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Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Snow isn't Slippery" and Other Finnish Myths

Ever since real winter started here (that is, snow always on the ground and temperatures almost always below freezing), myself and one of my Finnish friends have had a standing joke about walking in the snow.  She insists snow isn't slippery; I think she's hallucinating.  It's made me think, though, about some of the myths Finns tell themselves and other people say about them.

1.  Finns are taciturn.  I don't know where this comes from.  Sure, Finns are not like Southerners--willing to talk to anyone at anytime--or like the Irish--where playing with language is part of the culture--but where does this whole idea that Finns don't talk, that Finns are rude because of their reserved style, etc., etc. come from?!  Yes, I've run into a few surly types and a few nut jobs, but aren't they everywhere.  In the main, the Finns I've met here in Helsinki have been kind, helpful, and willing to talk.  And I don't even have to always initiate the conversation.  And it doesn't just happen when I have Ted.  No, people don't drag new acquaintances to their homes for dinner, but that doesn't make Finns taciturn and rude--jeese.

Actually, in all seriousness, I've talked to some of my colleagues, both Finns and non-Finns, about this, and we've come to the conclusion that part of my disgust with this stereotype comes from the fact that I've spent all my time here in Helsinki.  Helsinki is, after all, the largest city in the country and has the most foreigners; folks get used to us oddities and adapt somewhat to deal with us.  That being said, the fact that they DO adapt itself says a lot.  If you're willing to alter some aspects of your behavior to accommodate foreign visitors with different expectations, well, that's pretty impressive ... and nice.

2.  Along those lines--although this isn't a myth about Finland--why do Finns feel like they so frequently have to apologize for their country?  I don't know if the apologies really reflect insecurity or are a face-saving device (our country really is the best but we shouldn't act like we know it is), but my Finnish colleagues are always excessively pleased when any foreign media, etc. praises Finland.  Someone I know once flippantly described it as "small country syndrome," but funnily enough, my Irish friends didn't do that.

3.  Then there's the most pervasive myth, one that's been dominating my life since December: snow isn't slippery.  Okay, guys, where does this idea come from?!?!?!  Yes, compared to 3 inches of packed ice--the current surface in the park across the street--snow is like walking through sand, but guys, I went down on my back just 3 days after the first snowfall: no ice, no ridges in surface, just pure snow!  Some of my colleagues explain the constant snow on the sidewalks as evidence that it isn't slippery: the city leaves the snow with some dirt on top on the sidewalk so that people have something for their shoes to grip into.  I come at it from a different perspective: that of geology.  Basically geology is that glaciers are formed by layers and layers of snow packing down over time.  In other words, the Finns and I are walking on glaciers everyday by now!  And you're going to try to tell me glaciers aren't slippery?! :-)

BTW, you should see the very impressive ice ridges that appear where the glaciers/snowy sidewalks meet the warmth from inside stores!  :-)

And I should note that, despite my friends poo-poohing of the slipperiness, even the Finnish Meteorological Institute posts pedestrian warnings on their website (today we are officially "very slippery") and the newspapers are full of articles about people breaking and straining things from slipping on the ice ... oops, I mean, snow. :-)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Kay's Stayacation

I keep wanting to say, "Ferris!  Ferris Bueller!"
(Reference for you Americans who are a "certain" age.)

Since I had a long-planned appointment and a lot of downtown errands to run, I decided a few days ago that today I would play hooky completely.  It is absolutely amazing to me how liberating that feeling is!  Don't get me wrong, I've taken days off since I've been here; in fact, over the holidays when I was sick I took more off than I'd wanted to, but there's a difference between not working because you're sick or because you just realize about 2 in the afternoon that nothing's going to get done that day.  It's made me realize that I need to get a little more formal about my holidays instead of spreading my work week to all week with just lighter days on the weekends. 

But today I played!

So what does playing in Helsinki involve?  Well, first of all, after my usual morning ritual with Ted, I took a book downstairs to breakfast and dawdled.  Yep, multiple cups of coffee and oj and even a cookie or two (yes, there are always some cookies next to the coffee maker here for breakfast).  I'm currently reading Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test, which I'm finding really fascinating and am trying NOT to devour--as is my wont.

