Sarah and Roy in Finland

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Wednesday, January 7, 2005

First three days

 

Here's my AirBus from Denver to Frankfort. Except for the plane leaving almost 2 hours late from Denver (weather and de-icing), the trip has been easier than I could have hoped for.

My two big bags went directly to Helsinki, so I didn't have to worry about that in Frankfort. Frankfort was big, but straightforward. I'm settled into the Hotel Helka in Helsinki city centre right now. The usual European small room with a single bed, small TV, and triangle shaped ceramic tile bathroom, but unlike the hotel where Sarah and I stayed in Sweden, each appliance in the bathroom has its own control knob. The room has internet connection, but you pay 5 euros for each hour, so I won't use it too much. I'm watching BBC news (the only English channel I can find), and it is pretty good.

The temperature is ok so far, about freezing. The sidewalk and the roads are a bit slippery but no one seems to notice. The dress in Helsinki seems very casual, and people are not overly bundled up. Many people are wearing tennis shoes (wet). I did see someone with lace up boots, and those looked pretty reasonable. I went into a grocery store near the hotel. There was fresh fruit, cheese, sausage, granola etc. The prices were very close to what things are marked in the US, but in Euros rather than dollars (i.e. half gallon of milk is 2 euros), so that means that food is about 30% more expensive. As in England, we will probably get used to it.

Monday, January 9, 2005

First days in Oulu

Jan 9 - Three days and I'm still waking up at 4am on the dot, even taking a sleeping pill. I'm settled in to the flat, which is really nice. Coffee is kahvi, and I found filters and a coffee pot but so far have not produced a good cup of coffee. I may have to switch to tea. You all know what a sacrifice it is to have to drink tea!

Yesterday (Jan 8) was great. Juha (pronounced eeU-Ha) took me for a drive around the city centre especially to see the bus routes and also around his municipality (village) north of where we live. Our area is called Rajakyla (sounds like combining rye with Dracula but roll the r, e.g. Rye-ah-cula). We went to the indoor market that is like the one in Oxford but about a fourth the size. I tried reindeer both cold smoked and warm smoked. Both were quite tasty. Even the fish looked good.

Then we went to a fish market in his village by the sea (frozen over with ice fisherman and snow mobiles) and then to the alpine centre run by the municipality (free). Kids were sledding and adults were cross-country skiing on the courses that are laid out there. There is also a ski jump, but no one was jumping that day. There are sort of covered picnic areas that are enclosed by a low stone+concrete wall with a central fire pit with a chimney and sort of metal funnel to catch the smoke (like Dean Martin's 1970s fireplace). Families gather around the fire area grilling sausages etc.

Then we arrived at Juha's home. Juha's wife is Arja (the j sounds like an i) so I think of it as Aria. We sat in the front room and talked and had a little whiskey. The kids sat there but said little and looked bored; HOWEVER occasionally they would smile or laugh leading me to think that they were actually listening quite closely.

Around 4:30, we all sat down at the table along with one of their nephews. Arja is Karelian (Finns who lived in Russia till WW2, and were forced back into Finland by the war, mainly a farming people). We had Karelian stew, which is essentially pot roast made with onions but with both beef and pork. There were mashed potatoes, a lettuce salad with a sort of creamy Italian dressing on the side, two kinds of bread and a sort of pancake about the size of a computer mouse but thin which I think is called a Karelian pie and is stuffed with something, maybe cheese. There is a butter and boiled egg mixture that you spread on the pancake. Everyone drank different things. Juha and I had red wine, and they put out beer for the older kids, but they drank milk instead. Dessert was a low fat white cheese baked with a thin white sauce (little or no sugar) until it had dark black spots, it was served with lingonberry *natural* and lingonberry jam. They collected the berries at their cabin up north last season, and made jam of some of the berries. But no sauna (they pronounce the sau like sow) this time.

After dinner, we sat in the living room and talked, the kids left, the younger to cross country ski in the back yard and the older to drive around town. The 16 year old stayed to clean the kitchen dishes etc. and watch her younger brother. We then left to go to Kymo's house for coffee and dessert (a dean of students). His wife Anneli made a dessert that consisted of a thin pocket bread cut into 1 inch triangles that were covered with a white paste that seemed to be cream cheese and smoked reindeer (very smoky tasting) with a small sliver of a light yellow cheese and two or three lingon berries. She also had two kinds of pound cakes. Of course we had another taste of whiskey and the women had white wine.
 

Monday, January 10, 2005

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Mastering European Technology??

Well,
I haven't plugged anything into the bathroom socket yet because the socket has a big red warning tag that says "käytto kielletty suihkun ja kylvyn aikana" which the internet translates as "be forbidden spout and kylvyn over". This translation isn't terribly helpful, and actually raises my alarm level a bit.

Of course, you would imagine that a bathroom plug mounted six feet high next to the sink would be for a hair dryer or electric shaver. But who knows. I assumed originally that the warning was a "big brother is taking care of you" type warning like "don't stand in water when you plug something in." But the translation doesn't mention water or standing, so I'm going to wait until someone at work tells me what it means before I plug in the new hair dryer.

OK, I checked with the EDTECH team, it does in fact say "Don't use electric appliances around water".

Ok, now the washer (no dryer, hang drying in the basement) and the dish washer. Both user manuals are in several languages, some helpful, but the base advice I now can give is that unloike US machines, there is a separate off-on button that is not part of the selector dial, who knows why? Also, in both cases, there is a separate manual water shutoff valve that obviously needs to be turned on. Also, it takes about 2 hours to wash a load of clothes, who knows why? Also, washing technology is nothing without detergent and fabric softner. BUT there's the rub. All of the packaging for bleach, detergent, fabric softener, dish washing liquid, etc. in the store all look about the same. No Downy, no Cheer, try Omo. I may have washed the first load with dish washing liquid and used regular detergent in place of fabric softner. trust me that the clothes will be stiff if you do this.

And the DSL. First, the only thing the phone company does fast is send the bill. I received the bill the next day after applying, but it will take a month for the crew to connect the line, even though the flat is already wired for DSL.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Darkness Light and the weather


A question I wondered about before I arrived was, what about the artic winter darkness and cold?

Right now, the sun rises at about 9:30 and sets at about 4:30, and honestly, it hasn't been a problem at all. I did notice that jet lag lasted longer than in my other trips, but that could be as much my "advanced age" as the actual number of time zones crossed.

Here is an interesting view of earth showing day and night at this instance, so you can get a feel of day length.

see: http://www.worldtime.com/

By March, the days should be noticeably longer.

What about the cold?
The weather has been unseasonably warm here, it should be -20C . The first two weeks of January averaged about 0 C (32 F) with no wind, so it felt almost warm. This week, it has been -10 C (14 F) and a little windy, so it felt cold, but again, not uncomfortable so. There are a number of good Oulu weather sites, such as the weather underground, see: http://www.wunderground.com/global/stations/02875.html

The FMI also has a good site, see: http://www.fmi.fi/weather/local.html?kunta=Oulu
here is the current temperature graph for the past 24 hours from FMI. 00 means midnight, 12 is noon, etc.:


 

 

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Sarah's First Impressions

First Impressions

Landed in Helsinki where Roy met me and we spent the night. The next morning we came by train north to Oulu – a 6 hour ride. From the train we saw a “Dr. Zhivago” landscape with broad snow-covered fields and dense pine and birch forests. The small clapboard houses on the farms and in the villages were painted in M&M’s colors of bright reds, yellows, greens, blues and even orange with white trim – a whimsical contrast against the white of the snow!

The temperature took a nose dive our first night in Oulu from 25 to -8F. “Nose hair freezing weather” Roy calls it. But just as quickly, it has risen again to about 25. Inside the house, however, we didn’t notice any change with the temperature drop. We had heard about the very efficient Finnish homes, but now we can attest that there are no cold spots or drafts even near the picture windows. Remarkable! We have hot water heat, and have actually turned the radiators down in all the rooms.

We’ve had snow twice since I came. Snow in Finland is of a different quality – light, dancing as it falls, and then sparkling, so it’s like walking in a field of diamonds. We have about 10 inches on the ground now, but it hasn’t slowed the pace of life at all. The streets are kept clear, and people just bundle up and go on with life. The children all wear one piece snow suits – like snowmobile suits – and are out sledding and skating in all temperatures. Babies have very wooly sheepskin wraps in their carriages and look snug as bugs.

The days are about 6 hours long now, and the time between sunrise and sunset gains more than 4 minutes a day – twice the time gained at Denver’s latitude. Because we are so near the top of the world, and perhaps because of the reflection from the snow, there’s well over an hour of twilight both in the morning and evening, with the kind of half-light that we also experienced here during the summer when the sun only set for about 2 hours.

That half-light produces what the Finns call the “Blue Moment.” Just after sunset, the sky turns a nearly indescribable luminous silvery blue that colors both the sky and the snow. This lasts only about 10 minutes before slowly fading to a silver gray and finally to night.

We thought we would miss the longer days, but we actually look forward to the “Blue Moment” each night to see what Mother Nature will produce for us.
 

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Saturday in Oulu

Hi Everyone,

In this entry, I’ll report on the Saturday we just spent with Juha, the director of distance learning at the university and his wife Arja, a pediatric nurse practitioner. Roy had spent some time with them the first week he was here, but I met them for the first time on Saturday.

Juha and Arja picked us up at about 11, and we set off for the International Ice Swimming Championships held at the marina in the center of town. Teams from Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Great Britain participated. Giant blocks of ice about 5 feet long, 3 feet across, and 2 feet deep had been cut from the bay to lay bare what looked like an actual swimming pool with lanes cordoned off, flags flying, and even grandstands which were filled with parka-wearing, pennant-waving fans.




Arja and I quickly concluded that this was no beauty contest. These guys were clearly built for endurance. No diving under the water is allowed in ice swimming, so in each heat, having abandoned their bathrobes – yes, bathrobes! – on the ice, but leaving on their knit caps, these hearty souls climbed into the water with nary a shiver, the gun went off, and they propelled their way to the other end in various swimming strokes as the event called for. Mercifully, at least for the heats we saw, they only had to swim one lap. Now you’d think that they would have a friend waiting to quickly wrap them in warm clothes, but no! Instead they lingered after their swim, waving and smiling at the crowd in their speedos. I even saw one guy giving an interview to a TV reporter, no robe, barefoot, soaking wet, on the ice in 30 degree weather! Eventually, each group found their robes and slippers, and would head for the wood heated hot tub for a warming soak, and then to grab a hot drink.






While everyone at this event was out for the sport of ice swimming, Arja told us that doctors have found that ice swimming is very good for rheumatoid arthritis, and that some patients plunge into ice cold water 3 or 4 times a day and get a great deal of relief. It has also been found that the icy water turns body fat brown, which is good for the fat… My own fat turned even paler at the very thought of such a plunge, and assured me that it was very happy staying the pasty color it has always been.

After several swimming events, the 4 of us walked across the pedestrian bridge to the Island of Pikisaari, an artist colony near town center filled with colorful old clapboard homes, warehouses, and narrow, winding streets. We stopped for coffee at a warehouse-restaurant built from logs at least a foot in diameter and filled with primitive antique tables and upholstered benches. In the summer, customers sit on a wide outside deck that overlooks the river. We can’t wait to go back there for dinner!



Then another pedestrian bridge took us back for a quick tour of the city library and theater, and then to the Central Market which is very close to the waterfront. This market is a little smaller than the covered market in Oxford, and has a beautiful selection of cheeses, breads, fish, meat, flowers and even some woolen goods and pottery. In the summer, the market spills out onto the adjoining square, although only one vendor was outside on Saturday.




After tasting, shopping, and tasting some more, we came away with salmon for dinner and some cold-smoked reindeer meat, sliced very thin, that is absolutely delicious! More on the reindeer later…



Next stop was on another city island that is under development. Every house on the island must use a different state-of-the-art technology that is underwritten by their various manufacturers. The homes must all be finished by June when there will be a month long open house so people from all over Europe can see the new technologies. The home we visited was being built by friends of Juha and Arja. There were 3 technologies involved in the building that were unique. They were using cement blocks throughout for both inside and outside walls. The outside blocks are super-insulated. The inside blocks are about 30x30 inches wide and only 4 inches deep. After they are set in place using a tongue and groove method, their seams are sealed, and then they are spray plastered. They are using infloor heating combined with a blower circulating system to distribute the air. But the windows were the real prize. They had floor to ceiling double paned windows that had sensors. When it was too sunny, the windows automatically turned darker, and when there was frost or fog on the windows, they automatically defrosted. Amazing!

Last stop was Juha and Arja’s beautiful home, which is set on a lake just outside town. Three of their 4 children were there to greet us (their oldest daughter lives in the city), and we spent the evening talking and laughing together and eating the best salmon I’ve ever had! I took notes as Arja prepared it, and have enclosed the recipe as a Word document with this e-mail. Try it and see what you think. We also had a smoked reindeer mousse served with crackers as an hors d’oeuvre that was superb. (I’m keeping that recipe to spring on you when I get home!) And for dessert, they served ice cream with cloudberries that they had picked last summer and frozen, and a beautiful rolled cake made by 16 year old Katrin. Arja and Juha’s hospitality made us feel like old friends, and we’re looking forward to another visit very soon.

 

Arja’s Salmon
Serves 2 – I cut this down from her family-sized recipe, so if the proportions need tweaking, let me know.

