The train stops, I step out, the train rolls on again. It’s quiet, surprisingly so. I walk out of the train station and stand there for a bit. Only a couple of cars drive past, and a man walks by, but after they’re gone, I’m the only person there. The parking lot is almost empty even though it’s Saturday afternoon. This is the town of Toijala in Akaa. Browsing the internet, we can find that Akaa is a municipality in The Tampere Region, Western Finland. Our good ol’ Wikipedia tells us that like many towns in Finland today, Akaa was formed in 2007 in the midst of the global financial crisis as the union of Toijala and Viiala. In 2011, Kylmäkoski, another municipality, joined. Toijala has a population of about 8,000. It’s also where I was born and where I lived for almost 20 years, apart from a brief 7-month stay in England – also in a small village – before moving to Helsinki this year.
Toijala is much like any other small town in Finland. As sad as it sounds, it’s hard for me to think of anything particularly positive to say about it; maybe it’s difficult to be objective when it comes to the place you’ve lived in most of your life. It’s got the essentials, and I can understand why a family of four would want to move there to have their children grow up in a relatively safe, quiet environment. Through summer jobs, I have gotten to see the scale of people that fits in a small town like Toijala. There are the grumpy men who pay for their coffee without saying a word, but also the occasional happy, talkative elderly, who stay to talk for another 5 minutes if it’s not busy, and sometimes when it is busy.
I’ve wanted to move to a big city since my early teens. The need to get out arose from curiosity and frustration. I wanted to do things I felt like I wasn’t able to do in a small town, meet new people and see new places. I realize now that the differences between living in a small town and a big city are evident, but the smallness of my world only hit me after I moved out of my hometown. I’m sure many who have lived in a small town for a long time will agree with me on this: living in a small town is boring. There’s not much to do, whereas a big city is more interesting, especially as a student. There’s always a party somewhere, you can start practically any new hobby instead of just going with the few that are offered, and there are always new people to meet.
Now, on a Saturday afternoon, I sit on a tram in Helsinki. There are lots of cars and everyone seems really busy, like always. Ironically, it feels like my life, too, has gotten more hectic in every single way. Again and again, I’m surprised to find how much your surroundings affect you. Every now and then, I consciously try to get out of the rush, the vicious circle, if not physically but mentally. A good way is to do some people watching. You can’t do that in a small town – or at least it’s a lot more difficult. In Helsinki, there are the businesswomen dressed to kill who you can’t help but respect and be slightly intimidated of, the cool hipsters, and the groups of elderly tourists at Senate Square. It’s fascinating to see all the different people from different backgrounds and imagine what their lives are like. In a small town, it’s very likely you see the same faces every day.
When I went to visit my parents in my small hometown for the first time after moving out, I was genuinely surprised to realize the calming effect of silence. When you open the window, it’s quiet. When you walk out the door, it’s quiet. When you walk down the streets, it’s quiet. The air smells fresh and like grass, trees and water, like it’s supposed to smell. It’s refreshing after walking all week in the centre and listening to the noise. I now see nature as even more beautiful and fragile.
It was then that I noticed, for the first time in a long, long time, I was actually enjoying my hometown. Before moving out, I was obviously seeing the world as black and white. At the time, the city life – or my mental image of it – seemed flawless, and I thought I’d never go back to a small town. Walking through the city of Helsinki, I find something to appreciate every day, but I’ve grown from that teenage rebellion to realize that it might just be impossible to find perfection. For now, this is my home, but maybe at some point I’ll go back to a smaller town. Maybe I’ll even switch between the two. I’m lucky I’m free to live wherever.