Author's Note: Before I start, here's an introductory author's note. (Do people even write these anymore?)
I started this story as a sequel to Something Better five years ago back in 2014. And then I took it down... sometime in 2018 (I think). Now I'm back to post and finish it, perhaps with not as much effort as I set out to write it, but at least it will be finished. This is thanks to one of my readers from Twitter, who talked to me about it and inspired me to finish writing it! I don't know what your username here is, but you know who you are :P
If you would like to know the whole sordid story about why I decided to take the story down in the first place (and why I just couldn't write it anymore at that point in time), feel free to check out the 'update' chapter in the previous version.
Otherwise, onward! Please review to let me know if there's anyone reading (or not). I will post until it is complete. Might take some time, but it will be done.
©2019 Kassie N (dear-llama). All Rights Reserved.
Chapter 1: Arrival
Aksel is waiting for me at the entrance of the Arrival Hall.
I see him from afar, even before I go through the glass doors. He sees me too - our eyes meet across the distance and I see his face morph into a smile. I quicken my pace, as fast as I could go without breaking into a run.
Patience, Emilie. You have the rest of your life with him now.
The moment I step through the doors, he's right there. Without a word, he takes first my hand, and then my suitcase, and starts heading further away to an emptier area. I follow him, my heart thumping with delight at seeing him again after so many months. The last time he visited Hamburg was in August last year, when he came for my graduation. For the December holidays, he had to go back to Oulu, while I wanted to spend more time with my family and friends before I left Hamburg for good, so we spent Christmas and New Year's apart.
But I am here now. I am finally here.
Stopping abruptly in a corner of the hall, Aksel parks my suitcase against the wall before turning around and, in one swift motion, gathers me into his arms. I wrap my own around him, burying my face into his chest, loving the solid feel of him against me. We've been apart for longer before, in the past when we were both still students and had only been able to meet during term breaks. But since his graduation - a year earlier than mine - Aksel has been flying out to Hamburg whenever he can, so our meet-ups have gotten more frequent over time. These past four months have been the longest we've been apart in the last year.
"You're here," he grins, his hand coming up to cup the back of my head, to entangle his fingers in my hair.
"Yeah," I almost squeal, throwing my arms around his neck in a fierce hug. "I can't believe I'm finally here!"
He pulls away a little to look at me, then leans back in and kisses me hard. I kiss him back, my mouth opening under his as his tongue demands entrance. I feel him shift our bodies so that he is pressing me into the corner of the wall, semi-hiding us from sight, but it doesn't change the fact that we are full-on kissing in public.
Don't Finns in particular frown on public displays of affection like that?
The thought flits through my mind briefly, before I decide that I don't care. Who was it who said, 'airports have seen more sincere kisses than wedding halls'? People at airports should be used to the sight of this by now.
When he lets up on me, I look into his smiling eyes and smile back. He stops and stares at me for a while, like he's eating me up with his eyes.
I laugh, a little nervously. It's been so long since we've met in person that I've almost forgotten how much his physical presence affects me. It really is different, having him by my side. "What?
"I'm glad you're here," he says.
"So am I." My hand lifts to touch his face. It's been too long since I've felt the warmth of his skin against mine. He's real. He's really here, standing right in front of me.
I'm really here.
I must be staring up at him in wonderment, because it's his turn to chuckle. "What?" he asks now.
I shake my head. "I just can't believe it. It feels so unreal to be here, like this, with you."
Aksel reaches up and covers my hand with his. When I remove my hand from his cheek, his follows mine down to rest at my side. I flip my hand over, and he entwines his fingers in mine. I stare at our clasped hands, feeling the heat of his grip ricochet up my hand to spread to the rest of my body.
"I know," I hear him say. "It feels like a dream."
It's hard to contain the sense of joy spreading warmly through my chest. "I could just stand here forever," I say, giving our connected hands a light swing. "Just like this."
He laughs. "Me too, but we don't need to. Let's go home."
Home. I feel my grin grow wider of its own accord. I like the sound of it.
Out in the parking lot, there is a freezing wind blowing. I try to huddle more deeply into my coat as I walk beside Aksel. The walk isn't that long, luckily – we're heading towards a black Toyota parked close to the entrance.
"You have a car?" I ask.
Aksel reaches into his pockets and pulls out the keyring, answering my question without words. He presses a button to unlock the doors, and the car chirps briefly, lights flashing. "I bought it last year," he says. "Didn't I tell you?"
I frown, trying to sieve through my memory to bring forth this nugget of information I should already have. "Maybe," I say, sounding a little doubtful even to my own ears. Aksel looks at me oddly, but I shake my head, hoping he hasn't realised that I don't remember.
Surreptitiously, I look the car over. It's nice, with a shiny black coat that I can almost see my reflection in. Then I glance at the car plate and see that the EU code for Finland is "FIN". Back in Germany, the code is "D", and that makes sense because it stands for the German word for Germany - Deutschland. But Finland, in Finnish, is called Suomi.
"Why is the EU code for Finnish car plates 'FIN'?" I ask, once we are in the car and Aksel has started the engine. "Why not 'S', or something?"
"'S' is for Swedish car plates," he says, shifting the gear into drive and pulling out of the parking lot.
"Okay, maybe 'SUO', then." Another thought hits me. "Actually, why is Finland called 'fin'-something in so many other languages, when its original name sounds nothing like it?"
I see Aksel cast me an amused glance out of the corner of his eye. "How do you know that? What is Finland called in other languages?"
I flush. "I wiki'd Finland once... You know how Wikipedia always has that list on the left - the article in different languages? Most of the names other languages have for Finland start with 'fin'."
"Interesting," Aksel says. "I've never thought about that before."
"It's kind of weird, isn't it?"
He looks like he's trying not to smile. "Have you looked up Germany? None of the names other countries have for Germany sounds the least bit like the name in German."
No, I've never searched for Germany on Wikipedia, but what he said is true, as far as I know. I know that Germany is called Allemagne in French, Tyskland in Danish, Germania in Italian... For our eastern neighbours, their names for Germany seem to tend to start with an 'N'. But this is because of our position in the centre of Europe, as well as our long history of separate tribes and states. "What's it called in Finnish?" I ask.
"Saksa," Aksel replies.
I scrunch up my nose. That is completely different from all the other variations I've heard. "That's... very different."
He shrugs. "Finnish is very different."
"I've started learning it," I say, and beam at him. He turns away from the road for a second to glance at me.
"Yep." I clear my throat and attempt, "Moi. Nimeni on Emilie..."
"Very good," he says softly.
But I'm not done. There is still one sentence – one sentence I spent hours looking up, one sentence that I wanted to say when I met him at the airport, but forgot all about in the heat of the moment. I say it now. "Minä olen kaivannut sinua."
He doesn't react, and I turn my gaze on him, wondering if I've gotten it wrong. I poured through a verb conjugation table for the word kaivata - 'to miss; to yearn for' - in order to come up with that sentence. Google, for some reason, is no help when it comes to Finnish. There are no people online discussing how to say such phrases in Finnish, not the way there are for other languages like French, or Japanese...
While I'm pondering this, Aksel has pulled up at the side of the road. I blink when he unbuckles his seatbelt. Have we reached our destination? But we've barely just pulled out of the car park...
