One of My Little Quirks: Obsessions with Other Countries and Cultures

Photo of Stockholm by Jesper Yu via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo of Stockholm by Jesper Yu via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I suppose this is related to my interest in maps and places, but gets a little more specific.

In the 90s and early 2000s, I was obsessed with England. One branch of my family tree came from Yorkshire, and I was very intrigued by the family stories that had been passed down. Every picture and video of England I saw made me long to visit.

I watched every British show that aired on the channels I got, including silly things like Coronation Street, read lots of books set in England, and soaked up all the information I could. Then I married an Englishman who provided me with the opportunity to actually visit England, and who is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

Unfortunately, a certain person I met through him who shall remain nameless is one of the worst.

This person has not been very nice to me, and I got over my obsession with England pretty quickly once I got to know this person. For various reasons, I can’t think of England without this person coming to mind, which kind of ruins it for me. I realize I’m not being fair and that it’s ridiculous to allow one person to colour my feelings about an entire country (and there are certainly many fellow Canadians who haven’t been nice to me!), but no matter how much I try to use logic to think my way out of them, my feelings are what they are. I’m sorry, English readers. I’m sorry, husband. I’m a jerk. For what it’s worth though, I don’t dislike England (I still watch British TV, now using the website FilmOn), I’m just not obsessed with it like I used to be

There are other things that have contributed to this, like when I had the opportunity to visit the places mentioned in the family stories, only to find out that some of these stories cannot possibly be true. In fact, I made a big giant ass out of myself talking to people there. I can hardly bear to think about it.

And there was this moment where my husband and I were walking along in the Northumberland countryside in exactly the kind of landscape I had seen in travel videos and subsequently envisioned in my fantasies, and I realized that, as strange as it may sound, it had felt more real to me when I was fantasizing about it. When I was there in person, it’s like my awkward, sensory defensive body was a barrier between me and my beautiful surroundings, but when I was fantasizing about it, my mind was roaming freely, seemingly at one with the place.

Meanwhile, as my obsession with England waned, my obsession with the Nordic countries took hold.

A much larger chunk of my ancestry is Finnish, with a dash of Swedish mixed in too. My Finnish ancestry comes from my dad. My mom always thought Finns were weird though. She was far more involved in my upbringing than he was, and she did not encourage me to learn anything about that aspect of my heritage. Since I’ve been an adult, however, I’ve realized that many of my personality traits are typical Finnish traits, and I was interested to read the following in Benjamin Wallace’s article Autism Spectrum: Are You On It? in New York Magazine“In his zeal to present autism in a positive light, [behavioral economist Tyler] Cowen… [comes] very close to diagnosing the entire country of Finland as autistic.”

In fact, my mom always attributed all the things that were odd about me as a child partly to me being an only child, and partly to me being half Finnish. (She mentioned it again when I showed her the list of female Asperger’s traits in the book Aspergirls a few months ago. “It all fits, but I always thought it was because you’re Finnish!” she said.) I can’t help wondering if I wouldn’t feel like such a fish out of water in Finnish culture like I do here in Canada.

But my interest is not limited to the countries of my heritage. I’m intrigued by Norway, Denmark, and Iceland as well. If I could choose to visit any one of them right now, I would pick Norway. The scenery is so beautiful, and much of it reminds me of the part of Canada I grew up in, which I also love and no longer live in. I love the way the Norwegian language sounds, too. At first I thought it sounded like a recording of English played backwards, but after watching a lot of Norwegian TV I developed more of an ear for it and no longer think it sounds that way.

I think what really triggered my full-blown obsession with all things Scandinavian and Nordic was reading Stieg Larrson’s Millennium novels which are set in Sweden, specifically mostly Stockholm. While there’s a lot of nasty stuff going on in the books and I had to only skim certain passages because they were so violent (and I therefore don’t necessarily recommend them to other sensitive souls), I still think they’re the best books I’ve ever read. The culture and places described in them really captured my interest. I read one reader’s review that said she didn’t like one of the novels because of all of the place and street names, which she didn’t recognize, didn’t care about, and thought distracted from the story. It just goes to show how differently people can perceive things, because that is one of the main things I loved about the novels! Due to my love of maps and places, stories that evoke a strong sense of place are the ones I love the most. I look up each place and each street on Google Street View, and imagine the events happening in their settings.

After that, I couldn’t get enough of Nordic books and media, and I can find lots to feed my obsession online. I read all the Nordic fiction I can get my hands on that’s been translated into English. I’ve made playlists of Nordic music. I read Nordic news sites that have English-language content. I watch documentaries about Nordic countries and cultureYouTube videos of driving on Nordic roads, and every movie and TV show I can find from Nordic countries, provided they have English subtitles, although sometimes I’ve even watched ones without subtitles just to soak up the ambiance even without understanding the language. This is one of those things I do that other people find very, very odd.

