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Friday, October 21, 2011

The Bunnies of Helsinki

Even though there are lots of parks around, I've been kind of surprised at the relative lack of animals in them.  I mean, I know I live in a city, but I live in town in Columbia, too, and my yard is full of squirrels (and lizards and frogs and toads and snakes and birds and possums).  Moreover, Helsinki seems to have many more parks with big trees.  With the killer chesnut trees across the street, I'm always shocked that the place isn't overrun with squirrels.  Guess it's the dogs in the area.

I have now, though, finally met urban Helsinki's "big" mammals: bunnies.

About three weeks ago, I was taking Ted out about 11 at night and no one was around.  In the distance near the building in the kids' part of the park, I could've sworn I saw a rabbit and, when Ted started running, I realized I did.  (Imagine Tweetie Bird here.)  I'd heard about the rabbits but hadn't yet seen one, so I had really mixed feelings: on the one hand, it was cool to see the bunny, on the other hand, I wondered about the tensile strength of the leash.  Rabbit dove between the fence and the building and disappeared.  Ted stopped right before the building and my arm didn't go out--whew.  But Ted didn't forget the bunny.  For the next 3-4 days his primary concern morning, afternoon, and evening was getting back to the spot where the bunny disappeared.  Pretty funny reaction given that he almost always ignores the wildlife in my yard in South Carolina.

I was talking to one of the staff here--hi, Maria!--and she told me that the bunnies in town actually aren't native to Finland.  They were introduced as pets that were let out or something like that and did what rabbits do.  Something about the layout of the city, wildlife management, or whatever seems to keep them in the city and the native species in the countryside.  Whatever the case, they were pretty much what I expected from wild bunnies: grayish brown with a big, white tail.  Both Ted and I had looked for more, but not a one in sight since

Until last night.  Once again we're out around 11--I swear I do that ca. half the time and don't see bunnies!--and we've just gotten to the end of the park.  No one's around, and we're walking back towards the Towers, nearing the building.  Suddenly a bunny goes right across the path and Ted takes off.  Truly.  Ted. Takes. Off.  I had no idea he could run so fast.  The leash unwinds like a fishing line with a marlin at the end, and I figure this is it: I'm hitting the ground or dislocating my shoulder because I sure as ---- can't let go.  I'll never see Ted again.  And Ted's got all these rippling muscles now.  And he's a pony in a dog suit.  So I brace just as Ted hits the end of the line.

Next thing I know Ted is flat on his side. 

But his head is still up tracking the bunny.

Now before those of you who know about Ted's abilities at injuring himself freak out, let me state categorically--he's fine.  He didn't even take a bad step.  I think he was torn between being shocked and obsessed, though, because he stayed in that position until I walked up.  Then he stood up and resumed the crouch/prance step that basically said, "Please, please, let the leash go.  I want to chase that bunny again.  And again.  And again."  (Of course, by now the bunny was across the street and well out of sight--thank goodness!)  So he pranced and I pulled our way back to the Towers.

Of course, this morning Ted the obsessed bunny hunter was ALL over the area those rabbits come from.  I figure this now means he'll be like this for another week at least.  Better warn my neighbors!

Imagine this with snow and/or ice.  I may not survive Helsinki, although I really didn't think bunnies would be my COD.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Adventures in a Small Kitchen

As I was heading to the store this evening and strategizing how I was going to make dinner, I started giggling about how I was getting used to some mighty odd contortions just to make pretty simple dinners.  Given how basic the Towers' kitchens are (more details below) and how lazy and cheap I can be, I've made it one of my challenges this year to cook good, nutritious, and non-boring meals in my apartment.   Yep, too lazy to walk down the hall to the oven, that lazy.  It's entailed some real inventiveness--and, at times, long for my BIG, fully-equipped kitchen at home.  (Yes, compared to my kitchen here, my one on Candleberry is big.  Chew on that.)

My kitchen here really is just a 6-foot stretch of counter into which they've managed to fit a sink, two electric burners, and a coffee maker.  Yep, that gives me about a 3x2 surface for all meal prep.  The microwave is small and weak but perfectly functional and is, thank goodness, a wall-mount.  The fridge is the best of those under-the-counter ones I've ever had, but it is small.  No once a week groceries for me.  The "pantry" is a shelf in my clothes closet and a spice rack above the burners.  Both are totally functional, although I keep waiting for coffee in my undies and all my spices to collapse into dinner.  That's when I go to the Chinese restaurant next door.