Then I came upstairs and played domestic goddess: did dishes, folded the 5 tons of laundry I did last night, dusted the window ledges (somehow the staff never does them), gave myself a pedicure, etc.  I know that doesn't sound very recreational, but with the exception of the laundry, none of those is a particularly big project in this apartment and I love how the place looks afterwards.  Also, it's fun to fold laundry when part of the challenge is seeing how many socks Ted can steal from the laundry pile.  Myself, I just couldn't believe that I had 12 pairs of socks in the laundry and wasn't out of socks.  Man, how many socks DID I THINK I'd be wearing in Finland?!

About 11 I doodled my way to the tram trying to walk more quickly and with longer strides, that is, trying to channel the zen Finnish goddess that must allow my friends here to say that the snow isn't slippery.  I was feeling very proud of myself that I made it fine despite it being -14F out with wind chill (Let's hear it for the NOAA's wind chill calculator, one of my new go-to websites!)  I smiled at the snow and got a few snaps of Finnish snow clothes (a long-promised entry, I know) before I got on the tram to sit across from 2 lovely elderly ladies who were chatting away about the weather, gloves, etc. and trying to include me in the conversation even though I told them I didn't speak Finnish and they seemed unable to or afraid to try.  We had a nice time, watched the police drag (literally) a drunk off the tram, and mimed the evils of drunkness.  They even said "bye, bye" and waved when I got off the tram.  Big smile for me.

Then I went to InterSport, a major sporting-goods chain here, to look for new ice cleats for my boots.  Boy, was that useless.  Not only did they not have anything that looked in any way effective, but the guy I asked to help me was just too cool for school.  The nice part is being old enough now that I laugh at such snots, especially when, as I was walking out of the store, I slipped and almost fell on some of the ice that I'd been trying to buy cleats to help me with.  Can we say textbook definition of irony?

Next stop was a brief foray to my office to pick up my Nordea (bank) credit card that I'd left there (long story).  On the way out, I saw two of my favorite people in the student cafe, and we had a brief chat.  Two very nice men.  (I was about to write "nice guys," but does that really hold for men in the 30s with families?)

I then chugged down the hill towards the Esplanades with serious spending in mind.  I'd promised myself some of the Kalavala jewelry, and today was as good a day as any!  The Kalavala is the Finnish national epic, and there's this wonderful jewelry store that does unusual pieces based on it and in general showcasing Finnish design and designers.  When buying Barbara's Christmas present there, I'd noticed that there were some lovely things I might be able to afford once I decided that I might actually spend some money on myself this year!  After having done a rough version of my tax return last weekend, I figured I could have a treat.

Well, today was money spending day, so I went into the shop and bought myself two lovely scarf clasps and a pair of earrings.  I also got a very nice necklace for a friend of mine, and everything was in sterling or bronze.  Even better, I found that that they really do give a 10% discount to members of the university.  First time I've actually used my university id card since I got it in September!  Saved me over 30 Euros so I'm a happy lady.

With that cheery experience in mind, I got down to the port without sliding (much to my amazement; the sidewalks on the 2 main streets are heated and dry, but the cross-streets and the crosswalks are pack ice by now since we haven't had snow in 4 days and they get constant traffic down there).  One of my colleagues was telling me how his wife had to take an ice breaker (yep, a boat designed to break ice) to work every morning because she worked on Suomenlinna, and this I had to see.  It's true.  The ocean really is frozen there.  Frozen ... ocean ... I'm astonished.  (Actually, I'm amused.  I'd expect it in Alaska, but here I'm astonished--there's absolutely NO LOGICAL reason for such different responses.)

From there it was another walk down the road to Stockmanns, where I had to do all sorts of fiddly shopping (nothing fun but I spoke with more nice people including a store clerk who jokingly battled with me for my chocolate).  On the way I stopped at the Kamp Cafe.  The Kamp is one of Finland's poshest old hotels, and the Cafe gets its ambiance from that.  Glad I went, would do it again if someone wanted, but don't feel a huge urge to do it again myself.

Once in Stockmann I had this hysterical conversation on the elevator with a young Finnish mother when I finally got my moxy up to ask if she spoke English.  She had her baby in one of those ultra-quilted outfits in one of those ultra-quilted strollers that I find both so hysterical and adorable here.  After explaining that I was from San Francisco (it's the easiest point of reference I have and close enough), I confessed how much I loved seeing the kids in those, how cute it was, etc.  She was flattered and amused, especially when I started joking about wanting to take pictures for my blog but being afraid parents would think I was some crazy stalker.  That really cracked her up, and I'm sure that if I had thought quickly I probably could've gotten a primo photo.  Unfortunately right then the elevator got to her floor.  We both had a great laugh, though.

