Follow by Email

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Random Thoughts on the Traveling Experience

As I told some people when we talked over Christmas, a lot of the time when I'm on the trams or out walking Ted I compose blog entries in my mind, but when I come back to the apartment I just don't get around to typing them up and, of course, they float out of my head by the next day.  With that in mind, today I told myself I'd start to type up some of these thoughts before they disappeared, especially since a lot of them recently seem to focus on the changes in my approach to traveling over the years.

As some of you know, I was lucky enough to start traveling as my dad's "little tax deduction" when I was only in sixth grade (you know it was awhile ago if I was "little"), quite a big deal in our neighborhood where people just didn't often leave the state, much less the country.  When I was just 19, I moved to Dublin as a study-abroad student, a trip that initiated a decade where I lived as much, if not more, in Europe than in the US.  Since then my trips have been less frequent (unfortunately) and my stays much shorter until this year.  The difference between being a poor student with, sometimes, an undefined place in the country and a "Frau Professor Doktor" (to use the appropriately hierarchical German phrase) with a job and staff to help me has just added to the dramatic changes in my experience, but the similarities are in some ways as striking.  Let me see if I can come up with a few of them.

Differences.  OMG, where to start!  There is something enormously freeing about not trying to live on $40 a week (200 French francs) once my housing, heat, basic phone costs, and transportation are paid for.  Yep, $40 a week was food, technology, presents, shoes (I remember that!), etc. when I was doing my dissertation research in Dole, and I'm sure my budget in Ireland was about the same, although everyone there lived on that so it wasn't a big deal.  Now, let's just say I have a more decadent lifestyle and, even better, lovely Finns with fluent English to help me when I need help (and I'm not afraid to ask!). :-)  That really came home to me when I went Christmas shopping and wandered through the store picking things out to have them delivered to the store's export service which packed and shipped them for me.  I just giggle when I think about that, then giggle some more.

In reality, though, by far the biggest difference is technological.  In Ireland, there were no computers (heck, we didn't even have typewriters), I called home once a month for half an hour (max), and wrote letters on this onion skin paper so that I could post them more cheaply.  My parents backed me up for bills and things that needed to be sent to the US, a system that sometimes worked and sometimes left them holding the bag.  Even in France, phone calls were still prohibitively expensive, my laptop was a precious tool that had no hard drive, and I thought I was really high tech that I had a cassette walkman with separate speakers and a black-and-white TV that got three channels.  Now, though, with internet access, the world is your oyster!  With Skype I call more cheaply than I do in the US (something I have to think about) and my laptop is a stereo, tv, cinema, bank, bill payer, and work station.  In particular, I giggle over multi-tasking; I made one call home to Christmas on my IPad with my computer playing Christmas music in the background.

This type of scene vastly changes the living abroad experience, and I have yet to decide if it's better or not.  Certainly it's easier; gone are the days of writing out months of checks ahead of time and labeling envelopes!  The loneliness is also much less, although having Ted around helps with that enormously.  The boredom is easier to avoid, too: if the weather's cruddy I can always watch another movie or mess around on the internet.  Heck, sometimes I can even work when I'm not in the office. :-)

On the other hand, it's much harder to divorce yourself from your home culture and immerse yourself in the place you're living, which is for me one of the main reasons to live abroad and, I think, especially important for folks younger than I am.  I go exploring less, try to decipher Finnish television less (and TV is a great way to learn about a culture), and wander around Finland less than I did as a student, although I'll admit my wandering in Ireland and France was often curtailed by my budget.  Perhaps this is a condition of being older, more of a grown-up, if you will; while I had a set workplace and work when I was doing my dissertation research and panic did wonders to keeping me to a strict work schedule, I didn't have an employer and all those employee-related responsibilities that I now have and that keep me grounded in SC and tied to UHelsinki.  Our working language is English, so I'm not forced to learn the local language like I was in France or to understand the accents in Ireland (trust me, a heavy northern Irish accent takes practice!).  The result is a more detached experience, even while appreciating the pluses and minuses such travel has to offer.

