Neither Libraries, Nor Pictures

One day I’ll finish the post about Kuopio’s library, but not yet. One day I’ll post my favorite pictures of Kuopio. Today I am in Kajaani, a town 2.5 hrs north of Kuopio. It is smaller than any town yet. From the balcony of my new host, Samu, I can see an art deco clocktower on the other side of the river. It reminds me of the States. The architectural battles here are waged between traditional wooden structures whose beauty is unquestionable and the terrors of the 70’s and 80’s during which time they replaced the expressive architecture from the beginning of the century with functionalist messes. Contemporary constructions seems to have found an acceptable niche of good style within the modernist trend. But I do not know enough about architecture to speak more precisely about what this entails (besides wonderfully large windows!).

In any case, my days with Teemu were filled with Jazz, both of his compositions and excellent stuff he showed me. I took a bus to Kajaani yesterday; it is all part of my effort to trek north. I’ll be here one more day, then cross the country to Oulu.

Samu is a freelance photographer. Today he showed me bakery Pekka Heikkinen, the best in Finland. It has been owned and run by the family of the Heikkinen name for over 100 years. As we walked up to it, a baker was sitting outside. He popped up, asked if we wanted coffee and instead of asking generally if we wanted anything else, he said to me directly, “Do you want a fish sandwich too?” Salmon, cold smoked for five days with fresh sea salt, tomato, lettuce, and a little relish. The salmon was caught by a friend of his, the bread was made by him. Pictures of the family history lined the walls, and crisp sunlight poured on us as we sat in the summertime outdoor seating. Summer however is about over here. The air smells autumnal.

English Versus Finnish


Valpuri said to me I need to be more brutal in my pronunciation. “Finnish is not French; there is no room for softness, you have to be forceful.” Later she said that English is a romantic language. I never thought of English that way before. It does have a lot of possibilities thanks to its rich  vocabulary. Her idea was that English has the advantages of being popular; lots of romantic things are said in our internationally distributed media. Sweet sayings and sweet talk is normal in English but comes across as creepy in Finnish.  I never thought of English as especially poetic. “English has lots of softness. Englishh hazz lots uhf softness! There are lots of ways to say things in English. If you don’t know quite how to say something, there still always a way to get the idea across, and you can alter your voice in many different ways. Finnish is much stricter. Only in music does it gain flexibility. Then there is more emphasis on the vowels and more possibilities.”

Candy and Cream

Teemu anchors me now. He is a young jazz musician and composer who just finished his studies at the Helsinki conservatory. He just started taxi driving this week to pay his bills. He suggested immediately that we drop my stuff off and go swimming. His apartment is situated near the harbor. Like most apartment complexes there are a few benches and a firepit outside. The apartment has a kitchen and bathroom that are shared between the two electronically locked bedrooms. One room is his roommate’s whom he has not seen in a month or so. The other is his. He warned me that if I leave the bedroom and shut the door behind me without the key, there will be no way to get back in. Everything required the swipe key. If I didn’t keep it with me at all times, I could lock myself into a bad situation. But the accommodation was great. I had a desk.

His girlfriend Valpuri picked us up and we went to a remote beach outside of town. On our way in the car, her dad chanced to pull up next to us at an intersection. He was on a motorcycle, sported a short grey beard, and exchanged some quick words and a snorted laugh before speeding off. “My dad is like the bohemian of the family; and my mom is the academic. I’m surprised they are together,” Valpuri said. I enjoyed the thought of her mom’s mind finding respite in a bit of an eccentric, who collects instruments without playing them and sets them around the living room like art pieces against his wife’s wishes. Teemu bewailed that her dad never let anyone else talk in conversation. But his barley beer gut and story-telling persona I later found to be good companions in the sauna.

We relived childhood pool games, holding our breaths and skipping stones and such. The water was warm when in it, but out of it there is only one choice: dry off quickly. We drove back to the city and went to Sampo Muikkuravintola for traditional Savo food. I ate muikkut, which are little white fishes from the nearby lakes, served with potatoes, cucumber, tomatoes, and catsup. We sat and talked. I gave an introduction to Plato’s Apology. Teemu told about his musical work. Valpuri presented some interesting facts about the region and the local dialect. For example, in this region people add syllables instead of taking them away. That type of development adds character, flavor, and sometimes even meaning. The slang and faster style of Helsinki she finds monumentally boring.

