Home Away From Home
Freedman’s Ward, Little Italy, Chinatown, and Meyerland—communities in the United States named for the people that live there. You can find these neighborhoods in most major US cities. Move from New York to Los Angeles and it shouldn’t be too difficult to make yourself at home—just find your people. The same situation happens overseas—you just have to make yourself available. In Helsinki, Finland, I found a girl from Dallas, Texas and apartment to crash while I renewed my Russian visa.
The company sponsoring my visa covered my travel and accommodations in Helsinki for one week. Visa processing for Americans takes at least ten business days (thanks Trump). I would have been on my own except I ventured into an African clothing and grocery store and after conversation with the owner, I learned a girl from Dallas lived in Helsinki. What are the odds? Two Texans in this unassuming Nordic country wedged between Russia and Sweden. Freezing cold, white, and for the most part boring and we’re both there.
The recently divorced Dallas native had lived in Finland for over eight years. Fluent in Finnish and Japanese and worked as a nurse. After hitting a couple of bars, several overpriced beers (paying in euros not rubles) and bonding over shared interests in hip-hop and anime she said that I was welcome to stay at her place until my visa was cleared.
I went into the African clothing store because I wanted to get some fresh new gear (wax print, jewelry). Chopped it up with the owner because I hadn’t seen another person in weeks. On that day, I learned there was a thriving community in Helsinki. They have restaurants, at least one club, and the occasional American basketball player hoping his agent calls with an offer from the Brooklyn Nets. The comfort of familiar foods, smells, and language in a strange land grips the soul and anchors the spirit.
What would have been an unremarkable two weeks in a cheap hostel with transient Europeans and dreadlocked backpackers turned into a full on immersive Helsinki experience. I crashed the opening of an exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum—in where I met the former Finnish president Tarja Halonen and integrated myself into one of the Swedish rap exhibits. Peeped the local bar scene and spent a weekend in the suburbs of Helsinki.
All of this was made possible because I linked up with my own kind. In Russia, I had a different sort of success with some guys from Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, thousands of miles away from home, I bet on this community and it paid off in a major way. What started as work-related tasks ended up being an experience.