Then he leans over the gear shaft, cups my cheek with one hand, and presses his mouth to mine.
When he pulls away, leaving me flushed and more than a little dazed from the emotion he has put into that kiss, he smiles and whispers, "I've missed you, too." Then he calmly settles back into his seat, re-fastens his seatbelt, and starts driving again.
I stare at him with my mouth agape. "What... what was that all about?" I ask, when I've relocated my voice.
He shrugs, but there's still the faintest hint of a smile lingering in his expression. "I like it when you speak Finnish."
I bite my lip, feeling a surge of warmth hit me at his words. I will learn to speak Finnish, I vow at this moment. If it makes him this happy, I will speak in Finnish all the time.
We are both silent, enjoying the comfortable silence as Aksel drives on. It feels good to just sit in his presence, without having the need to fill up the silence with aimless chatter. Of course, I have so much to say to him. But this comfortable silence is also calming.
It is almost twenty minutes later when we enter Helsinki. I turn to look out of the window, watching the scenery fly past. It's not exactly what I'm used to, back in Hamburg. Hamburg is a big city - more than three times the size of Helsinki in terms of land area; almost exactly three times in terms of population. Helsinki is the most densely-populated city in Finland, but, in comparison with Hamburg, it feels strangely lonely. But the city streets and buildings themselves don't look all that different. Hamburg also has its share of neo-classical architecture, similar to the buildings standing along the sides of the streets here.
"Why Helsinki?" I ask, as I watch Aksel navigate the roads like he has lived here all his life. But I know that he didn't grow up here. His hometown is further north – a city called Oulu. I've looked it up on Wikipedia, too, and it's supposed to be the most important city in Northern Finland as well as the northernmost big city in the whole of the EU. "Why did you decide to move here?"
Aksel shrugs. "I don't know. I've wanted to live here since I was a kid. The capital city – it always sounded like this exciting place where dreams come true, you know?"
"Does it live up to your expectations, then?"
"Oh, yeah." I look at his side profile as he looks out the windshield at the road, and I see the corner of his lip curling up a little. "It's amazing here. We have lots of attractions, places to go to, and the nightlife is incredible. You'll see. I'll show you around. You'll love it here."
We, I note. He already sees himself as a part of the city, as belonging here. I feel a pang in my chest. I want to belong here too. Be a part of this exciting city with him.
"I can't wait," I say, smiling at him. His good mood is contagious. I can't tell if he's happy that I'm here, or that he finally gets to show me his city, after two years of me showing him mine. Either way, I'm glad that he's happy. "So how different is Helsinki from Oulu? Is it colder there?"
Aksel chuckles. "Quite different. Helsinki is a lot different from the other regions in terms of culture, especially from the north. And it's definitely colder in Oulu... It snows more there. But the wind here is stronger, because we're closer to the sea."
I've only just gotten here, but Helsinki already feels cold enough. I am a little glad he has decided to move here, instead of staying in Oulu. Even so... I want to go there. I had the chance to go, to see him graduate two years ago, but I came down with a high fever right before and hadn't been able to make the trip. In the end, he had carried his phone around the whole time, with me on the other end of a video call. And I had gotten to experience the day with him even as I huddled in bed, shivering under the covers.
"We should go to Oulu sometime," I tell him now. I want to see the city where he grew up. I want to see the streets of Oulu and imagine Aksel, as a child, as a teen, running through them.
He glances at me in surprise – surprise that slowly morphs into a soft smile. "Yeah," he says quietly. "Next time I go home to visit, I'll take you."
He means, to meet his parents. I bite my lip. This is serious. I've never really thought about it before, but it hits me now – we're in this for the long haul. I've moved to his country to be with him, and the next time he returns to his hometown, he's introducing me to his parents. He isn't just my boyfriend from Finland now, someone that I Skype every other night and see in person only once every few months. We'll be living together from now on, trying to forge a life together. Now, he is the one guy I may be looking at forever with.
The thought scares me a little.
But it also fills me with unfettered joy.
Aksel's apartment – or our apartment, as I have to get used to calling it – is located on a street with a very long name that I can neither pronounce nor remember. The street is lined with cars on both sides as we turn in, and Aksel pulls into a lot right in front of the entrance to an apartment building. Then he kills the engine and turns to me. "We're here."
I get out of the car, slowly taking in my surroundings. The building itself spans the entire stretch of the road, ending only at the cross-junction ahead. A part of the building, around the corner, is a shop for golfing supplies. Beside the golf shop is a set of wooden double doors, labelled with the letter C at the top. Aksel heads for the parking meter beside the doors, and I go to stand beside him after I've hauled my luggage out of the car.
"Here?" I ask him, looking up at the orderly rows of windows peering out from the facade.
"Here," he confirms, without looking up.
There are five storeys in total, with last storey separated from the rest by a jutting strip that hides part of the top-floor windows from view from my angle. The middle three floors right above the doors are jettied storeys - protruding out over the rest of the windows. As I stare up at them, I wonder which window is the one to our apartment, or if it is even visible from this side of the building.
Across the street, there is a clump of bare trees surrounding what could be a nice place to sit and relax during the summer. From where I am, I can see two large sculptures standing amid a large patch of snowy ground that is boxed in on all sides by strips of pavements, which are in turn lined by leafless bushes. Where the hedge ends, there is a gap, in which a wooden bench sits behind a streetlight.
"What are those?" I ask Aksel, pointing at the sculptures.
He looks to see what I'm referring to. "Sculptures," he says, shrugging.
"Oh," I said. His answer is a little anticlimactic. "I thought they might be... significant, or something."
"They might be," Aksel says, "but if they are, I don't know." He reaches for my hand then, and leads me to the doors. "Come on."
The apartment is on the second storey above the ground floor. Aksel unlocks the door and pushes it wide open, gesturing for me to head in first. I step into the unit and take off my shoes at the door. I shrug off my coat next, and then resist the urge to put it back on almost immediately. There is a sort of dull cold in here, the kind that comes from stepping into house left empty for a while.
Once we are both inside, Aksel shuts the door before striding past me to turn on the radiator. "Keep your coat on for a while longer," he says, even as he takes off his own.
I laugh a little. He knows me too well.
I take my time to look around the apartment. It's quite sparsely furnished, with plain white walls and only the most necessary furniture. Upon entering, the entrance widens into the living room, where there's a TV sitting atop a wooden coffee table. Aksel has tried to put a touch of home to it – here's a rug under the couch, and an upright lamp right next to everything else. A few steps to the left is the dining area, where a dining table with two seats stands right before the entrance to the kitchen. The kitchen is small but seems to have everything needed, down to a shiny coffee maker sitting atop the counter. I remember how important coffee is to Finns – something that is more than obvious from Aksel's own coffee-drinking habits. To the right of the living room is a narrow corridor that I assume leads to the master bedroom that we will share.
Aksel is watching me as I drink all of it in. "What do you think?" He's holding himself a little tensely, and as he stares unblinkingly at me, I realise that he's nervous. He wants me to like his place. Our place.
"It's great!" I exclaim, unable to help but smile at him. His nervousness is too endearing. "I really like it."
