Kapulakieli (bureaucratic language)

Ei auta itku markkinoilla.
Crying doesn’t help at the market fair.

There was a time that I was located in that ubiquitous category of “creative types,” back when it used to refer to tortured artists and queers. In my lifetime, however, the notion of “creativity” has evolved (or been co-opted, depending on your perspective) by more bureaucratic models of operation. As Carina Chocano writes in a recent NY Times piece about the ubiquitous use of the term “rockstar” in the business world, “The term has become shorthand for a virtuosity so exalted it borders on genius — only for some repetitive, detail-oriented task.” By this logic, we can all be rockstars in our own unique ways, though of course these days rockstars, or creatives, are measured by use value.

I may not be “a creative,” but I am creatively organized. I put everything in my calendar and I obsessively make lists–it’s just that sometimes my brain sees things in a way that is different from what is on the page. Sometimes this is not such a big deal, like being late to lunch. (Once I came to a committee meeting a week early–better early than late!) But sometimes this is a very big deal, especially when it involves foreign governments and paperwork.

I’ve certainly lived with bureaucracy my entire life in the United States. Once, when my ex and I moved from Wisconsin to Massachusetts, we fell into a DMV (that’s the Department of Motor Vehicles for non-U.S. readers, and it is a place you do not ever want to have to go) rabbit hole where we couldn’t register our car in Massachusetts because they said we needed the original title back from the Wisconsin DMV, and the Wisconsin DMV wanted to see proof that we had insurance in Massachusetts before they would send the title, but of course we couldn’t get insurance without the title. This went on for months and involved multiple visits to the Boston DMV–which, like all DMVs, is pure abjection–and emails and phone calls to anyone whose contact information I could find, while we made payments on a car that sat in a driveway. It was a real paperisota (paper war, in suomi) and I have no idea how it was resolved. At some point, a magical piece of paper appeared, and everything was suddenly okay, which is usually how bureaucracy works.

If you’ve been following this blog, this is my fifth post, and it is on the subject of my recent encounters with Finnish bureaucracy. I hope it brings a laugh.

As a faithful reader, you may be thinking, oh, the shine has worn off the penny (a favorite Texas idiom from Kumppani). The first four posts were about food and shopping and learning a new language–how delightful! And now the proverbial sh*t has hit the fan, because of the inevitability of bureaucracy. But not entirely, because this post is also about the incredible efficiency of Finnish bureaucracy. Things get done here, and quickly. This post is also dedicated to the amazing staff at the Fulbright Finland office, because I stand in awe of their graceful navigation of systems about which I am still learning.

In the midst of this moment in which we are seeing images both horrific and inspiring of refugees from Syria struggling for their humanity, my little bourgeoisie tragedies seem trite, to put it mildly. Though the point of this blog is to provide levity and insight into the experience of being a Fulbright in Finland, from my perspective, at least, so please read this knowing that I know that my bureaucratic angst exists at the tiny end of the scale, comparatively speaking.

The problem here, primarily, is the way that my brain sees dates on a page, because in the U.S. dates are written like this:


or even

May 3, 2015

My point being that the month comes first.

However, in Finland, and much of the rest of the world, the day comes first, so the date would instead look like this:


For example, an African economist friend tells me that in Ethiopia, there is a separate calendar with roughly seven years difference from the Gregorian calendar.  There are numerous online conversion websites.  This calendar is followed even by the government, except when dealing with governments outside Ethiopia, and everyone just knows when to switch back and forth.

Jokainen taaplaa tyylillään.
Everyone has their own way of doing things.

Operating in two different contexts requires attention to your double awareness, and if you let that go for even a moment, you are bound for trouble.

The first example of this occurred when Kumppani and I missed our bank appointment. If you have not tried to get a bank account in Finland, this will not mean so much to you, but if you have, you will understand that you must first get a bank appointment, and that getting a bank appointment is something like getting a dentist appointment. If you miss it, you will wait to be seen again. So we missed our bank appointment, because we both did the date confusion. Blame it on jetlag. Blame it on too many irons in the fire, or, as the Finnish version of that idiom goes:

Juosten kuustu.
This translates to something like, “peeing while running,” and is the equivalent of doing a half-assed job.  Or, as my parents used to say, “burning the candle at both ends.”

The point is that when we showed up at the bank on the wrong day, getting a new appointment required the woman at the info desk speaking to a supervisor to explain our foolish, foreigner mistake and asking please could we have another appointment a week later.

I need to back up and explain that even getting a bank appointment requires taking a number and waiting. Pretty much everything requires taking a number here. Finland is extremely economical in all things, and one way in which this is accomplished is the number taking system. Everywhere. Like at the drug store, even, you take a number. So you go to the bank and you take a number, and then you wait to be seen by the woman at the info desk, who makes a bank appointment for you (or a second appointment, as the case may be). Then, you come back a week later, and go to the other side of the bank (which we liked to call “the other side of waiting”) and take another number. Then, you get to see the man who will decide your fate, which is whether or not you will be granted a bank account in Finland.

