Last week, I went to a really nice place. I went to Scandinavia.

More specifically, I went to beautiful country of Finland for too short a time — two days and two nights — as part of a video project I’m producing. In short, it was the farthest I’d ever gone from my native California, and the signs of it were everywhere. This place was green in late June. It had street names like Pohjoinen Makasinkiinitu and Kaisaniemenkatu. I got lost, and loved it. The sky was blue at 11 p.m. The brunettes had blond roots. I felt like I was perhaps the only person in the greater Helsinki metropolitan area with Mexican-American blood. It was a pretty special feeling.

My time in Helsinki, followed by two days in London, also presented a chance to learn a little more about myself. Some things I learned:

I only speak English — One would think I had realized this much earlier in life. But it wasn’t until Helsinki that I realized just how pathetic my monolingualism is. Maybe I was fooling myself. Maybe I was thinking my two years of high-school Spanish made me something more than I was — a simple man who can’t pronounce “Vuorimiehentie” to save his life.

I smile a lot — Of course, people over the years have told me I smile a lot. My mom says I was a big smiler right from the beginning. I guess I can’t help it. And hell, what’s wrong with smiling? … Well, apparently, in Europe, my level of sidewalk/bar/restaurant smiling is just plain weird. On one occasion, a Finnish man gave me the international sign for “cut it” — wagging his flat hand at the base of his throat — as I smiled at him with an open mouth. … I never was able to cut off the smiling.

People don’t like Americans — Now, I have known this, too. But again, there’s nothing like experiencing it firsthand to truly understand what it really means. And what does it really mean? People don’t like us. They don’t like our over-smiling, they don’t like our brash confidence, they don’t care for our down-home ways, and they don’t like our politics (I kept telling everyone I’m for Obama). Of course, not everyone felt this way (case in point, the Finns), but I got the message loud and clear in London.

So now I’m back, and I have to admit I’m smiling like there’s no tomorrow. And I’m doing it with a new appreciation for all the great things that make us, as Americans, so unique. I’m also smiling with the realization that, at the rapidly ripening age of 41, I’m still such a babe in so many respects, with so much more to learn about myself and my country. Looking forward to it.