And that brings me to the similarities, because no matter how experienced or confident you become, moving to a foreign country always takes some adjustment, to put it mildly.  While I never experienced the need to sleep 10 hours a day, like I did for the first month in France and Ireland, I only realized how tense I had been as the tension began to recede.  One thing the traveling has taught me is that I will make mistakes, and I'm better about accepting my own incompetence now than I was when I was younger.  I've also learned to revel in the little successes, so I enjoyed learning how to get groceries (and laughing at picking them by the picture on the container), ride the trams, find good walks for me and Ted, weave through the short-cuts at the university, etc.  It's funny to feel like you're beginning to settle in because, just as you do, something brings you up short.

Yet, even with those situations, mood swings are much easier to have here than they are back home.  For example, today while walking Ted, I just started feeling down about everything: I hated that I was fighting with bronchitis, that Ted's leg was still not 100%, that I was getting a headache, that my ears were getting cold because my stupid cap wouldn't fit right on my big fat head, that my heel hurt where I pulled it on one of these stupid lips the Finns seem to have in every stupid doorway, that my stupid Land's End down coat had such cheap stupid snaps that they wouldn't stupid stay snapped stupid when I bent down stupid to pick up Ted's stupid dog poop ... you get the idea. :-)  Of course, I got back to the apartment, took some aspirin, and curled up in bed with Ted to do some reading, and life looked much better in about half an hour.  Now I feel like the only thing that was stupid was me -- and those snaps on the coat, but that's another story.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Merry Christmas to Me and Ted

One of the nice things about Christmas in Helsinki is that, even though the decorations are fairly mellow even by my standards (and I have fairly mellow tastes by the standards of LOTS of my fellow countrymen!), decorations pop up in the most unexpected places.  One day, as I was weaving my way through a maze of buildings to my office (the lazy person's way of getting there), I noticed that they'd put a full-sized, completely decorated Christmas tree in one of the departments.  While I realize that this could be a drag (to put it mildly) if you didn't celebrate Christmas, for me it was just lovely.  (Sorry about the glare.  I don't have a pass key to that office so I took the picture through the glass.)

As for my place, I'd set the trees up several weeks ago, but by Christmas Day itself, things had gotten nice and festive on the window ledges.  I especially liked having the cards and packages up there, even though I didn't actually open the packages until late on the 26th.  Don't get me wrong--the presents are nice--but what I really like is the look with all the different types of wrapping paper and possibilities.

Here are some close-ups of each side.  The little gingerbread house was given to me by one of my colleagues here, and Debbie supplied the larger wrapped packages.  Marcia sent the Christmas card and enclosed was one of the funnier Christmas presents I've ever gotten because it so neatly combined perceived necessities for Finland with Southern culture: genuuuiiine possum-fur nipple warmers!  I opened that package and just howled with laughter.  It got even funnier, too, when I was talking to my neighbors John and Betsy at Christmas--thank you so much for calling and sharing your Christmas party with me!--and found out that Marcia had found these months ago and her husband, Paul, had told John all about them.  What lovely, devious friends I have! :-)

Here's the other side complete with more packages (Marcia's gift is the bright one on the right), Ted's toy pre-demo, and a lovely card from some of my Washington nieces and nephews.

The actual day was pretty mellow, although I was grateful that there were about 25 other people in the building with me; I'd had this image of me, Ted, and an empty 11-story building.  Just a little too much like "The Shining" for me.  In any case, I took Ted for a walk through the rain and mud--it has yet to snow here, which makes this the warmest winter in decades!--made my traditional Christmas tacos, and had a festival of bizarre Christmas movies like "Die Hard" and "Die Hard 2."  Then yesterday evening my dad's ex-student who lives in the building next door (a true "small world" experience) invited me over to his house for glögi (Finnish mulled wine) and cake, a traditional way Finns celebrate during the Christmas season.  It was lovely to be back in a real apartment and his family were very nice and fun.  A great way to end this part of the Christmas season.

