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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Gray Days of November

When I first arrived here, one of the standard conversations was about the weather (yep, themes for innocuous conversations are pretty much the same the world over).  My Finnish colleagues and those others who'd lived here awhile seemed to take a morbid pride in the darkness and dreariness of the Finnish winter, at least the gray periods before the snow really brightened things up and, in the spring, before it got too gray from melting.  In particular, the month of November came in for some pretty scathing critiques.  Not only would the weather get colder and the days get darker, but it would seem like things were worse everyday: everyday it would be just that bit grayer, rainier, and darker until February when it might seem like progress was possible again--at least in terms of climate.  As you can imagine, I've been oh so looking forward to November.

Now that it's here, though, I find my response to the weather really variable.  Because it's a bit colder, I can actually shut my windows at night without sweating while I sleep.  That's a big plus because it means that the construction outside my window doesn't always wake me up.  In other words, if I'm up late working I don't have an enforced wake-up time of 7 am (Yep, the builders are VERY punctual.)  With sunsets before 4 pm, too, I find that I'm happy going to bed a bit earlier.  While many Finns complain about this situation making them want to sleep 10+ hours a day, I've just found it to be a good insomnia cure and a way to guarantee a good 8 hours.

Then, too, I've never been someone who has a problem with leafless trees and the starker, gray and brown landscape of winters.  (I guess that complements my preference for black and white photos.)  Right now it's still enough of a novelty that I like to go down to the nearby lake and observe the differences between what I experienced even 6 weeks ago and what the lake is like now.

If I keep walking until the end of the park in front of the Towers, across the big street, and into the park surrounding the lake, I eventually come to this (if I step a couple of feet further forward I'd be in mud).  The picture below is a zoom across the lake to two of the posh "country" houses that turn-of-the-century Finns built here.

You can tell that this next picture is looking towards downtown: uniform skyline and telltale cranes.

Once I got to the end closest to downtown, I took this picture heading due north.  The funny thing is that the lake really isn't that big; walking all the way around it is about 2.5 miles max.  It does at least convey the gray on gray.

Don't get me wrong; I have no doubt that by April I will be going nuts.  As far as I'm concerned spring starts in March, but when I tell that to the Finns they just laugh.  For now, though, I'll enjoy the onset of winter.

At least things haven't gotten icy yet, even with the big gale the last 2 days.  For me, the only consequences were being woken up at 3:30 in the morning by the 11-story tarp on the building next door snapping in the wind and having to break out the down coat.  By today, though, I'm back to the Helsinki uniform: short, black, wool coat and thick scarf.  It's probably a good thing because, while I love how warm my down coat is, I still feel somewhat self-conscious walking around in something that has all the style of wrapping a feather bed around myself!

I'm curious how short the days will get by December 21 and am already planning to take sunrise and sunset pictures on that day.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Publicity stills

One of the big differences between my life here and that in South Carolina is the amount of publicity my work, me, and Ted (not exactly in that order) are getting.  Here we've already been featured in a university magazine and in an international seminar publication and are going to be in a magazine that goes out to any and all interested in the university, which in Finland is actually quite a few people.  (While the first two were in English so I grabbed copies, the third is just in Finnish.  Fudge.)  Given my invisible life in South Carolina--I mean, the Dean told the publicity office to publicize my grant and they STILL didn't get around to it--this has been more than a little amazing.  Should've started working on ghosts and bringing my dog on transatlantic trips a long time ago! :-)

In any case, the following photos are from the shoot for the general audience magazine.  It was actually kind of funny how it all got arranged.  The university office that produces the publication called me to arrange an interview, and when they learned that I had a dog with me that did crisis response work, they asked if I could bring him to the interview, too.  Sure.  (They don't have crisis response and therapy dogs in Finland.)  We have to do a little finagling because of the weather--I don't generally bring Ted into the office when it's raining--but come the day of the interview, I am all dressed and made up, hair in place, and Ted freshly bathed.  I meet a very nice journalist and we spent an hour on the interview, but there's no photographer.  I can't figure out why she wanted me to bring Ted except that she likes dogs.  No problem--it forced me to groom a slightly stinky Golden.

About 4 days later I get an email from a photographer associated with the magazine's office.  I bet you can guess the scenario from here.  She wants a photograph of the both of us, and it seems like she'd like it fairly quickly.  Without thinking I propose that day as one of several possible days and times, and she jumps on it.  Of course, I have no make-up on and dirty hair; at least Ted hadn't managed to roll in the mud yet.

So we head over to the courtyard where the History, Anthropology, and one other department (I forget which one) are located--all of a block from the Collegium--and she comes up with some pretty nice photos despite my poor personal grooming.  And she kindly gave me permission to use them.  I think of these as a testimony to the benefits of a cloudy day's diffuse lighting and a pro's skill.  Here are a few of them.

She basically had us do two types of poses: one was walking towards her from a distance and another was Ted and me on a bench.  The one above would be a great one of us walking except that my right leg is at a funny angle.  Looks like I'm hyperextending it, but I know I didn't.

