Sunday, October 31, 2010


One of the things that surprises English speakers about Finland is that the usual assortment of holidays that Americans grow up celebrating are greatly diminished or even absent in this culture.  Whereas Christmas stuff has probably been seen in stores for two months already in the States, our local supermarket stocked its shelves with holiday candies and treats (Glögi, yum!) only this week.  And apart from the small pumpkins with jack-o'-lantern eyes and mouth stickers applied to one side, it would be easy to forget completely about Halloween.  Apparently the Great American Holiday Consumer culture is slowly making its way here, with Halloween becoming more and more visible each year, but up until recently it wasn't celebrated at all.

Finnish culture isn't completely without its harvest festivals, though.  In older times Kekri was the last day of the year, a time to celebrate the harvest before battening down the hatches for a long winter.  Some of its traditions have been rolled into Joulu/Christmas celebrations or are celebrated on the New Year of the current calendar, but Kekri was originally celebrated on the same days as other European harvest festivals - the end of October and the beginning of November.  And so, amateur folklore junkie that I am, I tagged along with my roommate to the Kekri feast organized by the Finnish folk religion organization, Taivannaula. As traditional dress is encouraged at these events, I was glad to have my Viking age garb with me, and because I wasn't sure what I was in for, picked up a cheap sleeping bag for 4 euros at the local Salvation Army store.

The location of the celebration was a cabin camping area in the southern part of Seitseminen National Park, northwest of Tampere.  The area is surrounded by protected wildlife areas with old-growth forest, something quite rare in southern Finland.  In order to get there Christine and I had to take a bus from the center of Turku to someplace about an hour north, only to be picked up by car for another two-hour drive.  We were following the directions from a GPS navigator that took us from paved roads to a dirt road that became smaller and smaller as we went, eventually becoming a railroad maintenance path barely wide enough to accommodate the car!  It was quite a harrowing off-road adventure, given that it was completely dark and we had nothing but a completely insane GPS device leading the way, but we arrived safely in time to claim a bed and unpack a bit.  The cabin itself was a three-room wooden building with bunk beds along the walls, fireplaces in each room, and solar-panel lights that we opted to conserve in favor of candle and fireplace lighting.  One room was the kitchen, with a wood stove and sink but no faucet (no plumbing: water was pumped by hand outside) , one room was the main living room with a huge table that managed to accommodate all 23 of us for the feast, and one room that was a bedroom with a smaller table.  Each room had its own fireplace and plenty of windows for a view of the forest.  There was one building outside for chopping wood, an outhouse, and a huge sauna building, also entirely wood-fueled.  In the middle of all the buildings was a campfire area and some benches.  A line of small candles along the paths between the different buildings lit the way after dark.  The beds themselves included pillows and thick heavy blankets, and though we were told we only needed to bring sheets, I was happy to have my ghetto sleeping bag with me.  When it got chilly at night we lit the fireplaces, and even the next morning it was still quite toasty - Christine remarked that the wooden building held in heat better than our modern student apartment, and I had to agree.  And the atmosphere was much cozier.  While I'm happy to return to my electricity and flush toilets, I could easily spend a couple of weeks out at such a cabin.

Friday night most people were still arriving, but there was some socializing as well.  Everyone greeted everyone else with hugs all around, which was unusual for me because, well, Finns are not usually the "hugs all around" kind of people.  I took a liking to them right away.  Several others had either Viking age garb as well, or more traditional Finnish clothing like lapikkaat and vests with white buttoned shirts.  I had brought my array of traditional Finnish instruments, and there was much singing and playing of drums, kanteles, mouth harps, and my jouhikko (the envy of just about everyone else).  Probably the coolest part of Friday was playing a couple of tunes on my jouhikko, only to be joined by a drummer and some spontaneous singing that was somehow in the same rhythm I was playing.  I had a blast just jamming with people!  Later that night was sauna time, with the wonderful thick steam from the wood sauna, and old fashioned bathing with birch twigs and washing yourself with a ladle and bucket.  Afterwards I was relaxed enough to fall directly asleep upon my return to the cabin, to the sounds of singing coming from the main room, light from the fireplace flickering on the wall, and the smell of wood smoke hanging in the air.