I hope all of you had a lovely holiday, too!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ted's Christmas

My friend, Debbie, decided that Ted couldn't be deprived this holiday season (he suffers so), so she sent us a package that included both Ted treats and a toy.  While I've put his treats aside to give him gradually, I figured he could have a great time demoing the toy as part of his build-up to Christmas (I unpacked the box on the 23rd).  The following series of pictures were taken as he took apart the lovely, foot-long toy over a period of about 15-20 minutes.  And I thought Dandy had been the leader of the demo derby! (For those of you who are more into video, I've inserted a couple of short ones where appropriate in the trail of destruction.)

Doesn't he look so delicate?  As you can see below, that impression was ruined in about two minutes.

Pretty soon after this Ted managed to get the first squeaker out, which is basically his goal when demolishing a toy.  Of course, he then wants to demolish the squeaker.  Since I have images of very expensive GI surgery, here's where it gets interesting.

Me confiscating the squeaker was not the end of it all, by no means.  Demo continued.

BTW, the lovely blanket he has there is the one the staff provided for him when they found out he'd hurt his leg.  Wouldn't want him to sleep on hard cement floors or anything, so he has a duvet both in his crate and on the floor in front of the couch.

Back to the eviscerating of the poor stuffed toy.

After about 5 minutes of this, I discovered why the stinker was still so interested in the toy: it had TWO squeakers, not just one.  You can hear my response to that discovery, and let me apologize in advance.

Finally, after all of 20 minutes, Ted had exhausted himself, but he left his tell-tale trail of destruction behind him. (Look for all the puffs of cotton and the green fuzz on what was once a clean floor.)

May we all get such enjoyment out of Christmas!

The Shortest Day of the Year

Normally I don't make much of the length of days; although I study witchcraft and related beliefs, I really don't care what day is the Winter, Summer, or some other type of solstice.  So normally December 21 is just a day in the pre-Christmas build-up, usually a rather nice one since I generally have my shopping, baking, decorating, and grading done by then.

Of course, I've been able to have that attitude because I've lived in places like California and South Carolina where even the short days aren't particularly short by Finnish standards.  Even in Ireland and France, where the sunlight was much shorter than I was used to, the days were still relatively bright because the sun was higher on the horizon than it is here.  Moreover, all the Finns I'd talked to told me that November was the worst month, because it was gray, brown, and rainy and the days kept getting progressively, noticeably shorter.  (The implication was this was opposed to December with the build-up to Christmas and the bright snow on the ground, the latter being an assumption that doesn't take global warming--you know, that thing that doesn't exist according to the oil companies--into account.)

Well, in homage to having reached the shortest day of the year without going crazy despite the continuation of November's gray, brown, and rainy, I bring you the Winter Solstice in Helsinki.

This is Ted getting ready to start his morning walk.  This was taken at 8:30 am, and it was still completely dark.

About 9:45 or so, a colleague and I walked across the park to the tram stop.  You see what I mean about the browns and grays (I should also note that these gravel fields turn into packed ice when the weather gets to freezing if we don't have snow.).  What makes this even more impressive is that the sun has been up for almost 1/2 an hour by this time, but because the sun is so low on the horizon, it really doesn't have much impact.  That was something that never occurred to me until I moved here--just like the fact that days are noticeably, visibly longer and shorter everyday.

About 1 pm I decided to play hookie for a bit and started walking down the main shopping street, Alekskatu (like some folks here, I get lazy and abbreviate the longer street names).  You can see that the skies have cleared off nicely, but it's still pretty dark.  Even in my office which gets pretty bright I needed all the lights on.

Finally about 3:15 I figured I'd call it a day (the bronchitis has been slowing me down some).  This is from one of the tram stops I use frequently, the one right in front of the main train station.  As you can see, everyone has their lights on already.  BTW, the traffic looks worse than it is.  While there are a lot of traffic lights on this stretch of road, the traffic actually moves remarkably well.

