Dream of India

I had a dream that an Indian guy asked me for help navigating a futuristic city’s transportation system. Then he told me that the Indian languages near the border of China are the most interesting. I don’t know anything about Indian languages, so why did Prateek. I looked it up this morning to discover that northern Mishni is suspected to be a language isolate. He also had some choice words about the value of learning Mandarin.

The dream likely originates from a desire to visit India, a country I know little about, for two weeks.

Promenade Into Heavy Rain

Realize the triumphal beauty of entering a new city, how each new site demands to be seen, like lightning time passes. Special notice is due to each detail, the clouds, the old and elegant mansions, the way the sun makes the water look like a cream, how the old people on a cruise ship either enjoy a laugh or sit fixedly on their own, how a storm in violet blue is garbed in the north and other ships big and small pass around the bay, how this group of four in their late 50’s enjoy a last round of cards, the young text, the announcer makes ETAs and information about the lost & found. Stockholm approaches. It feels like a European city. Good architectural choices in the mid-late 19th century were not levelled by modernization in the mid-late 20th. Believe-it-or-not there was even an aesthetically pleasing tower constructed in the early 90’s. Well done, Sweden!

The nation of Sweden, once an empire (but it lost all its wars), now a prospering northern nation with hardly a military. See the construction cranes, towers, apartments, hills, trees, and spires rise to meet you: blue, black, green, and yellow. “Welcome,” says the sun as it winks out into the storm clouds, “Good luck finding your hostel.”

Burt Reynolds on a Ship

I highly recommend the boat from Turku to Stockholm. It was only 18 euros. Blue waters and little isles pass by for hours and hours and hours. The food aboard ship is good, and the alcohol prices are competitive (but compared to mainland Finland, what isn’t?). I have spent the majority of my time writing in the smoking room. It looks out on the water nicely, and the coming and going of faces for the fix make it a kind of sanctuary, a vestige of proper ritual.

However when I assumed a position overlooking the water, I became more exposed. And sensing my anxiety, a Burt-Reynolds of a Finn sat down next to me and asked what I was writing. He was one of those good-natured guys who would never take a serious thing seriously. He refused to speak any English, and would only explain himself in more Finnish. I appreciated his humor. He bade me luck that the bulb go off in my mind, and he took for the buffet room.

Lunch was good; at first, I lamented the expense. Then seeing how there was an open tap of wine and beer, my spirit was relieved. I drank and toasted, and ate as much as possible, salmon and sauces, lox and mosses, salad, and cheese, and bread, and dessert. The conversational company could have been better. But such is drinking alone, you have to imagine your people around and have the recitation with yourself.

I saw the Burt-Reynolds Finn as he walked out. He stopped and asked skeptically if the food was any good. “It is good, good.” I was the last one in the dining room. They closed, but I still had more to eat and drink. This has been my lot since high school. To be the last one sitting at table, others cleaning up, I wonder, “Why has everyone left so soon? What’s all the rush? There is no where better to go! Yo-ho-ho-ho! Where is MY civilization? If I were king…”

I took the train from Rovaniemi last night. I have not taken an overnight train in many years. Now I remember what is so miserable about it. It is not the seats. The seats are bad; they are as bad as Amtrack (maybe worse). They leave a terrible crick in your back, and generally, unless you are totally beat already, sleep will be difficult. But the fundamental problem is that as soon as you fall asleep to the rhythmic rocking of the train, it stops. It sits motionless for 15 minutes, then moves 50 feet then sits again. It is like the terrible sensation of being at a traffic light which lasts too long. It is easy to sit for an hour doing nothing. It is hard to sit for 10 minutes waiting for the train to move so you can go back to sleep.

The train stopped at the dock station (30 minute time window) and I walked one block to the titanic Viking cruise ship. I didn’t realize I was taking a full blown cruise. I’ll take a hostel tonight (settled that ten minutes ago). My flight leaves early Wednesday morning. I’ll see how Stockholm is until then. If my return journey somehow included swimming, cycling, and canoeing it would be better. Turku by train, Stockholm by boat, Chicago through some bizarrely complicated flight pattern, and I have a return ticket to Stockholm for September 11th which I do not plan on using. The cheapest flight just happened to require I buy a return journey.

Take The Hidden Paths That Run

Aside

Two days in Oulu were as grey as expected. The first day was not so bad because I had to walk in the rain for a few kilometers with my stuff. The rain felt great, it cooled me down, and made me feel refreshed and alive. But overcast days without rain start to wear on a person, no matter how much one likes a place.

Today I started to feel crummy. Sitting in the arctic town of Rovaniemi and watching the grey river, a faint shimmer of blue was in the distance. “I have to get there.” I walked out of the town up paths paved and unpaved to a large hill. I went up eating blueberries and conversing with them and the pines. The sun finally broke, and I pulled the pistachios out of my pocket and sat on a stump. Troop morale was improving. 26 kilometers and a bit of blue sky does a lot for the mind.

 

No Loyal Friend Was Ever There For Me

There was an echo from my songs.