For someone who's not into "cute," I put on a more-than-precious face there.  You can see Ted's watching the photographer.  His next move was to turn and slurp me across the face.

I think this is the best of the walking photos, but it's actually cropped from a much larger picture with a lot more of the buildings as background.

My guess is that this is the one that's going in the magazine unless they decide that a side view is the best way to go.

Here Ted had decided that he wanted to watch some of the students going by.

This is my favorite shot of Ted, although it makes me wish I could photoshop out that double chin!  If the forward-facing shot doesn't go in the magazine, this is the one that probably will.

Here Ted decided that it was his sworn duty to attack my glove.  Call this our version of an action shot.

So which one is your favorite?

Friday, November 25, 2011

It's starting to sound a lot like winter

During the week I was in Texas, Helsinki moved from early to late autumn. (I'm not yet calling it winter because the Finns would laugh at me, but by SC standards, it's winter!)  The leaves fell from the trees, the air took on a bite, and the greyness began to settle in.

These are the gravel walkways where I usually take Ted for his shorter walks.  Good thing I know there's a path under there!

What also makes all of this so impressive is the size of some of these leaves.  Let me give you an example.

Now, I've focused on the leaf immediately to Ted's left, but as you can see, there are leaves like that one scattered all around him.  I swear this thing was a good 8 inches across.  To give you a sense of proportion, those "small" leaves around it are the size of normal oak leaves.

When you add that to the end of Daylight Savings Time (yep, the Finns do it, too) and, therefore, sunrise at 8:30 am and sunset at 3:45 pm, I can definitely see the place moving into its winter mode.

So far for me and Ted that really hasn't been much of an issue: I have the obligatory shorter, black, wool coat and, for when it gets regularly below freezing, the down coat that makes me look like I've wrapped myself in a big, wine-colored duvet.  Meanwhile Ted looks even more like a furry bear than normal.

I mean, look at that belly hair and the ruff around his deck!  His hair on his tummy goes halfway down his front legs and the hair on the back of those legs is a good 5-6 inches long.  Yes, he's set for the snow.  (Don't quite know why he looks so guilty, though.)  And, yes, it really is hair; you can feel his ribs under that.

So far, though, we've only had 2 evenings below freezing, days in the upper 30s, and no snow whatsoever, something that I understand can happen in Helsinki this time of year but is unusual.  So what's the most striking testimony to Helsinki's winter approaching?

Snow tires!

From the minute I got off the plane in Helsinki on Halloween, I heard the telltale sound of snow tires crunching down the road.  It turns out that the Finns don't have laws like they do in Germany and, from what I understand, some parts of the US that prohibit people from putting on snow tires until there actually is snow on the ground.  Being used to sudden changes in weather and snowy winters, it appears that Finns make November 1 the beginning of snow tire season.

Funnily enough, I actually like it.  When I stand at the tram stop in front of the main train station listening to the snow tires going by and looking at the lights in all the windows, it feels pleasantly northern European and, therefore, a little exotic to this wandering Californian.  I mean I get the sound effects of winter without the dangers of ice.

Pretty much the best of all possible worlds, no?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Mexican Evening, part 2

In our last episode ... sorry, I saw too many of those old TV "Batman" shows as a kid.

Well, Sunday I began the chopping and cooking odyssey that was preparing for Mexican food for 10 in a kitchen with 2 electric burners, a half-sized fridge (thank God for having access to an extra shelf in the kitchen refrigerator!), a microwave, a coffee maker, and a mini-prep food processor.  I cleared off my desk, which became my main prep space for the last few days, and got to it.

The menu was: guacamole, pico de gallo, Tostitos, Spanish rice, refried beans, chicken enchiladas with mild green chili sauce, pork tamales with spicier red sauce, lemon cookies, Abulita hot cocoa, South American wine, and Mexican beer (the latter supplied by my guests--thank you!).  Even though I'm still full, I must admit that I look at it and go, "Yum."

Monday was the big prep day: cooking the chicken, making the red and green sauces, getting the pork just right for shredding for tamales, chopping 5 tons of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and chilis and generally getting everything ready for assembly the next two days.  (Cookies were on Sunday, and I managed to eat only 6 of them before the Wednesday dinner.  I should get an award there.)

Of course, there were complications, but funnily enough, it wasn't with my little kitchen; we worked amazingly well together, although I did feel like I was doing dishes every 2 seconds (the sink here is about 1 foot by 1 foot by 8 inches deep).  It was with the ingredients.  Late last week, when I was doing my first grocery shops, I went to Stockmann for the chilis and tomatillos, both of which I'd seen in the store in August and September.

