Finland is in the news again!

Trip Start Jul 21, 2008
Trip End Dec 10, 2008

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Greetings all readers.  In the roughly two weeks since I last wrote, just after the school shooting, Finland has incredibly made the world news again!  This time, it was for Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, who was awarded the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize for his legacy of what various news outlets have called "cautious diplomacy," and if you look at photos of the man, you'll see exactly what they mean.  For his part, the recipient celebrated in muted fashion.  One of the Helsinki daily papers reported that, after hearing the news, Mr. Ahtisaari went to sauna, drank one beer with friends, and ate some sausage.  The article received almost half a page in the paper, accompanied by photos of the actual sauna, of some sausages, and of the man himself.

Otherwise, things have happened briskly here.  What I mean is, it's turned rather cool and brisk weather-wise, and also that things have been happening.  Last week in Helsinki there was the annual herring festival, when all the fisherman and such from the west--Sweden, Åland, and western Finland--come to Helsinki for a week to sell their goods.  The goods themselves are a delectible bunch.  There are many varieties of pungent herring, combined with various kinds of mustard, garlic sauces, herbs, spices, and fruits.  There are tiny fishes resembling sardines, which are fried whole and eaten whole, with garlic mayonnaise.  There are many varieties of salmon, including a particularly delicious salmon pie with rice, eggs, and plenty of dill baked into a sweet or rye crust.  There are various jams, jellies, and apples, which are in season.  And there's black bread, made with molassas and very sweet, meant to be stored and eaten over the course of the long winter because it doesn't go bad.  In fact, in previous ages the herring festival gave people of Helsinki the chance to stock up on such fish and bread for the winter.  Now, this isn't so important, but the festival is still lively and features plenty of jolly, loud-voiced fisherman, as well as magicians, a crusty sailor singing sea ballads on his accordion, and plenty of gulls.

Last weekend, I experienced three major Finnish traditions all rolled into one.  I went to a summer house, attended a crab party, and went to a "real" sauna, all for the first time.  Summer houses are important to Finnish people.  Although as all real estate they're often quite expensive these days, it's an integral tradition for urban Finns to spend weekends, and in the summer longer periods, at a summer house owned by a family, shared by families, or rented.  This particular house is located on an enormous multi-fingered lake near a small town called Heinola, a couple hours east of Helsinki.  Driving down a winding road onto a long, unpaved track and down a very long driveway, we passed through typically Finnish birch forests and arrived at the homestead.  There are a few buildings there, built on top of the exposed bedrock and mossy forest floor by sticking wooden posts into cement blocks on a fairly flat patch of ground, and then building over that.  While there's often electricity, there is usually no running water, no heated water, and Finns seem to value performing basic tasks in a more naturalistic environment.  This place had one water tap coming directly out of the lake, but drinking water came from other sources.  Virtually everything is made of wood, and apparently things are frequently built by families themselves.  In fact, it was for this reason that we were invited to the summer house in the first place--to help build a storage shed. 

The summer house has been owned by Katri's family for around 40 years, and has been passed down through the family to various people.  It's more or less a collective thing.  There's one main house with a composting toilet and fireplace.  There are a couple of tiny sleeping cabins with spartan bunks and space heaters.  There's a dock and some nice wooden steps leading down to the dirt parking area.  There are boats.  And there's a sauna. 

As I've mentioned, sauna is known as a very important part of Finnish life.  When Finnish people have settled new places, they usually build a sauna first, before even a house.  It provides heating, and can be used to wash, clean, and even as a sterile environment to give birth.  But as with many such things it isn't fully understood until one really participates.  Most Finnish people have a sauna in their bathroom, or down the hall, or in their apartment building, and there are also a number of public saunas.  But these are mostly electric and considered not to be optimal.  They don't usually resemble the pathetic saunas in the American hotels of my childhood, which no one knew how to heat up or which were frequently broken. 