Between Your Aunts: A Suite

The house was built outside of Kajaani by Joona’s dad and grandpa in ’97. It was light blue, white trim, beautiful wooden interior. A type of duplex, the grandparents lived on one side and Joona’s family on the other. A corridor with a washing machine, main bathroom, and sauna separated the two sections. A traveler had arrived. Joona invited him to extend his stay in the Kainuu region. This was the first time Joona met someone who knew as much about American politics as him.

His grandfather was eager to meet this traveler as well. They greeted each other warmly. First they went back and forth with Basic English greetings, then Finnish. Aarne was surprised that the traveler got barely, but somewhat beyond basic greetings. Joona saw his grandfather continue conversation without pause, and jumped in to translate. And so they sat straight up in their chairs, interrogating calmly and with keen interest. Joona translated.

The traveler had met his grandson the night before over some drinks, and now would stay for a day or so. He had payed his own way to Finland, was not a student, had plans to study but they fell through, knew some languages, was somewhat educated. Aarne was relaxed and was bemused that the traveler had arrived by chance. Then he asked questions about the traveler’s home country. What were his thoughts of the president and other American policies? The grandfather had run a wood manufacturing business in Russia in the 90’s. Chechans and Russians were good workers, but fought when they got drunk. Still. Good workers.

Joona and the traveler sat on the couch and listened to music and read the news. People would arrive in the evening to play Texas Hold ‘Em. They played a brutal round of cards that ended with Joona dominating the group. Grandpa interrupted the game briefly to hash out plans for travelling to the summer cottage. The dealer had to go; Joona fell asleep while the other guests conversed at the table a bit longer. Joona would have to collect his winnings in the morning.

Joona’s parents returned from the summer home.And after coffee and munkki (which is a nice word for jelly doughnut) and rye bread with butter, they prepared to go. Grandpa came into that side of house, grinning, his blue equipment vest and hat on, excited for a day in the countryside. They drove out 40 minutes to the small town of Vuolijoki, population 3,000, Aarne’s hometown.

They passed the local church. They went to visit it. It is impressive how even tiny towns once constructed such beautiful structures. The church was thickly shaped by stones and wood and plasters. In back was a grave site to those who died in the Winter War. The three read quietly reflected, read the names, and ages at which young guys died. When they came to the Civil War memorial, Grandpa looked at the traveler and said, “We did the same once, the same that Ukraine is doing now. Man is a beast.”

They drove a few seconds more and came to the cemetery. Aarne showed them the spots of his parents and two siblings who died young. That section of the cemetery was not as well kept as the other sections. This was noted. The calm air rustled the trees and swept small white mountains around the face of the sun.

The group arrived at a location near the lake with oddly place houses and patios, and statues. The statues were made by Aarne’s friend who passed away. A giant brown statue of President Urho Kekkonen stood 20 feet tall. Mozart, Verdi, Sibelius, and the sculptor were depicted as beautiful white busts. Aarne was in the process of cleaning them up and preparing his departed friend’s work for exhibition.

—–

After removing their shoes they entered cottage. It smelt of aged wood and relaxation, the type of symphonic odor that children find strange for its restfulness, but older people find comforting for its vivaciousness. Country side homes that have accommodated a generation or two all possess this homegrown smell. When they entered the kitchen, Aarne’s brother Hannu was stirring a stove pot filled with blueberries. He was making jam, and behind him was 10 or so mason jars that he had already completed. The scent was subtle, yet sweet.

While they sat and chatted, Kaarina came in. Her smile was broad as the brim of her hat. Her hands were uplifted and she shouted, “Hyvää Paivää, Tervetuloa, Welcome, A wonderful day! I was just picking more blueberries in the garden.” Her eyes were blue and warm. She shot the traveler a hand and sat down, ready to hear the news and happenings. She had lived in Sweden for 20 years doing banking of some sort, but now lived in Helsinki. And here she was now, enjoying the end days of her vacation. The traveler was heartened to see the glee of such a fine person, and though still in his youth, envied her energy. And he remembered George MacDonald, “Old age means strength and beauty and mirth and courage and clear eyes.”

Joona and the traveler left the others and went out to drive to some choice locations: a riverside where horses still drank and Joona used to fish. A country museum of old buildings from the region’s past. A dock where a boat was once stolen. A sharp bend in the road where a winter crash caused a terrible death. A regular grocery store, but the traveler had never stepped into this particular candy aisle before.

—–

The most important of the stops was to Joona’s aunts’ house. Aunt Paula was staying her vacation from Helsinki with Aunt Sirpa. When Joona and the traveler pulled up the two of them were sitting on the porch rocking back and forth. At their feet were two five-gallon jugs of blueberries. “We picked those; you can eat some,” they said. Conversation coursed through current affairs in each person’s life. The aunts invited the boys inside. They asked the traveler to show them his home city on the map; they talked about his home politics and war. Then they talked more about Finnish. Easy parts of conversation switched languages back and forth depending on how much the traveler could grasp. Joona translated for the traveler and for Aunt Sirpa. Discussion turned to Aunt Paula’s many excellent travels past and future.