That was August and September.  In November, there was no joy.  There weren't even jalepenos in stock anymore!  All we had were habeneros, which I later learned were so old that they were actually quite mild (for habeneros), some things called Dutch and Paprika chilis, and the standard yellow, green, and red peppers we have at home.  Agh!  Now I was never planning to make things particularly spicy because of both my tastes and my audience, but you do need some spice other than chili and cumin powder.  The green chilis I brought back from Texas were just enough for the enchiladas, not for the tamales, too.  Double agh!  Then it turned out that Finns don't use lard in their cooking, so it would be tricky to make truly authentic tamales.  Well, I figured I could buy shortening instead.  Guess what?  Finns don't use shortening either.  Triple agh!  Tamales made with butter?!  Quadruple agh!

Well, to make a long story short, I started combing the flagship stores of all the big supermarket chains; thank goodness, they're all based here in downtown Helsinki.  At about the fourth one, the S-Market near the train station, I lucked into this shelf of, of all things, Herdez salsa.  There were about a dozen cans for us discriminating palates, and I could've been generous and left some on the shelf for fellow wanderers.  "Could've" is really the key word there.  At the same market I also ran into both red and green "Dutch chilis" (my guess is that they're Indonesian) that supposedly had the same spice rating as jalepenos, so I figured I'd give them a try and supplement them with a lot of others.  Finally, I solved the shortening dilemma by going to the local "American" grocery here in town.  What a disappointment.  Not only is it a hole in the wall, it's half candy bars and probably half of the other half is a weird collection of condiments.  It's also amazingly overpriced.  I did, however, walk out of there with the last small container of Crisco.  Yippee!

Now cooking could begin.  To be perfectly honest, I don't know if I could ever recreate some of the things I did, but the products were sure yummy.  To get more flavor out of all the types of red(dish) peppers, I roasted them in the little oven in the main kitchen.  (Weird oven that.  The broil function works fabulously, but the temperature gage has got to be screwy; the difference between 375 and 400 Fahrenheit acts more like a 100 degree, not a 25 degree, difference.)  The tortillas I bought in Texas were really a little too thick for enchiladas but the flavor was good, and I managed to get just enough to fold over without cracking that I had ones that looked appropriate for the dinner.  (As for the broken ones, I made enchilada-lasagna by layering tortillas and fillings.  You put enough cheese on top, and no one can tell or cares about the difference.)

The tamales were a hoot, too, since I'd never made them before.  I've actually now come to the conclusion that the main reason they take so long is cooking the meat, and after having had homemade ones, it's going to be VERY hard to go back to store bought.  First, there were the corn husks.  When I'd bought them in Texas, they said each bag had 10, so I bought 6 bags.  Well, what they don't say is that each bag has 10 GROUPS of husks, and each group has about 6 husks in them.  Let's just say I have a plethora of corn husks even wasting some by being picky about which I used.  As for the filling, it turns out that my made-up red sauce was KILLER--just the right combination of flavorful and bite.

Then there was making the dough and spreading it on the rehydrated corn husks.  Well, I'd come back from Texas with a 5 lb. bag of masa harina, so I had the right supplies there.  I'd also come up with what sounded like a decent recipe by combining several highly ranked ones online.  Reading the reviews and customizations for those recipes actually led to me to an incredibly useful YouTube video (found under "making tamales" and "skeltons") by a Mexican family that would be totally intimidating if you didn't have a recipe but was GREAT for showing the right consistency of the masa and how to spread and wrap them.  So I dove in.

Let's just say every first-time tamale maker needs to have a Golden Retriever sleeping under the table.  It's the only reason my rug doesn't have masa and bits of pork embedded into it!  Because my little mini-prep couldn't in any way handle the type of mixing I needed to do with the masa dough, I spread waxed paper on my table/desk and went to it.  Messy is kind of an understatement, especially since waxed paper here comes in pre-cut sheets--very handy for cooking, impossible to seamlessly cover a table with.  After about 15-20 minutes of pushing, pulling, and scooping, though, I achieved the magical "creamy peanut butter" consistency and got ready to start smearing dough on the corn husks.

Now, the ladies in the video made that smearing look oh, so easy.  You take a big tablespoon full on a damp spoon and push it around the husk, right?  Wrong.  It stuck to my spoon but came right off the husk.  I finally opted for effectiveness over polish, laid the husks out on the table, and used my fingers to get the masa on the husk to the desired 1/4 inch thick.  Funnily enough, I think this worked better in the end.  It was almost certainly a little slower, but it meant that I had a much better proportion of masa to filling than many tamales have.

Then there was the steamer issue.  Tamales need to be steamed covered for 1-2 hours.  I have a metal pot that holds maybe 2 liters of water and I don't have any deep dish pans that I could use for oven steaming.  So I exercised the ingenuity of my pioneer ancestors (cough, cough, gag, gag).  I took that pot, put the tops to 2 vinegar bottles in the bottom (metal so they wouldn't melt), and put a slightly bent metal hot pad on top of them.  Add 3 layers of aluminum foil (the foil here seems thinner than that we get back home) and instant steamer.