Hitaita ovat herrojen kiireet.
The hastes of the upper class are slow.

Having a bank account is everything. Whereas in the U.S. you would NEVER give out your personal banking information, here you need your bank numbers to do everything from join a gym to buy a reasonably priced bus pass. Don’t leave me a voicemail, by the way, as I have no voicemail to check, because I did not have my bank numbers when I set up my phone so I could only qualify for the very basic disposable SIM card.

The bank account interview was intense. And when I say intense, I mean INTENSE. It included questions like, “Are you political? Is anyone in your family political, or do they hold any political positions?” It was easier for me to go through this interview process, because I will receive my Fulbright funding from the office in Helsinki, whereas Kumppani is on sabbatical, so her salary is paid in the U.S.:

Bank Man: Is it absolutely necessary for you to open a bank account in Finland?
Kumppani: Yes.
Bank Man: Why?

It was like hot real estate bidding war meets secret police interrogation.

Bank man asked me, “How much money do you want to be able to spend from your bank account each day, because we have to set a maximum now. So, one thousand? Five thousand? Ten Thousand?” “Is that the maximum,” I asked? “Oh no,” he said, “ the maximum is much more.” “Um, okay,” I said, “I’ll take five thousand.” He looked at me over the desk: “And do you really think you will have that many bills in Finland?” I shrank: “No. Okay, one thousand.” He agreed.

At this very moment, Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” was playing on the bank’s music system.

Finally, I was approved for an account. “You will be able to see your bank information online,” he told me, “but you will not be able to do any online banking. Maybe after three months we will give you permission to do this. You can come back and apply. But I doubt it.”

And then he said, “And keep practicing your suomi. It is a difficult language, but you can learn it. I moved here from Kosovo ten years ago and practiced everyday.” Then he looked at us intently and said, “Kosovo has a very good relationship with the U.S.,” and he laughed. And so we laughed, because it seemed like the correct response, but I’m not sure if it was a funny ha-ha laugh or an ominous one.

We both left with our own bank accounts. It felt like we had really accomplished something.

The second example of a date confusion involves the very expensive and very difficult to acquire Finnish residency cards I wrote about in my first post.

In order to get our bank accounts we first had to visit the Maistratti to get our “extraction from the Finnish population forms” which is a magic number that means you have officially been counted. During this visit we discovered that the consulate had only granted us permission to stay in the country half of the year, despite the fact that both Kumppani and I have letters inviting us for the entire year. How did we not notice this, you wonder? The backwards dates, again. I read January 9, 2016 as September 1, 2016.


Doesn’t that look like September 1 to you, U.S. reader? “Oh,” I thought, when I first got my card, “how generous, they gave me extra months!”

After this upsetting discovery at the Maistratti, we made a trip to the register/police department, which made me very nervous.

Joka kerran keksitään, sitä aina epäillään.
The one who once is exposed will always be suspected.

Now, not only was I officially in the system, I was also recorded as having made a huge mistake.

We took a number to wait for someone to see us about “foreigner affairs.” They were on lunch break from 12-1 so we queued up with everyone leftover from the morning wait with our numbers, which were called in such an arbitrary order that at one moment in an anxious frenzy, I rushed to the counter because I thought she had called our number, but it turns out she was calling out someone’s name. Learning to count is next on my list.

As we waited, Kumppani remarked, “it’s like the DMV.” “Yes,” I said, “like the DMV but in a language we don’t speak.”

Thank you, universe, for the woman who called our number at the register/police department, because her humor prevented me from having a full-on meltdown right there at the window (that happened after we left the building, as I berated myself walking down the street about my mixed-up date brain). “I once lived in Southern France,” she told us. “I thought I spoke French before that, but the minute I got in the taxi, I realized, ‘I’m screwed.’”

If I had had my Finnish idiom collection with me, I would have told her, Oh, kind lady,

Ei kukaan ole seppä syntyessään.
No one is a blacksmith when they are born.

On the tearful walk home, Kumppani suggested that I should contact the Fulbright office. I was embarrassed, but she said surely they had dealt with things like this before, and of course she was correct. Within TWO DAYS the matter was resolved. It was MAGIC. Better than magic, it was Finnish efficiency at its best, and we are eternally grateful.

A student report card review I received in third grade comes to mind here, when a teacher noted that I was a bright and creative student, but had trouble following directions. Let these be a reminder for my rockstar aspirations:

Kertaus on opintojen äiti.
You learn by repeating things several times.


Hiljaa hyvä tulee.
Doing things slowly leads to good results.

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