We know the town well, although my mother tells me it’s changed a lot over the decades. She’s been coming here every summer since the ‘60s, and in that time the population has grown to be ten times its original size. Rows of identikit houses have popped up in what were once farmer’s fields. The houses are imported from Germany, our neighbour explains, and only cost €30,000 to build. The people who live in them commute to Tampere, Finland’s second-biggest city, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive away.
There isn’t much work in the little town our summer house is in. There’s a baker, a hairdresser, a fishing supply shop. There’s a schoolhouse that looks straight out of a Nordic fairy tale. There are two grocery stores, K-Market and S-Market, which have identical blue-panelled facades decorated with giant digital images of fruits and vegetables. They stand directly opposite one another, creating the illusion of consumer choice. And there’s a tiny pizza joint run by a Lebanese family, who are, as far as we know, the only non-Finnish residents here.
That is, apart from us.
My family are Swedish-speaking Finns, an ethnic and linguistic minority group that make up approximately 5% of the overall Finnish population. Despite this percentage, and in the face of growing nationalist sentiment, Swedish is still Finland’s official second language and is mandatorily taught in schools.
We speak English in Finland.
Finland is a young country. Although there has always been a Finnish people, a Finnish nation was not officially recognized until 1917. Before that, Finland was governed first by Sweden and then by Russia, and throughout history it has served as a small, cold battleground between the two empires.
In 1713, a major battle took place in the town. It was the middle of the Great Northern War, which lasted from 1700 to 1721. 3,000 soldiers from the Swedish army—almost all of them Finns—were crushed by a group of 14,000 Russians. Every year, the town hosts a fair in the school playground to commemorate the battle. Locals dress in authentic historical clothing, sell handmade crafts, and perform Finnish folk music.
On our way to S-Market (or K-Market––I can’t be sure which) my mother and I happen upon the fair. It is a sunny day, and extremely hot. Women in floor-length white skirts, aprons, and caps catch our attention first. They’re clustered outside the school, carrying handicrafts in woven baskets, talking to each other, laughing. Nearby, a group of men in blue and yellow uniforms speak with hands on hips. They’re wearing three-cornered hats and long swords jut from their belts. Children in smocks and bonnets scamper past, playing with wooden toys. The whole scene is eerily convincing. My mother and I approach apprehensively, fascinated, like time travellers first stepping out of our machine.
Finlandssvenskar, or Swedish-speaking Finns, historically belonged to the upper class. At the very least, they were educated, land-owning merchants and businesspeople. Even today, many of Finland’s largest corporations are controlled by powerful Swedish-speaking families. Some of the most famous figures in Finnish history were Swedish-speakers, including the composer Jean Sibelius (who wrote the Finnish national anthem, Finlandia), the writers Edith Södegran and Tove Jansson, and the first president of Finland, Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg. My family takes pride in our people’s rich cultural legacy, and so do I. I have studied the work of Sibelius, Södegran, and Jansson in school and college, and feel honoured to belong to the same tiny ethnicity as these world-renowned artists.
But when it comes to our association with imperialism and oppression, Swedish-speaking Finns at best remain silent. At worst—and perhaps after a shot of vodka or three—I begin to hear descriptions of the “simple” Finnish people. Ask certain members of my family to name a stereotype about Finns, and they’ll provide several: weird, dumb, socially inept. One of my relatives, infuriated with a Finnish person, once referred to Finns with the English word “pikey,” which is roughly equivalent to “cracker” or “white trash.”
This felt natural to me growing up. It was all right to make fun of the Finns, because it was like making fun of ourselves. But as I grew older, learnt more about Finnish history, and studied Swedish at university, I began to feel uneasy about my family’s attitude toward the Finns. If we were so insistent on distancing ourselves from the Finnish people—insisting that we, as Swedish-speakers, were somehow different and better—was it really okay to make generalizing and derogatory claims about them? It was beginning to feel like that thing white people hate to be associated with most of all.
It was beginning to feel pretty racist.
My mother and I nervously mill about, weaving our way through clusters of fair-goers. We are just about the only people not clad in early 18th-century dress. My mother’s Finnish is patchy, and mine is non-existent, but we manage to talk to a few of the women running stalls. We learn that everything sold at the market would also have been made and sold in the year 1713.
“It’s our town’s biggest tourist event,” one person tells us. I look around the linen dresses and colonial Swedish military uniforms and wonder where the tourists are. But this doesn’t seem to matter to the people hosting the fair. The atmosphere is relaxed, jovial. Tomorrow, these people will go back to their jobs as plumbers and K-Market checkout girls. But today they are glorious, dressed in embroidered smocks, showing off hand-carved wooden ornaments, celebrating a past that belongs to them alone.
We are lured into a secluded area behind the schoolhouse by the sound of a woman singing. She’s playing a foreign-looking instrument that vaguely resembles a lyre. The music is hypnotic––a siren’s call. We sit and listen to her sing in words we don’t recognize. I hadn’t even known that Finnish folk music existed. Yet there it is ––and it’s beautiful.
After an hour at the fair, we walk over to S-Market without a word.
Back home, my mother and I research the fair online.
“Odd,” my mother remarks. “It didn’t seem like it had anything to do with a battle.”
I think about the serenity of the market, the simple celebration of the lives of ordinary Finnish people. I think about the battle between two nations to control a land that belonged to neither. I think about the Finnish soldiers being led to their deaths by a Swedish general, while at home their wives wove baskets and their children played with wooden toys.
“Yes,” I agree. “It’s like the battle never happened at all.”
Indiana Seresin grew up in London, England. She is a sophomore at Harvard University, where she studies Comparative Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.