All the Lightness as they Rotate Towards Winter: Chad Salmela and the Family in Finland

FOMO: Fear of missing out. FOMO through the lens of envy is probably not the way to thrive. FOMO through the lens of seizing the day, on the other hand, has a lovely ring to it.

Chad Salmela: biathlete, skier, running coach, forever linked with “HERE COMES DIGGINS”, husband, and parent. He is also the lone member of his family of four without a Finnish passport, although he has Finnish ancestry. His wife, Mimmu, hails from Finland, son Taavi (11), and daughter Iita (9) are all Finnish citizens. Prior to this year, Salmela said on a recent call from Finland, they had visited his in-laws for roughly three weeks each summer. Time. But not enough time.

Then COVID. No in-person school last spring. Online learning to begin the school year in Duluth, Minnesota, Salmela’s hometown. With collegiate sports canceled in the spring, Salmela’s coaching position as a running coach at The College of St. Scholastica became hands-off in the extreme. Speaking of time, now the family had more of it. The family began to embrace the seize-the-day kind of FOMO.

In July, they jetted off for what they thought would be a semi-extended stay in Finland. With schedules in flux, the prospect of extending their stay beyond a month remained in play. Salmela admitted they prepared their home in Duluth to be rented just in case the pull towards Finland, during what has already been the mother of all disruptive years, was too great. 

The pull was too great. 

Biking in Finland: Taavi and Iita Salmela. (Photo: Chad Salmela)

Finland’s schools are open for in-person learning. A huge plus to any child craving a social life away from caregivers. And the Salmela children, although emerging Finnish speakers, have been exposed to the language since they were infants. Although this was their second language, communicating verbally in Finnish remained within their grasp. Add to the mix a set of grandparents keen on spending time with grandchildren and you can see how the scales were tipped.  

Mimmu left her job this past spring, and Salmela worked out plans to coach remotely until at least early winter.  

I had to talk to my employer and my boss about it and they have had a lot of understanding about this,” Salmela said from Finland. “I think my wife and my own ability to probably withstand it is one thing, but if you can get your kids to a place to go to a school, where they can go to school without masks on, and it is friendly, and they are learning and they interacting with kids, and playing their sports, that is huge. That is huge any way you slice it. That alone is worth any pain and suffering and stress that my wife and I had had to handle.”

As graceful as living life in a foreign country sounds, the realities are rawer. There’s the possibility Chad has placed his coaching job in jeopardy. He had to think about the running program, and how he could effectively recruit from abroad. Then there’s leaving friends and neighbors. All practical considerations. Salmela is also one of the voices for NBC Sports cross-country and biathlon coverage. Initially, he was unsure if he would return to Stamford, Connecticut where NBC Sports’ studios are located, or if he could broadcast remotely from Finland. (For now, it appears Salmela will broadcast remotely from Finland.)

According to Salmela, returning back to Duluth after four weeks in Finland was always an option. “We had a month while we were here to pull the trigger on this fully,” Salmela said. “In that month it just became clearer and clearer. I think I wrote in my blog, the third base coach is waving you home.”

Fourth Generation First World Immigrant – Musings on culture, lifestyle, and sport, from a Finnish-American living in Finland, the name of Salmela’s blog, is his contribution to our Covid-19 isolation. The blog is many things: pithy, earthy, sharp-eyed. If you have the good fortune of pulling the plug and relocating a family, this blog might convince you it’s the right thing to do. It makes you realize how adaptable kids are. The blog provides a glimpse into Salmela’s life as he pens a near real-time memoir. It’s a welcome escape.

There’s his earnest entry written on Sept. 26 titled “Into The Darkness”. Salmela and his clan know what’s coming. He writes that on their first day in Finland, July 20, the sun rose at 4:22 a.m. and set at 10:22 p.m. Sunsets that far north in latitude linger. The murky dusk fades over hours into an inky black.

It is Finland. Relatively close to the arctic circle – darkness comes. 

Here are some words from Salmela describing the phenomena.  

“The first I actually thought about it for us this winter was at the end of August. We were still having nice days, but temps started to dip more regularly, and we were consistently twenty degrees cooler than Duluth. Duluth has since started to catch up, but I realized the time frame between the solstice and the equinox are exactly the same everywhere. Up here, the change is more drastic though. Not so drastic that you wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, what gives on this fall-back crap?!’ The change here is hard enough that they don’t need a day each year to mess with a savings of or returning of daylight. It happens quickly enough on its own. Just since September 1 the day has 2 hours and twenty minutes less daylight, and that’s just a running start to what October and November are going to bring us—longer and longer stretches of inescapable darkness.”

Salmela, in his blog, does not dwell on impending doom, as the loss of daylight might suggest. He dives into the quotidian. Things like bathroom squeegees, the loveliness of Finland’s trails, the virtues of rye bread, and life as a wanderer when you’re a kid from the Iron Range of Minnesota. 

A path leading to the Gulf of Bothnia, near the traditional Salmela farm in Finland. (Photo: Chad Salmela)

Salmela, Mimmu, Taavi, and Iita are settled in Jyväskylä, where the kids attend school, and life rolls on. Speaking to Salmela, I found him, not so unexpectedly, vibrant. After all, he and his wife had executed something that they had discussed for years – an opportunity for their children to break away from much of what they have known. 

“You cannot help but have a sense of pride as a parent,” Salmela said. “That you were able to pull this off somehow because it is so good for them. They don’t know how it feels politically or socially in the United States right now, with so much uncertainty. There is a lot of uncertainty here too, but it is not the same level, it is a shade of it. But in their daily lives, they are engaged in communicating in a completely foreign language and they are feeling proud of that. You can tell that they like that their Finnish is getting better.”   

This piece originated with the idea that I would simply check in with Salmela and get some thoughts about the nuts and bolts of swapping time zones and making it work. But the more I read Salmela’s blog, the more I am reminded that each day, despite the head-spinning news cycle, brings tidy positive lessons. For now, we have this window into the Salmela clan’s life. Something wide open as the northern hemisphere rotates towards a frozen ground, snow, and darkness.

It’s clear, Salmela knows what is coming too.  

“It’s easiest to fall for something in its best light. The rates of divorce these days are a testament to that notion. For the most part, Finland for me and my kids has been from its best side—the side that says, ‘I think I want to marry this.’ It’s easy to be happy and love anything when it’s easy and lovely. Not that late fall and winter will be horrible here, but we’re going to get very familiar with it without its makeup on, when it needs to bathe, do its laundry, brush its teeth, comb its hair, and perhaps not be quite as jolly as when times are the best.  We’re going to get ‘more intimate’ with Finland than we’ve ever been. Mimmu hasn’t lived this far north through a winter since 1999. The kids and I never have. Most humans on earth have never done it. It’s probably not that scary, but it is an unknown, and it’s not Finland’s best side. I think addressing that up front is a wise strategy.”