"It's sort of drab now," he says quickly, like he hasn't heard me. "But we can decorate; make it look better. Once you've settled down. I haven't really had time..."
I walk over to him and slide my arms around his waist. He seems to realise then that he's babbling and breaks off mid-sentence.
"Hey," I murmur, lifting my face up to look at him. "I love it."
"Okay," he says, looking back at me. His hands move to rest lightly over my hips. "Good."
I grin at him. "Wanna show me the bedroom?"
There is an answering heat in his eyes. Without a word, he bends and picks me up, bridal style, in one swift movement. I giggle a little, wrapping my arms around his neck.
"You know what they call this in Japan?" I go right on without waiting for a reply, "It's called a 'princess carry'. I'm being carried like a princess right now."
Aksel shakes his head as he rounds the corner into the bedroom. "You always burst out with random trivia like that... It's like you've got a million cultures hidden in you."
I hesitate for a moment. "Well... That makes life with me more interesting, doesn't it?" But a note of uncertainty escapes my voice. Reading up on, talking about such things, as if it isn't enough that I'm already torn between two cultures. Seeing him in his homeland for the first time today, I've noticed something. He is so Finnish – so purely Finnish. He fits in perfectly here.
He looks at me now, and I smile at him, trying to brazen it out, but the look in his eyes tells me that he knows how I feel. He places me at the edge of the bed and then bends down to look me in the eye.
"Yeah," he says quietly, "I could spend a lifetime exploring all the different worlds in you."
His words resonate in my heart and almost get my tear ducts going, so I pull him forward and plant a kiss on him. We both fall backwards onto the bed, but I don't stop kissing him. I'm not sure I can.
I am too lucky to have found someone who not only accepts the hybrid that I am, but also actively appreciates the mess of cultures inside of me. He doesn't care about stereotypes – about who I'm supposed to be, just because of my heritage. He only cares that I'm me.
Later, much later, when we're both lying in bed, entangled in each other, Aksel tells me, as if continuing a conversation that we never had, "Don't worry too much. You already belong in Helsinki."
I laugh a little. That remains to be seen, but it's nice of him to try to reassure me even before the topic comes up. "I know," I say, nevertheless, "I belong anywhere I want, right?" It is something he has told me, over and over, so much that I'm almost starting to believe it.
"You belong here with me." He says this almost smugly as he leans in to kiss my lips.
I snuggle into him, feeling my heart expand. He can always see right through me; see what's bothering me. And he never tries to solve my identity issues, but he always knows the right thing to say.
"Yeah," I whisper. Then I clear my throat to dispel the tears that are in danger of coming again. "You know, I really want to see Helsinki... Explore." Make it mine, in my own way.
"I took the rest of the week off," he says, his fingers absently stroking my skin. His touch is warm, gentle. "We can go sightseeing. I'll show you around."
"Sounds great," I smile up at him. "I can't wait."
And it's true. I can't wait to see his city. I can't wait to fall in love with it.
"Do you want to stop here for dinner?" Aksel asks me as we stand before the entrance to a restaurant. The facade of the building is made from stone, and there is a wooden sign over the heavy double doors leading to the interior. It looks like a cozy place.
"That'd be great," I say, hearing the sigh of relief in my voice. I'm a little tired. And my stomach is growling. It has been dark out for a while. The sun sets very early over here in the winter, way earlier than I'm used to.
The past few days have been a flurry of attractions, of playing tourist with Aksel as my guide, of traipsing across the city exploring all the nooks and crannies. I've seen so many places, gone to so many museums, tried so many new foods that it's all starting to become a blur to me. The things I remember most about all this sightseeing are the feel of Aksel's hand in mine and the spark in his eyes as he explains the history behind a building, or points out something that a normal tourist would overlook.
He is beautiful when he is so happy. When he smiles like that, he almost glows. I can tell that he really loves Helsinki.
The warmth inside the restaurant comes as a relief. I've never been a big fan of winter, and the winter in Helsinki is colder and darker than anything I've ever experienced. It will take some getting used to.
Once we're seated, I run my eyes over the dishes printed on the menu. The menu is mostly in Finnish, but there are English translations printed in small letters underneath. Reindeer, elk, lingonberry... I blink at the sheer exoticness of it all.
"They serve Schnitzel here, if you want," Aksel says, over his perusal of the menu.
I laugh, because I know he is joking. Why would I order Schnitzel in Helsinki, when there are so many Finnish dishes to try?
"I'll have the reindeer," I say, sticking out my tongue at him.
It's his turn to laugh. "Are you sure?"
I shrug. "Hey, try everything once, right?" And what better place to try reindeer than the Nordic lands?
After we've placed our orders and the waiter has left, Aksel leans forward slightly. He picks out some bread from the bread basket in the middle of the table, but he is looking at me even as his hands busy themselves with breaking up the bread.
"What do you think about Helsinki?" I see the hopeful look in his eyes and know that he badly wants me to like his city.
"It's beautiful," I grin. "I love it."
The smile that settles over his face is like the sun rising after a long winter's night. I know he's happy, and a little bit relieved, but all he says is, "Good."
I wait for him to say something else, to ask something else, but he doesn't. He just sits there, slowly eating his bread, watching me with warm blue eyes.
"My favourite so far is the Esplanade," I offer, since it doesn't seem like he's going to ask. "It feels like the heart of the city for me." Then I rush to add, "But I love the Finnish museum too, with all that history and culture... And, you know, the Old Market Hall is cool as well–" I cut myself off, frowning. Come to think of it, I like all of these places. How can I choose a favourite out of all of them?
Aksel is smiling again, but this time he looks like he's laughing at me.
The waiter comes over to serve our glasses of wine. I smile at him in thanks, and I'm startled when he smiles back. I've always been under the impression that Finns are a reserved sort – look at Aksel when I'd first gotten to know him. And people in Helsinki, from what I've seen, tend to keep to themselves. But I suppose it must be different when you're working in the service industry.
I see Aksel looking at my glass of wine. "Just one glass, okay?" he says.
One glass of wine is more than enough for me – I hate the taste of wine more than I hate beer, so that really is saying something. But for the sake of it, I mock-glare at him. "Do Finnish girls let you boss them around like this?"
He looks surprised. "I'm not trying to..." He trails off, his eyebrows drawing together. "I'm just... You're allergic. I–"
I smirk at how flustered he's getting. "It's okay," I say, "I was joking. I hate wine."
His tongue-tied reaction turns into exasperation. "Why did you order it, then?"
I shrug. "Because you ordered a glass, too?"
"Emilie," he groans.
Our starters arrive before I can start to feel embarrassed or get defensive. I dig into my salmon soup, but Aksel is slower in doing so. He finishes the last of his bread and watches me eat for a while before tucking into his own starter.
"Sorry," I mutter, when I'm done with the soup all too quickly. "I'm hungry." Surreptitiously, I glance at Aksel, and then at the rest of the patrons, to ascertain that I'm not messing up on the dining etiquette. In Germany, it's polite to always keep your hands visible above the table during meals. As far as I've observed over the past few days whenever we eat out, it's the same in Finland.
It's a good thing Finnish dining customs are very much similar to German ones. I haven't made any obvious faux pas yet.