Later we entered the forest, found some blueberries. At first there was brush and trees of different types. The air was fair and open as the trees turned to tall spruces. Then our path ran into a deep line of heavy pine trees. The density of the pine forest and smell was Grimm, but we came out upon one of the thousand, thousand wind shelters that pepper the forests of the northland. They overlook good spots, have a firepit, and sometimes split wood left by the previous people out of courtesy. We sat quietly.

Everything becomes different

A day later when Teemu was out at work. Valpuri suggested that I become more sophisticated and learn about Finnish candy and chocolate. “You can tell a lot about a people by their candy.” I agreed on the condition that we give fun reviews to each piece. With candy and a coffee we sat out. I gave reviews, “This is one is like a young pony. Like licorice that wants to grow up to be caramel. This one was born an old lady – the Benjamin Button of candy. Here, a mint in metamorphosis.” The Karl Fazer Raspberry Yoghurt with Milk Chocolate reigned Lord of Tasty Town. Very rich, something to take one bite of every 15 minutes. I ate more candy, than I had in many years. I don’t know what I learned about Finland through candy. All my analogies involve age, so it follows that Finland is young and energetic, and has the fear of growing old, or becoming something hän (gender inclusive) is not, or not liking who hän is; namely, all the feelings of potential and anxiety that we feel when young, energetic, and slightly cynical are found in their candy. Or is it as simple as saying that licorice is popular?

The next day Teemu had to teach me about ice cream. He demanded, quite against my inclinations, that I try licorice ice cream. I expressed concern that no one on earth truly likes licorice. They like that it is a different flavor; they come to prefer it or crave it because of its uniqueness on the palette, but they deceive themselves to say they actually like it.

Aino Double Cream Licorice Ice Cream makes most other ice cream look like freezer burned sherbet. A type of soft licorice is blended into the thick fatty ice cream. It is really something else. It transcends all expectations and has altered my ice cream outlook permanently.

A New Family

My last hosts were Janne and his wife Jennifer. Janne is from Kuopio, and Jennifer is from the Phillipines. They met for the first time in Singapore and started a relationship in Dubai. She is an accountant; he is a physicist. They have their first baby on the way. Her bright-eyed and casual conversational style was familiar. Janne’s quietness was more traditionally “Finnish” and perhaps even especially so since he is from the Savo region, a region whose stereotype consists in non-committal answers, sneakiness, and non-confrontation. With them, I had more time to myself, and it allowed me to decompress.

They were such graceful hosts. When I found their apartment, they offered me to join them for salmon. And a great dinner it was. Janne is the cook of the home, and Jennifer is quite proud of his kitchen skills. In the evening, we quietly played a boardgame called Carcasonne. In that game Janne suggested I place a tile to get myself a few points, but he tricked me into getting him 18 points putting him in the lead. Of the few words said during the game, one of them was a devious plot! “Very Savonian,” I thought. The next day, I had time to read and write and travel around the city. I found a used bookstore, the library, a lot of coffee (since there is a pot of coffee ready in every shop, stand, and kiosk in Finland), but no post office.

That night Janne introduced me to Belgian beer. It was quite a nice respite from the Finnish beers, which are generally unexciting replicas of Miller and Miller Light. Karhu, Karjala, and Koff (Koff being nearly a Busch) are fine when cold. But they tend to be too warm, even out of the bar fridge. These two Trappist Belgian beers that Janne shared were smooth malt ales, dark and cool and ashy. We drank for the taste and sat outside on the porch watching the sun “set” behind the clouds. Jennifer has not liked the smell of beer since she became pregnant, and laughingly bemoaned Janne having a buddy to sip with.

Due to Finnish tax laws it is an increasingly common practice to order beer from Europe or take the ferry to and from Estonia with a cart full of beer. Already, I have met people who have brought beer from Estonia, ordered it from Germany or Belgium, or interrogated me about American drinking costs. Janne does not interrogate, he just appreciates good beer.