By Wednesday around 5 I had almost everything ready to be heated--the only thing that still needed to be cooked was the Spanish rice--and now the challenge was to prep the room.  Several of my fellow fellows who lived here volunteered to come help set up--and keep me company while drinking beer and wine afterwards.  (The latter is an essential part of any dinner party.)  So here are two set-up photos.

Here Rogier, one of the 3 EURIAS fellows, is putting the final touches on the napkins, while in the one below Ken, Mathias, and Rogier are posing with the completed table.

I'd bought some big votive candles at a local craft store and Rogier had inherited some from a resident who was leaving, so we had a ledge next to the window full of them and some scattered on some shelves to the right (you can see a few in the picture below).  With a low light it made for a very nice effect, and Tuija, one of our guests, commented that it was lovely seeing all the little candles from the street as they walked in.

My apologies for the next photo.  It shows everyone at the beginning of dinner, and I don't know if I was laughing too hard or what, but it came out blurry.  Markku was right; I should've taken a few.

Going around the table from the right, here's our little group: Markku (who I met through William and Tuija, teaches linguistics at UH and is Finnish), Tuija (who's one of the architects at the big World Heritage Site, Suomenlinna, here in Helsinki, is married to William and is Finnish), William (one of my fellow EURIAS fellows; he's the archeologist at Pompeii and is French), Elisabeth (one of the other Collegium fellows who works on modern China and is Norwegian, although her English is so good I thought she was from the US), Rogier (another EURIAS fellow who works on philosophy and economics; he's from Belgium), Luis (he's Rogier's friend and they've both ended up here in the Towers; he's another philosopher and economist and he's from Mexico); Philippe (a long-time friend of William and Tuija's, Markku's partner, and a language instructor here in Helsinki; he's French); Ken (he's on the governing board of the Collegium and is a philosopher; he's from Chicago); and Mathias (he's a fellow at the Collegium, one of our Towers residents and a fellow early modernist; he's from Sweden.)  Me, the invisible one, you know all too well.

Despite some glitches with the oven, as always happens with these things, the meal went great.  People seemed to really like the food and were fascinated with (1) some of the new tastes and (2) the differences between what I served and what they'd had here.  I'd been terrified when Rogier told me he'd invited Luis that I'd disappoint someone who really was Mexican, but Luis was so nice and seemed to be in culinary nirvana; when the tamales came out, his eyes got so round, and he kept eating them forever.  I thought he was going to tear up when the Abulita appeared as part of dessert.  Did my heart good.  Everyone was so nice, too, about helping me pick up, sort out furniture, and all the end of the party stuff, although us die-hards kept it going until close to midnight when finally Ted couldn't hold it any longer.  (Ted spent the meal in his crate, but once we were on to cookies, coffee, Abulita, and Baileys, Ted came out and was happy to join the party.)

This morning I was absolutely wrecked (in fact, I spent the day at home playing hooky), but as I was doing the last bits of clean up this morning, I stopped and smiled: I have an enormous amount to be thankful for.

Thank you to friends new and old, near and far, for making this a wonderful Thanksgiving!

And now I'm off to eat leftover tamales.

A Mexican Evening, part 1

As many of you know, I LOVE Mexican food.  It's my comfort food.  It's my big craving.  When I mentioned this to some of my fellow fellows here, the ones who'd had it raved about Mexican food, too, while I was shocked by some of the others who hadn't ever really had it.  (Okay, I know I shouldn't be, but there it is.)  So I decided to reincarnate an Ireland tradition and have a "Mexican Evening" here in the Töölö Towers.

Now for most normal people this isn't a big deal.  You invite people to your house based on the size of your dining room and table, number of plates, etc., and copiousness of your platters.  In my case, it often means lots of people with even more food than we could ever hope to eat.  Hey, if you're going to cook for 4, you might as well cook for 10, and I would never want my guests to leave hungry. :-)

But I live in Fort Töölö, remember?  The place where you have to get through 2 sets of locked doors and 2 other sets of doors just to get to the apartment.  Moreover, while my apartment suits me fine, 4 really is about the maximum capacity of the place.  So I turned to the staff downstairs and asked if it would be okay for us to take over the kitchen and common room on my floor for one evening.  Not only did they say yes, they actually seemed kind of chuffed at the idea; they liked that the people here were doing something a little more homey and even supplied extra plates, utensils, etc. to make up for what I and the common kitchen didn't have.

Next stop: the food. what does an ex-pat Californian do for Mexican food in a place where guacamole is sold in little jars next to pineapple-flavored salsa on the shelf?

I smuggle food in!

Actually, it wasn't quite that nefarious.  When I was Texas for Sixteenth Century Studies a few weeks ago, I brought an extra suitcase and filled it with things that are hard, if not impossible to get here and that I think of as Mexican essentials: some dried chilis, big cans of mild green chilis, masa harina, dried corn husks, corn tortillas, Abulita (the hot chocolate, not the grandmother) ... you get the idea.  I suppose it falls under the category of smuggling because Finnish customs has pretty draconian laws about what you can bring in, but then again they never, ever seem to staff their customs booth and the folks in Frankfurt just thought it was funny.  So I was feeling pretty confident about that part of fulfilling my Mexican cravings.