As if reading my mind, Aksel murmurs, "Relax."
I blink at him, startled. He's smiling at me again, like he knows a secret I don't.
"I'll tell you if you're doing something wrong," he tells me. "Just relax and enjoy yourself."
"I'm relaxed," I insist, even though I know he can see that I'm sitting stiffly in my seat.
He shakes his head.
The waiter comes over again, this time with our mains. Aksel's is a top loin steak, served with some smoked meat and French fries on the side. I have ordered the sautéed reindeer, which comes with cranberries and mashed potatoes. Aksel cuts into his steak, revealing a filling of what looks like cheese, but I take a moment to stare at my meal.
Reindeer... I've never thought about eating reindeer meat before. But I know it's something they eat a lot in Finland - there are so many variations of traditional dishes made from reindeer meat over here. With that in mind, I pick up my fork and knife. Well, life is an adventure, isn't it? Trying new things – that's the whole point of leaving home, isn't it?
I cut up the meat and put a piece in my mouth. It tastes like beef, but with a touch of wilderness, like deer. It's a strange taste, but it does taste good.
"Oh," I breathe, after I've swallowed my first bite. "This is good."
"Yeah?" Aksel is smiling at me again, fondly, like my reaction amuses and pleases him both at once. I suppose he is feeling what I felt when I was showing him around my favourite places in Hamburg, back during the first time he visited. I remember watching anxiously as he tried the Finkenwerder Scholle - a Hamburg specialty made from European plaice with bacon and onions, and typically served with potatoes. And I remember the feeling of pride that came over me when he swallowed, looked up, smiled and said, This is amazing.
There is something heart-warming about sharing your culture with someone important and having them appreciate it, too. And I'm determined to let Aksel know just how much I appreciate his culture, especially after all the consideration he has shown for the confusing mix that is mine.
I will do my best to fit in. I will do my best to learn as much as I can about Finland, and the Finnish culture, so that it becomes as important to me as it is to him. And most importantly, I will do my best to put that light in his eyes all the time – that light that shines out from the core of him whenever he talks about Helsinki.
He's so happy when he does that. I want that light to stay in his eyes forever.
The rest of our week as tourists in Helsinki ends all too quickly. The Monday after is the day Aksel has to return to work, which also means it is the first day I am left to my own devices.
The first day that real life begins again.
The past week has been fun, mostly because it's been reminiscent of our exchange days in Edinburgh. We got to explore the city like a couple of travellers. It had felt like we were simply travelling and were due back home in a few days. But now, watching Aksel all dressed in formal office wear for work, it hit me that this was supposed to be home from now on.
"Don't worry," he tells me, kissing me goodbye after breakfast. "You'll be fine. Take your time to settle in first. Job-hunting can wait a while more."
I have a good amount saved up in the event I don't find a job immediately, but I do need to get a job as soon as possible. Aksel hasn't discussed the details of the rent for our apartment with me, but I want to start contributing to our life together. And for that, I need a job. But first...
"I'm thinking of going to the supermarket today," I tell him. "You know, check things out, buy some groceries I'll need."
He pauses by the door, as if thinking about something. "I could get my friends to go with you," he says, "I know some of them are free today."
I frown at him, not understanding why I would need his friends to accompany me to the supermarket. It's a supermarket. Isn't grocery shopping the same all over the world?
"There's no need for that," I say, "I can go alone."
Besides, meeting his friends without him around to break the ice? It sounds far too awkward for my liking.
"It's fine," he insists, already reaching into his pocket for his phone. "I'll get them to meet you downstairs in an hour, okay?"
"Aksel," I say, but he leans in for another quick kiss, which distracts me.
"I have to go now," he says, pulling away. "Remember – downstairs in an hour, all right?"
"Aksel," I repeat, but he's already gone. I pout at the door for a minute, feeling somewhat indignant about being assigned babysitters for a trip to the supermarket, of all places. But it would be rude to leave on my own now, now that he's contacted them. Sighing to myself, I turn back to the bedroom to get ready.
An hour later, I make my way slowly down the stairs to the main entrance of the building. On the last landing closest to the ground floor, I see them. Aksel's friends. There are two of them, and they're both leaning against the wall near the front doors, chatting quietly in Finnish. One is a tall, slender blonde girl, and the other is a well-built brown-haired guy who looks even taller than Aksel.
I slowly walk down the rest of the way, my boots tapping steadily against the cement steps. The two look up briefly, run their gazes over me, then turn back to their conversation again. I pause on the last step, knowing that Aksel didn't mention my heritage to them.
Then again, he has never focused that much on the way I look. To him, I've always been German. Aksel sees me a little differently from how other people do.
I briefly contemplate walking straight past them out of the door, then shake my head at myself. It's not their fault for assuming, at first glance, that I'm not the German girl they think they're waiting for.
Before I can lose my nerve, I walk up to them. "Hi," I say awkwardly. "Are you... Aksel's friends?"
They both stare at me for a long moment. I can see the flicker of surprise in both their eyes as they readjust their original expectations. Finally, the girl clears her throat and smiles, a little belatedly. "Hi. You're Emilie?"
"Yeah," I say, trying for a smile. "That's me."
She stretches out a hand and I take it automatically. "I'm Lumi."
"Nice to meet you," I say, "I'm Emilie." Then I trail off, feeling stupid. Of course, they already knew that.
"I'm Janne," says the guy, reaching over to shake my hand as well.
"Hi," I repeat. "Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too." Lumi looks towards Janne, as if seeking help for what to say next. He simply shrugs at her. She turns back to me, smiling helplessly. "Well, I guess we should get going, then."
I smile back, feeling equally at a loss of what to say. "Sure."
As we push out of the building, Lumi asks me, "We're going to the supermarket, yes?"
"Yeah," I say, gesturing futilely at my empty hands. But you can't really gesture to your hands, only at something else with your hands. I stop when I realise how stupid it must make me look. "But I forgot to pack my grocery bag. In Finland, do you–"
"Oh, don't worry," Lumi says. "You can buy a bag at the store."
I want to ask what the practice of checking out at Finnish supermarkets is like, if it's the same as in Germany, but I can't bring myself to ask such a simple question. I'll find out when I get there, I suppose. I really don't know why Aksel insisted on bothering his friends for this. I can figure out things for myself – I'm not entirely lost on my own in a foreign land. I survived on my own in Edinburgh, didn't I?
"Do you want to take the tram or should we walk?" Lumi asks.
"The tram, probably?" I suggest. It's going to be a shorter journey – less awkward small talk that way. Besides, I don't want to waste any more of their time than I already am.
"Thanks for coming with me," I say then, remembering my manners too late. "Sorry for taking up your free day."
"Oh, it's no trouble at all," Lumi says, smiling. She is really friendly. Janne is less welcoming, walking stoically by her side. "We didn't have much to do, anyway."
"Do you live nearby?" I ask. I'd feel bad if they came all the way from the other side of the city just to go with me on this unnecessary expedition.
"Well... Close enough," Lumi says, after a slight hesitation. "We were in the neighbourhood, anyway."
"Oh." I consider apologising again, then decide that would be a little too excessive. This is all Aksel's fault, anyway.
