It is 17 years since I moved to Belgium from Finland. Belgium is where I grew up, where I became an adult. It is the land of first kisses, the end of school, studies, my first job. Finland is the dreamscape of long ago childhood days, seen through the rosy spectacles of time. I have lived in Brussels for more than half my life. I have forgotten my languages, my geography; lost friends and ties to the world of my childhood. But still, I feel much more Finnish than Belgian.
Ironically, my Finnish identity has only grown stronger in the years I have been away. Perhaps the old saying Absence makes the heart grow fonder holds true also for places. Our consciousness is partial to positive memories, while the bad ones get coated in a layer of dust, until they are but faded shadows with no emotional investment. I have forgotten the endless darkness of the Nordic winter, and remember only the snow and lights of Christmas. I have forgotten how far you have to travel to make it south, and remember only how close are the lakes and summer cottages.
When I first moved to Belgium, in 1996, I was happy to be moving, and for a few years I did not miss Finland all that much. I thought the small buildings lining the Brussels streets were quaint and exotic. I was excited about baguettes and croissants. I met people from many countries and did not much care that there were few trees around. But as years went by I began realizing that Belgium did not have rye bread or oat bread. There was no pulla or munkki, and pastries were different. The salami was different too and there was no sauna cured ham. The winding streets with small mismatched buildings began looking messy in contrast with the clean straight lines of Helsinki. I missed cold snowy winters and bright summer days by the sea. I missed the lazy holidays at the summer-house and picking mushrooms and berries in the autumn. I began longing for nature that was more authentic than the organised nature of Forêt de Soignes. Nature with fewer signs telling you what is and is not allowed. Perhaps another saying applies as well: The grass is always greener on the other side…
This is not to say that I do not appreciate what Brussels has to offer. I currently work in an office with about 30 people and 15 nationalities. In Brussels you are never far from any type of restaurant, be it Italian, Thai or tapas. Belgium is a small country with borders to the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg and France. Amsterdam or Paris this week-end? Or perhaps 2 hours by train to London? And let’s not forget about the fries, chocolate and beer (for those who enjoy it). But one does not easily acquire a Belgian identity. Even most Belgians do not feel themselves to be Belgian, but identify with one of the two language groups. And in Brussels Belgians seem few and far between, hidden behind the crowds of expats that are everywhere.
So when people wonder why I have not applied for Belgian nationality, the answer is: because I do not feel Belgian. Perhaps one does not need to identify with a nationality to become a member of it, but unless I am given a good reason to become Belgian, I will remain a Finn.
And as a good Finn it is about time I visit my home country again. So tonight, after a break of two years, I will fly to Finland for a two-week holiday. Since travelling with a German Shepherd and a boyfriend prone to pneumothoraxes is not practical I will leave them behind this time. What I will also leave behind is my daily connection to the internet, so don’t worry if you do not hear from me for a while. I will be enjoying the clean air and the trees and lakes of my childhood home.