2 servings salmon fillets
¼ cup lemon
juice
salt
lemon pepper
2 T. crumbled blue cheese
¼ cup leeks
1/3
cup sour cream

Preheat oven to 375. Put the salmon on enough foil to wrap up around the sides. Salt salmon well, and sprinkle with lemon juice. Then sprinkle with blue cheese and lemon pepper. Cut thin slices of leeks, separate rings and put on the salmon. Wrap the foil up around the edge of the salmon, but leave open at the top. Bake for 15 minutes. Take out and cover with sour cream. Bake 5-10 minutes longer or until salmon flakes easily.


The rest of our weekend was also highlighted with sporting events. Juha called Sunday to say that the top 2 hockey teams in Finland -- Oulu (the national champions!) and Helsinki -- were playing on Channel 3, so we watched the game in true Finnish style, eating smoked reindeer on buttered slices of a great seedy bread we’ve found here, and drinking Finnish beer. In a nail-biter finish, and after a sudden death overtime and 4 rounds of one-on-one shots on goal, Helsinki finally got the puck past Oulu’s goalie to win 3 to 2. A collective shout of dismay rumbled across Oulu, and we’ve now fallen to second place in the standings. But the season isn’t over yet!...

That was enough of a sports treat for me, but Eagles fan that he is, Roy set the alarm clock for 1 a.m., and got up to watch the Super Bowl covered live but announced in Finnish and without the famous commercials. He said he was a little blurry from fatigue on Monday!

More later,

Sarah

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Holidays & Helsinki

Hi Everyone,

Time for another update, and it’s been a busy week.

We saw the Finnish flags flying last Saturday, and learned that it was a national holiday dedicated to the poet Juhan Runeberg. A pastry called Runeberg's tart, first made by the poet’s wife, is always eaten on this holiday, and special readings of his poetry are held. You can read more about Runeberg and even get a recipe for the tart at http://www.finnguide.fi/calendar/feb.asp.

We celebrated another holiday last Tuesday. Laskiainen formally celebrates Shrove Tuesday, but we prefer to call it “Eat Pea Soup and Go Sledding” Day because children are let out of school to spend the day playing in the snow. Traditionally, pea soup with a dollop of spicy brown mustard and a special pastry called laskiaispulla are served on Laskiainen. Since Finnish kids don’t have “Snow Days” because a foot or 2 of snow is no big deal, I suppose a designated national Snow Day, disguised as Shrove Tuesday, is apropos!

So we could fully experience this holiday, Roy’s group at the university (who are all in their 20s and 30s and not far removed from enjoying this holiday as school children) arranged for all of us to go to a beautiful state park near Oulu to celebrate. First we ate lunch in the lodge, which of course featured pea soup and laskiaispulla. The lodge looked like it belonged in the Rocky Mountains, with pine logs and stuffed wildlife including a troll. Then we all hiked up the hill to sled. Roy and I had borrowed what Roy dubbed “Butt Sleds” – a 12 inch piece of heavy plastic with a handle grip. You sit on the plastic oval, hold onto the handle, and down you go. They proved so efficient that we’re bringing some back for glacier sledding in Colorado.











 





Thursday we headed to Helsinki for a Fulbright orientation meeting. Roy’s sessions didn’t start until Friday, so we went sightseeing in the afternoon.






On our trek, we saw advertisements for what we thought was lation of the title of the production until mid-way through the play when it dawned on me that “Un Cirque Tout Juste” translated (again in a stylized way) to “An OK Circus” which summed up the evening perfectly!

Friday while Roy attended meetings, I went on a quest to find “The Witch’s Drum” at the National Museum of Finland. These Lappish, or Sami, drums were used by shamans before Christianity arrived in Finland in about 1200 A.D. Only a few of the drums still exist, and we learned about them while visiting with Arja (note the spelling correction) and Juha the previous weekend. The face of the drum is covered with symbols, and when a ring is placed on the drum and it is played with an antler beater, the future can be told through the movement of the ring on the drum face.

I have been reading the Kalevala, the epic mythology of Finland, and so along the way to the Witch’s Drum (which is also described in the Kalevala), I loved learning about the early history and beliefs of the Finnish people – that bear claws kept under the pillow would ward off bad dreams and kept in a maiden’s pocket would encourage suitors, and that water poured through “Wind Nests” – the mistletoe we call “Witch’s Broom” – would cure eye ailments. And in a tribute to lawyers everywhere, it was thought that all the snakes in Finland gathered in a single circle in the spring, where a white snake, standing in the middle and wearing a crown, spewed out smooth stones. If early Finns were lucky enough to find one of these stones, their appearance in court (where they had to represent themselves) would go in their favor.

I didn’t get further than the 12th century – approximately one-quarter of the museum’s offerings – but I had a wonderful time! My only nod toward the modern was near the museum café where I had lunch. There they presented a thought-provoking exhibit of newly acquired objects which were quite contemporary. The commentary posted with the exhibit questioned what was appropriate for a national museum to collect, and invited visitors to write down suggestions.

In the late afternoon I went with Roy to the Fulbright Center for a concert by an a cappella group. The director was a doctoral candidate from Yale who had spent his Fulbright year at the Sibeleus Academy in Helsinki. The program was a beautiful collection of Finnish and American songs, and their rendition of “Shenandoah” was the best arrangement I’ve ever heard. Following the concert there was a reception which even the American Ambassador to Finland attended, along with many other high level dignitaries. Very impressive!

For dinner a bunch of Fulbrighters and their spouses went to Garlic, a restaurant guaranteed to make you an olfactory pariah in genteel circles, where we enjoyed smoked salmon topped with lemon mousse and roe, and reindeer shish-ka-bob (and you all know our partiality to reindeer although one of our correspondents pointed out that it would be hard to tell the grandchildren that we ate Donner and Blitzen!) The insights and experiences of the other Fulbrighters who are stationed all over the country were especially interesting. Some had brought teenaged children, and they said the kids were attending Finnish school and having a super time. One of the kids is planning to stay and attend university here in an international business program that enlists well over half its students from foreign countries, so the experience truly prepares graduates for an international career!

The following morning we had a crash course in the Finnish language designed more to assuage any guilt we felt for not attempting the spoken word than for actual instruction. A tour of the Presidential palace was also planned, but Roy and I opted to leave early and enjoy a relaxing train ride back to Oulu so we could attend the National Craft Show held in Oulu on Sunday.

The craft show had a definite Scandinavian style in everything from embroidery to woodwork and emphasized simple forms and great practicality. Because it is so early in the trip we didn’t buy too much, but got several business cards so we could follow up on things we liked. A highlight of the show was meeting Eija Sivonen, a fellow doll maker from Oulu with whom I’ve been exchanging e-mail messages. She is a lovely person, and I’m looking forward to spending more time with her over the next several months. Her soft sculpture dolls have been selected for display by the Bothnia Design Group, a juried national organization, and feature the flowing stylized lines that mark so much Finnish art.


One last entry: our romantic Valentine’s Day dinner. We went to the local pizza place near our flat – think Jack-in-the-Box with a menu in Finnish. We’d been spoiled by Finnish restaurants that cater to English-speaking dummies, so after contemplating a list of 35 combinations and recognizing maybe 3 words, we picked the “Quatro” assuming that it was the Big Four of pizza ingredients – probably sausage, pepperoni, and a couple of others. Well, we were right on one word. It had “Four” ingredients – ham, mushrooms, shrimp, and tunafish. Canned tunafish. Another culinary adventure!

Guess that’s all my news for this week. I’ll write more soon.

Cheers!

Sarah

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Civilized Finns

Hi Everyone,

Since we’ve been here, we’ve found practices that may cause us to nominate Finland as the most civilized country on earth. Here are some of the things the Finns are doing “right” in our estimation.

Recycling: The Finns recycle nearly everything. At our townhouse there is a shed with 6 different bins. Two are for newspapers; and the others are for corrugated cardboard, light cardboard (cereal boxes, milk cartons, etc.), organic garbage, and regular garbage. We find by separating everything that we end up with only one small bag of regular garbage per week. We take plastic bottles, glass bottles, and aluminum cans to the grocery store where we are paid rather handsomely for our efforts while the can crusher entertains us by making mincemeat of the cans we feed it. Outside the grocery store are bins for plastic (Styrofoam, butter containers, etc.), paper (bills, ads, etc.), glass (jam and pickle jars, etc.), and tin cans. Makes going to the grocery store an adventure. We take all our recycling over there in plastic bags, and bring the groceries home in the same bags. Because…

Grocery Bags: …you PAY 14 cents apiece for grocery bags in Finland! Now before you start to grumble, you have to know that these grocery bags are heavy duty affairs that can carry nearly unlimited weight and will withstand 4 or 5 trips to the store before being relegated to garbage bag use. No more piles of bags giggling in the closet while they spawn more little bags as I’ve accused them of doing on numerous occasions. No more bottoms dropping out of the flimsy excuses we call grocery bags. After awhile, you start feeling like you’re saving the world from being overrun by landfills! AND there’s even a place inside the grocery store where you can recycle… yup, you guessed it… the plastic bags that are all torn and tattered after a month of use!

And while we’re talking about bags, you know the flimsy bags we put produce in? Well, those bags (which are free, by the way) are more substantial too. But that’s not really the point. The point is that they don’t have zip lock bags (or any bags for food storage) for sale at the store. You save the produce bags and use them for wrapping up the open cheese, cold cuts, etc. I’d always done that to some extent, but not having the zip lock bags to fall back on makes me do it all the time! Also, in the produce section, each kind of fruit or veggie has a 2 digit number. You put the lemons or oranges in one of the plastic bags and then set the bag on a scale and type in the 2 digit number. Voila! Out pops a sticky label with the weight, price, and bar code that can be scanned at check out.

Pollution: There’s a paper mill in the middle of town as there are in many Finnish cities since paper production is a big deal here. But there’s no smell! Nothin’!! Now for a girl who was raised in a paper mill town, this is nothing short of miraculous! The Finns didn’t like the smell, so they figured out how to get rid of it, passed laws enforcing it, and now paper mills and people can live side by side!

Neighborhood Perks: Oulu is divided into about a dozen neighborhoods, and people know where you live by the name of the neighborhood. I know, we do that too. But here’s the difference. Each neighborhood has a center that is available to all neighborhood groups, like scout troops and the like, but also has supplies on hand so that people can come after school or work and do art projects, etc. They also have part time, or in large neighborhoods, full time crafts instructors who poll the neighborhood as to what they’d like to do, and when they get enough folks, they teach that project. Each neighborhood also has a park with playground equipment and an ice rink, complete with ice hockey goals already installed. Wonder why so many great NHL players come from Scandinavia? Now you know! These ice rinks become grassy picnic areas in the summertime.

Infrastructure: It is possible to live anywhere in Finland and never drive. For example, Oulu has 400 kilometers of beautiful 10 foot wide bike and walking paths (no motorized vehicles allowed) crisscrossing the city, so you can literally go anywhere by bike without taking your life in your hands. In the winter people cross country ski, walk, pull sleds, and yes, bike on the paths. In the summer, the paths are used for biking, walking, roller blading, pushing strollers, etc. In addition, buses come by our place (and everywhere in Oulu) about every 20 minutes and connections to all points of the city never take more than about 10 minutes between buses. The buses are linked through a wireless network, so when you pay with your personal bus card, you can make transfers to other buses at no extra cost. We can even go out to the airport by bus. About 10 flights a day link Oulu with other major cities in Europe at very reasonable prices. And of course the train station in the center of town links Oulu with everywhere else 20 or 30 times a day.

Not only are these efficient, relaxing ways to travel. It is necessary for most Finns because a car costs about $90,000 with all the taxes added on by the EU, and gas is about $6 a gallon. And as Roy is fond of pointing out, when America’s gas costs that much (as it will, given the world situation and the inevitable future scarcity of oil products) we’ll figure out how to have a good infrastructure for travel within and between cities too!

The most important thing we’ve discovered is that we don’t miss having a car one bit. Yet at home we have not one, but 2 cars! Go figure!!

When we were in Helsinki last weekend we crisscrossed the city by trolley, bus, and metro depending on where we were going. Even in that big a city, travel was easy.

Perks in riding buses, etc.: People with baby carriages (and the babies in the carriages) ride free on buses. There are special sections on public transportation reserved for pregnant women so they can sit down. Pensioners get special rates on all public transportation. And in an “extra mile” example of why Finland may be the most civilized country on earth, the morning newspaper is put over the hand rails on the metro by previous readers. You may read it, and when you reach your destination, you put it back on the hand rail for the next passenger.

Finns always cross at crosswalks, and almost always wait for the green “walk” sign before they cross. It may be a law, because in Helsinki when some wayward Fulbrighters raced across the street narrowly escaping a trolley car, the police car behind the trolley slowed nearly to a stop and looked at them long and hard before deciding that they were stupid foreigners and driving on. But the reward for this behavior (besides not getting arrested) is that if there is a pedestrian crosswalk but no light, cars stop for you to go across.

Family Perks: Living together before marriage is very much the norm in Finland, and many couples have children before marriage too. When babies are born, the dad can stay home for 3 weeks, and the mom for 3 months with their wages paid by the state, not the employer. Then one parent can stay home for the next 6 months at a reduced salary. After that they are given a stipend by the government of about $100 per month per child because of the extra expenses of raising a family. There are no health insurance costs because everything is paid for by the government, including monthly well-kid check-ups for the first 3 years of life, and child care is state-controlled and paid on a sliding scale, so students and the poor would pay nothing for child care.

Going to college: The cost of going to college is free in Finland, but the system works differently. The number of jobs needed in any particular area – engineering, teaching, healthcare, etc. is determined by the government, and then the number of “slots” for students in that area are allotted to the various universities. When students apply, they apply for an engineering or healthcare slot and are selected according to their credentials. When the slots are filled, that’s it!