We come to the tram stop soon enough. There are two other people waiting at the stop, but everyone is standing more than slightly apart from each other. Lumi and Janne also come to a stop more than a metre away from the closest person.
"Do you have a travel card?" Lumi asks me.
"Do I need one to get on the tram?" I suddenly remember that things are different here. I have a season ticket in Hamburg, so I don't have to worry much about such things, but even if I didn't, you can buy single trip tickets on the spot from ticketing vending machines or bus drivers. But I am not in Germany anymore. I can no longer take it for granted that things work the same way here. Aksel drives, so we haven't needed to take public transport at all in the past week. I've forgotten to ask him about the way public transport works here. "I don't have one. Where can I get one?"
"It's okay," Lumi reassures me quickly. "You can buy a ticket from the tram driver. But a travel card will be cheaper in the long run, so getting one would be more convenient."
"I'll keep that in mind," I say, making a mental note of it. I'll have to find out where to buy a travel card – maybe the main train station?
"So... You're from Germany?" Lumi asks delicately, after we wait in silence for a while. Maybe she's simply trying to find a topic of conversation, but this question pricks me like a thorn in my side.
"Yes," I say. I try to hide my annoyance, but I know my tone comes out short. It's all too obvious, what she's really asking. Just as I know she doesn't mean anything by it.
"Oh," she says, lapsing into silence. But Janne picks up where she left off.
"When Aksel told us he got himself a German girlfriend, we all thought..."
Lumi gives Janne a look, and he falls silent.
"Yeah," I say, laughing a little, to try to brazen it out. "It's a bit of a shock, isn't it?"
"You're part-Asian?" Lumi asks. She's trying not to scrutinise my features, I know – trying not to do the usual she has European eyes, an Asian nose type of comparison that people usually engage in when they first meet me. Not that it usually does them much good – I do look a lot more like my Mama than my Papa. Sometimes I wish it was the other way around. I wouldn't stick out so much then.
"Yeah, I'm mixed."
"Cool," says Lumi. "That's really interesting."
I shrug, smiling awkwardly. It really isn't. I envy people like her – and Janne, and Aksel. People who know exactly where they come from; people who can trace their lineage back to the Middle Ages, whose ancestors first settled in the region centuries ago, who have history. Of course, I probably have an equally rich and long-lasting heritage on both sides of my family, but amid all the moving and cultural hybridisation, we have lost what other people would call roots. My ancestry on my father's side is easier to trace; that on my mother's side, however... Singapore is a nation of immigrants, and my mother's grandparents had been immigrants themselves. Mama has long since gotten German citizenship, but she is still considered an immigrant. And me?
I have become an immigrant in Finland now.
None of us have stayed where we're supposed to. And sometimes, looking at the real Europeans, or the real Asians... I regret that.
How would it feel to look around and just know that this is irrevocably your country, where you belong, where nobody will ever question your right to be here? I will never know that feeling.
The tram comes then, and everyone drifts towards the doors. Lumi and Janne wait on the right side of the doors, letting the passengers within exit the tram before they board. I follow suit.
"Hi," I say to the driver, feeling his eyes – along with everyone else's in earshot – land on me. "Ehm... I need one ticket, please?"
"Three euros," he says.
I pay him three euros, take my ticket, and go to join Lumi and Janne, who are waiting for me towards the back of the carriage.
"All right?" Lumi asks, and I nod, flashing my ticket. She acts a little like Aksel – I can see why they're friends. The tram starts, and the three of us stand in a half-circle. I'm not sure where to look, because the silence is making me nervous.
"How are you finding Helsinki so far?" Lumi asks then. She's trying to make conversation, trying harder than I am. The stereotypes of Finns being shy and socially awkward must not be that true.
Or maybe I'm the one who's socially awkward. All I know is, I am acutely conscious of how some passengers on the tram are surreptitiously glancing in our direction every now and then. I try to ignore them, even though I am aware that it must be me they're staring at, and also the fact that we're speaking in English.
"Really nice," I say to Lumi now. "Way too cold, but it's all right. Aksel has shown me some places. We've been to the Esplanade, the Old Market Hall... Some museums, churches, that sort of thing. And we're going to the Sibelius Park this weekend."
"Oh, that's great," Lumi exclaims, apparently relieved to find a sustainable topic of conversation. "It's a beautiful place – well, it looks better in the summer, so you'll have to go back then, but it's still beautiful now. The monument is such a piece of abstract art, it's really worth seeing."
"Yeah, I've heard," I say, even though the only knowledge I have of the monument is bits and pieces I've heard from Aksel. "It's made out of steel pipes, isn't it? That's pretty unique."
"Are you a fan of Sibelius's music?" Janne speaks up from Lumi's other side. I'm on Lumi's right, and he's on her left. But he's so tall that he doesn't even need to poke his head forward to look at me. I, on the other hand, do have to crane my neck to look around Lumi in order to make eye contact with him.
"I like his symphonies," I say. "Although I haven't heard many of his other works."
"You should go to some performances at the concert hall," Lumi suggests, "or at the opera house. His pieces are performed there quite often."
"I will," I promise. "Definitely. Sibelius is a really important figure in Finland, isn't he?"
"Oh, yeah," Lumi says. She smiles, "He's a huge part of Finnish culture. We're not well-known for a lot, but he is one of the people the world remembers us for."
I ponder that for a moment. I can almost understand this feeling. Germany... Well, people all over the world know all sorts of things about Germany. There are a lot of things and people that Germany is well-known for – some good, some bad, some stereotypes... But people from all over the world, at large, know a lot about Germans and Germany.
Maybe, if I were fully German, I would find the idea behind Lumi's words completely foreign to me. But I am half-Singaporean, too, and that part of me identifies with this. Singapore is a tiny country. To this day, there are still people who believe it is a part of China, or a part of Malaysia. And there isn't much that the world knows about Singapore, save for a few things and people, but these things and people – the positive aspects of them, at least – they are worth being proud of.
But I am not just Singaporean, even if I do look more the part. And if I talk too much about these things, these things that belong to Singapore, people will forget that I'm German, too. So even though I identify with the sentiments Lumi is voicing, I don't say anything.
"We have a Flag Day for him, you know," Janne adds. He seems to have suddenly found his tongue. "On the eighth of December. It was Sibelius's birthday. We have a Flag Day to commemorate him, and also to celebrate the 'Day of Finnish Music'."
My eyes widen at this new information. "Oh, that's cool." I hadn't known that. Finland has many Flag Days, I know – they are days on which the Finnish flag is flown on all public buildings. The fact that the flag is flown on Sibelius's birthday shows just how important he is to the Finns.
Pretty soon, we have to slight. Lumi presses the bell long before we reach the stop, something that I don't register until later. Yes, the doors open automatically, I note. It's these little things, these things you barely notice unless you're a foreigner, that you worry about the first time round. Back on the sidewalk, I shiver a little, having gotten used to the warmer temperature in the tram.
"It's about a minute's walk from here," Lumi tells me as Janne leads the way.
"Okay," I say, lagging slightly behind them.
When we step into the supermarket, it hits me. I immediately understand why Aksel was so adamant about getting his friends to accompany me here.
Every single thing is in Finnish.