Then my friend Debbie stepped in.  What passes for corn chips here are incredibly thick and frequently stale; there was no way I was corrupting my pico de gallo with those!  Debbie graciously agreed to recreate her role from my Ireland days of sending weird American stuff abroad.  This time it was not a Mr. Potato Head and Playgirl--yes, she really did and shocked my roomies--but 6 big bags of Tostitos with a Hint of Lime.  Yes, they were probably the most expensive tortilla chips ever served, but they provided all sorts of amusement since (1) each bag came individually bubble wrapped--I kid you not!--and (2) there was a very Finnish delivery story (see my entry "My Finnish Moments" for the entire saga).  One of the bubble-wrapped bags was displayed at the party and the delivery story was quite the hit!

So here it is, November 18.  I have what I think I will need to spice everything, I have the masa and tortillas I need for tamales and enchiladas, I have the recipe and YouTube video about making tamales (never made them before but I figured I had to try), and I have the guest list and location ready to go.  I've already started lugging wine and unperishable ingredients back from the store--remember, I have to carry everything in my backpack--and have started making up a plan for what to do day by day starting Sunday the 20th for the party on Wednesday the 23rd.  I've even brought a mini-food processor so that I don't go insane chopping tomatoes, onions, and chilis for all this food.  Nothing can go wrong, right?

And that's where I leave you for this entry.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Suomenlinna Seminar

Last Friday I was an invited speaker at seminar that the History Dept. here puts on twice a year for the graduate students at Helsinki's big World Heritage site: the Suomenlinna fortress; will give you lots of information about the place.  As soon as I was invited, I put off visiting the site, which is on a group of islands about a 10-15 minute ferry ride from the harbor near campus and downtown.  The delayed visitation :-) made the trip even more fun.

Suomenlinna itself is a huge fortress complex built starting during the mid-18th c. to protect the Gulf of Finland.  As a French historian, I think of it as Vauban on steroids, although I'm sure the 18th-century architects would be horribly offended as Vauban was quite old-fashioned by the time they were working.  Now one of its islands serves as the home of the Finnish naval academy (marked by many, very neat yellow buildings and impressively high walls) and the other 3 (I think) islands are a big tourist attraction, nice conference and meeting spot, popular party site for many Helsinki residents, and home to about 800 people. Yes, you can rent apartments in the old buildings on Suomenlinna and the island has the basic facilities of a small town including, because this is Finland after all, a small library.

Well, after having been sent a detailed itinerary (timing will be a key theme on this post), I showed up at one of the main ferry terminals and was relieved to see familiar faces arriving a few minutes later (one of the many advantages in attending the early modern seminar).  Soon the professor who leads those seminars arrived with the primary guest speaker in tow, and we piled onto the boat.

Approaching Suomenlinna's harbor.  (No, the snow hadn't hit yet, but I loved the photo.)

About the only thing you can see of Suomenlinna from the city is its church spire, which has at times also been a lighthouse.  Part of why it stands out so much is that it's on a rise, but it's also just a tall, little church because the stone buildings around it are generally several stories tall.

Once we arrived we came into the custody of our planner/guide.  Basically we had a person whose job was to make sure that everything ran smoothly and punctually the whole day.  She handled it fabulously and was very pleasant, but the obsession with time was absolutely hysterical to me.  For example, we had exactly 1 hour to walk from the ferry to the cafe, eat a 3-course lunch, and walk to the meeting room.  You should've seen the waitstaff at the cafe race to get the main course done and the attendees wolf things down for fear of being late!  Coffee was slammed down a la expresso.  I was giggling so hard as I hurried out the door that I almost choked on the Fazur chocolate that came with our coffee!  (Fazur chocs are delicious if you're a milk chocolate fan, which I am!)

But I'm ahead of myself.  Once we got off the ferry we had to walk about 2/3s of a mile to the cafe and meeting room, and it gave me a chance to get the basic lay of the land.

On the main island there are lots of streets like this one where older wooden and stone buildings have been converted into museum space, storage (which some probably have always been), residences, stores, etc.  Walking was, though, a bit of a challenge.  Most of the streets were cobblestone--not the picturesque flat cobblestones, either, but the round, widely-spaced mothers of cobblestones!  After living with those for years at Trinity and having lost I don't know how many pairs of shoes to them, they've lost any romantic appeal.  (God bless cement, asphalt, and other flat surfaces!)  Thank God I'd been smart and worn these great flats with cushioney and sticky soles.  As it was, by the end of the day I felt like I'd gone through PT for my ankle again!

The bridge from the cafe to one of our seminar spaces.

