Thursday, August 09, 2007

Rye bread

I went to Finland for two and a half weeks recently with my mother, and it was very refreshing. Cold, of course, but I got to do many things I've missed doing, like eating rye bread. American have no idea of what dark, filling bread is like. "Rye" bread here is more like wheat bread with a slight addition of rye flour that's virtually unnoticable, except in the color of the bread. The food was fabulous. The coffee was even better. I had coffee and pastries in Fazer's cafe. (English page available.) A real cafe (and famous), with the hand-made pastries of normal size behind the glass counter for me to pick the special one just for me. If you're in Helsinki visiting, find this place. Kluuvikatu 3. I got to eat smoked fish. We ate muikkukukkoja (I don't know what those are in English) from the kauppahalli (market building) in Helsinki. I had fresh chanterelles fried in butter, home-made raspberry kiisseli (more dishes I don't know in English), lättyjä (like crepes) and lots of mineral water! On the more glamorous end, we also had a fabulous meal at NJK. One of the best meals of my life. And we got to sauna in two real wood-heated saunas! One was even by a lake in the proper old-fashioned way.

After a few days in Helsinki, we went to see my grandfather near Vaasa and then to the opera festival in Savonlinna, then back to Helsinki. What felt so familiar and comfortable, despite that it sometimes annoyed me before, was how simple everything is there. How natural. How clean. Women walk like real women and smoke and drink. Everyone cooks at home, from simple and fresh ingredients, and wouldn't consider anything else. Everyone cleans. The simple things in life make people happy, and me with them. People can walk without effort. People have energy. People form a society, a community. There is simple beauty. Nothing is so far twisted or processed from its original that there is nothing left of it. If you don't feel like smiling, don't. There is no show. Don't ask a Finn to put on a spectacle for you, but you can count on one to keep it real. And to have sisu, of course.

We got tickets to a new Finnish opera about modern Finnish society by Olli Kortekangas called Isän tyttö. (Daddy's Girl) It was great. The music was moving, but above all, it had a lot to say about people and about the past. I recognized a lot of it in my own family history. The main character Anna has a mother who is a seamstress, like my grandmother. Anna herself has run away far to the south, where "the nights are nights, and the sun is right above during the day," from a family situation (I won't spoil the story, if you see it) and sings that she is younger than when she left. While Anna's family problems aren't ones I share, I can see my own relationship to Finland mirrored to some extent in this. Anna's father died in the war, and she longs to know who he was and get his support. This is a recurring theme, and having just come from my grandfather's house, where there's always a lecture on the wars being served up, lots of pictures of dead soldiers on the wall, and obligatory tours of the local veterans' graveyard on the agenda, it sure struck a chord on the behalf of my relatives. Anna's mother Siiri moves them to the city after her husband dies, in order to earn enough money sewing to send Anna to college and give her a better life than Siiri herself has had. (Just like my grandmother did with my mother.) Anna becomes a communist in university and thinks that her mother is causing suffering by employing women to sew for her. Siiri is aghast, because she herself has worked hard for Anna and her husband died fighting the Russians for freedom. The duet ends with both singing "Whose suffering?" Anna's partner Axel is a drunk, and after a few kids, they split up. Skipping some dramatic parts of the story, at the very end, Axel and Siiri have become friends despite their earlier ideological differences.

I thoroughly enjoyed the opera. As we were waiting for the crowds to move out, the American woman behind me, who rather rudely asked me if I had a cell phone, then borrowed someone else's phone, and continued talking business and complaining about being tired very loudly while the orchestra was tuning, really started to shine as an ugly American. Very loudly, she proceeds to talk to a friend involved with organizing the event about the opera, talking about the Vietnam war, American history and communism, all under the (explicitly stated) thesis that she has to understand the opera through what she knows, namely U.S. history. After a lot of clueless jabbering, I was extremely tempted to turn around and say "Listen, lady, if you don't get it now, what you need is a book on Finnish history, not to lecture Finns on YOUR history. Shut the fuck up." She didn't understand that the reason it was so hurtful for Siiri that Anna was a communist wasn't only or even mainly politics or economics - it was the symbolism.

