Long before the emergence of social distancing as a concept, Finns joked about their exceptional need for personal space. Here in Helsinki, the weather compels you to be inside the house most of the year, save an occasional febrile jog in the snow. There are pictures of people in line at the bus stop, perfectly complying with the new policies, but taken ten years ago. In Finnish, vieras, or “guest,” is also the word for “stranger.”
I remember pictures of Utö, the southernmost Finnish island in the Baltic Sea. The lighthouse with its windows aglow, the woody foliage mirrored in the wavelets. I have never been, mostly because as a Mexican, living in a sparsely populated land away from most things I know, more isolation doesn’t do it for me. But going to Utö isn’t even in the cards now. The borders of Uusimaa, the metropolitan area of Helsinki, have been closed to prevent virus carriers from infiltrating the rural communities to which, it is imagined, they might flee.
Keeping an eye on Mexico via social media, I’ve seen dozens of police raids of quarantine-breaking gatherings. One article reported 680 house parties in just one night. My mother vowed to continue going to church for “spiritual nourishment” but eventually walked it back. Many American-owned factories in my hometown on the border refused to halt operations, only to be shut down after COVID-19 breakouts killed several workers.
I once ate fried lamprey at a stand run by fishermen from Åland, the closest I’ve been to the Finnish isles. My friend Ben told me fried lamprey is shit and we should do a culinary tour of the inland when this is all over. As we walk around, and Ben shows me the immaculate, sober churches of Töölö and Eira, our footsteps fill the otherwise deserted streets. Back home that night, my partner teases me in Spanish, annoyed that I don’t give her country enough credit but also trying to relieve the unease mounting inside me. “Better get used to it, honey. No more drinking in bars, no more kissing everybody on the cheek. Just Finland. Finland everywhere you turn.”
Published on May 4, 2020