Monday, June 27, 2011

Some mental meanderings on the train to Aachen yesterday morning

In Finland this past weekend was Juhannus, the midsummer celebration that's the cultural culmination of all things summertime. In a country with only a few months of summer, people take it vary seriouly and the long days mean that celebrations, festivals, parties, and so on do not stop at all from June through August. It's really something to behold. But this year, at least, I'm in Germany, where the nights still get dark and the event of midsummer passes without a second thought. In my mind there are thoughts of bonfires on lake shores, pale night skies and midnight barbeques and saunas; the reality is and endless procession of cold grey days punctuated with rain and sirens, holed up in my tiny apartment wishing I had something interesting to do besides my school-related reading.

After 15 consecutive days of rain, my cabin fever reached its peak and I decided that getting out of the shadow of my 40-story apartment building would be a good change. One place I had been trying to visit for weeks is Aachen, far to the west of Germany by the border of the Netherlands and Belgium. As part of being a student in the state of NRW it's possible for me to hop on the regional train for free, and in spite of the low grey skies I decieded that now was a good a time as any to try to escape city life for a few hours. I'd hoped to be able to visit during my holiday from classes for a week, but it rained the entire time so I spent the week visiting indoor things such as museums and exhibitions.

My favorite parts of Germany so far have been outside of Köln. Growing up and living in cities of a million people is pretty common in the US, so I don't share my colleagues' fascination with the big city. I find living in the city itself rather stressful compared to the quieter suburbs, and unlike the others I don't find it particularly exciting or enriching. What makes a place exciting for me is the presence of things that are interesting or entertaining and people whose company I enjoy, not the number of bars or overpriced concerts of music whose genre I don't appreciate. So to keep myself sane, I make my occasional excursions to places with their history and culture still intact. Köln's history, though fascinating, only exists in museums today - the rest was bombed away in 1945 and hastily built over, with the exception of a few lucky cathedrals.

It's actually Aachen's cathedral that brings me out to the city - built in 800, it's the oldest cathedral in northern Europe, and the resting place of Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, or as I prefer, Big Chuck. And if you haven’t heard of the town’s German name, even the briefest glance at medieval history should make you famliar with its French name, Aix-la-Chapelle. Through history about thirty German kings have been crowned at that cathedral before making their royal pilgrimage to Köln. Architecturally, it’s also notable in its Oriental appearance, its mosaics, and its octagonal instead of cruciform shape. Partially it was because it was a cathedral built when the very idea of cathedrals north of Italy was still new. For 200 years after its construction, according to the Interwebs, it was the tallest building north of the Alps. There's also supposedly an interesting town hall also built by the Big C, but I doubt it will take more than half a day to fully explore the area.

The ride itself is half the fun. I really enjoy traveling by train, especially when it's free, and always feels like a breath of fresh air from the dusty, claustrophobic city. It's a reminder that there's a world outside of my apartment building. Even though rain still looks likely, the sun occasionally breaks through to really bring out the colors of the countryside - the seemingly infinite amount of rain makes for brilliantly green gardens, fields and woods. This train has an upper berth, and the relaxing swaying of the coach up here is even more pronounced, lulling me halfway into a nap. But I don't sleep on trains unless it's night, since I prefer looking out the windows and looking for hints of old houses, castles, or other fascinating architecture.

NRW is far from the most scenic area in Germany - I'd compare it to New Jersey, actually, in all its dirty, graffiti-festooned industrialism. And it's about as far across the country from anything stereotypically German (ie. Bavarian) as Jersey is from Navajo reservations. But at least it's easy to get around and explore, and occasionally one can find small patches of beauty coming through, in the smaller towns and the needly spires of the towns between the industry, and in the few blackened but ornate buildings that managed to survive the war. It's all in how much you want to look for them.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Finnish event in Köln