The seminar itself was quite pleasant.  The theme for the day was integrating sources and presenting them to diverse audiences, and we had a well-known British early modernist as a guest speaker, 4 new(er) graduate students presenting their work in 10 minute sessions with 10 minutes for questions, a round-table on the topic with 3 of us presenting, and an audience of about 40-50 History graduate students and faculty.  What I found incredibly impressive was that everyone was expected to present in English and did so well without reading from a script.  Even better was that they were able to field questions in English, and as some of you know all too well, academic questions can be obscure in any language, much less in one that isn't your own.

I also found the room we were in to be quite appealing (I almost wrote cool, but nothing indoors seems to be cool in Finland.  In fact, I'm starting to find the buildings almost too warm!).

You have to imagine a podium with all the technological goodies plus a large table that can seat 3 people abreast in the area in front of the chairs.  Now, although the chairs look like either pews or some horror from an unrenovated 30s movie theater, they really were quite comfortable: lots of space in the seats and for the legs and a ledge that made a perfectly good writing table attached to the row of seats in front of yours.

So I settled into the second row and proceed to do what I'd been asked to do: provide at least one comment/question per student.  It wasn't hard to do, especially since all of the topics but the first were very well conceived.  In fact, the second one on electrification in 19th-c. Finland was REALLY good because the student was studying both the technical processes and the cultural significance; for example, what things did people assume about electricity, what aspects of electricity were connected in their mind (like lighting and spiritualism), how did class and education affect these beliefs and assumptions--really interesting stuff, remarkably well thought-out for a first-year PhD student.

In any case, after a full afternoon of presentations and a well-supplied wine reception, we meandered back to the dock about 5:30.  Since the weather was quite nice, I went up on the viewing deck with a few of the faculty and students to watch us approach Helsinki's harbor.   It was already dark, so the view was really great--lots of sparkly lights!

It turns out the building and hotel on the far left, the Palace, is a place where Helsinki's movers and shakers meet--which explains all the pricey restaurants near it and why I've never been there.

This is more like the view as we were leaving Suomenlinna initially, and we also got to see the night ferry to Stockholm leave.  It seems so much bigger on the water than it does in harbor.

Once we got back to Helsinki, a lot of the group headed to a big, glass pub that's right in the middle of the main Esplanade park.  Unfortunately I had to let poor Ted out of his crate back at the Towers, so I missed that but I'll try to finagle it so that I can go out after the spring seminar--that is, if they invite me back.

By the way, sorry about the borrowed photos.  I brought a camera with me, but between the bataan death march to the various seminar sites (can't go off schedule, after all  :-)   ) and just plain embarrassment at being such a tourist, I couldn't bring myself to take original photos.  Then again, it's not as if no one takes photos of Suomenlinna!  (I'm tired, so I'm allowing myself double negatives!)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My Finnish Moments

One of the things I've been told repeatedly by all the lovely Finns I've met and by people who've lived here for a long time is that Finns will often ignore or not get involved in things you might expect them to.  It's part of the Finnish respect for privacy, a "mind your own business" ethos that permeates Finnish society.  It's not something that's bad or good; it just IS and is VERY different than Southern society.

Or at least so I've been told.  Despite this warning, I've found most people to be very helpful, initiating conversations and advice much more than I'd expected and being quite willing to guide this clueless American.  That being said, I've had two episodes this week that have cracked me up because I can really see now the foundation for all that advice.

The first was last Friday night.  The professor of early modern European history here, who for the sake of privacy I will call Prof EME, has been very kind, and one of the many nice things he's done has been to welcome me into his seminar for advanced graduate students.  They meet approximately every other week to discuss a pre-circulated paper for an hour or two, then go on down to a neighboring pub where they continue the discussion.  The students are smart and interested in learning, and the discussion is quite good.

Well, this past Friday was the seminar and an evening before a national holiday, so the university building and grounds were locked up early.  That meant that Prof EME had to let us out of the grounds where the History Department is located and onto the sidewalk outside.  Now the only other time the seminar met I'd been sick and hadn't gone to the pub, so I had no idea where we were heading or even if we were going there, it being right before a holiday and all.  Next thing I know Prof EME is batting down the road talking to someone I hadn't seen before, 4-5 graduate students are in a circle having what looks to be a semi-private conversation, and I'm standing there like a dork thinking, "Which way did they go, George? Which way did they go?"  (You get 10 brownie points if you get the obscure cartoon reference!)  After what felt like 2-3 minutes but was probably all of 30 seconds, I start hurrying down the road after Prof EME, trying to think of reasons I can give to show I'm not stalking him if it turns out he isn't going to the pub (Oh, Prof EME, I wasn't following you; bus 18 has a stop here and goes right outside Töölö Towers.).  After a block and a half, he stops, I catch up, and he disapprovingly wonders where the graduate students are.  Then he and the new guy start hurrying off to what did turn out to be the pub.  I followed them and giggled the rest of the way.  I mean, I figured it out and everything worked out fine.  I'd have to be a creep to take it personally, and besides, I've now lived an example of what my friends told me about.

I told you that story to tell you this one.