Maybe it's because Aksel has been by my side for the entirety of the past week, or that we've been mostly going to the more tourist-friendly areas, but I've almost forgotten that I'm in Finland, where the official language is Finnish. And a supermarket is not a tourist attraction. There are no helpful signs in English along the aisles, or on the food packaging. Some things are obvious, even without understanding the words on the packaging, but when it comes to things like differentiating between almost-identical bottles of shampoo, conditioner, facial wash – or even just picking between full-fat milk and low-fat milk... There are some things that rely solely on your understanding of the words.
I am chagrined at how much Aksel thinks ahead in comparison to me.
Lumi comes to stand beside me, looking questioningly at me. "So," she says, "what do you want to buy?"
I should have made a shopping list, I think to myself. I've always done my groceries by walking down the aisles and grabbing anything that catches my eye. But I can't do that here. Not only do I have to watch my expenditure more than ever, I also don't recognise a lot of the brands lining the shelves.
I smile apologetically at Lumi and Janne. "Sorry, this may take a while."
It does take a while. It's almost two hours later before I have all that I want – well, not exactly, but close. Janne, as we've trudged down each aisle, has gotten inspired to do a little grocery shopping of his own, too, so he is right behind me as I head for the checkout area. Lumi, who isn't buying anything, told us she will be waiting at the exit and has vanished in that direction.
As we approach the checkout counters, I anxiously observe the actions of the other patrons. But they're doing nothing that I haven't seen before. It takes me a moment before I realise why.
This I know, I think in relief. Checking out your groceries the same here as in Germany. You lay your purchases on the belt, and wait in line. When it's your turn, you walk to the other end of the counter and wait for the cashier to finish scanning the items, so that you can bag them yourself. I can do this. I've been doing this all my life.
I am confident throughout the checkout process, only hesitating a little when the cashier speaks to me in Finnish. She sees my blank look quickly enough, however, and switches to English. I pack my groceries into the new grocery bag I've just purchased, finish paying, and head for the exit to join Lumi.
"All done?" she asks when she sees me walking towards her, bag on my shoulder.
"Yeah," I say, even though it must be obvious.
"Is there anything else you want to see around here?" Then she looks at my bag of groceries and grimaces, "But I guess you'll want to go straight home to put that down."
I smile at her. "Yeah. It's kind of heavy. Anyway, it's fine. You've spent long enough helping me already."
"It's no problem, really," she insists. "Aksel's girlfriend is our friend too, you know? If you ever need help..."
"Thanks," I say, feeling somewhat embarrassed. "That's really nice of you." I think, given time, Lumi and I could really become friends.
Janne comes to stand beside us now. He's ended up buying even more things than me, but he hoists his bag over his shoulder like it's nothing. Lumi flicks him a glance, "Done?"
He grunts an affirmation.
"Let's go, then," Lumi says.
We're all quiet on the walk to the tram stop, so quiet that I almost forget they're beside me, even though I am relying on them to lead the way to the stop.
"I wonder if there are any Asian markets around here," I murmur, talking to myself, before I remember I'm not alone. I turn to look at Lumi and Janne, to see if they've heard me, and they have.
"Sorry," Lumi says to me apologetically, even though I wasn't really asking her, "I have no idea."
"Aksel would know, I think," Janne says. "He likes Asian food. Cooks it sometimes."
My tongue almost falls out of my mouth. Aksel? I never knew. Then again, we have never talked much about Asian things, or the Asian part of my heritage. I know Aksel disapproves of how I shy away from it sometimes, but he doesn't bring it up much.
"Really? What does he cook?" I blurt out, before I can think the better of it.
Both Lumi and Janne stare at me in surprise. It must seem ludicrous to them, that I don't know this about my own boyfriend, but neither of them comment on it outwardly.
"Stir fry, I think," Janne says, listing off his fingers. "Fried rice... That sort of thing." He looks over to Lumi for assistance.
Chinese food? I can barely believe it. Aksel, my Finnish boyfriend, is perhaps even more in touch with the Asian half of my heritage than I am.
"He likes sushi, too," Lumi offers. "And curry... The spicy kind." She makes a face. "I think he's the only one out of all of us who can take spicy food."
"Oh," I say, hearing my voice come out sounding a little faint. "I never knew." I try to laugh. "I can't even cook those things."
I see Lumi and Janne exchange glances again. I purse up my lips, an old habit, and look down at my feet as we walk on.
Being here in Finland, I'm starting to discover a lot of things about Aksel that I never knew. Maybe that's the way it is. Maybe one's identity is so closely tied to their country, the place they're from, that you can only truly get to know a person when you're in said country, surrounded by the same things they are in their daily life.
And now that I am, I'm starting to realise that Aksel knows me all too well, but, in comparison, my knowledge of him is still sorely lacking.
"You never asked."
This is Aksel's response at night, when I bring up the topic of his culinary skills in Asian cuisine.
"It's not something one would think to ask," I point out.
"Well, it's not something one would think to announce, out of the blue, either," he replies. His expression is bland, but there is a glimmer in his eyes that tells me he is laughing at the way I've phrased that previous sentence.
I narrow my eyes at him. "Are you making fun of my English? I'll have you know, I always got a 1 for my English grade at school."
Aksel frowns. "I think your English is better than a 1."
I stare at him, wondering if he's joking. But he looks serious. "There's nothing better than a 1. That was my point."
He looks genuinely confused now. "But... 1 is only a pass."
"1 is the highest grade there is!" I correct him. "A pass is a 4."
"4 is an 'excellent' grade," he counters. "The only thing better is a 5."
We both stare at each other for a long minute. Then I start laughing, and I see a smile of realisation come over his face.
"I think we've found another cultural difference," he says.
"The Finnish 1 is only a pass?" I want to clarify.
"Yeah," he says. "0 is a fail."
"You have a 0? We don't have a 0."
"What's your failing grade, then?"
"5 and 6 are both failing grades," I say. "1 is the best grade you can get, and 6 is the worst."
"In Finland, in universities at least, 5 is the best and 0 is the worst."
"This is so strange," I say. I'm still chuckling over our initial confusion.
"Okay," he concedes. "Your English is a 1, then."
I laugh out loud at that. "You know, that could be both a compliment and an insult, depending on which perspective you see it from."
He raises his eyebrows at me. "You'll never know which one I mean, then, will you?"
With another laugh, I impulsively lunge forward and wrap my arms around him. He smooths a hand up and down over my upper arm as I snuggle into him. I lift my head slightly to look up at him, knowing this position makes my eyes look bigger than they normally do.
"Yeah, I guess I'll never know," I say.
He looks down at me for a moment, before the corners of his mouth twist upward. He leans down to drop a kiss on my forehead. "It's a compliment," he whispers. "Always a compliment."
But I don't need his reassurance. I already know every word out of his mouth reveals a measure of how much he feels for me, and that is compliment enough. I stand up on my tiptoes to catch his lips before he fully straightens up.
He tucks a lock of hair behind my ear as we kiss, slowly but deeply. So deeply that I can feel the imprint of his tongue against mine. I feel his hand run along my jawline to come to a stop on my cheek. He does this a lot – cup my cheek while kissing me. Sometimes I wonder what experts on body language would say it means. Other times I don't care. It makes me feel safe and cherished, and that feeling is enough.