I couldn't tell if it was tension sometimes.

I want you to think they always wear pajama pants.

One of the things I find enjoyable in Finnish conversation is how every couple is planning their next trip.There is the biking tour around the Åland Islands (150-200 km), the driving tour to Sweden, Denmark, and Belgium (31hrs), the city-to-city bus and train routes around Budapest, Prague, and Vienna. Since people love to travel out of Finland, they are happy to host guests for a night or two in Finland. I think that is what makes the two-night hosting program work so well. It’s an economy of xenia.

Final note: Jennifer and Janne are smoothie and berry enthusiasts. Delicious fresh fruits.

The Household Gods

What books did I bring with me you ask? Well, that’s a very good question. The non-Finnish related materials I have are:

Selections from Catullus, a little brown book of Latin poetry

The Little Prince, better than Machievelli’s

Eliot, my pocket edition of essays and poems by T.S. Eliot.

Catullus was a good choice. He is down to earth, humorous, and straightforward. I can always enjoy a Catullus poem. I would have brought Horace, who strikes with more beauty and subtlety, but my edition was too big. Besides, Catullus is a lot of fun.

The Little Prince is great. I have never read it before and now I am reading it very slowly and chewing on the words. My previous host Jennifer saw me reading in the morning and asked, “Is that The Prince?!” and smiled. Such an international hit can create familiarity between people who hardly know each other. Also, the incident with the fox is so wonderful. The prince learns how a relationship between oneself and another builds a connection that is beyond simple knowledge and material connection. Immaterial things, like the distant flower which he loves, keeps him going. Friendship with the fox makes the fox no longer a fox like a hundred other foxes. The same goes for cities. I want to have a relationship with a town or city before leaving it.

Eliot was perhaps not a good choice. I had brought him with me to Rome and the rest of Italy. But that was a different time. I was still in college then. Eliot writes with constant reference to the older English poets, Dante, the past, that is, the old culture in old Europe. Finnish is younger than English. English literary history as we know it today begins with Chaucer, 600 years ago. But Finnish literary history began only 200 years ago with Suomen kansan vanhat runot and the Kalevala. And it does so without the huge influx of Latin, Greek, French, and Saxon vocabulary. Had I to choose again, now seeing the lakes and pines and little isles, now having picked wild berries, and having been picked apart by mosquitoes, now meeting new people along the winding road to who-knows-where, I would have brought Evangeline over Eliot.

Kuopio Heat

It is hot here in Kuopio. Lakes surround the entire city. If one feels real sultry, one can jump in a clear, refreshing lake. Unlike the sea, which has it’s own allure, the pure saltless blue of the lakes makes you feel purified. People here and there punctuate the pristine beauty of pine trees and blue waters. A few girls stroll along the lakeside path paying no attention to what else. A dad sits on steps with his two bright eyed toddlers who smear ice cream over each other’s faces. A group of guys stand at one spot talking for 30 minutes, then move to a new spot 50 meters away. Ladies on break strut quickly. The elderly inch their way. Bicycles whizz past. Drinkers sit around on the ground, derelict.

The problem with all this warm summer idleness is my packing arrangements. I have one rule in this matter: if there is more than I can carry on my own, it’s more than I need. It is time I send some gear back to the states.

The exciting thing about being rid of excess clothes is the newfound room for books. Today I found a used book store and purchased a very nice Suomi – Englanti dictionary and a Finnish Donald Duck (Aku Ankan) comic book. Colorful language, dialogue form, and short sentences, make this book a hit with me. Most of the stories include Scrooge, too! I drank coffee at a table in the shade and worked my way through the first 5 pages as the strollers, cyclists, loiterers went by.

At one point, two construction workers came over and almost made eye contact as they took chairs from my table so they could sit a bit aways and smoke. I made the “you’re good to take ’em” American hand-gesture with my pointer finger, but I doubt they saw it. They didn’t need permission anyway.


Although, I moved the table once to escape the blazing sun, it caught me again. That was my signal to wander elsewhere.

Snapshots of My Turku Experience