However, any Finnish person will tell you that the best time to go to sauna is at a summer house, preferably near a lake.  These saunas are the old style, heated by wood from a fire in a stove (the smoke directed up and out, of course), with hot stones resting on the stovetop.  This supposedly provides a much more comfortable environment than from electric heating.  It's even better to use a certain type of wood for the benches and walls, because it doesn't get as hot.  Until now, I hadn't experienced this "real" sauna. 

But there we went, lit by a regrettably quick sunset over the glassy lake.  The temperature approached, and probably passed, 90 degrees Celsius, and everyone is naked, of course.  (Finnish people are quick to point out that theirs is the only real sauna, because they tend to take it naked, at 20 to 30 degrees hotter than, say, Swedes, Estonians, and Turks.)  Someone pours water over the stones and steam rises into the air and a rush of wet, hot air envelops you.  The goal then is to sweat, to loosen and soak dirt, grime, and excess skin.  You can wash then, maybe pour water from a bucket over your head.  In summer, people rub (or, sort of smack, apparently) themselves with birch branches, as the coarse leaves help clean, and there's some healthy element in the leaves themselves as well. 

Then you go outside.  The lake, of course, is right there, or perhaps a snowdrift to roll in.  Water temperature was about 10 degrees Celsius, and we went in fairly quickly, the shock makes your blood rush and you gasp and can only stay in for thirty seconds or so, and then run back to the sauna.  But it's effective in helping circulation, cleanliness, and gives you some kind of enormous adrenaline rush as well. 

So after we did this a couple of times, the heat still rising off our skin, we returned to the house.  I felt immeasurably refreshed, both relaxed and invigorated by the extreme temperature changes, the clean feeling, the afterglow of sauna.  This "real" sauna was definitely better--the steam penetrated deeper and the air felt more moist, the temperature felt hotter, yet it was somehow more forgiving and didn't make me feel lightheaded at all like an electric sauna can.

In the house the preparations were under way for the crab party.  In actuality, you eat crayfish, usually from Finland.  Boiled, preferably alive.  Everyone gets a small knife and you go to town cracking shells, sucking meat, and eating various side dishes with lots of dill and potatoes and such.  It takes forever, and you don't actually eat too much.  Luckily, the time is filled by discussing loudly and drinking obscene amounts of alcohol.  Someday I'll talk about the Finnish drinking culture, but suffice to say everyone had their share.  The night contained toasts to me; Mannerheim, the George Washington of Finland; Katri's grandfather.  Later discussions included American politics; the possible homosexuality of Mannerheim (which was scorned as unimportant by everyone present); and Katri's grandfather's role in negotiating truces between rival Ethiopian tribes in order to build roads.  Volume increased to feverish levels.  One by one people dropped out.  Things died down around 2 AM, with Katri's father playing lullabies on the guitar and Katri actually singing along (anyone who knows her should have their eyes raised at this point). 

Needless to say, the shed didn't get built.  They'll do it some other time, I guess.

Later that weekend, we moved out of Katri's grandparents' apartment in Helsinki into a student apartment in Espoo, shared with Katri's good friend Vilma.  The apartment is in Olari, a neighborhood in Espoo known as the "West Side" by the Finnish hip-hop community, with some kind of reputation for being rough, although in truth the most annoying part about the place is the revving of mopeds by teenagers.  It's a mixed bag, though, described colorfully by one as "families, students, and drug addicts."  There are many trees and some rather nice-looking apartment buildings, as well as some uglier ones.  Katri's apartment has plenty of space, a spacious kitchen and living room, and feels cozy.  But there's not a whole lot to do out there.  The closest cultural center is Iso Omena (literally, "Big Apple"), a large mall a few blocks away near the highway that has a new, well-lit library with no English books.  Nearby, there's an American-themed restaurant called Chico's, a late-night pizzeria, and a supermarket that's not open on Sundays.  (Actually, the law in Finland is that no above-ground supermarket above a certain size can be open on Sundays--smaller ones, usually independent, and certain chain stores that are technically located underground, however, are open.)  Olari--mellow place.

This week, we're back in the grandparents' place, for which I'm grateful.  I'm preparing for a show at an international bookstore, the first in what may become a series of concerts there.  I have a Finnish exam on Wednesday.  Life continues.  Hope all is well...
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