When we both pull away to catch our breaths, Aksel swipes a thumb gently across my lips. I press a light kiss to the pad of his thumb as it moves by. His other hand entangles itself in my hair. "That," he murmurs, leaning down so his forehead is against the top of my head, "was also a 1."
I crack a smile. "Passable in Finland, but outstanding in Germany?"
He lets out a laugh. Then he leans in quickly and kisses me hard. A kiss that leaves me gasping. "Outstanding in Finland, too."
"You're Finnish," I remind him. "1 is a pass."
"We'll follow the German way in this."
"If I'm not careful," I say, somewhat jokingly, "you'll turn out more German than I am."
Not many Europeans, if any, especially those with no German blood in their veins, like to hear that they're becoming more German. But Aksel doesn't get offended. He knows what I mean. "Impossible," he says.
"You're already more Asian than I am. I can't even cook Asian dishes." I try not to sound sulky as I say this, but I think a little of my petulance slips through.
"You are very German," Aksel says, indirectly agreeing with my second statement even as he counters my first. "You look more Asian, but I forget that, sometimes. You are so German."
I smile wryly. "You mean, I try very hard to be German." Wasn't that what he had said, when we first met in Edinburgh?
He stares at me, his gaze shifting away as he thinks to himself. Then he shakes his head slowly. "No. It's not the stereotypes you try to conform to that makes you German. It's those things that you do without thinking. Your habits show, very clearly, where you come from. You don't have to try to be German, because you already are."
I blink at him, nonplussed. I have no idea what he is talking about.
Aksel sees my bemusement. He sighs. "I don't know why you don't see yourself as a 'real German' - you were born there, lived there for most of your childhood, graduated from school there... You were ready to live your whole life there, until I came along. You have German blood in you, a German surname, and a German passport. What else do you need to convince yourself that you're a 'real German'?"
How did we get from Asian cuisine to this?
I try to pull away, but he holds fast. "Don't run, Emilie," he says softly. "Talk to me. I want to understand."
I give up on moving away, but I bury my face into his shirt so I won't have to look at him. "I don't know," my voice comes out sounding muffled against the fabric. "How can I explain to you something even I don't understand? It's just a feeling. I feel like I'm different, no matter what I say or do. I just don't belong."
"Doesn't being a part of two cultures," he says, "mean that you belong in more places? There are more things that are yours, more cultures you belong to."
"No, that's not true." My lips are clumsy. It's hard to articulate this mess of feelings within me. "That's not the way it works. People always think I get the best of both worlds. But I don't. I'm always having to choose between the two of them, but no matter which I choose, I am still not fully a part of that culture. I'm still not enough."
"Why do you have to be one or the other? Why can't you be both at the same time? You are both."
"Because..." How do I explain this to someone who has never needed to struggle between two entirely opposing identities? How do I explain this to someone who has known, from birth, exactly where his place in the world is? "People like to categorise things, and other people. You either fit into this box, or you fit into another one. Even when you're both, people still want to try to fit you in a box that they understand. Are you more Asian or more European? It's human nature. And when they see me, they slot me into that 'Asian' box. They don't see the European part of me."
"But why," and he is really confused when he asks this, "why do you let other people have such great power over you? Who cares what they think, what box they try to fit you in? How does that matter, as long as you know who you are, yourself?"
He is so self-assured. So confident about who he is. This comes with growing up as part of the majority, I think. As fully European. As someone whose inner self matches his outer appearance. It's different for him. He will never experience the sinking feeling that is twin brother to the knowledge that someone you've just met is doubting your identity. Doubting your right to be here.
"But I don't know who I am myself," I whisper, looking down, away from his probing gaze. "That's the whole point. I don't know who I am, and I'm still trying to find out."
Aksel sighs. He wraps his arms more securely around me, kissing me lightly on the temple. "Okay," he says. "It's something you have to figure out on your own. I get that. I just wish you wouldn't downplay your connections to one culture to fit in better with another. You're both. You should be proud of them both."
I bite my lip. I don't try to deny it. It's only obvious how much I try to be more German, just so people wouldn't see me as only Asian. "If I looked more European, I would probably be fighting to be recognised as Asian, too," I say honestly. "Maybe that just shows a chronic inability to be happy with who I am."
"I think," he says, "that means that, in your own way, you're proud to be both."
I don't refute him, but I'm sure he is wrong.
Of course, I would like to think of myself as being proud of both my cultures, but the truth is... I'm not sure I know what it is to be proud of who I am. What is there to be proud of, anyway? I'm nothing special. And both my cultures – I call them mine, but neither one really belongs to me. I am stuck in limbo, in between. On the outside, looking in.
How do I feel proud of something I am not even a real part of?
It is only slightly less awkward, I discover, when Aksel is around to introduce his friends to me. On Sunday, the day after we visit Sibelius Park – Lumi was right, it was beautiful, and the monument had been intriguing to look at – I meet the group of Aksel's closest friends.
Finns don't have very large social circles, Aksel has told me. Since it's not the norm to interact much with strangers in daily life, Finns tend to stick to the people they already know – from school, work, or friends of friends. And for Aksel, his main group of friends now are from his university days. He has told me that, ironically, they weren't very close when they had still been at uni. Aksel had known only Janne from his classes. After graduation, they had run into each other in Helsinki quite by chance and gotten around to talking. Janne had told Aksel about a couple of others who had also moved here from Oulu. They'd all met up for a drink, and that had been that.
My first impression of them is that they're all tall and very typically Finn. I'm even starting to wonder if there are any Finns around that are not blue-eyed. Even though Helsinki, being the capital city, has quite a diverse population, it still seems to me that most of the people here – those of Finnish heritage, at least – fit this light-haired, blue-eyed stereotype.
Though Aksel's friends may all look typically Finnish, they have greatly differing personalities. Other than Lumi and Janne, there are two others: Aliisa and Matias. While Matias falls more into the reserved category that Finns tend to be known for, Aliisa is the complete opposite of every stereotype I've heard about the Finns.
Her first question, upon laying eyes on me, is, "So are you German or are you Asian?"
"Aliisa!" Lumi chides.
Aliisa is still looking expectantly at me, so I answer her. "I'm both."
"Aha." Her eyes run over my features unabashedly. She is scrutinising me, and being completely unselfconscious about it. "Well, you look more Asian. Kind of Chinese?"
That assessment is nothing new, but I am more than slightly annoyed. "I'm from Germany. I'm German." And even the Asian part of me isn't exactly Chinese – it's Singaporean. The majority of Singaporeans may have Chinese ancestry, but calling them Chinese would be like calling Americans Europeans. There is a huge difference.
She shrugs, like she doesn't care. And I suppose she doesn't – it's not like my identity matters much to her personally. "If you say so."
I dislike Aliisa within five minutes of having met her.
As I descend into a sullen silence, Aksel shakes his head. "Be nice, Liisa."
Aliisa tosses her hair. "I am being nice. I'm making small talk."
Janne raises his eyebrows at her. "Are you a real Finn? What is this 'making small talk'?"
Aliisa rolls her eyes. "You are the reason people think Finns are stupid."
