User:Eli/Early Impressions of Finland

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I wanted to shoot out the very earliest impressions of this country, you know, the freshest, strongest, wrongest impressions that are colored by the discombobulation of the plane-travel timewarp, before the nose has gotten familiar with the odors, before the individual can be distinguished from the Finn. Now that I've been here for close to 72 hours and am as good as an old Helsinker myself, I'll just have to try to remember what things were like way back when they were still really strange.



Studying the Good Book (Hyvä Kirja?) at the Copenhagen airport

In preparation of my journey, I have been worshipping at the altar of the Finnish language. In the airport in Copenhagen I was crossleged in the corner dutifully mouthing the following mantra (Exercises, Book 1, Chapter 3, Verse 4):

Oletko sinä ruotsiläinen? Ei ole. Minä olen italiläinen. Puhutko sinä ranska? En puhu. Minä puhun venäjä. Oletko sinä japanilainen? Ei ole. Minä olen kanadalainen. Puhutko sinä saksa? En puhu. Minä puhun swahili...

(Are you Swedish? No I am not. I am Italian. Do you speak French? No I do not. I speak Russian. Are you Japanese? No I am not. I am Canadian. Do you speak German? No I do not. I speak Swahili..)

In the very crowded airplane, I helped a bright-eyed, white-haired lady neighbor put her suitcase into the compartment above our heads and as I squeezed beside her, she called out to me in the words of our worship:

"Oletko sinä suomilainen?" And I dutifully bowed my head and, barely disguising the ecstasy of my newfound faith recited: "Ei ole. Minä olen amerikkalainen."

And she spake: "Puhutko suomi?", and I recited: "Puhun englantia, ja vähän suomi..."

And she spake: "Kuinka te vietätte iltanne minkä laiseste missikista te pidaätte van nukummine kuunella musiikkia? syömässä tapaamaässaä sunnintaine me emme nouse kovinaikaisin....." or some such thing.

And I knew then what it means to be a novice.

The Silent Finn

The Finn in a Baltic person and a Baltic person is supposed to speak rarely. There is a Russian anecdote about a Baltic father driving a cart with his two strapping Baltic boys perched on the straw heaped in the cart, rolling along a dusty road on a sunny day when, quite suddenly, a fox runs across the road before the cart. Some fifteen minutes later the younger boy says: "Hey, that was a fox." The cart rolls on in the sun. Crickets are chirping. The air is heavy. Twenty minutes later the second boy says: "No, brother, that was a dog." The cart rolls on and on for half an hour more, the old horse is straining in the heat, when the father turns around and says sternly: "Settle down and stop arguing, you hot-headed Baltic boys!"

Minna Riiki-Geraldini, my bright-eyed white-haired airplane neighbor, was a Finnish woman. Her mother, who had recently passed away, was born in 1906. A writer, journalist and translator, Minna met her Brazilian husband of Italian descent in the streets of Paris during the great student rebellion of 1968. She lives outside of Brasilia on a farm where she and her husband have established a small wetlands-nature reserve (in an arid environment) that features a conservative birdlist of 150 species. Her husband has written a book about how to retain water and encourage growth in arid climes. Her daughter certainly does speak Finnish thank you very much, but not her grandchildren. Minna is terrified that Finland will lose some of its social egalitarianism because she finds the inequality in Brazil to be its most terrible quality: people really fear the poor, they hide behind high walls, "private security" is such a big industry, paranoia is a way of life. When she talks about inequality, there is a quavering passion in her voice that comes directly from the principled radicalism of her youth ...

I learned all of this before we reached cruising altitude, and much much more in the 90 minutes before we landed in Helsinki. By that time, Minna had done very much damage to the archetype of the Silent Finn.

On the other hand (there is always the other hand) perhaps she is the Brazilified exception that oh so eloquently confirms the rule?



A guide book I looked through bristles a bit at Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi's insistence that Finland has the worst cuisine in the European Union. It then, as I recall, paints an image of fresh salmon and homegrown dill on potatoes with moose steak and lingonberry sauce and a side of sauteed wild mushrooms.