Then about 2 I got to enjoy my real reason for going to Stockmann's: a hour and a half head and body massage at the fancy Thann spa they have there (my Christmas present to myself).  The verdict is still out if it was really worth the money, even though I got it at a discount rate.  I mean, the massage therapists at the Collegium are lovely and I do get 2 1/2-hour sessions free a month, although the ambiance (a small office on the ground floor) is not the same in the slightest.  That being said, the  therapist was a nice Thai lady and my body just absorbed the oil she used!  One thing I didn't realize is that part of the head treatment was applying the same oils to the scalp AND hair.  All I can say is that I'm really glad I had a hair band with me and I kept my hood up on my coat until I got home!  Now I REALLY need to wash that down coat.  The problem is that I need it all the time.  Ugh.

But Kay's day off wasn't about to end.  I then braved the underground passages, something I'd never done before, to make it to the next shopping mall where there was a pet store (needed to buy probiotics for Ted).  To be honest, it was kind of creepy.  There was no one there at all; it would be like walking through subway passenger tunnels that had been abandoned.  I managed to find everything, though, with no backtracking.  Yippee for me!  To be honest, I'd do almost anything to keep from going directly from the spa to -16C!

At the pet store, a girl I'd met before was working and she recognized me, so we had a bit of a chat (I guess being a large American in a giant Burgundy duvet stands out. :-)  ).  Nice girl and another Golden Retriever owner.  Even better, she translated the directions of the probiotics for me, since they were only in Finnish and Swedish.  I was dreading how long it would take to get through them on Google Translate!

And now I'll summarize the rest of the day. :-)  Was incredibly grateful that I only had to walk a block and wait 3 minutes for the tram; took Ted out for a walk where he was given the stink eye by another big dog who another smaller dog was trying to attack.  Since I was away from all of that, I found it amusing that yet another dominant dog thought Ted was the one to watch despite having the psychoit only a couple of feet away.  Had a nice chat with Mervi for about 15 minutes until we'd decided we'd tortured Ted enough and I really should feed him.  Now that Ted's fed, and this blog entry almost over, I figure the rest of the evening will be spent with trashy television and chocolate in some other form (been drinking cocoa as I've been typing) with maybe some phone calls or something else ... whatever I want.  Maybe I'll just curl up on the floor with Ted and give him some rubs.  I'm sure he'll support that.

Yes, it's a middle-aged version of Ferris Bueller but one I'm quite happy to have enjoyed.

And, by the way, three Finns told me it was slippery out today, and I DIDN'T PROMPT THEM! :-)

Monday, February 6, 2012

A New Finnish President


Big news for the last several months here in Finland has been the campaign to elect a new president (Yes, unlike in the US, people aren't obviously campaigning for years at a time.)  The recent president—a woman, by the way—has completed two, six-year terms, so she couldn't be reelected even if she wanted to be (and judging from how bored and pained her husband looked during the New Years' festivities, there might have been some reaction on the home-front even if she could.)

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I couldn't follow most of the debate in the Helsinki papers for obvious reasons, but I have read a few of the English-language summaries and spoken with various friends and colleagues here in town.  With that in mind, I figured you might be interested in some of my impressions, especially as they are formed by comparison with the—crazed—American presidential elections.

First of all, like I said, note the campaigning time.  Man, that makes things so much more reasonable!  Don't get me wrong; all of those running for President had been involved in public life for years, so I suppose you could argue that they've always been campaigning, but it doesn't seem as egregious as the American timetable.  Not to mention, there are no robo-calls.  Yes, if you are voting for President in Finland, you do not besiege citizens with ludicrous slanders or false cheerfulness on their home phone for weeks, if not months!!

It's a good thing, too, because they actually have two levels of presidential elections.  You see, the Finns have lots of political parties, and if I remember correctly, in the first presidential election about 3 weeks ago, there were candidates from 9 different parties running.  Then, if someone doesn't win a majority, they have a run-off election c. 3 weeks later between the two people who got the most votes.  There's no electoral college, electors, or any of that good ole 18th-century stuff we have in the US, too; it's straight democracy, that is, based on popular vote.  I find it really interesting because you have such diverse candidates at least at the initial stage as opposed to the seemingly diverse but relatively homogenous candidates we have back home.