What that means is

1. There is no “major changing” as we have in America. You have to decide what you want to do before applying.

2. Only the very best get selected.

3. Many times if a field is crowded, people may apply several times before being accepted. Or they may have to “shop” for another field that needs workers. For example, the chance of getting into an engineering college is about 65% while in education, you only have a 20% chance.

4. You are practically guaranteed a job when you get out! No philosophy majors having to say, “Do you want fries with that?”

Also, academic traditions like “tenure” in a particular university are disappearing. Lifetime employment seems to be viewed as a national rather than an employer-based benefit.

I know I’ll produce at least one more missive about Finland’s civilized ways, but I’ve bent your ear enough for now. This weekend we’re going to the Arctic Circle, and next week is the University “Winter School” on an ice-locked island near Oulu, so we’ll have lots of pictures in our next journal entry.

Hope you all are well!

Sarah

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Visiting Santa

Hi Everyone,

Time for another update. Last Friday Juha, Roy and I drove 150 kilometers north from Oulu to Rovaniemi for a meeting at the University of Lapland, the northernmost university in the world.

Along the way we stopped in Kemi, a city known for its Ice Castle where people can spend the night in an ice hotel room, have a drink in the ice bar, and even attend church services in the ice chapel. It is open from shortly after Christmas until April, and is made more elaborate and spacious every year.

 



After a meeting with the Vice President of the university, Juha took us on a tour of the city. The rivers in northern Finland become secondary highways in the winter, and in Rovaniemi, there are specially marked “roads” for snowmobiles, and trails for cross country skiing, hiking and sledding. They even have a municipal golf course set up on the river where golf bags are caddied on sleds and the players use red golf balls! Of course there are ice fishermen on the rivers as well who set up shelters very much like a Native American tepee, and build fires on the shore to keep warm.
 

 


 

We also visited Finland’s national elite sports complex where coaches receive specialized training and literally every sport from ski jumping to volley ball is represented. As we watched from the car, a biathlete skied past, stopped to fire at a target, and took off down the trail. After our tour, Juha headed back to Oulu, and Roy and I set off to visit Santa Claus.

You see, although Santa has his workshop and home at Korvatunturi Fell, a mountain on the Russian/Finnish border that is shaped like an ear so he can hear the wishes of boys and girls all over the world, he has an office conveniently located about 8 kilometers north of Rovaniemi at the Arctic Circle. This office receives over 40,000 visitors and about 350,000 letters every year, and as we can attest, Santa makes his visitors feel right at home.

Shortly after 4 p.m. Roy and I were ushered into Santa’s office where the shelves have huge books with titles like "The Winter Traveller’s Guide," "Sleds And Their Runners," “Chimneys,” “A Short History of Elves,” and “Reindeer Husbandry.” A fire crackled in the stone fireplace, and Santa was seated in a comfortable chair at his desk. He was wearing his everyday clothes – a linen shirt with a hand knitted vest, corduroy knickers tucked into hand knitted striped stockings, and sheepskin slippers with turned up toes. He seems to know the language of all the children he meets. We heard him speak Swedish to 2 little boys who we could tell were promising to be very, very good, French to a little girl, and of course English to us. He shook our hands, then looked puzzled, remarked that we looked familiar, and asked where we were from. When we told him, he said “Of course! I met you last Christmas Eve!”

During our visit he took out a large atlas, explaining that he gets a new one every January, and by the next Christmas he has it filled to overflowing with the names of boys and girls he needs to visit. We looked up the Colorado map, and from the circle we put around Denver we drew a line out to the margin and wrote “Layne and Tess” so he would know where the grandchildren lived. We feel sure that he’ll pay them a special visit on Christmas Eve.

From Santa’s office it was just a short walk to Santa’s Post Office, where the postcards (and even your passport!) can be stamped with his special seal. It was near the end of the day, so as we sat and wrote our postcards, we heard the elves using the big stamp which thump, thump, thumped every letter with his postmark.
 

And of course no visit to the Arctic Circle would be complete without a picture by the sign proving to one and all that we were there. We had taken the Travel section of the Denver Post with us, since they publish pictures of Denverites who travel hither and yon around the world and have their pictures taken with the Travel section. So we posed at the Arctic Circle sign with the paper. Then we posed by the big globe. Then Roy took a picture of me by one of the giant snowmen near the Arctic Circle sign. Then, since the finest selection of Finnish handicrafts is available at Santa’s place, we spent lots of money. In fact, if you hadn’t known better, you’d have thought we were tourists having a fabulous time at the top of the world! We topped off the evening with reindeer steak topped with lingonberries. Alas, we have no shame.
 


The weather in Rovaniemi was beautiful – about 18 degrees and bright sunshine. So the next day, after taking pictures othe gigantic municipal ice rink which replaces the city soccer field in the winter, we walked around town, taking pictures of snowpiles, sledding, and the ladders which grace nearly every home in Finland.
 

 

You see, even the peaked roofs in Finland occasionally need snow removal. The very tall buildings have a pulley-like contraption that travels along the peak of the roof. The shoveling daredevils, who undoubtedly have the most dangerous job in Finland, hook their belts on a rope attached to the pulley, and then shinny down the roof to clear away the snow. Roy saw one house that had a shovel still on the peak, and bare shingles the general width of a derriere leading down the roof and over the eaves to a giant pile of snow about 12 feet below. I suppose they’ll find the shovel’s owner by May…
 

We came back to Oulu by train Saturday evening, but not before we found a grocery store whose name might not make it in the U.S.
 

Monday, March 07, 2005

Winter School

Hi Everyone,

The day after we arrived home from Rovaniemi, we packed up again to attend Winter School. Roy is involved as a mentor in a virtual doctoral program run by Kalidescope, a European Union funding source like the National Science Foundation in the US. The University of Oulu received a grant from this organization to provide an international course exploring the core theoretical issues and empirical questions in different subfields of technology enhanced learning. Although the semester-long course is online, where students from 11 countries have a series of assignments, internet chats, and one-to-one online mentoring with professors from 6 countries, they came together for an in-depth 4 day session here in Oulu called Winter School. The goal of Kalidescope, through their virtual doctoral program and meetings like this, is to form alliances and collaboration among the member countries’ scholars. Roy was the only American taking part.

Winter School was held at Oulu University’s Bothnian Bay Research Station on Hailuoto Island, about 7 kilometres from Oulu. The Bothnian Bay, at the northern end of the Baltic Sea, does not have the saline content of deeper parts of the sea, so the bay freezes solid in the winter. There are 2 ways to get to Hailuoto. A ferry keeps a slushy path open across the bay with the occasional help of a mammoth-sized Icebreaker, and there is also an ice road marked with little pine branches stuck in the ice to show the way.

When our van, piled high with luggage, beer, food for evening parties, more beer, and two other participants drove up to the ferry dock, I breathed a sigh of relief that we were taking the “safe” ferry route, and were not motoring across on the ice. Then I saw our travel companions waiting with us to board. Two enormous trucks filled with rock, a city bus, another university van, and about 20 cars intended to sardine together on what seemed a ridiculously small ferry. But I didn’t feel any sway at all as the boat crossed the bay. Since the ice on either side is solid, there are no waves in the ferry lane, and thus, no sway. It was like being in a hovercraft, except for the sound of ice grinding under the bow.

 



The 20 minute drive to the research station on the island’s only paved road took us through pine and birch forest and past scattered red and yellow houses belonging to the 800 island residents. Occasionally we saw “Moose Crossing” signs reminding us that most of the large island is a wilderness park. The island’s economy depends on summer tourism, some fishing, and reindeer moss farming. This moss is actually a form of lichen and is used – yup, you guessed it – to feed the reindeer herds in Lapland.

At the Biology Research Station at the far end of the island there is a cluster of old, beautifully maintained cottages and dorm accommodations, a lighthouse, equipment for ongoing study of the bay’s ecology, 3 enormous windmills that furnish all of the island’s electricity, a wood-fired sauna which (showing Finnish priorities) was the first structure built at the research station, and a great expanse of frozen sea. I had expected the sea’s surface ice to be smooth, but it looked like it had been caught and frozen mid-wave producing a craggy, silent moonscape as far as the eye could see.

 


 

 



The doc students at the gathering were truly impressive. The meetings were conducted in English, and only 2 of the 24 had any difficulty with the language, though both were fluent in three or more other languages. Since I had no formal duties (and Roy was preoccupied with sessions, presentations, and talking up the doc students), I volunteered to take pictures for the group, and they literally forgot I was there as they broke into different interest groups where the concentration was palpable, and the discussions were spirited and insightful.

 



 

 



During the evenings, we had social gatherings including a Finnish hot dog roast in a log building with a large indoor fire pit, an evening of guitar playing after a wood-fired sauna (pronounced sow-nah in Finnish), and a finale which included skits, songs, and poems performed by all of the participants.
 


 


A highlight on March 1st happened at breakfast, when Desislava, a Bulgarian doc student, gave us all simple candy-striped yarn bracelets and explained the custom of “Martenitsi,” when people give their friends variations of the bracelet to wish them good luck and health for the coming year. The custom is to kee.

Although none of us thought we could survive 4 days without e-mail and the internet, at the end of the conference we all agreed that we had gained more without electronic connection to the outside world. Friendships were forged, mentors were cubby-holed for their insights into the students’ various research projects, and all of us went home with a greater appreciation of our connection in a global community. As Roy told the group during one present meeting.

At the same time, I am afraid that over the next generations the age-old customs of individual nations may fade. We talked with students about the ease of travel within the union, and of the many marriages that have occurred already between people of different nationalities. Although only 6 of the 30+ participants at the conference were native speakers, all were expected to speak English to participate. Most of the academic journals worldwide are in English. This “hegemony of sameness” is at once comforting and disturbing. It made me wonder how many years it will be until practices like “Martenitsi” will be forgotten.

Enough philosophical ramblings. Hope you're all doing well.

Sarah
 

 

Monday, March 21, 2005

Sarah's Parallel Universe


Hi Everyone,

Time for another update, and in this entry I’ll concentrate on my life in Oulu. For while Roy has been enjoying the heady world of academe, I have been adopted by the doll makers of the city.

It all began when I sent an e-mail message to a listserv of 700 doll makers from all over the world, asking if anyone knew any doll makers in Finland. Lina from Sweden (who longs to someday visit Nashville and pursue her dream of becoming a country and Western singer) wrote back with two names for me, and both lived in Oulu! When I arrived here I sent an e-mail to each one. I think I told you about hearing from Eija, who invited me to a craft show she was in. Eija received a very large order for her dolls at the show, so although we have met a couple of times for coffee, she has been hard at work cutting, sewing, stuffing, and delivering her handiwork.

Meanwhile Toini, the other doll maker I had written to, gave my name to her friend Marja-Liisa Ahosola, who contacted me and asked if I would like to visit Toini’s with her. Toini, it seemed, was shy about her English, and since Marja-Liisa speaks 5 languages fluently, she took on the job of translating.

Marja-Liisa and I visited both a class that Toini was teaching on making portrait dolls from a prototype through the mold making process to porcelain (a 90 hour course!) and in her home, where she let me “adopt” one of her wonderful elves named Iitu for my collection. She teaches all kinds of doll making – soft sculpture, needle-felted dolls, sculpted dolls, porcelain – the works! In fact most of the doll makers here work in several different media. I'm taking Toini’s felted doll class in April.

Those visits were only the beginning of a friendship with Marja-Liisa that is sure to last many years. In addition to doll making, Marja-Liisa is accomplished in many other fine crafts – weaving, china painting, Finnish tole painting, and all aspects of needlework. Not content with merely doing life-sized work in these areas, she is also a miniaturist, and received the distinction of becoming a Fellow in the International Guild of Miniature Artists (IGMA) several years ago for original design in lace – which she makes with a single strand of silk thread! This summer she will teach in Maine at the IGMA Guild School demonstrating the construction of one inch tall needle-felted teddy bears. The prototypes she has shown me all are wearing tiny crocheted hats and vests and dresses made of silk thread using the smallest crochet hook they manufacture. Absolutely incredible work!

With Marja-Liisa as my guide, I have seen and done things in Oulu that would be impossible without her help. We’ve visited antique stores and flea markets I’d never have found on my own since the Finns hide them at the end of lanes and in the basements of apartment buildings. She arranged a tour of a wonderful crafts school located on Pikasaari Island, where the best artisans in the region vie for places to learn woodworking, silversmithing, graphic arts and print making, dress design, weaving, pottery, and even restoration of Finnish landmark buildings. Marja-Liisa took a three year course of study there in weaving, and was greeted warmly by her former teachers. Later I learned that she had been named the school’s outstanding student when she graduated. (Well, of course she was!) The 270 students at the school learn their crafts on state-of-the-art equipment, and all supplies and even lunch every day is free of charge. Eleven cities in the region and the state fund the program.

Through Marja-Liisa, I also met Rauni Huttunen. We visited her class in doll dress design, and she invited us for an afternoon of hat-making in her home. Little did I know that I would be treated as an honored guest at a luncheon, where courtly etiquette combined charmingly with boisterous good fun as I tried to learn a tongue-twisting toast in Finnish. We did finally get around to hat making, after a “tour” of Rauni’s beautiful miniature doll’s house, where an exquisite handmade bustiére rested on a hand-crocheted coverlet waiting for the Victorian lady of the house to dress, and the basement scullery was equipped with minute towels hand-woven for Rauni by Marja-Liisa. Rauni had made and upholstered most of the tiny furniture herself, even making petit point cushions, rugs and table runners. Every room was in perfect proportion, with attention to detail that was amazing!