I have never visited any of the Scandinavian/Nordic countries, and although I long to, I’m a little concerned that visiting might burst my obsessive bubble, like visiting England did. I rather enjoy my obsession and don’t want anything to mess with it. Perhaps it’s just as well that Scandinavia can be very expensive to visit and we can’t afford it anyway. Although if we could, and my bubble were burst, I suppose I’d move on to a new obsession like I did last time.

One of My Little Quirks: Interest in Maps and Places

Manitoba Map

There was a point in time about 20 years ago when it hit me that I was saying a certain phrase on almost a daily basis. People so often thought my behavior, interests and expressed thoughts were odd that I had taken to saying almost apologetically, “Just one of my little quirks, I guess,” by way of some sort of explanation. The truth was, I didn’t know why I was the way I was, or why they were the way they were. When being put into a position where an explanation was in order, this was the only thing I could think of.

When I realized how often I was saying this, I felt ashamed and decided to stop. But instead of then being myself unapologetically, I started learning to hide my “little quirks.”

I will now share one of them here. Because why not.

I have a great interest in other places. I could call it geography, but that word has a negative connotation to me, since I didn’t enjoy geography in school. We’d be given a map of a fictitious place and told to extrapolate from it what would likely be the primary industry of that region. I didn’t give a shit what the primary industry of some nonexistent region was. That was mind-numbingly dull. Outside of an academic environment, however, I did love maps, for some indefinable reason.

My dad was the one who taught me to read maps when I was about 5. My parents were into camping and fishing and road trips, and my dad showed me how to follow our progress on a map, and I loved it. I hated camping and fishing, but maps made these trips so much more fun for me. I suppose it helped that this was a rare personal interaction with my dad, who wasn’t a big fan of kids in general. (We get along great now that I’m an adult and can discuss things like religion, politics, and everything that’s wrong with the world.)

I not only love maps, but I love seeing what other places look like — the scenery, landscapes, and architecture. So in adulthood, the advent of Google Street View was like a dream come true. I actually remember imagining such a thing when I was a kid, thinking, wouldn’t that be great? Oh, how I would have loved it back then! Even now, I spend countless hours virtually touring other places, completely absorbed in the activity, tuned out to my immediate surroundings.

If I hear a place name I’m unfamiliar with, I have to look it up to find out about it. If I don’t have the opportunity to do so right away, it will nag at me until I do. I also love browsing scenic photos on sites like Flickr and 500px, but I feel intensely agitated if there’s no mention of where it was taken. Like, it really, really bothers me to the point where I feel like I could crawl out of my own skin if I can’t find out or figure out the location. I feel kind of unfairly annoyed at the photographer, like “Why would they post this without any information? This is utterly useless.” (Of course, thinking logically, I realize if someone’s only into photography as an art and not into places, they wouldn’t have seen a need to, and that’s okay.) I’ve actually gotten pretty good at guessing locations from the scenery or architecture, especially European ones. I test myself sometimes. I find it fun. Armchair Tourist (which I watch via Roku), where they show you video of a place and then provide a number to look up if you want to know where it is, is a blast for me.

When I was younger, it never really occurred to me that my interest was unusual until things happened that made it obvious. For example, when I was about 19, my dad had given me a decent camera as a gift, and I got the idea that I would take scenic photos, enlarge them, frame them, and give them as gifts. I would have loved to have received such gifts myself, provided the photographs were of adequate quality. But I mentioned my plan to my boyfriend at the time and he looked at me like I was crazy and said, “I don’t get it. Just, like, here’s sunny wherever?” He thought the idea was so bizarre that I ended up feeling incredibly embarrassed that I’d thought such a thing would be acceptable. (My face still gets hot when I remember it.) Another time, I was driving a friend to an unfamiliar location in another country and I asked her to navigate while I drove. She looked at the map I’d given her and said, “Sorry, I can’t make sense of this. I’m not very good with maps.” I was bewildered. It had never occurred to me that an intelligent person like her wouldn’t be able to read a map. (I didn’t actually say anything like that to her, thank goodness.) And then there was the time I realized that the highly intelligent friend I’d met online a decade ago knew nothing about the location of the city I was living in, when I had learned all about her city a long time ago. Other times, I’ve been astonished to hear long-time residents of a city say they don’t know how to get to a neighbouring town or don’t know which direction another major city is from there. I can’t even imagine living somewhere and not at any point having used a map to orientate myself to my surroundings, both local and further afield. As soon as I know I’m moving somewhere it is the first thing I do.

I have learned not to express my interest or my thoughts on this subject to others at all, because I eventually realized that I’m the one who’s odd, not them.

It’s just one of my little quirks, I guess.