For all my kidding, the only thing that's annoying are the electric burners--and they're more amusing than annoying.  Now I'm not one of those folks who "can only cook on gas" (get over yourselves).  Electric or gas, both are fine; you just have to deal with them differently.  With the ones here, though, let's just say that I'm glad I learned to cook on Wekiva's old stove and the two cranky and microscopic ones I had in Dublin and Dole.  The burners aren't coil but are like a hot plate: solid metal.  It means that they take FOREVER to heat up, but once they do, they don't give up their heat for anything; yes, you are in danger of burning yourself for at least an hour after using one, and I'm shocked that they don't set the countertops on fire given that they're embedded into them and anything hitting the metal surrounding the burners sizzles (no joke). They're also REALLY close together.  I mean REALLY.  My big saucepot is 8" across, and I can't put that and my small frying pan on the burners at the same time and have both pans actually fit.  Think of it as campfire cooking, with each pot precariously balanced on its burner.  It's actually kind of handy if you think about it; I can sautee and sear on the same burner in the same pan without having to adjust the heat. :-)

That last crack gives you an example of some of my cooking contortions, so on that note, here's to all the ways I've had to become inventive in the kitchen!

1.  My mallet is my friend.  Not only does it tenderize meat, it makes bread crumbs, contributes to stretching pastry dough, and creates killer mashed potatoes.  I should note, however, that you should never, ever use the pointy side on the potatoes.  Without a dishwasher, you'll never get the thing clean.  I've learned the hard way.

2.  You can fry almost anything if you try.  While I realize that this shouldn't be surprising to anyone who's lived in the South as long as I have, it was an epiphany given that I so rarely fry things at home.  While I haven't gotten into the fried vegies yet, fried bread in butter is 100% times better than toast on frosty mornings.  (Yes, you can call my cardiologist.)

3.  I'll take plastic, not paper.  When I shop for things now, I pay attention to their containers not because I'm trying to be environmental, but because I'm trying to get free Tupperware.  I've managed to accumulate a nice collection of mixed containers and just tonight treated myself to a 1.5 liter container of Diet Coke (my first of the trip) because Ted and I need a big water bottle when walking.  The only problem is that some don't microwave well.  That's when I learned how to scrape plastic off the glass shelf.

4.  A cutting board is an all-purpose tool.  Computer lap desk.  Need I say more?

5.  Garlic presses are annoying but essential (at least given how I cook), since they don't seem to sell pre-chopped garlic .  Think about cleaning all those stupid holes without a dishwasher, though.  I've gotten so that I squish something slimy through it to get rid of the garlic skins, then wash the slimy out.  I was pretty proud of that one.

6.  The most useful tool in the kitchen: the Euro-whisk (bet you thought I'd say knife, huh.  Actually knives are third place after scissors).  When you can't face anymore inventiveness, the Euro-whisk makes a killer cup of cocoa and mixes a lot better than those straight-handled whisks we have at home.  (Yes, my kitchen came with a whisk and cheese slicer, which I never use, but didn't come with measuring cups.)

On that note, I'm going to take my cutting board and start editing!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Finnish Bureaucracy: A Case Study


One of the few ways I've found the clichés about Finland to be accurate are those involving bureaucracy and meetings.  We've had several meetings where librarians, technology staffers, international faculty orienters (rough translation of their title), and statisticians have explained to us what they think we need to know about the university.  (I was about to type "drone on and on" to us, but that would be rude.)  It's particularly funny/frustrating given the amazing guidebook that the Collegium itself gave us when we first arrived; it really does answer everything, although, now that I think about it, I should've been forewarned by the long section on organizational structure that even began that booklet.

From the point of view of a foreigner who's only here for a year, these meetings can be absolutely hysterical once you get over the mind-numbing boredom.  Let me give today's example.

Today all new fellows who are officially employees of the University of Helsinki have had to attend a 2-hour orientation of the online reporting system UH uses to keep track of all our research and other activities.  While I'm not a huge fan of administrative meetings and the numerical accounting of academic work, I understand why administrators feel they need to do it.  Besides, I'm only here for a year.  It's not my job to reform the Finnish education system!