And then, of course, there was the class I taught last weekend. Marja-Liisa had asked me if I taught a class how many students I would like. Well, 2 days after saying that I was really hesitant because they wouldn’t be able to understand me and that probably I could teach 6 or 7, she had a venue, 7 students (including Toini!) and was urging me to get a supply list ready so she could translate it for the group. Yikes! Pictures of our intensive 2-day foray into translated instruction show a group as intent as any I’ve taught in the States, and some great results in heads and hands. We’re going to have a follow-up class to put the doll together after they’ve constructed legs and sewn the bodies. My technique was quite different than what they have done before, so it will be fun to see how they incorporate some of these new ideas into their own work.


 





As an aside, the craft supply scene in Finland is abysmal, and a million dollar business venture awaits me if I could bear to leave kith and kin to establish the first Finnish Hobby Lobby…

This weekend brought yet another adventure, as 8 of us traveled 3 hours by train to Seinäjoki for a doll and antiques show. I had met only 3 of the women before the trip, but by the time we made our giddy way home by train, we were laughing like old friends and even exchanging childbirth stories -- a universal bonding ritual, it seems, among women!





The adventure will continue next week at Rauni’s English class. It seems she is attending a large miniatures show in London next fall and decided some time ago to brush up on her English before her jaunt. So she practices with me every chance she gets, and enlisted me to come and “talk about America” with her class. Should be fun!

And my friendship with Marja-Liisa will continue next summer when she and her husband Markku, who teaches English, visit us in Colorado after their trip to Maine. I’m not sure we can ever repay the hospitality we’ve been shown here, but we’re inspired to try! We kid that Marja-Liisa should bring one suitcase for nothing but embroidery floss, since the same floss we buy in the U.S. for 20¢ is a whopping $1.49 a skein here! She will be a kid in a candy store when she sees Michaels and Hobby Lobby! I have contacted the Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls and Toys to let them know she will be in town, and her status as a Fellow in their international organization should make her an authentic visiting dignitary!

When we went to dinner with Marja-Liisa and Markku last week, we learned that Markku is a train nut, and goes train spotting all over Europe when he isn’t playing with his model railroad in their basement. So we’ve promised him a trip on a narrow gauge and visits to model train shops and museums. There’s also a baseball game on the docket, and of course a couple of days at the cabin. If any of you have more ideas for their visit, please pass them along!

My next entry will involve Finland’s Easter witches, so stay tuned!


Sarah

P.S. We now have over an hour more daylight than Denver -- 14 hours of visible light a day -- and are gaining light at a phenomenal 7 minutes a day! Midnight sun, here we come!

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Easter Witches



Hi Everyone,

I promised to tell you about Finland’s Easter witches. It all started when I began to see little witches everywhere – florist shops, stores, the doll show we went to, on greeting cards, everywhere! At first I thought they were a version of our kitchen witch. But they had appeared so suddenly and were so pervasive I knew they had to be something special.

One day on a flea market sortie with Marja-Liisa, I stumbled across a table runner decorated with Easter bunnies, eggs, chicks, spring flowers, and – yup – witches! “Why witches,” I asked.

“You mean you don’t have Easter witches?” she replied.

I allowed as how witches were probably the last thing I’d think of in connection with Easter. She shrugged. “We’ve always had witches,” she said. “The kids dress up as witches and when they come to the house on Palm Sunday we give them candy.”

WHOA! Halloween on Palm Sunday???

So off to my local internet I scurried, googling madly to find answers to my latest Finnish conundrum. And you, Dear Readers, are the fortunate recipients of my new wealth of knowledge…

It seems that in Finland, as in most cultures, folk, pagan and Christian traditions have converged over the centuries to produce modern day practices that are taken for granted. Like most early peoples, the Finns of yore were deeply superstitious, and believed that when Christ was in the tomb between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, evil in the form of witches flew through the land. Not so long ago, people hid from Good Friday until Easter, not even cooking or heating their homes for fear that witches would see the smoke and be attracted to the house. However, they often set huge bonfires on the Saturday before Easter to scare off the witches. Go figure…

Coupled with the Christian tradition was a longing for spring after a long, long winter. With the literal rebirth of the earth and Christ’s resurrection, it was time for a blessing and wish for prosperity in the coming months. Thus, people would cut willow branches, force the early blooming of catkins, decorate the twigs with streamers and feathers, and playfully switch at their neighbors to wish them good health. They would give these decorated willow twigs to their friends to save until the cattle were driven to the summer pastures. If the herder used the decorated switches, the cattle were also given a blessing.

OK, put all this in the cultural Cuisinart, whir for a few centuries, and here’s what modern Finnish children do to prepare for Easter:

About 2 weeks before Easter, they cut willow branches and put them in water to force catkins. At this time they also plant Easter grass where the Easter bunny will hide eggs and candy. Yes, it’s real grass, sold in all the stores in seed packets decorated with chicks and bunnies! We had to try it, of course, with great results! Much more fun than the plastic confetti stuff we put in Easter baskets in the States!




They also plan their witch costumes during this time and learn a verse to “bless” their neighbors. A day or 2 before Palm Sunday, they use bits of tissue paper, feathers, and streamers to decorate the willow twigs which by this time have turned into pussy willows. These decorated switches are called virpovitsa.

On Palm Sunday (Palmusunnuntai), starting at about 10:30 a.m. and continuing all day, kids dressed as witches come to the door and follow a ritual called virpominen that must date back centuries. They wave the willow twigs (the modern version of switching their neighbors) and recite the following verse:

Virvon, varvon,
turceks’ terveeks

tulevaks’ vuodeks!
vitsa sullepalkka mulle!
Rauhallista Pääsiäistä

For fresh, for health
for the coming year!
The branch for you,
the treat for me!
Have a Peaceful Easter.

Then they give the branch to the neighbor, and collect their reward. We read that people give candy or coins. Roy never takes change with him, and empties his pockets as soon as he comes home, so we had an abundance of change for our witches, though we saw that most people had given candy. We couldn’t tell if the coins were a treat or a disappointment, although one pair of witches stopped outside after they left to count their money, and we got a picture of them through the kitchen window.



 




When we asked (in English, of course) if we could take their pictures and waved the camera at them, all were obliging, and a few of the older children even said, “Thank you” and “Bye” to us in English. But I’m sure they thought it weird that grown-ups would want to record this “run-of-the-mill” holiday for posterity.




We had only 2 “warlocks” come to the door. I suppose pre-schoolers all dress up as witches, but as boys grow older they just steal their sisters’ loot when they come home. I don’t think it has dawned on them that there is such a thing as warlocks that they could become to get treats!



There appears to be a standard “witchy-poo” look for the celebrants. Most had bright spots of rouge and scarves tied for a “Babouska” effect, and all sported aprons and a sprinkling of drawn-on freckles. Only one had a standard issue witch hat like witches in the U.S. wear.




However, teenagers seem to have updated the witch tradition. We saw 2 girls at our grocery store waiting for a ride to a Palm Sunday witches’ party. Both had affected a Goth look in black leather, with stylized black eyeshadow and lots of silver chains. Come to think of it, maybe they were just headed downtown for the movies…

The days of Easter Week have special names and customs that most modern Finns may not even know about. For example,

If sheep are sheared on Easter Monday (Malkamaanantai), the wool will be abundant for the next shearing. If girls cut their hair, it will grow faster.

On Easter Tuesday (Tikkutiistai) people carve sticks to burn for good luck in their fires.

On Easter Wednesday (Kellokeskiviikko) bells are put on the cattle to protect them from the Easter witches.

Easter Thursday (Kiirastorstai) is cleaning day, and if you make a lot of noise while cleaning, the witches will stay away. If the weather is good on Kiirastorstai summer fishing will be good.

Friday and Saturday (Pitkäperjantai, Lankalauantai) are the worst days of the year. Evil abounds, and in days of yore you could not visit even the closest neighbors. As I mentioned before, no fires were lit, and it was forbidden to eat milk and cream.

Easter Sunday (Pääsiäissununtai) brings with it omens for the coming year. For example, people receive the personality of the first animal they see on Easter morning for the coming year. If you see a cow, you will be lazy. If a horse comes into view first, you will be strong. It is also believed that the sun dances on Easter morning at dawn in celebration of the resurrection and the coming of spring. Since we’re "springing ahead" with Finnish daylight savings time that morning, we decided to skip the sunrise dance...

We heard there would be a bonfire on the Saturday evening before Easter sponsored by the local Lions Club (!), so of course we had to go with our friends Marja-Liisa and Markku to help them chase the witches away. The bonfire was on an island near city center, and when we arrived we saw that expert fire setters had built a tower of saplings and branches some 14 feet tall.




The Lions Club was selling coffee, homemade tea cakes, and sausages the Finns eat without buns and which taste like our hotdogs. Loud speakers played children’s songs, and we recognized the tunes of both “Ten Little Indians” and the “Hokey Pokey” although the words were decidedly different! A platform had been set up where they were staging a contest for little witches before the bonfire. Each little girl had an interview with the emcee and had to perform a song or poem for the appreciative crowd.



 






Finally the fire was lit, and rose rapidly until flames, ash and sparks towered at least 50 feet in the air. We all crowded closer to the fire than was probably wise, since the heat and light were welcome in the falling temperatures of the evening.





Easter morning dawned grey and cold. But after reveling in the goodies the bunny had left, we dressed up for only the second time since coming to Finland and headed to the Easter service at the Lutheran cathedral downtown.




First, let me describe the cathedral itself. Built in the late 1800’s, it is painted yellow with white trim, and has the classic shape of a cross. The interior is both elegant and austere in its simplicity. The floors are unvarnished oak planks, and the grey painted pews are “gated” at the ends of the row and designed to instill wakeful attention in the congregants. The uncushioned seats are very narrow, while the seat backs require you to remain bolt upright throughout the service. Beautiful chandeliers and a lovely handmade sailing ship hang on long cords from the 3 story ceiling. Since Oulu residents have made their living from the sea for centuries, the ship at once serves as a reminder of bygone days and inspires a special concern and blessing.

The back of the cathedral has clear windows, but stained glass surrounds the altar. The walls are quite plain, with pictures of various scenes from the life of Jesus. The arch over the altar is especially lovely. Against a deep blue background, salmon fingers of daybreak are depicted in the east with a simple cross in the center and the stars of night in the west. A single lily plant on the altar was the only Easter decoration in the sanctuary.

What really amazed us, however, was the attendance at the service. At the main Sunday service where a very fine choir sang, three ministers presided, and communion was served, there were less than 200 people in a sanctuary that would seat 800. Somehow we had expected a turnout like we had experienced in Oxford at Christchurch Cathedral where we literally had to have tickets to attend the Christmas Eve service, but obviously this is not the case in Finland. People were not particularly dressed up, and there was not an Easter bonnet to be found! The congregation appeared to be older, and there was only a handful of young couples with babies and toddlers.

The service itself was quite formal, with the minister even singing part of the liturgy for communion and making the sign of the cross over the bread and wine. The sermon was read with little inflection and few gestures. The offering was taken with velvet pouches attached to long sticks which were proffered into the aisles. An old man sitting on a bench near us was reminded to give with a nudge of the offering pouch by an usher.

In fact, the only signs of Easter we could find were the lily on the altar and an anthem proclaiming “Alleluia” at the end of the service. We concluded that although Finland is perhaps the most ethical country we have ever lived in, it may not be a particularly religious country. Our other conclusion was that Garrison Keillor might be accurate in his assessment of the “somber” Lutherans…

Easter afternoon we took a walk to the Baltic Sea, which is only about a mile from our house. The walking path was slushy since the temperature has been above freezing all week, but the ice was still thick enough on the bay to support all manner of winter sports. It will be fun to see the change spring brings to the beach and the bay.



 






In keeping with Finnish tradition, we had lamb and mämmi for supper. Mämmi is a dark brown porridge, served cold with sugar and cream. These days mämmi is offered at the grocery store in a cardboard box decorated like birch bark – the fast food version of the traditional birch bark baskets mämmi was originally cooked in. Mämmi tastes like a thick, grainy pudding made with blackstrap molasses although there isn't any molasses in the recipe. Mämmi has a decidedly odd, old-fashioned taste but we both liked it! To see a recipe for mämmi, click here.

What a wonderful adventure we’re having!

Our best wishes to you for a springtime filled with virpovitsas, green grass, chocolate eggs, and a few little witches!

Sarah

 

Thursday, April 07, 2005

World Citizenship

Hi Everyone,

The Pope’s death has dominated the news here for the past week. Five of the 10 stations we get on TV are news channels (2 Finnish; 1 German which broadcasts several hours a day in English; EuroNews which broadcasts simultaneously in 7 languages; and the BBC, see TV guide below called ohjelmat  http://ohjelmat.info/tv/index.html). EuroNews especially has had almost non-stop coverage of the Pope’s illness and death since there are so many Catholics in the countries it serves. The languages it broadcasts in are English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese, although Finland only subscribes to the English broadcast. Some of the retrospectives EuroNews has done since John Paul’s death have been superb – showing the humble, charismatic man, always surrounded by people yet always alone.



One of the things we like best about traveling abroad is watching and reading the news since it reminds us every day that we are part of a world community – a concept easily forgotten in the States where even the national news is dominated by “local” events. Here, interconnections between nations are never taken for granted. Television stock market reports cover every country since so much trading is done between markets here. Financial markets are also reported since the Euro’s value against the U.S. Dollar, British Sterling, and the Yen are equally important. The sports broadcast always covers soccer - the international mania we’re just beginning to appreciate in the U.S. But sports news also includes auto racing in Bahrain, golf in South Africa, and sailboat racing in New Zealand. The sports bars we visited this winter had huge screens showing international ski jumping, hockey, and biathlons.

