By Jennifer Von Ohlen
COKATO, MN When choosing a vacation destination, some people select a place with which they have no connection; a change to truly get away from their daily life. Other folks like to mix education with their relaxation and select a region with which they have heritage, maybe learn a language, or check off bucketlist items such as “going in the sauna naked and not getting yelled at.”
Steven Solkela, 21, of Palo, near Virginia, and accordion and opera performer in this year’s Cokato Corn Carnival parade, was a member of the latter group of travelers when he embarked on a 10-day vacation in Finland over the summer.
Even though he is considered a “full-blooded Finn” by American standards, Solkela compared his reception by the natives to a firework being set off in a classroom of napping kindergartners.
“I have no similarities with those people, other than that we can speak Finnish,” Solkela commented. “I was expecting people to be afraid of me, and I was right.”
Solkela credits the Finnish People’s extremely quiet nature as being the biggest culture shock he experienced on the trip, and why it was difficult getting the locals to talk to him.
“The most basic joke is hilarious [in Finland], because people hardly talk in public,” he explained.
“The most minuscule compliment to a woman is overly appreciated and ‘framed’ so-to-speak,” he continued. “Men are so awkward at talking to women, I noticed, whereas here in America, it’s a cage match to the death between fellas trying to impress a girl. I tried teaching my friends my age there how to be confident when talking to a girl they liked.”
While he may have had a few tips, Solkela admitted he doesn’t know everything there is to know about impressing a Finnish woman, as he noted in one of his journal entries:
“I thought it would be funny to go to McDonald’s and surprise the locals on my appalling American gorging abilities . . . The gorgeous blonde cashier girl looked at me with death in her eyes as I ordered enough food to drop a bull elephant . . . (Noted, Finnish girls are not impressed by stomach capacity).”
Despite his having to “crowbar people’s mouths open,” Solkela said he developed quality friendships while in Finland in addition to the native friends he was visiting during his stay.
One of the ways Solkela was able to get the locals more comfortable around him was through music.
Currently studying music at Rowan University in Glassboror, NJ specializing in opera singing and playing about 18 musical instruments Solkela said he would always resort to saying “Joo Olen Ooppera Laulaja” (I’m an opera singer) whenever he was nervous about what to say.
“Then, I’d end up feeling like a superstar singing in Finnish to them,” Solkela stated, adding that he had expected to share his musical talents while abroad.
“Universally, music breaks people out of their shells,” he explained.
Of all his experiences, Solkela listed his top favorite as once finding an accordion and having a few impromptu performances with the locals.
“I was backed up by a band for a small show, jammed in a garage with Finnish strangers, and sang with a violinist at the Sibelius Monument,” he said.
In addition to making music, some of Solkela’s top memories from Finland include doing farmwork and hauling brick, taking midnight selfies in natural daylight (the sun can set well after 12 a.m. in Finland, during the summer months), speaking Finnish with “real Finns” (versus Finn-Americans), and eating poropannukakku (reindeer pancakes).
While he may have enjoyed some specific highlights, Solkela said it was the combination of everything, he explained, that makes him think “even higher” of the nation of Finland.
“They have an amazing country with beautiful people and an amazing culture,” he stated. “I made a lot of friends and memories, and I can’t wait to go back someday!”