Speaking of popular vote, when I was discussing the election with some of my Finnish colleagues today, they were dismayed that only 68% of the electorate came out to vote.  They particularly thought the excuse of it being just too cold out (-10F), which I had enough sense NOT to offer, was completely bogus.  That's when I learned that you can actually vote by mail ahead of time and, unlike in South Carolina, don't have to come up with a life-changing disaster or foreign travel to do so.  (BTW, in the first presidential election a few weeks ago over 75% of the electorate voted, and my colleagues still thought this number  was disappointing.)  Ah, if they knew of the pathetic turn-out in America (Of course, that's a contributor to the influence of extremists, but anyway …)

About extremists, too …  One of the things I always enjoy here in Europe is how my political views suddenly become very middle of the road.  I think it helps to have actually lived in a socialized state and have something happen to you when you aren't a multi-millionaire; suddenly the much vaunted American freedom seems much less freeing.  As an aside, too, about the supposedly "outrageous taxes" Europeans pay for this social safety net, in 2012 I will pay c. 21% total of my Finnish income towards taxes, pension, the Finnish version of social security, and medical care; I would have to earn more than double my current salary for that tax rate to go above 25%, not likely to happen in my lifetime.  Having just figured my US taxes yesterday, I know for a fact that my total in those 4 areas (taxes, pension, social security, and health insurance) comes to more than 25% of my gross salary payable in the US.  In fact, because of my "windfall" this year, I am paying more taxes than our dear ole' presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.  Let's hear it for AMT.  In addition, if I'm hurt over here I'm not in danger of losing my house, and pregnancy is not covered by "sick leave," when you even get maternity leave at all.  Don't get me wrong; I love my home, but we Americans need to get our heads on straight about this "best country in the world" rhetoric.

Now wasn't I talking about extremists? :-)  Most of my colleagues and Finnish friends here were raving about how conservative politics had gotten and how, really, the choice was between which conservative politician you wanted.  This, of course, made me go look at the positions of the candidates more closely.  Yes, the two that made the run-offs were both more conservative than many of the others, but, thank God, the ultra-nationalist "The Finns" party candidate didn't make it.  (I can't decide which name is more condescending: "The Finns" or their old name, "True Finns."  I guess if you disagree with them you lose your Finn card.)  That being said, I love the Finnish definition of conservative.  First of all, you should know that one of the two candidates was a Green Party candidate.  Now I've been told here that there are such things as right-wing(ish) Greens, but I'm still wrapping my mind around that.  Can you imagine anyone with any ties to the Green Party having a hope in hell in a national election in America?  Moreover, both of the candidates were for some loosening of government regulation on certain businesses (but by no means the regulation free-for-all of American business), pro-environmental legislation, pro-EU, pro-Euro … you get the idea.  In addition, one of the candidates was gay; he'd been in a long-term relationship for over 20 years.  Can you even imagine a gay man getting a presidential nomination in America if he was out of the closet?!  I hear that here, out in the countryside, some folks held that against him, but for most Finns, it just wasn't an issue.  Boy, it's nice to have someone chosen based on political positions rather than, ostensible, morality.  (Although don't get me started on the "morals first" crowd who supports Newt.  Santorum I could understand, although I find him appalling, but Newt?  Really?)

In any case, yesterday was the vote—yep, a Sunday.  You know I've been living in SC too long when that shocked me, although from a pragmatic perspective, it makes perfect sense: fewer people have to work on that day than any day of the week here.  It was funny, though; even though I knew the election was the 5th and saw flags flying in front of most entrances to buildings yesterday, I'd completely blanked that it was the election.  It wasn't until I met one of the folks who works in the Towers when I was walking Ted in the park and that she mentioned she was going to vote that I put two and two together.  Isn't it funny how strong cultural conditioning can be?

In any case, the slightly more conservative candidate—conservative by Finnish standards, relatively liberal by those of the US—won, so Sauli Niinisto of the National Coalition Party (like in the US, the names mean nothing) is the new President for the next six years.  Given that most of the real power in Finland is vested in the cabinet and parliament, his main effect will be in foreign policy, an area in which he is relatively middle of the road—again, by US standards.  He's an internationalist, whatever that means, and an EU supporter.  I know that many of the people I know here were disturbed by how conservative both finalists were, and here's hoping that many of their worries don't come true!