Weather forecasts sprawl across continents because of international travel. The BBC is especially fun to watch because of phrases like “The wind is freshening from the west in Borneo…” and “It’s a thundery forecast for Sumatra…”

But the very best news venue is the International Herald Tribune, the favorite of both Roy and me long before we met. In Oulu we can only get the Tribune once a week, so Thursdays we make a pilgrimage to the bookstore in city center, eager for the excellent writing, the indepth coverage of world events, and the cosmopolitan views on the editorial pages. Where else could you read about one woman’s experience waiting for rescue under the Indonesian earthquake’s rubble as she held her baby and heard her little girl dying just out oconversations with Finns always reflect their recognition of Finland’s place within the world community. In large part, the Finns’ world view is affected by its history and its ideological contrast with its nearest neighbor. Here are some examples:

  • When we visited Juha and Arya’s home, we complimented them on their antiques. Arja explained that all of the antiques were from Juha’s family. Her family is Karelian, a people displaced by the Soviet Union in a land grab. The many Karelian Finns in this area have al adamantly, “And we won!

 

  • Juha told us that every Finnish man must serve in the armed forces. Their initial training only lasts 6 months, usually undertaken before entering college or starting a job after high school. For officer’s training, a year of service is required. But after that initial training, Finnish men are in the reserves, with periodic summer training sessions, until they are 60!

I suspect that if Canada were an aggressive, politically unstable presence, our world view would be different as well.

In thinking back, I saw why the Finns feel this way as early as 1985 when I went to the Soviet Union. After 3 weeks there, when we landed in Helsinki on my flight home from Moscow, all of the passengers started applauding. I asked a flight attendant if this was unusual. She replied, “It happens every time.” In a country that has been occupied for much of its history and that endured its own civil war in the 1920's, freedom and stability aren't taken for granted.

In establishing the Fulbright foundation, J. William Fulbright said, "International education exchange is … designed to continue the process of humanizing mankind to the point, we would hope, that nations can learn to live in peace."

Understanding another nation’s world view and our role as citizens of the world is probably the most valuable part of this experience.

We hope this finds you shedding your winter garb and enjoying the daffodils. Here we know that winter is on the run because we haven’t worn long underwear in nearly 3 weeks! The birds are announcing their nesting territorial claims, and the walking paths are nearly dry. No spring blooms yet, but with 18 hours of daylight, we hope to see crocuses soon. Last night, the “Blue Moment” didn’t occur until after 9 p.m. (When I arrived it was at 4:15 in the afternoon!) And the first fingers of light were in the east at 4:30 this morning. The temperature has been in the high 40’s for almost 2 weeks. The natives say this is unusual, but we’re enjoying it! To follow our weather here (or yours at home for that matter) a great Web site is Weather Underground at
http://www.wunderground.com/global/stations/02875.html.

More soon,

Sarah

Monday, April 11, 2005

A Weekend in Jyväskylä



Hi Everyone,

This weekend Roy and I traveled 6 hours by train to Jyväskylä (pronounced Yee-văs-kee-lă) to see Finland’s Lake District. The mostly flat landscape of southern Finland boasts over 188,000 lakes – more than any other country in the world. In the Lake District there is more lake than land, caused by the continental glacier during the last Ice Age. (And in a related “gee whiz” statistic, once the immense weight of the glacier melted, Finland’s landmass started to rise. The land around the Bay of Bothnia where we live has risen over 36 inches in the past 100 years, and overall Finland adds about 2.7 square miles of landmass every year!)

On the train, we never traveled more than 2 or 3 miles in the Lake District before coming upon another beautiful lake surrounded by pine and birch forest and sparsely dotted with summer cottages along the shoreline. Unlike Colorado where lake front property is at a premium, Finland has more than enough shoreline to cater to second home seekers. Indeed, nearly every Finnish family has a summer cabin handed down from generation to generation, but the Finns’ idea of a getaway is quite different than ours. Most Finns prefer to rough it on their summer vacations and cabins usually have no electricity or running water. (But nearly all have a wood fired sauna!) People pack in their provisions, pack out their garbage, and leave the surrounding wilderness pristine.






Jyväskylä is located on both sides of beautiful Lake Jyväskylä, with most of the city of 75,000 on one side, and the university and suburbs on the other. One bridge for cars and a sculptural pedestrian bridge connect the 2 sides, and of course in the winter folks can take a short cut across the lake by skis, snowmobile, or on foot. We didn’t see anyone on the ice while we were visiting, so it probably isn’t safe for travel anymore. A lovely walking path curves along the lakefront, and on our strolls from the hotel to city center we saw the beginnings of spring in pussy willows and buds on the bushes and trees. During the summer months the lake must be alive with water sports from the size of the marina and the swimming areas we passed.




We were especially impressed with the vibrancy of the city. The walking street in city center was teeming with shoppers on Friday and Saturday, and even though we didn’t eat lunch until 1:30 we had to wait for a table at a restaurant.



High on our list of Jyväskylä “to do’s” was a visit to the National Craft Museum of Finland where there was a special exhibit of the last 100 years of Finnish crafts. Explanations were given in both Finnish and English, and the variety of crafts included in the exhibition was astounding! Traditional crafts of weaving, pottery, basket making, and stitchery were extended to include wood carving and gilting, barrel making, fly rod construction, shoe and clock making, ship building, metal work, and even creating prostheses for artificial limbs.

The museum also displays regional costumes from the Iron Age to modern times and documents the changes in costume design and materials over the centuries. Finland has even named a panel of historians, seamstresses, and designers who oversee and approve changes suggested for costumes so the authenticity of each regional costume is preserved. As an aside, we have only seen one “costume” that was displayed in the museum worn day to day here in Oulu. It surprised us to learn that there is a Roma or gypsy population of about 6000 here whose ancestors came to Finland during the 16th century. We’ve seen several gypsy women in traditional dress both on the bus and in stores here. For some pictures of Roma dress, click here.

The museum’s permanent collection features modern crafts including the beautiful curved wooden furniture inspired by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto; felting done for clothing and decorative arts; rya rug making, photography exhibits; and of course dolls! We came away visually overwhelmed by the scope of beautiful craft work we saw. As an added bonus, the museum shop was featuring my friend Eija’s dolls in the window. Very impressive! I’ve included a picture but must apologize for the reflections.



After a great conversation with 2 Americans we met at the restaurant where we had lunch on Saturday, we started home. The Victorian train station at Jyväskylä is so typical of the stations across Finland that we took a couple of pictures to show you. Alas, the city has outgrown its old station and has built a modern cement and steel structure adjacent to it, but thankfully they have preserved the gracious reminder of bygone days.




A regional train chugs through the Lake District, stopping at many of the villages along the way. As we passed small farms we wondered how long ago the custom of stopping to pick up people along the route had to make way for greater speed and a computerized time schedule. Instead of resenting the frequent stops, we loved seeing the tiny, well-kept stations and old steam engines that had been lovingly preserved on local sidings.






On the way home we were especially impressed by the number of log carriers and piles of logs we passed. Logging is Finland’s most important industry, and forests cover 65% of the country. Both birch and pine are harvested, and the logs are shipped to lumber mills and paper plants scattered throughout the country. But the Finns are very careful with this renewable resource, preserving most forests in their natural state, and replanting for maximum growth potential on the plots designated for harvesting. As the trees grow on these plots, the bottom branches are pruned, making for ease of cutting and beautiful straight trunks.





While we were gone, Oulu celebrated its official 400th birthday on April 8th, although the celebrations are wisely being postponed until the summer tourist season. To read more about the history of Oulu, click here.

And while we were dodging April showers both in Jyväskylä and walking from the train in Oulu, Denver was receiving a 10 inch snowfall! It was so impressive that the BBC reported on it complete with footage of spinning wheels and stalled traffic! That kind of storm with blizzard conditions and huge snowfalls is unusual here, we’ve learned. Instead, it snowed a little almost every day during the winter. But because it doesn’t get above freezing, the snow builds into the impressive heaps we’ve sent you in pictures. But now all of the walkways are clear (as Denver’s will be soon with the 60 degree weather predicted for the coming week!) and we have officially abandoned our down jackets. Ah, spring…..

Next up, a journal entry of “Finn Facts” that we’ve collected. Stay tuned…

Sarah
 

Friday, April 22, 2005

Finn Facts


Hi Everyone,

First, the most important news of the week in Oulu that may not have reached you in the States yet…

Sunday night for the second year in a row, Oulu clinched the Finnish hockey championship, beating Helsinki 3 games to 1 in a best of 5 series. Tuesday evening 30,000 people gathered in city center when the trophy, dubbed “The Boy”, was presented to the team. And in a ritual that could only happen in Finland, the team’s first act after receiving the trophy was to take “The Boy” to the sauna with them. Anyone who would like a t-shirt commemorating the championship (not the team in the sauna) should mail requests along with the size needed and the U.S. equivalent of 25 Euros to us. Last year’s championship t-shirt can be had for 5 Euros…

 

Pictures courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat, Oulu Kärpät, and IIHF.

Now, on to Finn Facts. These are in no particular order and reflect no judgments; only cultural differences that can be charming, irritating, or simply fun to document.

Eating

Perhaps because Finns get up early and eat humongous breakfasts, lunch is either served at 11 a.m. or not at all. Then at about 2 p.m., every adult Finn on the planet drinks coffee and eats a sweet roll. Dinner is served at about 5 – 5:30.

Finns love sweets! The candy counter at the large Stockmann Department Store always has a line of people waiting to buy treats, and the movie theaters have bins of candy where you can mix and match to your heart’s content before weighing your empty calories and paying a lump sum. And for some reason, Finns are crazy about licorice. There must be 25 different brands in the candy section of the local supermarket.

Finns don’t eat the skin of potatoes. In fact, the very thought of such an act invokes a shiver of revulsion.

There is great formality concerning guests at meals. Guests are always served first, and no one takes a second helping before everyone is done with the first one. Then the guests have a chance to take a second helping before anyone else. This is disconcerting only if you’re the guest and not quite sure what you’re being served, how much you’re supposed to take, and what condiments go with it. As a corollary, it’s better to think small when taking a helping, because if you take it, you’re expected to eat every morsel. If they dish it up for you, you’re allowed to leave part of it.

Generally, you seat yourself in restaurants, sometimes asking a waiter with a gesture and a raised eyebrow if it’s OK to take a certain booth or table. I’ve never seen anyone denied when they’ve done this. And you need to order everything you want on the first go around, because after the food is served the waiter won’t come by to see if you need anything else. That would be an invasion of privacy by Finnish standards. Nor will the waiter bring a bill. You can sometimes signal and they’ll bring you one, but more often you simply go up to the cash register where by some stroke of genius, someone who has never waited on you will know exactly what you had, and even do separate checks for everyone who parades up from your table. At a hotel where we stayed, they even knew our room number when we went up to pay!

There’s no tipping in restaurants. Often you wouldn’t know whom to tip even if you wanted to because the wait staff works as a team, one taking your order, another bringing the food, and perhaps a third bringing the bill.

Traffic, driving, riding, etc.

The speed limit on the bypass around Oulu is 100 kilometers or 60 miles per hour. It was explained that’s because some wanted to go faster since they were using the bypass as part of the expressway and were not going into the city. But others were using the bypass only to go a few kilometers before turning back into town, and wanted an “in town” driving speed. So they compromised at the 100 kilometer level.

I have not seen a stop sign in Oulu. I’ve been told there are very few in Finland. There are stop lights at major intersections, and some roundabouts, but there are only Yield signs – or no signs – at cross streets. Seems reasonable to us. You yield if someone’s coming and go if the coast is clear.

Traffic tickets are pro-rated to your salary. One rich guy in Oulu was fined over 100,000 Euros for speeding.

Instead of speed limit signs, there’s a sign with a graphic of a town’s skyline – a house, a steeple, etc. – that means you’re entering a populated area and need to follow the city speed limit. If the graphic has a diagonal red slash it means you’re leaving town and can drive faster.

Merging cars have the right of way, and buses may pull out any time they want. They’re on a schedule, after all!

And speaking of buses, when Finnish bus drivers change shifts, the first driver says goodbye to the passengers as he gets off, and the new driver says hello. (I told you it was a very civilized country!)

House amenities

Finnish homes have scalding hot water. I mean “coffee brewing” hot! But you can only access scalding water by pushing a red button down on the faucet – a feat that toddlers can’t manage. Up to the button pushing stage, all you get is nice lukewarm water, perfect for washing little hands.

There are few clothes dryers in Finland. Why use electricity for something that can happen for free? However, no matter how much softener we put in the washing machine, the clothes always look like they’re standing at attention after hanging to dry overnight. Unfortunately, they feel that way too. And since the clothes are dried in the basement, they don’t even have that outdoorsy smell that line dried clothes had when I was a kid. A clothes dryer is what I miss most (besides family) here. I think Roy would say he misses peanut butter and Quaker oatmeal most.

You always take off your shoes when you enter a Finnish household. It particularly makes sense in the winter when you don't want to track snow all over. But the Finns take off their shoes year around. It really cuts down on carpet wear and tear, and the house does stay cleaner! Even at parties when everyone is dressed up, the shoes are left by the door. Children take their shoes off at school too.

Finns don’t throw stuff away until it is beyond hope of repair. In our flat there is a reel to reel tape player, a record player, and a great collection of albums from the 70’s including one Joan Baez album which is Roy’s favorite. Eight track tapes are still sold (and bought!) in flea markets. It’s the same “make-do” mentality I saw in my parents’ generation. Here we believe it is because of occupation, civil war, World War II, and having to pay an unjustified war debt in the 1950’s to the Soviet Union.

