Friday, October 23, 2009

Not From Round Here, Are Ya?

As a Black American the very first time I truly noticed I was different was probably around the 3rd or 4th grade. From pre-school through the 2nd grade I was the only Black child in my classes but kids at that age typically don't notice such things; they tend to have more important matters on their mind like popsicles and recess. The world around me began to take on color in a deeper understanding right around my 9th birthday.

One weekend I found myself part of a tour group to the Black Forest in Germany which included a stop in the ancient walled university city of Tubingen. I'm walking around like a typical tourist, gazing upwards instead of ahead of me, staring at the high walls and battlements, all the while wondering in amazement how our tour bus managed to fit on some of the streets in this town. When I finally looked down towards a normal eye-level view for a nine-year old I discovered all manner of local people staring at me.

In the early 1970s the Black Forest in what was then West Germany was the equivalent of West Virginia in the United States: hard working backwoodsmen not aware of or concerned with the outside world. The war skipped over this large tract of southwestern Germany because there was no industry here, concentrating on Stuttgart instead, a major industrial city and the gateway to the region. In the post-war years some tourists came and went for the intricate cuckoo clocks made there but not in large numbers or from particularly diversified backgrounds. It was the very first time my mother explained to me that some of them had never seen Black people before.

White Americans traveling to Finland for the first time won't necessarily stand out until their American English tells the story for them. How many Black Americans can say they have traveled above the Arctic Circle in Lapland, pictured here during the Midnight sun, or at least are interested in going? I've heard and read much about the ritual of a Finnish sauna with birch saplings and reindeer steaks in the dead of winter and am curious about experiencing it for myself. Maybe the good people of Helsinki have seen a person of color visiting their home town but I'm not so sure the citizens of Rovaniemi would be able to say the same.

Those types of cultural extremes, of course, aren't necessary. I've often said that simply being Black does not mean I wouldn't stand out just as much in a predominantly Black neighborhood even in the United States much less a foreign country. Most likely and at a minimum my manner of dress will be different from that of a native of Bahia, Brazil and that's before my lack of Portuguese skills gives me away completely. I'm also willing to bet that my complexion would be different enough from someone in Central or Southern Africa to indicate my being "not from around here."

Absolutely none of these differences should matter to the curious soul on foreign shores. If there is the will and the means then by all means go with the expectation that no matter the weather the welcome itself will be warm and the culture kind. Bring your best and don't worry about the rest.

Finnair runs three flights a day from Helsinki to Rovaniemi so maybe I'll bring a bottle of Texas mesquite barbecue sauce to go with that reindeer grille!

Gotta go!

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