Off hand, I cannot imagine a finer meal. Oh heap on that Finnish cuisine, I think to myself.

But I cannot help but notice when I walk around the neighborhood where the Hotel Fenno is located that of the many restaurants in the immediate neighborhood, four are Thai, two are Chinese, one is Turkish, and only one advertises itself as offering "Fine Indian and Finnish cuisine".

I also cannot help but notice early on my first morning that the free restaurant buffet offers limp french fries and a boiled miniature hotdogs, sliced and boiled beets almost certainly from a can, and pickled herring. And that every last one of severe-looking gentlemen with the impossibly high cheekbones and snug black jeans and near mullets sitting separately in the dining room is working diligently on a heaping plate of miniature hotdogs, and washing it down with black coffee.

On the other hand, there is a kind of juice that is very obviously derived from a forest berry, and the bread is black, and I am certainly slavic enough not to refuse some pickled herring and blood red beets on black bread with berry juice, even for breakfast.


The Alcoholic Finn is perhaps even better known than the Silent Finn. I have some small previous empirical evidence of this: At a Marine Mammal conference in St. Petersburg it was always and invariably the Finnish contingent that was up at 4 or 5 in the morning in the lobby of the hotel swinging vodka bottles around their head, wondering loudly (yet with that weird monotone) where the party had gone, while all the hearty, healthy, rugged field biologists, the kinds that wrestle polar bears and live for months at a time on uninhabited islands from hard-drinking places like Siberia and Alaska and Scotland were long over their limit and past their beddy-bed time.

And so it is affirming that in my jaunt around the neighboring blocks on my first evening in Finland I see four solidly soused, blotchy-faced, bleary-yellow-rheumy-eyed alcoholics. Two are clinging to each other and singing, I think. One is crumpled in the corner and swaying to the music, I think. The fourth is urinating boldly by a car as I stroll by.

And it is also affirming to note that all four of these fine Finnish specimens are Women, for it reminds us of that other academically acknowledged archetype: the Egalitarian Finn.


In expectation that the author will sicken of the miniature hot dogs, this gull is crowing (if you will) over the terrified bunny in the background.
This squirrel is hoping for a peaceful burial...
... but these gulls are patient.

The seagulls are smaller here, with darker more prominent stripes on their wings and a more plaintive cry. Also, over the lake there are black-headed lake gulls, which I've never seen in North America. The squirrels are also smaller, and redder, and with more tufted ears, but otherwise just as shameless and sinister as at home.

The crows are large and have grey bodies, black winds and heads. There is another, smaller, strikingly pretty crow which is beetle-blue-black and shimmering with an even more extremely dark face. A jackdaw perhaps?

Also, barnacle geese and enormous white swans paddling lazily around the edges of Töölönlahti pond, near the train station.

And five little bunny rabbits all at once in a much littler park, all hemmed in by concrete.

And then, most spectacularly, the largest hare I've ever seen - as big as a medium-sized dog, but with legs like a small deer, loping casually across the street.

All this in the city. So I think that if truly brought to desperation by the need to escape over-boiled miniature hotdogs, and fully aware that this very compact town is surrounded snugly by forest, there is always delectable game to be had, whether anatid, sciurid or leporid. Not just had, but shared, to be sure, with our scavenging cousins, whether corvid or larid.

See, there's Elvis and a black belt with a big buckle and a strange pair of shoes with black ribbons and and old Harmonikka and that wacky wacky language in any old storefront window. And I wasn't even trying!

Aki Kaurismäki...

... is a film director who makes dreamy, slow, strangely hilarious and basically very touching films full of impossibly high cheekbones and tight black jeans and near mullets and black coffee and rusty shipping containers and long pans of dark and mostly empty streets and alcoholics and conversations punctuated with great heaves of silence, with finnish language rockabilly soundtracks that prominently feature the accordion.

I have always liked his movies very much and considered his vision to be very creative and unique.

But now I realize that all he ever had to do was be in this country and turn on the camera.

Eli - April 24, 2008

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