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  • Hilde Huus

Martti Lahtinen’s Bucket List 1 - 100 Days in Finland

Martti Lahtinen, a Canadian Nordic Society member, was born in Finland. He emigrated to Canada with his family in 1950 when he was seven years old, at the age when Finnish children begin school. Looking back, he didn’t like the idea of moving then, doesn’t like it now, and has never fully reconciled himself to leaving his homeland. The feeling that he is 100 percent Finnish has never waned and, like a fish out of water in Canada, Martti has learned through counselling that the displacement has factored in his alcoholism, an affliction for which he sought institutionalized treatment (and on-going follow-up Alcoholics Anonymous direction) 12 years ago. His Canadian family ties – wife, three children, three cherished grandchildren – remain binding, but a longing to return to the country that he has revisited eight times and that feels more like home than his adopted one, haunts him.

The year 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the independence of Finland. Martti saw the centennial as an opportunity to join the milestone celebrations on site and to experience Finnish life long-term – as if he had never immigrated to Canada – and to do so for 100 days. It was suggested that Martti, a thirty-year career journalist as an editor, write a running blog about the trip, but he did not want to detract from the experience itself.

Meanwhile, the knocks one experiences in life sometimes, kicked in. Three months before his planned June 1 flight to Helsinki, Martti incurred his fifth documented concussion playing old-timers hockey, resulting in vision, hearing and balance problems that jeopardized his getting on the airplane. Waiting for his head to clear, Martti pre-empted the trip, put on hold pending medical clearance, by writing five essays – he calls it “stream of concussionness writing” -- spilling out “The Bucket List: 100 Days In Finland 100.” The essays will appear over five issues of this CNS newsletter, beginning with the first: “Missing Finnish Conjugations For A Spell.”

Martti never completely lost his ability to speak Finnish, but it naturally corroded over time. One of the challenges on this trip would be the Finnish language, taking it far beyond the Berlitz School – i.e., “Where is the railway station” – basics. In this first essay, Martti reflects on the daunting Finnish verb forms. Enjoy these personal and frank ruminations, and Martti’s wonderful sense of humour!

Hilde Huus (in collaboration with Martti Lahtinen)

Missing Finnish Conjugations for a Spell (by Martti Lahtinen)

If sombre thoughts cloud my mind, having missed essential language building blocks in an acknowledged superior school system, they clear when considering the silver lining: I missed Finnish verb conjugations. Conjugated verbs are those which have been changed to communicate one or more of the following: person, number, gender, tense, aspect, mood, or voice. Conjugations tax the memory. If one advances scholastically in one's own country, the verb ramifications should present few untoward problems in formative years.

Those uprooted from their home turf to land on foreign soil are confronted with a huge verbal barrier which is best avoided by forgoing the tedium of parsing sentences. That means work, with the load not nearly equal among the language food groups. In the English language, for example, you have present, past, past perfect, and the like. French becomes more complicated, surmounted with the daunting “pluperfect.” In French, it's “plus que parfait,” which I always thought would best describe a mountainous gob of soft ice cream and chocolate sauce in a sundae cup.

Compared to Finnish, basic English is a piece of cake. Take conjugating the verb "to be", for instance: I be; you be; he, she, it be; we be; you (plural) be; they be. See? What could be easier than that! The Finns, meanwhile, jump into cold water after a sauna – anything to numb their feelings about conjugational relations. Germans fuggedaboudit with Schnapps; the Swedes maybe plunge into Aquavit. The English? Hot water. No imagination.

In the Finnish language, there are 13 grammatical cases, 6 possessive suffixes and 12 clitics, adding plurals. With a combination of these makes over 2,000 forms for nouns and about 12,000 forms for verbs. Looking back, I cannot believe my family left Suomi to avoid Finnish conjugations, opting for the English spoken in Canada. I've gotten beyond blaming them. Any grudges I've harboured became repositories for automobiles, lawn and gardening equipment, kids toys and hockey equipment bags that are “verboten” in the house. Oops, maybe I'm inventing a homonym. Meanwhile, as a struggling Finnish semi-illiterate, I remain a student of languages, especially English, the richest of all by far. I've progressed to a quaveringly certain capability in French, Spanish and German, the result of work and travel stints in Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Denmark.

Martti Lahtinen, the struggling Finnish semi-literate

The American humorist Samuel R. Clemens – better know as Mark Twain – once said: “Never let school get in the way of a good education.” The admonishment is one I trot out whenever I'm asked to explain why I never graduated from an institute of higher learning, much to the dismay of my dear parents and loving wife, who underwrote the expense of backing a failing cause.

That aside, the scholastic underachiever has shone in linguistic spheres, including the Ottawa Citizen newspaper newsroom, where he majored in copy editing on his way to a symbolic degree. Before the spell-check function and the Internet apps became standard equipment in maintaining ethnic-based accuracy, anyone who had experience with the Germanic language family became THE authority in fixing names and places. Being a Finn and a former guest worker in Germany and Denmark as well, I always got the call: “Hey Martti, are there any umlauts in this guy's name?” I would glance at the verbiage and point out where the dots above the vowels went if needed. Given that my surname was Lahtinen, and I could connect the dots, I soon gained Citizen infamy as Dr. Umlautinen.

There were times when even the straight and narrow Citizen allowed bending the rules for inventiveness. The word “vinaigrette” – i.e., a rueful vignette – I claim as mine in these parts. The doctor left the paper via the buyout exit after 24 years polishing turds, which is newspaper jargon for fixing reporters story copy. He also added to the Citizen grammar lexicon.

Question: If synonyms are words that mean the same but are spelled differently, if homonyms are words that sound the same but are spelled differently, and if antonyms are opposites, what are marttinyms? Answer: Marttinyms are words that don't mean anything and are always spelled incorrectly. No doubt I will add to the ex-patriate manglement of my native tongue during my Bucket List spell at Finland 100 this summer.

The village of Oravi, where Martti was to spend 90 of his “100 Days in Finland”

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