Nataliya Teramae: The Shell of a Snail

Read the Essay by Nataliya Teramae in Ukrainian.

When you emigrate to a foreign country, you automatically start looking for points of contact with the new environment. What did I know about Finland right after arriving here? Stereotypes such as ‘the land of a thousand lakes, sauna and Joulupukki’ hold a certain charm for the beginner but don’t offer the ground in which to plant roots. Also, the provocative statement ‘the Finnish language is so difficult to learn, because it is absolutely different’, that I heard in the language courses, didn’t encourage. However, I figured out how to go beyond these clichés and I began to search for similarities between Finnish and Ukrainian. The first attempt was childishly funny. 

– Why do these men so often use our word паска (paska)? – I asked my Ukrainian acquaintances that lived in Finland for around a decade.  

– Oooh, – I heard with an all-knowing tone. – It has nothing to do with our traditional Easter cake. Paska – is swearing, it means ‘shit’.

The second attempt was more successful. ‘Sipuli’ was written on the price tag above which the piles of golden onions were rising. ‘Oh my God! This sounds almost like our цибуля (tsybulia)!’, – I got so excited. The greeting ‘Hei’ is like our native vocative Гей! (Hei!). The grammatical form Minulla on becomes more understandable if you make a parallel with the Ukrainian у мене є (u mene ye). In looking for the similarities between our languages, I was rediscovering the feeling of home in this far northern land.     

Your native language is like a snail’s shell that you are always carrying around wherever you go. It’s possible to hide in it when your incomprehensible surroundings make you uncomfortable. Under these circumstances, you borrow a bunch of books in Suomen kirjallisuuden seura library – thanks to FILI translation program – and dive into the Finnish world in Ukrainian: Seitsemän veljestä by Aleksis Kivi, Kuparisydän by Leena Lehtolainen, Ulvova mylläri by Arto Paasilinna, Akvaariorakkautta by Anna-Leena Härkönen and – oh my god! – Jäniksen vuosi known to you from the early 2000s, when back at home in Kyiv, a wise translator recommended to read a unique Finnish writer.  I calm down and leave my shell – this Finnish world is more familiar now. 

My environment in Helsinki is multilingual. This means there are people that speak different languages – the native one, as in ab ovo, and the foreign one(s) used as a necessary step in getting used to new requirements. In my circle as an emigrant in a transition state the native language is mostly Ukrainian. The foreign one is either Finnish, or English. Employed and engaged in the lives of our children who are born here and integrated in this society (schools, extracurricular activities, hobbies), we have less and less space for the Ukrainian language and spend more time with Finnish, English or Swedish. A foreign language becomes the second native. And what about the first native? Being upset, it gradually rakes out the words from the corners of our memory to eventually leave with them for good as a once-loved woman leaves her husband taking her kids along with her. To make it harder, it stows away the reminiscences about words that are impossible to forget because they recall the most important moments in your life. This is how it happens that your family now has another native language. Another native home…        

I gather with my girlfriends to have a bottle of champagne. Oh, what good luck that Finnish women also like this sparkling drink. So, we feel relaxed like Finns and happy like Ukrainians. The first glasses are accompanied with talk of everyday life, kids, partners, work. But as the level of champagne in the bottle lowers, the level of our conversation rises. We switch to more intimate matters. At our age and in our status, it is often about the language.  

– I don’t know how to take kids home next year. There is a dominance of Russian. Being in Kyiv for a month and a half this summer I heard Ukrainian only a couple times at our playground. For a month and a half. This is the capital of Ukraine! Some children couldn’t even understand my Ukrainian-speaking child. And these are the daycare age kids. What language do they speak there? What about later, in the school? 

– Then come to us to the Ivano-Frankivsk region, – my friend from the western part of Ukraine is teasing me. 

– To leave the capital city to search for Ukrainian – what an irony! – I object against fleeing on the grounds of language. 

– But we don’t have such problems, – she answers. I want to start about the schoolchildren that are addicted to Russian-speaking YouTube channels and about the youth that prefers to promote itself in Russian in Insta because they are taught that the audience is bigger there. But my own stuff bothers me and I continue:

– Awkward, isn’t it? I take my kids home to train their Ukrainian, but instead I could turn them into Russian speakers. My Ukrainian-speaking bubble in Kyiv groans that the kindergartens and schools do not neglect Russian because… The list of reasons is obvious. Do I need the home that does not give me a sense of home?

The problem of Russification of the Ukrainians is like a chronic disease. You want to recover completely but can’t. It seems that it’s getting better now, but then – oh, a new wave comes. It continues for hundreds of years. We switch to rhetorical ‘How did Finns manage?’ The parallels are obvious –imperial influences, a colonial past. Finns managed to make Finnish dominant, moving Swedish to the margins. I see how comfortable they feel in their home-shell with their Finnish. TV, newspapers, cinema, bureaucracy and finances – everything speaks Finnish. Finnish as a synonym to home even comes up in my conversation with a young Swedish speaking female Finn: ‘I have moved to Helsinki purposely to get my Finnish to a good level. I come from a town in the western region where everything is in Swedish. However, if I want to achieve something beyond it, then I need Finnish’. I told my girlfriends about this episode. ‘It really makes me angry when some Facebook experts use the example of Finland as a bilingual state’, – the second bottle of champagne is already half empty. Our conversation touches higher spheres, but the vocabulary becomes more brutal. – They don’t understand a shit! Either useful idiots, or latent agents. Where, damn it, have you seen a dominance of Swedish here?!’          

‘Shit, kurva, fuck’, – each of my friends uses a swearword common for her region as an argument to agree. There is no more champagne. But there is still our language – multi-faceted, literary and informal, beautiful and vulgar. Only it can reflect everything we feel. Only with it you feel like a snail in a shell – cozy. At home. 

Nataliya Teramae

Translation: Nataliya Teramae

Nataliya Teramae is a Ukrainian journalist based in Helsinki.

Day of Ukrainian Literature and Language is celebrated on November 9. We publish this essay on our website to honor it. Essay was originally published in the book Sulava – Multilingual Literature of Finland: Compilation (Finnish PEN, 2021). An audio collection of the book will be published later this year.

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