Personal quirks

There is a penchant for hair dying in Finland. Henna seems to be the color of choice among the over-25 crowd, while the youngsters have gone goth with jet black hair, sometimes with fushcia and green highlights. Perhaps the most perverse teenage craze is the gorgeous, flaxen-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian damsels who dye their hair jet black and then let it grow out an inch or 2, giving them a decidedly skunk-like appearance. Or am I just getting old and crochety?

Finns are always prompt, sometimes to a fault. A 6 p.m. dinner means your company may show up at 5:45, but never at 6:15. The buses and trains are prompt too.

However, television shows are maddeningly off schedule. One reason is that the Finns don’t have enough commercials to fill the gaps in the American shows they televise. There’s always an 8-10 minute gap to fill at the end of “Friends” or “ER”. But even then, the next show may start 2, 3, or 4 minutes after the hour – just when you’re about to give up on seeing it. Roy has 3 Finnish TV schedules as “Favorites” on his computer, and he spends the evening surfing with the remote trying to outguess the system. As an added challenge, American and British programs are scattered over 5 or 6 channels, so TV watching is always an adventure, with the occasional gem that makes the effort worthwhile.

Another television (and film) Finn Fact: Finns believe that it is important to see a television show or film in its original language. So programs are aired exactly as they were filmed with the addition of Finnish subtitles. We thought this was a particularly high-minded practice (once again illustrating the cultural ethics of the country) until last week when one of our very favorite movies was on television. We couldn't wait to watch it. But when we tuned in for "Cinema Paradiso" we found that it was in (of all things!) Italian with Finnish subtitles! Cultural ethics met our hegemonical American world view head-on, with Italy and Finland coming out the winners and us switching to "Night Rider" for our prime time viewing.

Finns walk everywhere, and they walk really fast! Roy says that he now can overtake septuagenarians on his walk to school, but only if they’re using a cane. There are few gyms or workout facilities. Why spend money for machines when a bike, cross-country skis, or tennis shoes can give you the same results?

Finns can talk both inhaling and exhaling. I’ve tried several times to talk on the inhale, and choke every time. It is definitely a skill developed at an early age. The most common inhaled utterances are “joo” (yes), “ei” (no), or “no niin” (oh well, or OK then), but one friend can spout whole sentences on the inhale! One Fulbrighter said she thinks they’ve learned to talk like a harmonica because their words are so long you can’t get them out in a single breath…

Raising babies

What we call an “oops” baby in the States – one conceived when his or her siblings are teenagers – is called an “Evening Star” here. A little more graceful distinction, don’t you think?

Babies aren’t named for some time after they’re born. In fact, Finns think we’re weird to know a baby’s name before it’s born. “How can you name a baby before you get to know them?” they ask. A formal name is given when a child is christened, and must come from a state-approved list. So there are no Finnish kids saddled with names like “Ima Hogg” or “Aloda Manoor”.

Most Finnish given names have no meaning like ours have in the States. They are simply picked for the sound of them. And as you’ve been able to tell from the blog, most names don’t bear any resemblance to ours! For a list of the most popular given names,
click here. Note: Since both Finnish and Swedish are official languages here, they also include Swedish names in this list.

Names are so important here that the Finnish (and Swedish) calendars have a boy’s and girl’s given name on each day of the year. You might be born on February 5th, but your Name Day might be September 7th. Older Finns place a higher importance on a child’s Name Day than on his or her birthday and celebrate the Name Day with a party and gifts. Nowadays, the original names on the calendar are deemed old-fashioned and new names are being added so the tradition will continue, although most younger Finns celebrate birthdays, not Name Days.

Babies and children really seem to be treasured here. I’ve been asked twice about babies being stolen in the U.S. Those who asked were horrified even at the thought of such a thing. I'm pretty sure if a baby were stolen here, the perpetrator would be lynched.

And because babies would never be stolen here, parents are encouraged to let their babies sleep outside, even in the winter. Roy thinks the habit started when the Finns lived in chimneyless houses where the smoke rose to the ceiling, but it was always a little smoggy inside. It was much healthier for a tiny pair of lungs to breathe in the cold outside air than the smoky air. These days, babies are bundled in buntings and sheepskins, the opening of the carriage is covered with a thin receiving blanket, a baby monitor is placed nearby, and little tykes seem to thrive even when the temperature dips to 15 or 20. (Below zero outside sleeping is discouraged.) At first I was really taken aback by this practice, but then I thought of our early ancestors whose babies survived (and thrived!) for centuries sleeping in cold conditions, and decided that this might be preferable to dust mites and gas forced-air heating, but only if we didn’t have to worry about stolen babies and what the neighbors might say.

More Finn Facts next week. Hope this finds you enjoying spring! We now have well over 18 hours of daylight (4 more than Denver), and the “blue moment” doesn’t occur until 10:30 p.m.

Cheers!

Sarah

Here's an e-mail we received after posting this entry...

From: Sami Makelainen
Sent: Sunday, April 24, 2005
Subject: Finn Facts & the blog


Hi Sarah & Roy,

I've enjoyed reading your blog at http://rclariana.blogspot.com/ for some time now (count me in as one of those strange Finns who love to know what other people are thinking about us ;-) and really like it. It's been fun reading about your big and small "adventures" in Finland. The latest Finn Facts-post was great and I just thought I'd comment on a few things - for additional insight or just for fun,whatever.

I think Finns are crazy about sweets for the simple reason that they're really good here. When we (me & my wife) lived in the US we learned to avoid most candies there - they didn't taste nearly as good! And we found out why, too: turned out sugar is (relatively speaking) extremely expensive in US compared to Finland. The manufacturers thus often used mostly or partly artificial sweeteners. And you could taste the difference.

The bus drivers are polite everywhere else except in theHelsinki-area. Very rarely do they say hi or goodbye when changing shifts here.

The reason for movies and TV series being in the original language is not just the desire of the viewers. It's because dubbing is expensive and Finland is such a small country it's not worth it. But it's also a preference - for example, watching a movie in Germany is royal pain for me since you can hardly find anything with the original soundtrack.

What comes to Roy missing peanut butter, you should be able to find the real thing from Behnford's when you're in Helsinki (it's at the Kämp Galleria shopping center, see http://www.behnfords.com/) They specialize in importing all kinds of american foodstuff.

On hot water, there was once an interesting inci. They cannot, however, be "against good manners" - so unique and foreign names are possible, but you cannot name your kid something completely stupid like "XQ".

Anyway, thanks again for a great blog. I'm looking forward to the next "Finn Facts" part!

Best regards,

Sami http://www.groundswell.fi/sim/

Ps. I hate coffee, so not every adult does the coffee-thing :-)

 

Thursday, April 28, 2005 

More Finn Facts


Hi Everyone,

For these Finn Facts, you need a short history lesson. Here goes:

In spite of its ancient history, Finland as we've been describing it has really been built in the last 10 years. It waa month when Germany was defeated in WWI, and the monarchy collapsed. Then Finland established a republican form of government and elected a president. But there was still internal unrest between Swedish and Finnish speakers, and Civil War skirmishes continued into the 1930s.

During the ‘30s Finland formed ties with Germany because it was so afraid of its huge neighbor to the east, but a secret pact between Germany and the Soviet Union allowed the Soviets to invade Finland, and in 1939 the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland began. This was when the Karelia region was taken by the Soviets, and 500,000 refugees fled into the western parts of Finland. (I mentioned the displacement of the Karelian people in an earlier entry.)

The Soviets became hungry for even more land, and because Finland was cut off from the help of the Allies, they turned to Germany for help, allowing their troops to cross Finland on their way to Russia. Finally, an armistice was reached with Russia, and then the Finns had to fight the Nazi troops in Lapland to get them out of the country.

In 1945, a general peace was negotiated, and Finland remained independent, but at a terrible cost in territory and war reparations to the Soviets. The monetary debt was paid primarily in ships and machinery, but it drove Finland into rationing and poverty. And as late as the 1980s, the Soviets tried to infiltrate Finnish politics to drive Finland away from Western influence. Even in the early 1990’s, Finland was in a depression with 20% unemployment.


But joining the EU in 1994 was a huge boon to Finland, and the EU has helped them with infrastructure, tourism, and rural development. Today, with technology firms seeking Finnish expertise, a profitable lumber industry, and a United Nations “quality of life” ranking of #5 in the world, Finland is at last solidly on her feet and thriving in the new millennium.

This history affects many of this entry’s Finn Facts.


Language and Literature: Because it was the language of a conquered people through most of its history, the written Finnish language is rather recent, and therefore quite pure – meaning that pronunciation vis à vis spelling is very consistent (as opposed to English where “ough” has at least 6 pronunciations). The intricacy comes in the way words are put together in their 14 or 15 case structures (there are 3 in English), the plethora of double letters (which the Finns can hear when they talk but I can’t), and the very unique vocabulary I secretly think was devised as code to keep their conquerors from understanding what the Finns were saying about them.

The first book written in Finnish wasn’t published until 1870, and today the Finns take great pride in their literature, especially the epic poem The Kalevala which catalogs the mythic deeds (and very bloody warfare) of witches, wizards and strongmen.

As an offshoot of this, it is very important to the Finns to retain uniquely Finnish given names as I mentioned in the last entry. One priest refused to christen a baby unless the parents used the Finnish spelling “Niko” and not their preferred spelling – “Nico”.

National Crafts: Finnish crafts are treasured and encouraged. There is a system of continuing education courses throughout the country where masters of Finnish crafts (like those trained in the craft school on Pikisaari Island) pass on their knowledge. This system is subsidized by the government, and the courses are very inexpensive. A three day needle felting class I took recently cost only 21 euros (about $25). Last weekend we went to an exhibition of some of the work done in these classes, and as the following pictures attest, the work is incredible. The nominal fee also allows people to take advanced classes in their interest area, which of course improves the quality of their work over the years.

 


 


 


 


 


 



 






The continuing education program also solicits ideas for other courses (only 10 participants are needed for a course to be set up), and in the school where I took my felting class, there are also courses in 15 different foreign languages. Last week I was the guest “native speaker” in my friend Rauni’s advanced English class which has about 30 class members of all ages who pay only 45 euros for 27 weeks of instruction!

Salaries and Taxes: The Finnish government – voted the most ethical in the world – is based on a social democratic system rooted in egalitarian values.

When someone is hired in Finland, he or she is guaranteed a living wage, so there’s no need to tip waiters, taxi drivers, hair dressers, etc. There’s even a kind of pride attached to not tipping, which is seen in a way as begging, or at least having to “act” nice so you get rewarded. We have been universally well-treated in restaurants, etc. even with the ‘no tipping’ policy.

And teachers are paid well here! Now THERE’S a first!!

Salaries are more equal here too. It is assumed that everyone contributes to making the country run, and therefore has worth. You become a doctor because you are smart and really want to become a doctor – not to make a fortune! They follow my philosophy of asking if the president of the company and the janitor were gone for a week, whose absence would you notice?

When Marja-Liisa and I were downtown one day we passed an old drunk who was begging. She told me to ignore him because he drew a good pension from the government and had no need to beg. There are no homeless people in Finland either, although Roy insists it’s probably because they all freeze to death in November.

Taxes are high in Finland, there are few loopholes, and they are pro-rated according to salary. Thus a pensioner’s tax burden might be only 5% while the wealthy may pay 60% in taxes. There are few ultra wealthy Finns, and no Finn lives below poverty level.

There is a high sales tax here too – 22% -- standard in EU countries. However, the VAT tax on goods is added into the price advertised for a product. If something is marked 50 Euros, that’s what you pay. Not a penny more. No surprises at check-out time in hotels either. Your room rate always includes tax. Not only does this make it easier to plan, it also cuts way back on societal grousing about taxes on goods, because in a way, you never see it!

And speaking of grousing, Finland has devised a system to guarantee that university students take care of school property and don’t complain about food, because the students themselves own the cafeterias and the dorms! A board of students oversees the operation of both. Grousers and defacers are dealt with by their peers. Gives real meaning to the Pogo quote, “We have met the enemy and they are us!”

We haven’t heard a single person complain about their taxes because Finns see what they get for their money – health care, free education through university, good salaries and pensions, a great infrastructure, etc. To celebrate Oulu’s 400th anniversary, the city council announced that the wireless local area network would be extended citywide with 400 new base stations. In addition, all Oulu citizens will get their own free e-mail address and diskspace for individual Web pages. Oulu will also offer a helpdesk for this technology. This will make Oulu one of the most advanced information society communities in the world! These are halcyon days in Finland, and the people really take pride in the country they’re building.

Incentives: Finland has a cup-half-full philosophy to encourage people to do the “right thing,” using incentives to get the job done. We already told you about recycling here. Well, people do it because it makes their trash pick up bill lower. From everything I’ve seen it’s sort of an honor system, at least in our townhouse complex since I don’t see the trash police coming by to see how much garbage we have.

As an aside, Juha told us a great story about the start of the recycling project here. There was a big media campaign to get everyone geared up for separating light cardboard, cans, plastic, newspaper, etc. It seems this media effort reached everyone except the actual guys picking up the trash. The first week of the new plan, along came the garbage truck systematically picking up the bins and dumping them all into the same truck. Juha said Oulu citizens’ complaints could be heard all over Finland, and by the next week the garbage guys had figured out how to make the new system work!

Other incentives: You pay for the bottle or can up front! Therefore, it behooves you to bring the empties back. And if you don’t, the extra collected pays for someone to clean up after you.