Finally - an update worth mentioning here, in this blog about Finland. Lots of schoolwork has been keeping me busy, but there was an event recently that I had to take some time out to attend. The “Minderheiten- und Migrantenliteraturen im Europäischen Norden”, or Minority and Migrant Literature in the European North seminar took place on campus on Friday the 20th of May. The program consisted of six lectures and a reading: Sami Literature, Kven and Meänkieli Literature (in German), Literature of Roma and Travelers, The Domestic Other : Roma as a Structural Literary Element of Finnishness, the Birth and Death of the Swedish Immigrant Writer, Migrant Literature in Finland, and a reading by Alexandra Salmela from her novel titled 27 Eli Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan (27 or Death Makes an Artist) The presenters were from various universities around the Nordic areas, including one from my own UTU! Most of the attendees were, as far as I could tell, Köln students who were either majoring in Finnish studies or had done some time abroad there.

The theme was literature from the perspective of the Other – not only Sami and Roma writers but also from immigrants. The author, Alexandra Salmela, was born in Bratislava and is about my age, and talked about her journey from Eastern Europe to Finland. She came across as a really straightforward and down-to-earth, clearly uncomfortable to even call herself an author after one book, and obviously not the kind of blown-up academic that goes around fetishizing her own status as an outsider. I liked her immediately, and when I talked with her afterwards, she even thought she knew me from somewhere. I said that unless she'd been spending a lot of time in Turku over the last year, it wasn't likely. But we got along immediately and her Finnish was incredible – fluent and without any accent that I could detect. Earlier, there was a question and answer session in a combination of Finnish and German (the event proper was thankfully in English), and one of the students asked how she had learned the language so well and so quickly, if she knew any magic tricks that they could acquire to suddenly become fluent – and she said that she had simply used the language as much as possible. I smiled when she told how she had gone through her daily life making at first lots of mistakes, but without letting that stop her until the mistakes became fewer and fewer. She said to ask native speaking friends for help when needed, and to always use the language, every day if it was possible. There weren’t any tricks or miracles, only persistence and the desire to improve. I felt reassured that my own methods were right on the same track as hers.

One lecturer talked about how she was studying the “broken” Finnish of immigrants (such as some short stories of the guest author). Afterwards I laughed and said that I never would have considered that the imperfect version of a language, a source of embarrassment haltingly spoken by me and my immigrant friends would have ever been a subject of academic study. I asked if she had ever looked into writing that’s not intended to be published on the mass market, such as blogs or pamphlets or advertisements in immigrant neighborhoods, since finding someone who would publish imperfect language seemed unlikely (except in the case where it’s used by a native speaker on purpose, such as Linna’s Tuntematon Sotilas or Twain’s Huck Finn). It occurred to me that my own blog might at some point end up a source for someone’s thesis about Finnish immigration, and if you, dear reader, are researching me, I hope you find something useful here, and that you ace your paper. But like pamphlets and advertising, this blog will continue to just serve its purpose as an outlet for and a record of my own experiences.

Of course the topic of racism was also briefly touched upon, and there’s no question that Finland does have its share of open and blatant racists that would have only seemed appropriate in my own country back in the 1930’s. I also mentioned that in spite of those issues, much of the discrimination seemed to be linguistically instead of racially based. African and Middle Eastern immigrants who learn Finnish at least have the opportunity to find work as bus drivers or cashiers at the markets, but if you don’t have a very good command of the language, as has been told directly to me time and time again by everyone from the university to job training sites, you can forget about it. Pale skin alone doesn’t guarantee you a job, and my unemployed Finnish friends would argue that neither does linguistic fluency! But unlike skin color, a insufficient command of Finnish is one problem that a person can work to get themselves out of, and with the effort and application required to learn a language, hopefully remove that albatross from around one’s neck. Not only did Salmela achieve that goal, but went on to be nominated for a Finlandia literature prize for her first novel. If that’s not an example of an immigrant’s success story in a supposedly closed society, I don’t know what is!