Next morning I awoke to the sounds of yet more people arriving, and more importantly, porridge on the stove!  My stomach reminded me that I hadn't had dinner the night before and propelled me into the kitchen for some rye porridge with sugar, milk, and cloudberry jam.  In the main room a shrine to peoples' ancestors and dead relatives had been set up with photographs and small objects that people had inherited from their families.  Christine brought a picture of her Finnish grandmother from Fairport Harbor and I had some printouts of my grandparents; my grandmother who passed away last year around this time, and my grandfather, who had passed away just the previous day.  The end of October has become a particularly reflective time for me when it comes to remembering my dead relatives, because it seems that each year there's a new name on the roster.  I added the photos to the shrine and lit a couple of candles for them.  Most of Saturday was spent preparing the feast, except for a moment when we heard some knocking from the outside of the walls and saw some smudged faces and funny hats at the windows - kekripukkis were out and about!  This tradition comes from the days when the farmhands had their one vacation a year during Kekri, and would dress up in silly old clothes and go to the different houses demanding booze and being mischievous.  They ran around goosing the women, and threatened to carry of the host of the household, even picking him up and carrying him to the door, until their demands for booze were met.  Trick or treat, indeed!  Finally their thirst was sated and they retreated to the sauna (where we found some of their clothing afterwards).  Now it was time for some epic food.  By the time everyone had settled in with their plates and silverware, there were 23 of us crammed in around the table.  We all gave a short introduction of ourselves and where we were from - only me and Christine and another guy Anssi were representing Turku, but others had come from all over: Vaasa, Helsinki, Tampere, Eura, Kuopio, and even Oulu.  There was a short solemn moment to memorialize the people represented on the altar that couldn't be there, and a plate of food prepared to represent the place where they would sit.  Then the food started to come out... just from memory, here's a list of some of the dishes: veggie and lamb pies, mushroom pie, casseroles made from carrot, rutabaga, and potato, boiled eggs, roasted chicken, sausages, at least three kinds of homemade cheese, three kinds of bread, plum and lingonberry jam, cubed rutabagas (which I learned were also called "swedes", after some confusion about swedes being an important part of the Finnish diet!), and there was homemade sima and sahti to drink.  Then there was dessert array: white chocolate truffle, berry pudding, cranberry fudge, and some cheesecake-like pastry.  After that huge dinner everyone gathered around the campfire outside to sing the origin of fire, an excerpt from Kalevala, while the campfire was started, and then we all went into the sauna again.  Beer was thrown on the sauna rocks, which smelled like burning bread, and vihtas were passed around for whoever felt like some invigorating self-flagellation.  Later I brought my tar schnapps and kantele by the campfire and quietly played around with some melodies while everyone else chatted.  The Kekri host was, as tradition demanded, given plenty to drink.  Apparently if the host sways on his feet, so too the crops that year will sway in the wind.  But of the host falls down, the crops will also fall, so we did our best to keep the guy on his feet!  Once midnight came around, we celebrated the start of the new year with melting pieces of tin in the fireplace and then throwing the liquid blob into a bucket of cold water.  The shapes you get from the tin are supposed to tell what the coming year will bring.  Luckily everyone else seemed to know how to interpret what they were looking at, but supposedly I have some money coming my way.  I sure hope so!

Sunday morning was rough.  Some woke up and left early, since they had far to go, and the rest of us cleaned the place up, swept, collected bottled and cans, and did an unending flow of dishes.  I really, really wanted to sleep until afternoon, but alas, it wasn't to be.  However, before starting the long drive back to Turku, we did stop to take a nature path through some of the national forest to see some of the original, old-growth forest area.  Dead trees still stood tall and mosses hung from the branches like beards.  And during this time of year, the forest is really, truly silent - no noise from birds or chipmunks, only the sound of the branches high above and the sound of one's own breathing.  Even the footsteps are absorbed by the thick carpet of moss that covers everything.  After strolling around for an hour or so, the group exchanged hugs and went to our separate cars.  I passed out for almost the entire trip back.  Tonight, right now, actually, I'm missing a Turisas show down at Klubi, but there's really only so much partying one can do in a weekend and still wake up on Monday.  There will be other chances to see them play, but this weekend was really special, and there's only a couple times a year I can enjoy a weekend like this.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Socializing, or lack thereof

Before I moved here, I'd lived by myself for eight years.  I enjoy my time alone, my own space and the freedom to do or not do whatever I want there, the quiet atmosphere, and having a bathroom all to myself.  There are certain things you get used to doing on your own, all the time, over nearly a decade.  Now that I live with roommates again, there's the issue of other people in the house.  In a way it's nice to have a friend as a roommate, someone I can talk to whenever about whatever (in English, no less!).  Sometimes there's a little bit of friction from time to time when someone leaves their dishes on the drying rack for a week, doesn't clean up in the bathroom after themselves, et cetera.  I'm sure I do things that annoy others as well.  I walk around in my pajamas all the time - hell, there wouldn't even be pajamas if there weren't roommates.  But I think that keeping one thing in mind can alleviate most of the friction that comes with living with other people, and that's an awareness that someone else needs to use the common areas after you use them.  I don't think that younger people who have lived with their parents their whole lives understand that fact right out of the nest, but they can get a long way by acknowledging it.

