Monday, January 17, 2011

Small town rock star, playing with fire, walking on water, and a real life Bohemian rhapsody

Time for a long update, there's been a lot going on this weekend!

First thing on Friday was a presentation I'd been working on for a class project since October: a collection of digitized pictures from a 1937 promotional book about the cotton factory in Pori. We were given the collection of pictures and told that it was our job to bring the factory to life: to find out about what went on in each of them, the process of manufacturing cotton itself along with as much history of the factory as we could find. As there was nothing in English about this factory, we had to rely on our sole Finn to translate what little there was out there for her to read, while we two Americans focused on the actual processing of cotton, which we figured must have been a similar process in English-speaking countries as well. We did our best to make sense of all the cotton manufacturing jargon and pieced it into a cohesive whole, and as a nice touch, we were to present it in the building itself: part of the factory complex is currently the Pori campus of the University of Turku. We figured that not too many people would be interested in this technical historical stuff, especially as it was being presented in English, but as the date got closer and closer, we started getting contacted first by various local newspapers and then YLE (the Finnish national broadcasting company, ie. The Evening News), who wanted to do a brief spot about our project. Although normally camera-shy, I volunteered to do the English portion solely on the basis of the interviewer being cute. I was quite nervous the day of the show, as not 10 or 15 people had shown up as I was expecting, but a full room of 40 people, including one old man who had actually worked at the factory in 1937 when he was just a teenager! If only we could have interviewed him and gotten his story beforehand, it would have been a great addition. There was also a foreign student who said she was glad that she could learn a little bit about the building where she's studying, and another guy whose family had worked in the factory. There was definitely a lot more local interest than I had expected! But with as many people were asking questions and thanking us for putting it together afterwards, we realized that this really must be the big news going on in the little town of Pori. Afterwards we got some photos and interviews with the local paper as well. Who knows, perhaps with enough interest we might expand the project a bit and make a Finnish-language version of it to show in the future.

Then there was Saturday, which was the opening night for Turku's Culture Capital celebration. In order to have some part in the action I've been volunteering for various projects going on, and had signed up to do a combination of parking lot direction and various useful tasks that come up when you have 400 choir members to herd around. Even though most of the previous days had been quite warm, -1 or -2, the day of the opening ceremony (and only that day) the temperature had plummeted to around -20. And here I had signed up to stand around outside for four hours... I put on my warmest layers, including my fleece underwear, ski pants, parka, snow boots, and wool socks and sweater, and was fairly comfortable - as long as I stayed outside. As I couldn't go inside without roasting, I was happy enough to have parking lot duty. However, in my frantic rushing out of my apartment for the bus I had insufficient gloves and no scarf, so I did end up a little chilly. The nice thing about volunteering is that I had a great spot to watch the festivities themselves. The main event was this dance and fireworks show put together by the British company Walk the Plank that had some incomprehensible love story for a plot but culminated in an amazing fire drawing of the symbols of Turku depicted over the river and a huge display of fireworks. Here's the whole show with some Finnish introduction from MTV3. I ended up underneath and next to the fireworks launcher as I was lighting a stairwell for the choir to exit without falling all over themselves, and until then, had no idea that fireworks made a high-pitched "pew pew pew!" sound as they were launched. It was a pretty impressive show and something like fifty thousand people turned out in spite of the cold. Afterwards they provided hot soup and bread for the choir and volunteers, and as I was chowing down I ran into a colleague from my department. I went with her to meet some friends for a beer, and then had a great rest of the night being social and more than a little in my cups, still decked out in my volunteer swag. One random guy complimented me on the show, as if it was all my doing...

The great thing about hanging out with nature lovers is that they know where all the best trekking spots are. On Sunday some of us met up at the train station and drove to Eura, where there's a lake called Koskeljärvi nearby: the largest in Finland where the entire shore is a wildlife protected area and thus contains no summer cottages or other signs of human life. It's covered by the EU's ecological protection program Natura 2000 because of its importance as a waterfowl habitat. It was quite cold and there was a lot of snow - apparently Eura hadn't had the bouts of slightly positive temps and rain that Turku had. It was about -10 or so but very windy, which made it feel a lot more brutal than it would normally. We made a fire by a small shelter and enjoyed some lunch, including my roommate's vegan mujaddara which was nice and filling, and some hot glögi to warm our hands and guts. Near the shelter and campfire was a tree with an enormous pike head hanging from one branch. It was the biggest fish head I've ever seen and looked quite menacing with all its sharp teeth still intact. But Finland has a long tradition of hanging the skulls of hunting catches on a tree so maybe that's just a regular thing here.

One of our friends had grown up in the area and knew the best sights, one of which was out on an island. The idea of walking around over a lake for a significant distance was a little disturbing, as I don't like walking on ice whose thickness I can't see, plus we've had a few warm days lately so I wasn't so sure about the idea. But we met a pair of weathered old fishermen who had just come off of the lake, so it couldn't have been that bad. There was even a sort of path plowed across the lake, hopefully over the strongest parts of the ice, so we could take that for most of the way. The way to the island and the island itself hadn't been touched all winter, so the snow was quite deep - it's amazing how much more difficult just walking can be when you have to go through deep snow, and I wished mightily for a pair of skis. The occasional creaking underfoot was a little disturbing, but no one fell in along the way. Apparently the lake is quite shallow and doesn't have much current, but ending up soaking wet in subfreezing weather didn't sound too appealing either. Once we got to the island we had to climb a bit to the top of a small hill, but the view was amazing. The frozen lake and its tree lined shores were visible in all directions, and it was a bit surreal, like being on the moon. Especially on our walk back over the lake I had to stop and marvel a few times that I was standing on a lake in this timeless, motionless landscape and feeling overwhelmingly small. Then we trudged back across the lake, a row of silent figures marching across a body of water in the middle of nowhere, nothing to stop the wind from freezing the very snot in our noses. It was good to get back home and indulge in our free sauna evening.

The latest thing to come up is a random trip to Prague at the beginning of next month. Apparently a friend of mine had some vacation for work and had planned a trip with her mom, who couldn't make it for some reason. She tried to ask some other people, but they couldn't get out of work on such short notice. So then it was apparently my turn to get the "Hey, wanna go to Prague, it's already paid for!" and to which I answered "OMG, count me in!" So I may have to wipe out my camera's memory card, since Prague is one of those places I've always wanted to visit: the city of golems and medieval mysteries! Time to pack my bags again and see what sort of adventures await.