At the university, Roy reports that a cup of coffee in the university’s cup costs 90¢. In your own cup it costs 60¢!

Doctors charge by the time they spend with you. If you want to sit and tell them the begats of your latest illness, it’ll cost you – an incentive to keep your talks with the doctor focused on the business at hand!

And in the most ingenious incentive of all, at the big supermarkets the shopping carts are hitched together with a chain between each one (sort of the trunk-to-tail idea). When you insert a one Euro coin, the coin stays in the slot, but it pushes the chain out so you can use the cart. When you’re done with the cart you put it back in the queue, insert the chain from the cart in front of yours, and your coin comes out. Since you also bag your own items, there are no baggers and cart retrievers employed at the grocery stores. Finland doesn’t have these workers because they simply can’t afford to pay a decent salary to people who are really unnecessary in the supermarket experience.

All for One and One for All: Because of their history, the Finns know they need to pull together and that their nation has to be united to remain strong. This mentality permeates everything. I gave one example awhile back about the compulsory military service until age 60. Here are some other examples:

Finland has a “Public Domain” policy. As long as you respect people’s property, you have the right to hunt, berry pick, and hike on their land.

None of the mailboxes in Oulu are secured. Instead they are plastic bins with individuals’ names to identify whose is whose. It’s just taken for granted that no one will steal the mail. Of course stealing the mail would be a problem anyway, since there are no checks in Finland. Salaries are electronically deposited, and bills are paid the same way. Today I saw a “Mail Bike” parked outside a café with 2 large unsecured saddlebags of mail slung over the back fender. The mailman was in having a cup of coffee, certain that no one would steal anything while he was away.



At least here in Oulu, few bikes are locked either. It’s not uncommon to see a bike or two sitting by a bus stop, left by owners who are 99% certain that the bikes will still be there when they return for them.



Parking lots have posts with electrical boxes on them to plug in engine block heaters during the cold winter months. People leave their cars plugged in, with the car hood ajar, certain no one will tamper with their vehicles.



A final example here seems to sum up all of the Finn Facts I’ve been talking about today.

There is one woman in our doll ventures who became a millionaire when she and her husband sold their business. When people mentioned her before I met her, 4 different references to her name also included the fact that she was a millionaire. This wasn’t said in a pejorative way, but as something that really set her apart. This woman gives classes in making teddy bears, but because she is a millionaire she doesn’t charge students for the classes. See? The system works if everyone is on the same page about what’s important…

There are now 19 hours of daylight, the buskers are appearing on Oulu’s walking street, ice cream vendors are setting up for the summer, and outside seating areas are sprouting at the cafes. Justin’s coming in on Friday, so our next entry will cover May Day in Helsinki, a trip to Tallin, Estonia, and Justin’s insights. Stay tuned.

I’ll leave you with some pictures we took last weekend of Haukipudas, a village just outside Oulu.

Cheers!

Sarah



Tuesday, May 03, 2005 

May Day and Tallinn


Hi Everyone,

Hope I didn’t scare you off with my history lesson last time! To make up for it, this blog entry is filled with spring revelry and pictures. Here goes!

Last weekend we met Justin in Helsinki just in time for the May Day celebration, known as Vappu here. This national holiday is part St. Walpurgis Day (the smallest part although that’s where the name Vappu comes from), part workers’ holiday akin to our Labor Day, part rites of spring, and part recognition of students (the biggest part). In Helsinki it starts at 6 p.m. on Walpurgis Eve, when the statue of Havis Amanda – the symbol of the city – is “capped,” and continues through the night with revelry, rock bands set up at various points in town, lots of drinking, and some hungover picnicking the next day. Of course there’s special food associated with this holiday – a kind of funnelcake fritter called Tippaleivät and mead called Sima, a mildly alcoholic drink associated with spring. For the recipes,
click here.

We headed out early on April 30th to see the marketplace before the festivities began. The Helsinki marketplace is right at the harbor, and vendors set up outside early each morning to sell everything from flowers to fish to woolens.

 


 


 




One difference we noticed in the marketplace which signaled that this day would be different, however, was a cadre of balloon vendors selling wonderfully imaginative mylar creations to passersbys.

 




At about 2:30, the conventional merchants packed up their wares, and carnival vendors took their place with streamers, noisemakers, masks, leis, silly hats, and some downright rude paraphernalia to hawk to the revelers.

As we wandered around, we saw young people in jumpsuits which one wag suggested made them look like escapees from a cable installers’ convention. These jumpsuits were of every color of the rainbow, and were decorated with patches – lots and lots of patches. We learned that different disciplines of the university adopt different colored jumpsuits, and the folks wearing them tended to move in packs, creating pockets of color like spring flowers in the growing crowd of people. Many of the troops also carried a kind of smallish boat captain’s hat which we learned was the official hat of university students. The tradition is that partygoers can’t put their caps on until Havis Amanda, nicknamed “Manta,” gets hers. Many, many alumni also come back for the May Day homecoming, and proudly don their student caps (though not the jumpsuits) for the celebration.

 





By 5:30 p.m. the marketplace and adjoining park was filled with 45,000 party-goers, us included. People were moving in waves toward the statue, and we moved with them, ending up with a pretty good view of the festivities. We’ll let the pictures of the ritual take over at this point.






After “Manta” got her cap, champagne corks popped, caps were donned, and the partying began. Roy and I had a beer with Justin and the other revelers, before heading back for a sedate dinner at the hotel while Justin joined the street party.




The next morning dawned much too early for Justin’s liking, but we’d all decided the day before to take the ferry over to Tallinn, Estonia to visit their picturesque Old Town. After a false start to buy tickets (we forgot to bring our passports!), the later ferry didn’t allow us as much time as we would have liked for our visit, but probably a week wouldn’t have been enough time! The walled medieval city, with buildings painted in lovely Easter egg pastels, was absolutely charming. We wandered from the “lower” town up the narrow cobblestone streets to the “upper” town and a spectacular view of tiled rooftops and the harbor. Estonian handcrafts were displayed both in small shops and in tiny alcoves and alleys – woolens, linens, carvings, and painted silk – at amazingly low prices.

We stopped at a tiny coffee house with only 6 tables and felt like we’d time- traveled to the 16th century. Heavy dark wood furniture and carved woodwork crowned gothic style windows and 3 foot thick stone walls. Candles were the only light on the tables, and cups of cappucino, and pastries for the three of us came to less than $10. We remarked that the very things that made the place so picturesque wouldn’t be allowed in the U.S. because it would be against code!

We’ve promised ourselves that our next visit to Tallinn will allow us time to really explore the city!

 


 


 








On Monday Justin headed to Stockholm by ferry, and then on to Copenhagen. He’ll fly to Oulu on Friday, and next week we’ll take him up to a ski resort near the Arctic Circle for some spring skiing before he has to return to the States. Our days are nearly 20 hours long now. The Blue Moment, which Justin recognized when it happened, doesn’t occur until 11 p.m. Amazing!

More later,

Sarah

Friday, May 13, 2005 

A Trip to Ruka


Hi Everyone,

Last Tuesday, Roy, Justin, and yours truly DROVE to Ruka, a ski resort in Eastern Lapland about 210 kilometers from Oulu. We’d consulted bus and train schedules, but since we were day tripping, a rental car seemed the best option. It also provided yet another adventure since we hadn’t driven anywhere in Finland (or Europe for that matter).

Hertz was happy to provide us with a brand new Ford Fiesta, Roy signed on as chauffeur, and we set off!



Shortly after leaving Oulu, we entered Reindeer Country. In Lapland, the semi-domesticated reindeer herds roam free (remember the Public Domain Policy?), and outside every town is a sign reminding folks of that fact.



Our Lonely Planet book warned of motorist/reindeer encounters and admonished that since there are 230,000 reindeer wandering around Lapland drivers should slow down when they spot one, “regardless of its location, direction, or speed.” The book says that reindeer move slowly and don’t respond to car horns “nor do they seem to feel that vehicles deserve the right of way.” Because reindeer adhere so stubbornly to this philosophy over 3000 of them are killed every year…

Not 30 kilometers from the first sign, we spotted a group of 4 reindeer nonchalantly nibbling grass on the edge of the highway. By the time we’d returned home at 9:30 that evening, we’d come across 10 more groups with from 4 to 8 reindeer per covey.


The reindeer in this picture are interesting because one has only one antler. Both male and female reindeer have antlers, and shed them in the spring – not necessarily both at the same time from the look of things! Of the reindeer we saw, some still had last year’s antlers, some had shed their antlers and were awaiting new ones, and some had beautiful new velvety antlers.

As we traveled north and east, we noticed that the trees were often covered with a soft greenish-grey growth not seen in the Oulu area. This turned out to be Reindeer Moss, which really isn’t a moss at all. This lichen comes by its name for two reasons: 1) it is eaten by the reindeer especially in the winter when ground foraging is impossible, and 2) it looks for all the world like reindeer antlers! To learn more about Reindeer Moss,
click here.


 

On our way to Ruka, the flat terrain that we’ve come to expect in Finland gave way to hill country, and we passed beautiful lakes that varied in size from less than an acre to over 15 acres. I hadn’t expected to see lakes in Lapland, but if you look at a map of Finland, I think there are enough lakes overall so that all Finns could claim one for their very own! The lakes in Lapland were in varying degrees of losing their winter ice. We saw only one where people still were venturing out to fish.




We stopped for lunch in Taivalkoski, where the old guys in the café eyed us somewhat suspiciously, but the ladies serving up the moose, mashed potatoes and salad were welcoming, and the food was delicious!

Near Ruka, there are many cabins built in classic Scandinavian style with heavy logs placed very close together so that no chinking is required. These cabins are either left to weather naturally or painted in deep earthy colors that are a completely different palate than the bright primary colors on the clapboard houses in our area.


We had been warned that the road to the ski resort was very winding, and we anticipated a Cottonwood Pass series of switchbacks. Well, I suppose by Finnish standards, where the roads are as straighe although it is the second biggest ski resort in Finland, with 28 runs – the longest of which is 1300 meters – and a handful of expert slopes. But Ruka boasts the longest ski season in Finland, opening in mid-October and not closing until mid-June!! It was also host this year to the international free style championships, and the jumps built for that competition were still challenging a few snowboarders even in mid-May. To learn more about Ruka, click here.


 



 

 




Justin decided no vacation in Finland would be complete without an hour or 2 on the slopes, so we cobbled together a passable assembly of gear, and he was even able to rent his brand of telemark boots and skis in good condition. You can see from his grin that he was in his element! And because it was mid-week in mid-May, he quite literally had the slopes to himself!


 

garnishes of sour cream, parsley, and red onion before heading home.


We hadn’t traveled far before we were pulled over at a road block by the local sheriff who happily switched from Finnish to English when we looked confused, and subjected our chauffeur to a sobriety test. Roy blew into a tube, passed with flying colors, and we were on our way. (Look again at the picture above for proof that Roy was drinking coffee!) We were so taken aback by the stop that we didn’t even think to take a picture!

As an aside, we had learned how strict the Finns are about their drunk driving laws from Markku, who drove us around one afternoon, but took the car home and came back on his bike before having a beer with us after our outing. The maximum legal limit for alcohol in Finland is 0.05 – quite a bit lower than in the U.S.

But the true hour of reckoning came when we had to fill the gas tank. With gas priced at nearly $6.40 a gallon, the true cost of traveling by car was astounding!


 

 




 

One of the most fun parts of our trip was finding road signs that we hadn’t noticed when we traveled by bus and train. Here are a few that we thought were especially fun, as well as some that we couldn’t figure out at all!





 



 




 



 



 


For what these signs really mean, click here. Wish we’d studied this site BEFORE we left instead of finding it after we’d come home!

Hope this finds you well and enjoying the warm weather and longer days. Here in the far north, we officially have no more true night time darkness. As Justin remarked, “It just becomes the Blue Moment for about 3 hours and then the sun comes up again.” And Justin should know, since he has been enjoying the singles scene in Oulu where the fun begins at about 10 p.m. with karaoke and bikini and line dancing contests, and the bars don’t close until 4 a.m. Justin will leave on Sunday, and Jared and Alison arrive Tuesday. Just time to wash the sheets and towels between visits.

We’ll leave you with some professional pictures of Ruka from their Web site.

More soon,

Sarah


Saturday, May 28, 2005

A Weekend in St. Petersburg

Hi Everyone,

We’ve just returned from a whirlwind week in Helsinki and St. Petersburg with Jared and Alison. We met them last Tuesday and saw the Helsinki sights on Wednesday. Thursday the 19th was Jared’s 30th birthday (Yikes! My youngest is 30!), and he and Alison celebrated by going to Tallinn for the day. That evening we ventured to Garlic, our favorite Helsinki restaurant, for a birthday feast of smoked salmon and reindeer kabobs -- absolutely delicious! Even nature seemed to be celebrating as you’ll see from the pictures.




 


 



The next morning we set off by train for St. Petersburg. Visa restrictions had been a bit onerous since Russia requires a passport valid for 6 months AFTER your visit, but we were all able to qualify although Justin was not able to make the trip because of that restriction during his stay with us.

 



I was sort of bracing myself, since I had gone to Russia 20 years ago with a tour group (the only way you could travel then without the KGB following your every move) and remembered bad food, dirty hotel rooms, drip dry toilet paper, a confounding alphabet, and rules and regulations designed to intimidate foreigners.