There's also the arrangement of the apartment buildings themselves: one side of the building directly faces another building, so it's been an evening amusement to watch people through their various windows.  There's one room that always has an umbrella leaning against the wall, and other room where there's always a guy sitting at his computer with no curtains at all and nothing on his walls.  One neighbor does her dishes without a shirt on.  Most people have curtains up, but in rooms without curtains or if you forget to shut them in the evening, your life is pretty much on display to a wall of strangers.  Who needs television?

Usually I keep to myself and play on my computer or go for a walk.  But after getting some bad news about my grandfather, I didn't want to sit around and get depressed all night, so I decided to contact a friend and see if anything was going on.  One of the things I could always do in the states was call someone up and see if they wanted to hang out, watch a movie or TV show, go out to dinner, etc. and have social time every now and then.  Only being here a couple of months means I don't really have this network of friends yet, and I thought about how difficult it was to meet people here.  A couple of times I have gone out to a bar, only to find that everyone there was in large groups of friends already, and that there was no one by themselves to talk to.  Perhaps it's just that I don't really know how to go out and meet people that well, I've never been much of a bar fly, but there's just not that many other places to meet people.  There are university groups, but most of them are ten years younger than me.  There's also that fact that people here are by nature not sociable with random strangers.  Most of the friends I have here I've met simply by luck, or at a concert, or karaoke, or something similar, so perhaps I need to go do more of those things.  It's almost a complete reversal of how people interact in the States: people will just not talk to you on the bus or at a bar, but they'll sit naked next to you in a hot steamy room!

This week we have academic break, so except for my Iltalukio language classes, I have a free week ahead of me.  I think I'll try to do a bit of traveling, it would be nice to see Tallinn again for instance.  I need to get out and see some things while there's still daylight left to do it!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

And they say customer service doesn't exist here

A brief, nonscientific comparison of maintenance efficiency:

"Hello apartment maintenance, our rooms seem to get quite cold at night and our shower drain is running slowly."
Time to arrival of repair man: less than one hour

"Hello apartment maintenance, my toilet hose is leaking water and requires me to empty a bucket twice a day in order to prevent flooding."
Time to arrival of repair man: three weeks

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Even through the grey stone

Today is the birthday of Aleksis Kivi, Finland's national author and poet, and thus one of the flag days of Finland.  Instead of in the US, where every day is flag day, the flag is only flown on public buildings on various national holidays.  Kivi is significant in that he wrote the first novel in the Finnish language during a time when people generally only wrote in Swedish.  The novel, called The Seven Brothers, is a story about rural brothers who decide that they really don't particularly care to learn how to read or become part of society, and are quite happy having their drunken clumsy shenanigans out in the forest.  Eventually, though, they change their ways so that they can marry (for which literacy was - and still is - a prerequisite).  It was tempting to celebrate Kivi day appropriately by wearing shabby 19th-century clothes and birchbark shoes, going out into the woods, drinking heavily and accidentally burning things down, but instead I spent most of today inside reading up on some articles for a class.  Boring - but at least I got it done!

This week has also been a good week for shopping.  The Finnish answer to Macy's, Stockmann, occasionally has a five-day sale called Hullut Päivät, or Crazy Days.  The entire population of Turku can be seen walking around with yellow and black shopping bags, often 3 to 5 at a time, full of pillage and plunder.  I was on the lookout for a belt and some cheap towels (having left mine on the hanger during a sauna evening, only to find that they had been snatched up by some mysterious used-towel thief!) and figured I would make my way downtown to see what Hullut Päivät was all about.  The entire 3-story department store and adjoining mall were completely packed with people, making finding anything a matter of sheer luck, and the checkout lines were despairingly long.  I gave up on finding a belt but did find some towels, some of my usual American shampoo for slightly-less-than-highway-robbery prices, and some tights to wear under my jeans when it starts getting really cold.  There was nothing that could be considered in any way cheap, however.  I finally found some actual good deals when I checked out the Salvation Army store, where I found the elusive belt (along with some shirts, mugs and a cute knit hat).  The Salvation Army store is as large as any Goodwill in the States - and possibly clearner - and has quite a nice selection of stuff, so I think I'm going to have to check them out when I need something.