"You need some lessons in appropriate topics for small talk," Janne counters.
"What's inappropriate about asking about someone's nationality?" Aliisa challenges.
"Aliisa," Lumi repeats, sounding exasperated this time.
Aksel cracks a smile. He pulls me into his side, slinging a casual arm around my shoulders. "Look, don't bug her about it. She's from Germany."
They are all obviously very close. And watching the way Aksel acts around them, I can see that it's very different from what I saw in Edinburgh, or the way he is when it's just the two of us, or when he meets my friends in Hamburg. This is a side to Aksel that I've never seen.
But even after Aksel speaks up, Aliisa isn't done. "Yeah? Aren't Germans supposed to be loud, beer-guzzling, and obnoxious? She's quiet as a mouse."
I want to say something scathing about Finnish stereotypes, but I bite my tongue. I am in Finland. I am surrounded by Finns. Aksel, the guy I live with, the guy with the steady weight of his arm around me, giving me wordless support, is a Finn. I can't retaliate. I don't want to offend all his friends in one fell swoop. And, most of all, I don't want to hurt Aksel.
So I swallow my indignance and simply shrug. "Must be the demure Asian blood in me," I say, a little sarcastically. "Dilutes all that beer-guzzling Germanness."
Aliisa looks vaguely impressed. "Not that mouse-like, I see," she revises her opinion of me. And suddenly, I get the feeling that her belligerence may have been a test of some sort.
I have no idea if I've passed the test.
"Aliisa," Lumi sighs for the third time.
"Aren't Finns supposed to be tongue-tied around strangers?" Janne asks, in a startling show of support. Or maybe he just likes riling Aliisa up. He seems to enjoy contradicting everything she says. "You're talking way too much."
"I can't help it if I'm gregarious," Aliisa declares.
I wonder, privately, if she really knows what the word means. And then I feel petty for thinking such a mean thought. All of them – even Aliisa – are speaking in English for my sake. They're very, very good at English, but it is always easier to speak in your native tongue when with close friends. They're going out of their way to make me feel included. I should be grateful for that.
"Enough," says Matias, speaking up for the first time. I notice that, when he speaks, everyone stops to listen. Maybe it's true, what they say – the quieter you are usually, the more attention people pay you when you finally decide to speak. It was true of Aksel in Edinburgh, too. "Let's go. It's cold and I'm hungry."
"Where are we going?" Janne asks. For some reason, everyone swivels their head to look at me. As usual, my neck begins to freeze up under so much scrutiny. My left hand, instinctively, creeps up and latches onto the back of Aksel's shirt. He must've felt the tug of my hand, because his arm tightens around my shoulder.
"We've mostly been having Finnish food lately," he says, looking briefly down at me. "Maybe something else?"
"Why don't you choose, Emilie?" Lumi says to me. She means well, but I hate making decisions like this. Especially when there are so many people around. It's not that easy to find a solution that everyone will be happy with.
"I don't know... Where is there to go around here?" I ask uncomfortably.
"There's a Mexican place just around the corner," Janne says.
"There's Ekkon's, too," Aliisa adds.
"But that's Finnish food, isn't it?" Janne points out. "I thought we were looking for alternatives?"
Aliisa makes a face. "Ekkon's is still the best restaurant around here, though."
"Finnish food is fine," I say quickly, before it drags out into an argument.
"Or," Lumi suggests, "I know this great sushi place, too, if you'd prefer that."
"No, we don't have to. Sushi isn't really my thing." I try to shrug nonchalantly. "I hate rice. I don't really like these Asian things."
Everyone, even Aliisa, looks gobsmacked by my little announcement. I try not to bite my lip or shift into a defensive posture.
Lumi speaks up finally, "Well... What kind of food you prefer then?"
"Meat," I say, over-loudly, "and potatoes... Beer."
"Well, well, well," Aliisa says, looking curiously at me. "I guess you are German, after all."
"Beer," Aksel repeats in a curiously flat voice. I refuse to look at him. I can guess, well enough, the look on his face – the same expression that he gets every time he sees me drinking.
"Ekkon's, then?" Lumi looks around to gauge the others' reactions. Nobody objects, so she shrugs and declares, "All right, then, Ekkon's it is."
"All right," Aliisa says, striding ahead, "I want stew!"
The others walk on ahead and I make to follow, stepping out from under the arm Aksel has around me. But he catches me by the waist and lowers his head to speak in my ear. "What are you doing?" he asks. "You love sushi."
I pull away from him, eyes downcast.
Aksel grabs my hand from behind as I try to walk away from him. "Emilie?"
I try to tug my hand out of his, but he is holding on too tightly. "We have to go," I say, still not looking at him.
"We'll catch up with them."
"They'll be wondering where we are–"
"Emilie," he murmurs, cutting me off. That's not fair. He knows I can't resist if he says my name like that, like it's barely separated from the breath he exhales.
I finally turn to look at him. His eyes are lighter than the colour of the sky today.
"Potatoes?" he asks. "Because it makes you feel more German?"
I smile wryly. He always sees right through me.
"No," I correct him nonetheless. "The potato isn't the most popular vegetable in Germany anymore, you know? It's the tomato now." I hesitate, wondering if I should say this next bit. "But, well... The potato is still the most popular vegetable for Germans living abroad."
Odd. Maybe all the other Germans living abroad had felt the need to hold onto their identity through the stereotypes as well.
Aksel is silent for a moment. "So you feel like you need to conform to the stereotype?"
"I like potatoes," I defend myself. "It has nothing to do with stereotypes."
"Emilie..." His voice is almost a sigh. I can almost hear him thinking the question he doesn't voice: Why do you always do this?
"I'm German, too," I mutter.
"Nobody thinks you're not."
I shake my head, pressing my lips together.
Aksel, as always, seems to know where my mind has gone. "She doesn't mean anything by it. It's just the way she is."
"Who?" I pretend not to know what he is talking about.
But his eyes are knowing. "Aliisa. What she said bothers you, doesn't it? But she doesn't mean it. She just doesn't think before she speaks."
I bite my lip and don't answer.
Aksel is still watching me. For a moment I think he's either going to say more or let go of me and walk ahead. But then he sighs and entwines his fingers more securely with mine. He dips his head down to speak softly near my ear. "Hey, if potatoes and beer can make you feel more yourself here... Why not?"
He starts walking again, stopping to look back when I don't immediately follow. He doesn't rush me; just stands there, our hands still linked in between our bodies, waiting patiently for me.
I squeeze his hand, my throat full of emotions that I can't voice. This man... He may not always understand my actions, but he understands me. And no matter how ridiculous he sometimes finds it, he always gives me just what I need.
As I start walking again, the words tumble out of me, unbidden. "I love you."
My voice is in a whisper, but he hears me. I feel him squeeze my hand, and hear the smile in his voice when he whispers back, "I love you, too."
A/N: Sorry, here's another short note. I've actually been coming back to rewrite bits of it last year and this year, so there are new scenes (and some old ones are removed) in the story overall. Even in this chapter, there were new bits. I'm also going to take some of the old feedback into account and edit as I go along, so hopefully it will be easier to read this time round.
Anyway, thanks for reading! Please review! It warms my heart. :P