I grew up, Italian, English, and Finnish immigrants made up the majority of the population. I can remember a billboard that was up every year before Christmas. It read;

Merry Christmas
Buon Natale (Italian)
Hyvää Joulua (Finnish)

Yes, the Upper Peninsula was lacking in diversity when it came to people of color but it didn’t lack ethnic diversity. In the early 1960’s a census record indicated that more than 25% of the population was either first or second generation Finnish immigrants. It is the one area of the US that has the largest concentration of Finns outside of Finland. And, they are proud.

Being Finnish is a badge of honor.

I am not Finnish but growing up in this environment, some of it just seeps into your skin. When MarocBaba and I went to Finland last month I was anxious to see what all the fuss was about. I knew some Finnish words having heard the language growing up, knew the food, and while some people think of Finnish people as reserved and cold I found nothing unusual about their demeanor. I felt right at home.

At the first smattering of Finnish I heard, it felt like a hello from an old friend. Every week our local TV station played Suomi Kutsuu or “Finland Calling” hosted by Carl Pellonpaa – who also served as the emcee for the annual ski jumping tournament in our hometown. I have to come clean, we used to make fun of Carl. For young American kids the show was a funny throw back. But now as an adult I admire him for working to retain the language and culture in an environment that is not friendly to multiculturalism.

Finland Calling is the longest running foreign language program on syndicated TV. Each week Carl would have guests to talk about Finland or something related to Finnish culture. I usually switched it off but when we were at our camp and there were only 3 channels to choose from, sometimes we would watch. If not for Carl and this show, I probably would not have ever considered applying for the Nordic Blogger’s Experience and would have missed experiencing Finland.

For many Finnish people I knew, making a trip back to the homeland was a pilgrimage. They yearned to make the trip, saving for years to make it a reality. So what was it that made them want to go back? Maybe just the general pull all immigrant populations face – wanting to go home, to feel a part of their identity. In some ways I think this is a uniquely American feeling.

Most of us grew up on stories of “the homeland” and a sense that the United States wasn’t home. Sure, most immigrants are proud Americans but they yearn for a connection to their past. In doing some reading and research I also discovered that, not unlike other ethnic groups, Finns were marginalized when they immigrated to the US.

The “Yooper” accent I worked years to rid myself of traces back to the Finnish language influence in the region. This accent, even now, is seen as negative and people from other parts of the US mock it. Finns weren’t considered a part of the European family when they arrived, instead they were grouped with Russian and Asiatic peoples. But the men and women who settled the remote stretches of the northern US did so with their incredible work ethic and dedication.

MarocBaba and I attended a pre-conference tour of the city of Porvoo, located about 50km from Helsinki. Immediately it felt like home – in a very odd way. When we took a tour of the old town I scratched my head and couldn’t shake the feeling that I was walking through a town from my childhood, but I was on the other side of the world! Then I wondered why Upper Michigan’s Finns needed to go to Finland, when essentially the UP must have been cookie cut out of Finland and dropped in North America. From the trees, to the buildings, the food, activities, and the cold – all so eerily familiar.

I hadn’t really realized how far into my psyche and upbringing Finnish culture and tradition had gone. Finns are crazy about their sauna baths and ice swimming. I knew of both these practices growing up. But, it was in Porvoo that I actually faced the ice swim. There was not a snowballs chance in hell that MarocBaba was going to try ice swimming. Frankly, I wasn’t going to either. It’s something I’d spent all my life avoiding so why start now? But, that’s exactly why I had to do it. If not now then when? I knew that this was probably my only chance.

Ice Swimming in Finland

There’s an ice swimming club in Porvoo and it’s members welcomed us so warmly. Their enthusiasm was what made me do it. The men and women reminded me so much of the people I grew up with and I knew that although they were reserved on the outside, inside they were bursting with pride and love of tradition.

I felt like participating was a way to show them, I respect you and your traditions and I’m willing to give it a try.

It was -18C outside when we were going swimming and the water was about 0C. Each of us wore our bathing suits, a pair of water shoes, gloves, and our hat. In a pond a hole is cut and a pump keeps the water moving so it stays open when it should freeze over. There’s a jetty that goes out across the ice and a ladder to walk down into the water. Hard core ice swimmers come a few times a week (or even daily) to take a quick dip.

Usually only a minute or two to swim around the circle. You can’t stay in the water much longer than that. For my trip in, I turned around, walked down the ladder, thought of anything else and submerged myself (not my head!) and then raced back up. The water really was warmer than the air and it did give quite the rush. When walking back to the heated changing shelter, it felt like a million icicles were on my feet and legs!

Would I do it daily?

No. I probably wouldn’t make it a habit, but it was a great experience.

There’s so many more small nuances and experiences that made a connection between my past and my travel experience in Porvoo. I’m going to leave this post with a Toivo and Aino joke. Toivo and Aino are Finnish. In Upper Michigan these types of jokes are common and they usually bring in aspects of ethnic culture in the region. Some might call them “stupid” humor but to me they are so familiar and represent the people and characters around me as I grew up.

An Italian, a Chippewa Indian, and Toivo were hunting together in the Porkies (Porcupine Mountains) and got lost. After many hours of wandering around trying to find their way back to camp, a genie appeared and said he would grant them each a wish. The Italian answered, “I wish I was back in Kingsford with my family”. Poof! He was gone. The Chippewa said,”I wish I was back in Baraga with my tribe”. Poof! He was gone. The genie turned to Toivo and asked him what his wish was. Toivo thought about it for a minute and said, “Boy, I really miss those guys, I wish they were back here with me”.

I visited Porvoo as a part of Nordic Bloggers’ Experience a sponsored trip for travel bloggers. Visit Porvoo arranged and provided trip accommodations and experiences while in Porvoo. All opinions are my own.

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Saturday 26th of September 2015

You didnt wear hijab back then?

Amanda Mouttaki

Saturday 26th of September 2015

No I didn't.

Bill Wilson

Friday 23rd of May 2014

I am researching the background of a Finnish-American artist and need to find again a comic sauna sign in a Finnish accent with a rule against looking at the privates of anyone else. I need help with genealogy, as with the full name of A. Eino Johnson (Detroit but from U.P.). Mention of websights will help me: Thanks.

Amanda Mouttaki

Tuesday 27th of May 2014

Hi Bill, my suggestion would be to try and find the specific location in the UP the artist was from and then contact the local historical society. Chances are they will have on file a collection of the work or at least point you in the right direction. If not the historical society then the public library research department. Best of luck!

Samantha @mytanfeet

Friday 21st of February 2014

Wow looks cold but fun! Finland looks beautiful!


Thursday 20th of February 2014

Never knew that the Upper Peninsula has the largest concentration of Finns outside of Finland Kudos for ice swimming. Although, it looks fun to watch others do it, not sure I would happily jump in :). Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler!

Ashley @ A Southern Gypsy

Wednesday 19th of February 2014

This looks great! There's not many things I'll say no to, but I hate the cold especially cold water! Thanks for linking up tot he #SundayTraveler :)

Amanda Mouttaki

Thursday 20th of February 2014

It's funny I've gotten split responses on this. About 50% of people say they would have done it and half said no way.