And, Anna, without Finnish, that's about as close to a political analysis as I can come! :-)

For more English-language information, here's a link to the English edition of Helsinki's main newspaper.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ghost Database (final version)

For all you folks who helped me sort through the database in its early incarnation, I thought you might be curious to see it in what I hope will be its final form (or as close to final as these things ever get).  I've got it hosted on Google Documents temporarily, and you can access it here.

I'll tell you, the process of thinking through all these parameters, the organization, and the search strings I might want has done wonders towards pulling together the project and getting me writing, whatever good in the long run such databases are!

Comments on a Cold Day


I woke up this morning to find the long-forecasted Siberian cold blast here, and with a wind chill that brings everything down to -25F (-32C), I figure that's cold even for you upper Midwest types.  Unfortunately nothing profound comes to mind about dealing with this—frankly, not much is moving in my mind, period, much less in any profound way—but I figured I'd share some of my observations on dealing here in Helsinki with temperatures the like of which this ex-pat Californian has never seen.

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You know, when I looked at my IPhone's weather app last year, saw -20C, and thought, "Damn, that's cold," I was right!

Classic "damned if I do, damned if I don't moment": If I have clean hair, the fleece cap I put on under my down hood won't stay on; if I have dirty hair, it stays on(ish), but then I have to face my colleagues all day looking like "shower" is a foreign word.

Let me just say that I'm very glad that Finland doesn't have to worry about water.  I left the shower on last night when I got ready for bed, and it made the bedroom nicely warm and humid.

Oh, and yes, I have finally turned the radiators on in my apartment.

Finally, I'm dressing like I expected to all year: silk long johns, 3 layers of shirts, multiple scarves and hats, and fleece socks.  I shudder to think how much laundry I'm going to do this weekend.

Wow, even the Towers has a sign up warning us how cold it is.  I guess Finns notice when it goes below -15F.

And, of course, this is the morning I lock my keys in my apartment.

You know, even Ted's happy not to spend a lot of time out in this.  I wonder if I can get him to do his business on the balcony off the common room? :-)  (And, no, no one walks underneath it!)

Speaking of which, in the Androcles and the Lion story, meet Androcles (Ted's the lion).  When it gets this cold, Ted's only good for about 2 blocks before he gets painful snowballs in his paws.  Thank goodness, it's one of the few areas in his life where he'll actually show the pain; in fact, by now, he lifts up the affected paw for me to remove the ball.  Smart dog.

I'll be really curious to see how many folks make it in for our official lunch today. (Answer: everyone.  I must be the only cold wimp in town.)

Will I make it in for my free massage tomorrow?

You know, when it's this cold, the NOAA wind chill calculator says that you can get frostbite in 30 minutes if you don't protect yourself.  Wow, I never thought I'd live in a place like that.

Thank god for snow.  I can walk just that bit faster without slipping.

How to tell that even Finns are cold: my Nanook-of-the-North coat no longer stands out and there are truly impressive numbers of layered hats, scarves, and mittens out there.  Of course, they can't react.  Yes, sisu is in full force.

Wow, even Finnish drivers are skidding and having a hard time driving in this.  Then again, the guys are still working construction behind my apartment.  Amazing.

You know you're in trouble when -10C (projected temp with wind chill 2F) seems warm.

My French colleague just came in, and we were, not surprisingly, discussing the weather.  When I joked about -20C being the break-over point, he said, "Yes, it's lovely, isn't it?"  Since I know he wasn't joking, clearly he's been married to a Finn too long.

Isn't it amazing how, when I first arrived, everyone acted like -20C or -25C was the apocalypse.  Now that, -20+C has arrived, they're talking about 1987 when it was -35C for 3 weeks in a row.  People, that's valuable information!

And, yes, one of my colleagues just told me a story about her eyelashes freezing.  Her … eyelashes … freezing.  Okay, guys, sufficient freakage has occurred!

You know, from inside my nice, warm office, it's really quite beautiful: bright & sunny, breezing blowing the clouds around, and snow on the window ledges.  Then you go outside where it's up to a whole -18C, but the wind chill remains a rousing -22F (-30C).

You know, I expected the phrase "Siberian winter" to remain a metaphor in my life, not to ACTUALLY be affected by weather in Siberia!!

On that note, I think I'll stagger home and make a gallon of hot chocolate.