After being told by the officials that we could not leave our train car as we passed into Russia, and a long look at our passports to make sure we were who we said we were, we arrived in St. Petersburg and were bused to the gigantic Hotel Moscow. They had promised we were staying in newly renovated rooms, and wow, what a difference from my previous experience. The rooms were indeed renovated, clean, and even had fairly soft toilet paper and a lovely view of the River Neva, although the English language newspaper headlines gave us pause.

 


 


 



Reading the fine print, it said that the guards wouldn’t strike until the end of the month, so we breathed a sigh of relief and set out to explore the city.

When Peter founded St. Petersburg (conveniently named for St. Peter and only by coincidence for the Tsar) he pictured a combination of Amsterdam, Venice, and Paris. That was fairly easy to accomplish, since the city’s land is marshy and canals help direct excess water to the Neva – St. Petersburg’s “Seine.”
 







 








Our first stop was the Church on Spilled Blood (or Savior on the Spilled Blood), a memorial built over the spot where Tsar Alexander II was killed in 1881 by terrorists. The church took 24 years to build, and both the interior and exterior are decorated top to bottom with 7,000 square meters of mosaics done in semi-precious stone. During the Soviet years, the church became a warehouse (!) and deteriorated badly, but in 1997, after 27 years of restoration, the church opened again as a museum. It is a magnificent feast for the eyes, and Jared, who makes his living from his paintings and graphic art work, especially was awestruck by the craftsmanship and beauty. Although the entrance fee is steep (about $10), it’s well worth the money if you visit St. Petersburg!

 




 




 




In the plaza facing the church is an open air market filled to overflowing with Russian crafts and souvenirs. Twenty years ago, our group had to shop in the city’s sparsely supplied state-run store where surly, bored clerks would take only “hard currency”, otherwise known as U.S. dollars, since the ruble had no value. The craft items offered then were all locally made, since countrywide distribution even for food, let alone craft items, was nonexistent. Again, what a difference a couple of decades make! Entrepreneurial vendors cheerfully hawked their wares in flawless English, took any form of money you wanted to offer, and displayed an impressive variety of lacquered boxes, nesting dolls, amber jewelry, outdated Soviet medals, furs, and gewgaws. Alison and I both had to splurge!








 



An entrepreneurial spirit (found only in gypsy cab drivers and black marketers 20 years ago) was evident in other areas as well. In back of the church was a row of 3 port-a-potties. A 50ish matron had set up her “office” in one of them, and was running a flourishing service industry in the other two by charging 10 rubles (36¢) a “go”.

 


Jared and Roy immediately saw a flaw in her business plan, pointing out that she could increase her profits by one/third if she opened her “office” to the public as well.

What a transition it must have been for the Russian people in 1991, when within 4 months the structure of the Soviet Union collapsed, and citizens could no longer depend on “Mother Russia” to care for them from cradle to grave. In 1985, nearly 80% of the population was employed by the State. And while budding capitalists have survived and flourished in the new Russia, others have foundered. We saw many homeless people in St. Petersburg. Alison saw one old woman fish a plastic pop bottle out of the trash and drink the dregs. At sidewalk cafes, hungry eyes followed the movement of food to mouths, while uncaring crowds of well-dressed citizens pushed past them in the street.

The Russian entrepreneurial spirit has also taken a decidedly dark turn. Pickpockets roam the streets preying on tourists and local citizens alike. We had 4 close calls – at least that we were aware of – in 2 days. Of course waving maps around, aimless wandering, cameras draped around our necks, Penn State t-shirts, baseball caps, and backpacks might have targeted us!

The techniques used were fascinating. Besides the simple one-on-one hand in the pocket, a family of beggars used kids as distracters (hard to resist). Another group of about 10 women and children swarmed its victims, aggressively following them sometimes for a block or two. A “friendly” guy in the metro station gave Roy and me directions in English, and then followed us onto the car. He and an accomplice stood in front of us – too close in the sparsely populated car – and he faced Roy (and his leather fanny pack) with a newspaper held between them that he was “reading”. I was standing next to Roy and the other guy stood in front of me with his back to me. Fortunately the car didn’t lurch in its journey, and their “bump, swipe, and transfer” tactic was foiled.

Jared and Alison had a different sort of experience that was even more disturbing. A policeman swaggered up to Jared in the Metro station and sneeringly asked for his passport. When Jared produced a “hotel” card which we had been told we should carry instead of a passport to prevent the theft of that all-important document, the policeman said that wasn’t good enough. We had read in the guidebook that if this happened to just pay whatever bribe was demanded. Fortunately they were close to the hotel, and the policeman knew Alison could go quickly for assistance. So after some posturing, Jared was finally told to get rid of the soda he was carrying (against Metro rules, it seems) and the extortion attempt was sidestepped.

Our “raison d’être” in St. Petersburg was to visit the Hermitage and its treasures. Even the plaza in front of the 4 buildings which make up this gigantic art museum was fascinating. History seemed to echo across its expanse, and we could envision the peasants armed with pitchforks and sticks pitted against the Tsar’s mounted calvary in 1917, and the 1991 citizens’ rebellion before the Soviet Union’s collapse when the populace nervously waited there for retribution which never materialized. On the day we visited, it was business as usual with a few souvenir kiosks in operation, tourists gaping at the sights, and some teenagers seemingly unaware of their surroundings’ historical significance.
 






Once we negotiated entry (we couldn’t use a credit card without a passport, which of course we’d been told not to carry around…), we were transported into visual Nirvana. Not only are the great masters of art displayed. The rooms themselves have been restored to show the magnificence of Imperial Russia.
 



 


 


 



We were somewhat disappointed because several of the Impressionist galleries were closed. But our reward was discovering the grandeur of Rembrandt. His masterpieces hang in 4 contiguous rooms, and we spent at least 2 hours going slowly from painting to painting, marveling at his look into the souls of his subjects. Jared was especially intrigued with his brushstroke techniques and frequently set off what we came to call the “Jared alarm” trying to get close enough to see how he accomplished his magic. We were so enthralled that we forgot to take pictures, but to see some of these glorious paintings, click here.

The weather in St. Petersburg was beautiful during our visit, with the temperature in the mid-60s. As we wandered the streets after we left the Hermitage, I took some photos of people and the Russian versions of American enterprise.




 



 



 


 


The 60th anniversary celebration of the end of WWII had taken place in Russia on May 9th. St. Petersburg residents had suffered terribly during the war when the city was surrounded by the German army. During the 3 ½ year siege, 16,000 people were killed, 30,000 were injured, and over 600,000 died of starvation. The signs commemorating May 9th were still in evidence throughout the city, and represented several graphic styles as well as a series featuring photographs from the war.

 



 


 







The signs of deterioration on all but the most prominent buildings in St. Petersburg were heart breaking. Crumbling plaster facades, mildewed paint, and columns holding up sagging roofs were evident on side streets away from the tourist promenades. Russia’s economy is fragile, and even when repairs are undertaken, as on the clock tower photo which follows, there are seldom railings or safety harnesses to protect the workmen. The city also suffers from pollution. There are no catalytic converters on cars, and although most of the population seems oblivious to St. Petersburg’s “brown cloud”, we felt gritty and smelled of exhaust after a day of walking in the city.
 







 


On Saturday night we managed to snag the last 4 tickets for the ballet at the Mariinsky theater (formerly the Kirov) which has been restored inside and out to its baroque splendor. The evening’s offering – Le Corsaire – was a rather silly tale of brave pirates, fair maidens, a lascivious sultan, and a corrupt Turkish regiment, but the sets were sumptuous, the costumes were beautiful, and the dancing – well, since the company has a 222 year history of training the best dancers in the world, the dancing was simply divine!
 





 


 


Our overall impressions of St. Petersburg were contradictory, and finally, sad. There is no question that it is an architectural and artistic treasure box. The jewels that have been polished nearly blind you with their beauty, while others lay tarnished and seemingly forgotten.

The people have been hardened by circumstance and history. The young people who parade along Nevsky Prospekt during the long twilight evenings are stylish and hip, yet guarded and cold even toward one another. Capitalism has dressed them up, but their attitude seems to suggest that anything – and everyone – has a price. Alison, who is never shy about approaching strangers to ask directions, commented that no one seemed genuinely helpful or friendly. She said many just waved her away without making eye contact, and that the only smiles she saw were from vendors trying to sell her something. Roy said the visit unfortunately confirmed what he acknowledges is a prejudice about Russian attitudes and avarice. Jared summed up his thoughts by saying he thought the city was a cross between Paris and Tijuana.

The thing I marveled at most was the dichotomy between the Russians and the Finns. Finland was dominated by Russia for over 200 years, yet the contrast between their world views could not be more different. Having lived for 5 months in a country where ethics and honesty are a way of life, the elaborate security system we were encouraged to use in the hotel and the need for guarding our belongings while sightseeing depressed me. I started walking one step behind Roy to keep an eye on the backpack he was wearing, and found that somewhat paranoid precaution hard to break even after we returned to Helsinki.

In 1985 when I got the photos I took on the trip developed, I was surprised by pictures showing bright sunshine, green grass, and flowers. In my memory the landscape and the sky were grey. Sadly, after 20 years I still have the same impression.

I’ll close with some of the beauty we found in St. Petersburg that seems to contradict my personal reflections.
 



 





 


 


And finally some photos which should bring a smile.

Cheers!

Sarah
 



 



 



 



 


 

Thursday, June 02, 2005 

Oulu Farewell

Hi Everyone,

It’s early Thursday morning in our last week in Oulu. As I sit in the living room watching a seagull fly toward the sea and waiting for Henry our neighborhood hedgehog to trundle by on his daily rounds, I’m aware of how much we’ll miss our life here.

Last Thursday before they left for Stockholm, Jared and Alison joined us for a farewell outing planned by Roy’s Oulu University colleagues. We traveled by van to Kierikki, an archeological site on Ii river about 30 kilometers from Oulu, where researchers have found evidence of a colony over 5000 years old. A beautiful visitors’ center has been built on the site using Finnish log construction in which the logs are nested tightly so there is no need for chinking. At the dig, after the artifacts were excavated, a Stone Age village was constructed, and guides in dressed in leather and animal pelts explain how the inhabitants lived.

 


The first order of business when we arrived was a toast of champagne, a gift for Roy of a beautiful book with images of Northern Finland, and tearful hugs all around.



Then we spent the day learning if we could survive in the Stone Age. The guides divided us into the Seal tribe and the Deer tribe (led by Roy, naturally), and we competed in trap construction, splitting firewood with sharpened stones, boiling water with rocks heated in the fire, fashioning slate jewelry by “drilling” holes in it with quartz, “hunting” with bows and arrows, and cooking venison over the open fire. Great fun! The Deer tribe won, although the all-female Seal tribe I was on served the venison with more style (and taste) by using juniper berries as a rub for the meat, and garnishing the birch bark “plates” with sprigs of pine and lingon berries.

 


 


 


Sunday we had dinner with Marja-Liisa and Markku at their home. I took some Colorado Columbine that I had started from seed for their garden, and learned another interesting Finn Fact. Marja-Liisa told me she couldn’t thank me directly for the flowers (or in this case, the flowers-to-be) because it is considered bad luck. I’m sure if we lived here for a decade, we’d still be learning the fascinating quirks and customs of this country! After a delicious meal, we walked to Rauni and Pekka’s house for dessert. Rauni had 5 different desserts for us to try, after which the men retired to the porch with a bottle of cognac, and Marja-Liisa, Rauni, and I had a great chat. It was my turn fothe 15th century. The church built in 1694 and many farm and logging industry buildings from the 18th and 19th century form an open air museum there where demonstrations of tar making, salmon fishing, and log floating take place every summer. We wandered the grounds visiting the classic log and clapboard buildings, and finding picture perfect settings everywhere we looked. What a wonderful way to end our time in Oulu, and what great company we had!

 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


Now we are packing furiously, and Marja-Liisa and I will meet one last time at the Central Market after she gets off work on Friday so she can help me tell my “reindeer man” who speaks not a word of English that I do not want my smoked reindeer sliced this time, but to leave it whole so I can bring it back to the States.

What an adventure this has been! I’ll miss the crystalline snow, the breathtaking cold, our walks to the sea, and of course, the “Blue Moments” that never failed to fill me with awe.

I’ll miss the Finnish way of life. I’ve learned that Simplicity can encompass everything from architectural line and functional beauty to sharing what we have and how we treat our environment and our neighbors. The Finnish way of life is Simple in its most profound and refined sense.

Most of all, I’ll miss my good friends – Irja, whose parting gift to me was a wonderful new tool for dollmaking; Rauni, whose joy for living is contagious and whose doll costuming and miniatures creation is outstanding; Toini, who taught me needle-felting, and honored me last week in the doll maker’s newsletter she edits with a long article and colored photos of my dolls; Eija, whose gentle spirit and elegant, pure designs seem to epitomize Finnish creative style; and of course Marja-Liisa, who enriched my experience here more than any other single person, and whose beautiful art inspires me to try harder at my own.

Roy asked me recently if I had any “I wish I had’s” about our time here. There is only one. I wish I had learned the language. The longer I was here, the more I wanted to participate fully in the community, to understand the local newscasts, to read events posters, to engage our neighbors. Learning Finnish would have helped me accomplish that.

But I’ll go home very satisfied with our Finland adventure. Marja-Liisa and Markku will visit at the end of June, and I’ll add a P.S. to our blog then.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for taking part in this adventure with us. You’ve encouraged me to do more research and see things more vividly that I would have on my own. You all have made my life richer, and I’m grateful.

I’ll leave you with some favorite pictures of Oulu, the marketplace, and the beautiful park in city centre, with thanks to Jared and Alison for contributing some of the photos in both the St. Petersburg entry and this one.

See you in the States!

Sarah