And now some school stuff: one of our courses is based on industrial cultural heritage, a subject that living in Pittsburgh for 10 years should already qualify me as passed.  The work for the course is entirely a research project.  It involves finding out what went on at the cotton factory in the town of Pori during its history based on a collection of 53 photos, and putting together as a team some kind of presentation to be delivered in January - in the actual building we are doing our research about (it's now the UTU campus in Pori).  The Finnish girl in our group, who's a Pori native, will probably be handling all the local connections and history gathering, the lady who's worked for the newspaper and teaching business English to Finns will likely be doing the write up itself, and I'll be handling the tech side and likely putting together some kind of PowerPoint presentation.  This is pretty exciting in that rather than just exist in a file folder somewhere, this is actual meaningful research that hasn't been done before, and may end up being a public presentation open to anyone hearing about the history of the university building!  So while the topic of 19th century textile manufacturing seems a bit dull, the fact that we're creating something new and presenting it to the public is pretty exciting.  I'm going to have to dust off my PowerPoint skills...

Well, it's free sauna time, so I'm off to partake.  I'll try to not forget my towels again.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fall colors

Nothing major this time, just a few random updates. There are a few things I really love about this time of year. Sure, the trees are all exploded in various colors from yellow to red, and the frosty morning air wakes me up faster and more effectively than any coffee. The days are nice and warm in the sun (since when is my definition of "warm" about 13C/55F!?) but sunset comes so quickly already - the sun sets around 7:00 now, but by December we'll be seeing daylight only from 9:30 to 3:30. It never struck me that people might actually need to take vitamin D supplements in pill form during the winter months until I saw the little bottles lined up on the shelves.

I finally got tired of buying only food and tickets to metal shows, so I did a little shopping. There's not much that's affordable beyond the secondhand stores, but the Swedish company H&M (which even has stores in the States now) is the closest thing to reasonable. Otherwise, be prepared to goggle at 200€ shoes, 400€ coats, and 250€ scarves at the high-ticket department stores. And ordering online isn't the answer either - customs intercepts and makes you pay taxes on things ordered cheaply from elsewhere. So H&M it was, and I found a couple of reasonably priced necessities such as socks, a jacket, non-metal-band shirts and for some reason, scarves. People are seriously into the scarf look here, so I thought I'd get some scarves and non-white socks in order to blend in a bit. Now they won't know I'm from the States until I start talking... but thanks to signing up for as many Finnish courses as I possibly could (I literally have some kind of Finnish practice five days a week), I continue to chip away at the language barrier piece by piece.  It's going to take some time, but I'll do what I always do: set a goal and just trudge slowly in that direction until I arrive.

I've borrowed some Finnish films from a friend, two of which have English subtitles (Pitkä Kuuma Kesä and FC Venus) and one that doesn't (Kaasua, Komisario Palmu!). The only time I miss my television is when I have a movie to watch! Relaxing in a swivel chair just isn't the same.  Hopefully I'll get around to watching them this week. Mainly I've been doing a bunch of reading for my classes along with the books I've borrowed from the library, which has left little time for movies.

Some interesting events coming up with the heavy metal club: Wednesday is some kind of "sauna and board games" event, which sounds like a great way to spend an evening to me. It's even right in my own apartment neighborhood, so it's nice and convenient.  Early next month is a heavy metal cruise, for which the university metal clubs from various cities around Finland have teamed up to basically rent most of a cruise ship, lined up several metal bands to play all night, and charge only 5,50€ per ticket. The first time Christine and I tried to sign up, it had sold out within the first couple of days, but we just got word tonight that they had reserved more cabins! As if the regular cruises weren't drunken floating Disneylands already, but now with a ton of metalheads it should mean maximum hijinks. Earlier that same day is a shooting outing organized by the student tenants' association, so that particular day should be extremely awesome.  The advert mentioned "air-, powder-, and spring weapons" so I'm not sure whether that includes actual guns or not, but either way; projectiles!  Yay!  Good times ahead...