Russia has been trying to take Finland for centuries. In recent history, huge parts of the population have take on the Russians - a force much more powerful than they will ever be, and they know it - twice and have managed to stay independent. Thousands of people have come home missing arms and legs, thousands of people have died. Finland just barely escaped becoming part of the Soviet Union after World War II, and a constant reminder of how lucky that was has come from Estonia, which wasn't as lucky. Finland still lost Karelia to Russia, and had to pay massive war debts to Russia - most of Finland's industrial production went to Russia for a long time. To be a communist can't be wrong on absolute grounds - after all, what could be wrong with the aim of trying to improve life for the down-trodden? - but there is certainly something a bit disloyal to take Russian ideals when so many people have sacrificed so much so that you can be free, and when your own mother has worked very hard to give you the freedom to choose, to succeed, to give you a better life than she had in the shadow of the war and poverty. Americans have never, ever had to raise a single, real, physical gun to defend themselves from Russia or communism. No Americans have died or been maimed defending their country's independence from invading Russians. America has never lost land to Russia. No Americans have skied over the border with Russia by mistake, to return too afraid to speak a word of what they've seen. A cold war may be nasty, but it's even nastier to fight both hot and cold wars with your neighbor. And I can guarantee you she didn't even catch the slant on how the communism was presented - the subtle pointers to the mindlessness and ultimately meaninglessness of the slogans and the key words (We're protesting imperialism!")and what they meant in societal context. I'll also bet she didn't feel the sense of moving forward when the characters choose to value human relationships over ideology. It's quite possible that she would have though it weak to love your family instead of sticking to ideology, like many Americans do. It was a real bummer to have to listen to her after such an uplifting and personally relevant opera.

While at the festival, we stayed at a farm that's running a hospitality business on the side called Lomamokkila. (Several other languages available on the website.) No, that's not a typo, it's an o. It's 12 km from Savonlinna, but all the hotels were booked, of course. It turned out to be very nice - almost like at our old summer house, but with some extra perks. I highly recommend Lomamokkila if you're looking for a special place to stay near Savonlinna. If you don't speak Finnish, we heard the owners speak excellent English with foreigners, and they responded quickly to email. All the buildings and equipment were clean, solid and of good quality. They have many kinds of lodging (including in old liiterit, uh, a kind of old-fashioned grains storage barn), both close to the farm houses and cottages by the lake. (Mosquito warning by the lake.) There's a common fire teepee where you can grill (good place to grill some sausages), two row boats and fishing rods for common use, and a common kitchen if you want to cook yourself. You can bet we did, we made poronkäristystä (a reindeer dish). You can also pay for meals at the farm. We ate breakfast there, and it was like the rest of Lomamokkila - simple but sublime in its simplicity. Oven-baked porridge with whole wheat kernels, baked milk, fresh bread, yoghurt, fresh eggs, fresh coffee. By the time you'd eaten some of almost everything, you were stuffed. It was a lot like being at a summer house, and that area of Finland is very, very pretty.

I've spent so much time in itä-pohjanmaa (east botnia) that to see järvisuomi (lake finland) was very refreshing. It was also nice to get away from the east botnia dialect. My step-grandmother goes a bit nuts with the local identification and she'd got an east botnia dialect-Finnish dictionary she likes showing everyone. As a TCK, that's somewhat awkward. Every time she reall pushes the regional dialect I can't help but think "Lady, it's a big world out there beyond itä-pohjanmaa... Guess where we came from? We just flew from Chicago across an ocean to Germany to Finland to come see you. We switched from English to German to Finnish without much effort and you're stuck on a dialect of Finnish? Just let it go."

Back in Helsinki, we went to Ateneum to see the exhibit Music and silence. Finnish symbolism. Very interesting, as I recognize the feelings from the exhibit relating to Finland, but didn't have a way of describing them. It also suggests a different perspective on some of Akseli Gallen-Kallela's work that I hadn't considered before. We also stopped by the Academic Bookstore and picked up a huge technical English-Finnish dictionary for a mere E160.

We stayed a night at the Kempinski Hotel Airport München, since we were flying Lufthansa and our Chicago flight was early in the morning from München. Great chance to practice German! I started on the outgoing flight, of course. I asked the stewardess how they decided which language to speak with passengers. She replied that (of course) they had a system: if a passenger's last name was German, they spoke German, otherwise English. Then she peered at me and said, "Aber mit ihr ist es anders." (But with you it's different.) That made me proud! It should indeed be different with me. I'm glad to see I'm still above that barrier of ease in German where people respond naturally in the language you're trying to speak. I wouldn't let my mother get away with English after 25 years of language propriety exhortations, but I have to admit, people did respond to her in English or addessed her in English. I found a biergarten at the airport and got to have some real beer and German sausages too! Very tasty. The return flight was first class and therefore very pleasant. I managed to get the flight attendants to address me in German all the way.

Then there was the return shock. When I arrived in Finland, I thought the hotel coffee was good and that everyone was skinny as a stick. When we left, the hotel coffee was incredibly watery and barely worthy of the name 'coffee' and there were overweight people here and there. I miss rye bread again.