So I sat down at 10 am with my laptop in our seminar room to learn everything I ever wanted to know about Tuhat, the accounting system.

OH     MY    GOD!
Let the mind-numbing boredom begin.

It took 20 minutes for the presenter to get us to the log in stage, because after all, we had to learn everything about the place of Tuhat in the university system, the complications of integrating it into the servers, the connections between Tuhat and the libraries, etc.  The log in section moved at usual speed, which would have been way too fast for someone who wasn't familiar with the system or a native English speaker.  I'd already gotten bored enough that I was about 8 screens ahead and coming up with a list of questions.  It has almost certainly made me annoying, although it at least made me look as if I was paying attention.

When we got to the page where we're supposed to report our publications, there was a list of ca. 10 different types of publications.  Instead of explaining the categories or telling us where to find the explanations, the presenter moved right into the most obvious category ("scientific publication," alias a research monograph).  Then the minutia festival started in earnest.

To illustrate what we were supposed to do, she asked our director to let us use his page.  Although he did so, about every 10 minutes thereafter he punctuated the meeting with comments about how this wasn't really representative because he'd spent so many years at other institutions, he hadn't imported his work into the system, etc.  It was quite sweet actually; a group of us wanted to go up and tell him not to worry, he was the Director of the Collegium, and we thought he was a good scholar.

In any case, she pulled up his article and proceeded to go through EVERY single possible permutation of the record about it, being sure to read to us every category, subcategory, and subcategory of a subcategory.  Then there were detailed discussions between her and another library staff member about how things were classified within the library system, the way the coding really looked without the nice user interface (demonstrated to us, of course), etc.  At one stage I went out to go to the bathroom, which is on a separate floor.  When I left they were discussing how to determine the best key words for a search; when I came back ... well, you guessed it: same topic.

By this time, my fellow fellows and I reverted to our undergraduate days.  I'll admit I started it--needed something to do between checking Facebook (stinks when most of my friends are in vastly different time zones!).  Emails were soon flying around the seminar room about the mind-numbingly boring and pedantic presentation.  One involved someone faking a heart attack, with the other two promising to carry him out.  Another involved a fellow just packing up at about 11:30 after sending us an email telling us that his grandmother had just had an accident.  Meanwhile, I was chiding one of our Collegium staff members who was spending time reading "The Independent" and BBC World News. :-)

My colleague with the injured grandmother missed, however, what has been the highlight of the presentation thus far.  After we finally got away from article minutia and moved to how to use this system to make our cvs--completely useless for those of us who already have a long academic life and/or who aren't going to spend their lives at universities where this system is used (Finland, Denmark, Scotland, and England--one of our chief administrators here asked a question that had clearly been bugging her for awhile: given that most of us are on short-term (1-2 year) contracts, how is she supposed to convince us that it's worthwhile for us to go through the hassle of completing this online accounting--other than through the obvious method of harassing us until we comply?  In other words, as Minna asked, what's the use of this system to people like us?  

Here's where a great aspect of Finnish style comes out.

The presenter thought for a second, looked around the group, and gave a totally honest answer: 

It isn't useful.
(At all. Period. De nada. Nichts. Ne...pas. Never in a bazillion years.)

I thought I was going to die laughing.  Let's hear it for the proverbial Finnish honesty!

I guess I'd better go back to listening to the presentation.  Yes, even after admitting it wasn't useful to us, they are debating the ways it is not useful while we're sitting here. :-)

Monday, October 10, 2011

We Experience Ruska

About the end of September/early October, leaves started changing here.  That marks the beginning of ruska, which roughly translates as "autumn" but, from what I understand, plays more on the emotional connotations that are used less frequently in English, such as "autumnal," "the autumn of our lives," etc.  It seems a bit like the concept of evanescence in Japanese culture, this sense that you have a final gasp of beauty before all things fade (and all thing WILL definitely fade).

While not as spectacular here in Helsinki as it is further north and certainly not like New England, it's still pretty beautiful.


This first picture is from a park near the water in Helsinki; I took it while I was waiting to head to a friend's house for a dinner party.


Of course, this is from our fabulous viewing deck.  While the colors were not super spectacular, I liked the way they stretched all the way to the water.