They retreated from the living room to the dining room for coffee, a slice of blueberry pie, and a little scoop of ice cream. The traveler sat between the aunts who started to imitate the Savo dialect of Finnish. They contorted their faces and sounded like yokels. As they laughed the traveler thought about how the aunts may have been in their youth, when they live and act as happy youth even now, now in their summer vacation.

The savory blueberry pie broke apart in the mouth, the berries danced on the taste buds, and the ice cream turned around and around with the coffee in a harmonious Yin and Yang.

—–

The two young men returned to the cottage and threw an American football for a while. They ran routes, became tired, and the traveler kicked back in a hammock while Joona played basketball. Dinner time came. And a beautiful spread it was. Pea soup, salad, and ruisleipää. Desert would be pancake from the oven, topped with blueberry jam and mallow.

As the five of them ate desert, they watched the European summer sport championships. A Finnish girl, a favorite going in to the race, did not win a medal. She was very broken up. “Sorry Finland,” she said. But Finland came back with glory in the javelin throws. They dominated the competition, taking first, second, and fourth place. For a minute it looked like Finland would win all three medals, and so when they won just the two, disappointment lingered in the air momentarily. The first place winner sensed the situation and pumped his fists, reminding everyone that it was still a big and most excellent victory.

Aarne wanted to know if the traveler knew any good jokes. Unfortunately story jokes were not the traveler’s strength. He only came up with two jokes. However, grandpa brought out a few jokes he learned in Russia. The guys then prepared for sauna. They equipped their feet with crocks and walked toward the lakeside. They placed sausages in a pan over the hot sauna rocks and added a little more wood to the stove. They sat in the heat and grandpa then told more jokes. These ones were Finnish jokes about Russians. Funny, lewd, and short, they were hilarious.

They went out into the cool lake water. It was formerly the third largest lake in Finland, but it shrank. The sky was bursting with clouds of different sorts, struck by the lingering sun from a thousand different angles; light split into a thousand different shades. Knee deep in the cool water the traveler stood looking out. Then he turned, took the soap and shampoo from Hannu and cleaned himself. And thus he took the most peaceful bath in the world before returning to the sauna.

Everyone is Watching – Name the States

I say I am from St. Louis. The first response is, “Oh the Blues! Great hockey team!” It is great that St. Louis has some connection to Finland and my hometown evokes some immediate response and not just a question mark. St. Louis also has The Arch, designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. St. Louisians really do not know that fact any more than Finns.

In day-to-day exchanges I want to practice Finnish, and cashiers want to check my I.D. to discover where I come from. Then they take pride in telling me my change amounts in English and “Have a nice day” with a smile which they would never make otherwise. But you can not be mad at someone for being happy to see you.

I enjoy my serious conversations in English, but in those conversations I do not have the luxury of just representing me (whoever that is). I also am an American, a mythical creature hanging around small town Finland. Drinking together in a group, serious questions get raised. And learning that I am from St. Louis suddenly a few people ask, “What do you think about Ferguson? How far is it from where you live?” Suddenly, I represent. Everyday I represent St. Louis, since this question now gets asked every day. Why are our police militarized? Why do we not have gun-free zones? Why do we make it look like a military operation?

My opinion has power to sway, to color, and to direct opinion, whether I like it or not. There is terror in being looked to for insight. Suddenly, on my voice hinges power, and power cannot always be rejected. Suddenly, my opinion on The Second Gulf War is of consequence, the death of countless civilians, the misery of refugees is in my voice. People want to know what I think of current day Iraq, Syria, G.W. Bush and Obama, Russia and NATO, Israel, ice hockey, alcohol laws, income tax-policies, the main-stream media, Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, Christianity, religion, fundamentalism, secularism, the two-party system, and why is it that Americans like baseball.

I have some response to some of these questions, but I am mostly an idiot. I don’t know anything about Islam and fundamentalism, the principles of jihad, the four schools of jurisprudence, the critiques of different sects and their individual histories, the genesis of grudges held between them, and the history of American involvement and its effect on the Middle East. Hell, most of how I understand these problems is through Plato, Dune, Henry V, the histories of the Athenians and Romans, and my own limited experience. I take the few things I have found to be true and try to understand how they apply or don’t apply to each situation while I look for better information.

On the other hand, I know and others know I am just one person. My opinions and ideas do not represent more than one voice among a plethora of voices. So we continue to drink together and make merry. There was a rumor in Turku that the U.S. had 52 states. So I asked these guys with heavy accents in Kajaani how many states there are:

Fifty! They shout. Fifty states for sure!
Let’s count them!
Virginia, California, Missouri, New York, Puerto Rico, Indonesia! Iraq!
The Detroit Redwings, North Dakota, South Dakota, Mexico, New Mexico, Old Mexico.
How many Mexicos are there?
I think there are seven.
Seven! Yeah, there are seven Mexicos.
Yet people hate Mexicans.
It’s because they are from Middle Mexico!
That’s so stupid! Why hate Mexicans from a different Mexico?
Well then there’s Philadelphia, Oregon, the one under Oregon…
California!
No, not California, San Diego!
That’s right, that right. Then Los Angelos.
Texas, Detroit, China, Massachusetts, Miami, Chicago
Toronto? Nah, ah-ah! Gotcha, Toronto is in Kaaanada!

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.

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.