In homage to my years in Ireland and because of my craving for Mexican food, I've planned to have a "Mexican evening" here.  It's a totally international crowd that's coming, although having one real Mexican in the group is scaring me to death.  Anyway, my friend Debbie volunteered to re-create her role from the 1980s of supplying me with weird food that you can't buy in Europe and sent me a HUGE box of Tostitos for the party.  I figure if you're going to make Cal-Mex, you might as well go whole hog--although I draw the line at making my own tortillas.

In any case, she shipped the tortillas last week and they arrived in Finland last Saturday during that national holiday I just mentioned.  It meant that they tried to deliver the box for the first time yesterday.  That's when the fun began.

Imagine the pictures of the Towers from my earlier blog entry.  The postal carrier had to park his truck and carry the box down a sidewalk and through two sets of double doors into the building.  He then came into a medium-sized lobby with a bulletin board and glassed-in office to the right and a restroom and glassed-in common/computer room to the left.  Seems like a pretty easy delivery, right?  Turn to the office, go "Oh, an office.  They probably sign for packages," ask them to sign for it, they sign--no harm, no foul.

Oh, no, things were more complicated.

It appears that the postal carrier wandered around this lobby, looked in the dining area, and turned left where he went down the hall and through 2 sets of glass doors into a wholly separate part of the building.  Once there, at 1:56 pm (at least so I was told) he went into International Student Services where our mailboxes are and where staff is present from 8-12 & 13-16.  [Of course, to get into the room where 3 people were sitting he'd have had to knock on or open the door that is right next to the mailboxes and has a welcome sign in 3 languages (Finnish, Swedish, and English) on it.] After not knocking on the door but managing to slide a small note through the slit in my mailbox, he proceeded to wander around the building some more, all the while carrying this huge box.  He then put the box down outside the restroom, went to the bathroom, and left the building, completely missing the large, glassed in office that says "office" in 3 languages, is right across from the bathroom, and is staffed from 8 to 18 M-F.  I came home to a note telling me that he'd tried to deliver the package but no one was in the building--no one meaning the staff of two offices, cooks, and cleaners.  Not likely.

Now how do I know all of this you ask?  Well, the staff apparently watched it go on, and NO ONE thought to ask the guy if he had a question, needed any help, etc.  They could, however, chronicle his movements in and around the building and were very upset that he didn't go up to them to ask for help and said that they weren't there. :-)

Have you stopped laughing yet?  I haven't.  Every time I think about the wandering mail carrier and the people sitting at their desks watching him I just crack up.

That being said, the staff was very nice and resolved things with the postal service for me.  Supposedly the chips are being delivered again tomorrow, albeit with an additional delivery fee.  (Standard practice in Finland for second deliveries, although the office staff was incensed that the postal service would charge it since, as far as they were concerned, the carrier screwed up.)

I'm just grateful for the help and am giggling, giggling, giggling.  Heck, I'll probably giggle and tell the story when I serve the chips at dinner!

Anna and Maria, you were so right!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Californian meets Helsinki's November

We've had what I've heard is a very warm fall here--and I'm not complaining in the slightest!--but when I was gone the weather definitely became autumn: highs in the 40s and low 50s, nights in the 30s & 40s, and most of the leaves off the trees, even here in downtown.  Most of the time I channel my inner Irish and Juraissienne and manage to dress appropriately.  Then there are days like today.

I hadn't really done a thorough grocery shop since well before I left for Texas, so I decided it was time to trek into Stockmann (one-stop shopping and all that).  The day is a classic November day, at least so I've been told: cloudy and 43 degrees with a 10 mph breeze coming straight off the gulf of Finland.  My response was (and still is) that, as long as there's no ice, it's a great day in the neighborhood, so I put on my coat and headed into town.

See if you notice the difference between my wardrobe and the Finnish one:

  • Hat worn by most people under 5 and over 30 (which, sadly, now includes me!)
  • scarf
  • sweater/sweatshirt
  • jeans or thick trousers
  • socks or tights of some sort
  • cool leather boots or booties (I have massive boot envy and plan to raid the after Christmas sales)
  • black wool coat (just past hip length)
  • gloves or mittens (most people)

  • no hat
  • wool scarf (let's hear it for my old Irish clothes)
  • cotton sweatshirt (no shirt under it)
  • baggy linen trousers
  • no socks
  • little, suede flats (but they've got no slip soles!)
  • black wool coat (just past hip length)--whew, I got something right; those black coats that hit just below your rear seem to be a uniform for Finnish women, although I lust after the Max Mara tan ones.                
  • no gloves or mittens

Yes, I was an idiot.  Within 2 minutes I noticed what the breeze could do to linen trousers and was very grateful that I've learned ways to cut through malls so that I really only had to walk for a block or two outside on my way to/from the tram stops, Stockmann, and the Towers.