Surprisingly, though, given the number of trees in the area, the colors haven't been so dramatic everywhere.  I think it's because, in general, Helsinki doesn't seem to get those sudden changes in climate that high mountains and NE do in the States. I mean, if it's 55 degrees here during the day, it tends to get down to all of 45 degrees at night.  We've also had lots of rain recently, so what you really have is a mush of leaves on all the walkways.  At least so many people walk and the leaves get pulverized so quickly that I have yet to slip on them!  Give me time.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Two Month Musings

It's hard to believe I've been here two months, especially since my time at the Collegium has really only just started, but in keeping with my two-month anniversary, I thought I'd share more weird musings I've had during my time in Finland.

1.  Why does everyone, including myself I might add, assume that living in Helsinki is like living in Antarctica?  Don't get me wrong; it's colder than SC, but in September and August a furnace is colder than Columbia.  The weather has been absolutely lovely, and even the Finns freak out if Helsinki gets below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.  From what I hear, that makes much of the upper Midwest a lot colder than Helsinki.  That being said, I'm still going to start the counter on the blog of the number of days below freezing once it happens. :-)  And, yes, you can remind me of this entry come February.

2.  I am truly fascinated at the number of Finns who are already going for walks with those ski pole/walking stick things.  I hear it's to get ready for the cross country (what they call "Nordic") skiing season.  While it makes sense, it certainly looks more than a bit dorky to this foreigner.  And, yes, you can remind me of that when I fall on my rear on the ice come February. :-)

3.  I'm constantly fascinated and amused by the politics of laundry here in the Towers--and will be thrilled to have my own machines back!  Some people dutifully follow the instructions, others can't read the instructions, and still others somehow can't figure out that they have to reserve the machines even though they've lived here for months!  Me, I'm just grateful if I can get my trousers dry in less than 2 hours! (Bet you were waiting for an allusion to February here, weren't you?)

4.  Speaking of the Towers, I have the best shower ever created by man.  I mean, I thought my shower in Columbia was good, but this one's better!  I must figure out how to re-create it.  I'm in love.

5.  I could write a entire monograph about Finns and dogs, especially on the trams.  My favorites are the kids, because they haven't learned yet to be repressed/polite.  Several times a week I have a kid sit down or next to Ted and have a conversation with him while petting him.  Often the parents end up playing translator, and us two adults are killing ourselves not to laugh.

6.  Even though I'm not watching prices obsessively (and I purposefully haven't been looking at exchange rates), I remain astonished at the cost of food: well over $15 a pound for even mediocre cheese, hamburger at $15 a pound, nuts at $20 a lb., and most things at least 50-100% more.  That's echoed in dinner prices, too; tonight I'm going out to dinner with friends from the Collegium.  We're going to a mid-priced restaurant, and I figure that I'll pay at least $90 for a starter, main course, and two glasses of wine.  Alcohol is the real killer: a 1/2 liter of beer runs at least $10 in most Helsinki bars.

7.  Finally figured out how to do a dinner party here at the Towers: have it on the Viewing Deck.  It's enclosed and heated, with lots of space and a panoramic view on three sides.  This November I think I'll do one of my "Mexican evenings" (If Patricia Beatty is reading this, she just cracked up and got nostalgic simultaneously.), make enchiladas, etc., and set up there.  Already checked with the staff, and they're fine with it.

8.  Means I'd better buy tortillas and a few other things when I go to Fort Worth in three weeks.  They have a remarkable selection in Stockmann, but it's not complete.

9.  I continue to love Sundays in Europe, even though (or probably because) they're not as strict as they used to be.  It's still the common thing that most people don't work and stores don't open on Sunday, but there's still a lot to do--unlike during my days in Dole when they rolled up the sidewalks!  It's just done at a nice, leisurely pace.  Makes me feel like I'm not committing some sort of academic heresy by taking a day entirely off things intellectual once a week.

10.  I'm constantly amazed at how different my experience living abroad is now from what it was like when I first went to Ireland or France.  Not the countries, although that, too, but my personal approaches and ways of coping.  Then again, that topic could cover pages, so I'll save it for another entry.

Ted is snoring, and I know I've forgotten half the points I meant to blog about, so that's a sign that I probably should go get ready for this evening.  The question du jour is (I've been reading a lot of French recently) do I try moose, have reindeer again, or go for something I love and don't make, like duck confit? :-)