What makes this so funny is that I have all the stuff, save for the myriad of cute, little, leather ankle boots I've seen here.  I brought 3 warm hats over plus tons of my old scarves and mittens from Irish days plus some yummy leather gloves with cashmere linings!  (When your idea of an 80s fashion statement was to be sure that your scarves, mittens, and shirts matched, you collected A LOT of scarves and mittens!)  I have a ridiculous number of socks, too, and am constantly on my case for overpacking.

In any case, I made it back, giggling all the way.  In a few hours I will brave the grey again to take Ted for a walk, and I've promised myself that this time I'll bundle up appropriately, especially if that breeze keeps blowing.

Of course, I celebrated my weather-clothes revelation in classic Californian fashion, that is, showing total disregard for the weather: I bought myself ice cream! :-)  Blueberry with blueberry sauce--yum.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Culture Shock Hits

In the U.S.

I spent most of last week at the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, which, as some of you may know, is my favorite conference of the year.  Smart and fun people, lots of friends, interesting discussions to all hours, lots of sleep deprivation--you know, the usual mark of a good time. :-)  Because it was in Fort Worth (yes, Texas), I had a marathon 25-hour trip with 3 flights to get there, although I was really lucky to be able to use the second half of the business-class round-trip ticket to get there.

That being said, Texas looked SOOOOOOOOOOO weird to me when I got there.  And, yes, I realize that it is obligatory for a Californian to slam Texas--and I'm perfectly happy to indulge in one of the many pastimes of my homeland--but the things that struck me as weird were petty ubiquitously American.

1.  I don't think I've been to any European airport that isn't a cement and glass monstrosity, and sad to say, Helsinki is no different.  My personal favorite is that there aren't seats in front of many of the gates--something that cracked me up--although there are lots of bars and coffee shops.  Then I get into the US.  Even Philly, which is a notorious dump, has carpeted floors, tons of well-labeled shops, restrooms, newsstands, and then when I hit Dallas ... !!!  The funny part to me is that it just seemed excessive and wasteful.  I mean, it's not like I'm partying in the airport.  I just want to get somewhere fast and on time.

2.  Riding in the taxi from the airport, I was struck by how flat the architecture was, that is, except for the signature, überphallic skyscrapers of Dallas.  Sure, there were trees but not that many, and all the buildings everywhere seemed the same size, even when you got downtown.

3.  And are all the shopping malls designed by the same guy who specializes in a cross between southwestern and Craftsman styles?  Come on, you know what I'm talking about: c. 3 stories painted in some medium beige stucco with white accents!  They all seem to have obligatory tower that looks like a rounded, mission bell tower except the clarion is "Buy lots of stuff here.  And if you can't find it here, don't worry; there's an identical mall 25 miles away."  Don't get me wrong; I'm as happy as any Californian to go malling, but the uniformity of the look was striking.

4.  Since I have a one-day lag between the flight and the conference I scheduled a spa day at a lovely place that I found on the internet.  (It was highly rated and deserved to be.)  Let's just say Texas spas are not like Helsinki ones.  This place was either much more formal (the masseuse didn't stay in the room while you changed) or much less formal (it was in the lower level of a strip mall and let's just say ambiance wasn't its strong suit; not to mention, I felt a bit weird wandering through the spa in my towel with both men and women passing me by).  I'd either like the cheap and effective but no ambiance experience of massages in the Collegium or the fancy European day spa of Hotel Kamp.

5.  Damn, food is cheap in Texas, and, man, the portions are HUGE.

6.  Not a problem but a shock.  I hit the hotel bar my second night there and order a glass of wine (chosen by the tried-and-true method of liking the name, I might add.  I mean, how can a historian pass up a wine called Amadeus).  It was $10 a glass, and I laughed because, after just a few months in Helsinki, that didn't even phase me.  (Remember, Helsinki's the home of the 8 Euro beer.)  Then the glass arrived.  They must've poured 1/3 of the bottle into that glass!  Everything really is bigger in Texas--yippee!  Actually the funny part was that the white wine was a normal sized portion.  My friends saw mine, and some switched to red wine!

7.  I must admit that great culture shock was the HUMONGOUS room with a feather bed, feather pillows, and 32" flat screen TV.  After TV on a Macbook for these months, I could've curled up in TV and watched trashy movies for days and, boy, do I miss those feather pillows!

I'm sure there were other things, but I  can't remember them right now.  I just remember spending most of the time there thinking the place looked odd, the people behaved unusually (save for my friends, of course; we're accustomed to our own unusualness :-)  ), and most of the rooms, etc. were just oversized.  I mean, I expect reverse culture shock when I come back next summer; I just didn't expect it so soon!

So I came back to Helsinki where I had a fascinating conversation with a Palestinian taxi driver about learning Finnish, caught up with my Canadian friends, crashed with Ted, and found out that the fellow EURIAS fellow who'd passed out in the sauna was completely okay.  Now I just have to unpack the suitcase full of tortillas, masa harena, Hatch chilis, green mole, Abulita hot chocolate, and corn husks.  The plan is Mexican food for 8 for Thanksgiving!