So there you have it: Winter Solstice in Helsinki.  Now the days are getting just that bit longer, and I'm sure that by February, when I HOPE we'll have snow, it will seem much brighter!  For those of you who are weather nerds, I've pasted a screen shot of the Helsinki forecast for that day.  The temperatures are in Celsius, so don't freak out: 0 is actually 32 degrees, 4-5 about 40, etc.  Believe it or not, too, the forecast has gotten even warmer since this one.

Merry Christmas Eve, one and all!

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Nutcracker

Just a quick note about the build-up to Christmas.

By now the Collegium is pretty deserted, and since I don't want to push Ted too hard and bring him in, I've been spending a lot of the days at the Towers.  As you might imagine, it's really easy to get cabin fever in that environment, so I've been especially glad about how hospitable the staff has been here: for the last two days they've had afternoon glögi and homemade cookies!  I'm also glad that I booked tickets to the Finnish National Ballet's production of The Nutcracker ages ago.

Believe it or not, even though I know the story well, I'd never actually seen a production, so I figured the National Ballet here would be a good introduction.  (Sorry to say, but after having suffered through the Columbia Ballet's version of Frankenstein, I've decided that I'm happy being a ballet snob.)  So I got a couple of tickets right in the center of the Opera House--the ballet and opera share it here--and Maria and I went for drinks and The Nutcracker.

Wow, was it fabulous!

Now I'm not a big-time dance person.  While I'm always extraordinarily impressed at what good dancers can make their bodies do, it just doesn't usually hit me in the way that things I have more personal experience with do.  With that in mind, though, I could really appreciate how amazing some of the things they were doing were, and I LOVED the way the dancers made their movements fit their characters.  (I know it's choreography, but it was also something else that was so impressive about the quality of the dancers.)  I also hadn't realized how divided the ballet was; here at least the first half was really all about the story and characterization, while the second half seemed like a bunch of amazing set pieces.  I could really imagine how bad the second half could be if you didn't have dancers who were as accomplished as the extraordinary ones they had here!

That being said, what blew me away were the costumes and staging.  I particularly loved the Mouse King.

All the eyes of the mice glowed, which really added to the whole effect.  Besides, as is usual, I always end up rooting for the bad guys in these productions.

At the end I came out ready for the holidays, and I even managed to go home without slipping on the (slightly) icy sidewalks.  (They're much more icy now and will probably be so through Christmas.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Christmas Preparations

As some of you may know, I traditionally spend my day after Thanksgiving doing a marathon baking and getting the boxes and boxes of decorations out of the attic--all done with the help of a LOT of friends and, in recent years, my mother!  Clearly, this year such a marathon was not in the cards--can you imagine me doing my Christmas baking with a 2' x 3' counter top and running back and forth down the hall to an oven about half the size of mine?!--but I wasn't going to let Christmas go without any acknowledgment!

In part, I was able to stick to that resolution because the weather cooperated.  The only snow we got at all this year was on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 26, so the weather got me revved for the holidays.  As you can see, though, the only snow we've had so far this winter was a pretty woeful amount.  Yes, it doesn't take much to get me excited--or slipping and sliding on the sidewalks, for that matter!

Yes, that's looking out my window at the construction site out back (BTW, I was just told that the guys will be on half schedule starting on the 20th for 2 weeks and won't be working at all Dec. 24-26.  Yippee!  No jackhammers o' Christmas!).  I've always wondered how they'll be able to keep working once the snow hits; I guess I should find out soon, although we haven't had any snow or even ice since this one.

The 26th was also one of Finland's "flag days."  These seem to be national days of remembrance--holidays, days of big current events, days deemed worth commemorating--and at that time people everywhere hang the Finnish flag somewhere on the buildings.  What I find funny about it is that I didn't even notice all the flag poles until I experienced the first one in late August (I think).

In any case, the snow inspired my one and only foray into Christmas baking.  Yes, I couldn't let a year go by without any baking, but I figured that my "nieces and nephews" in Washington could happily live without international treats so that kept the volume down.  In fact, here was my entire Christmas bakefest.

That comes to about 10 dozen lemon cookies: 3 for the Collegium Christmas party, 2 for another Christmas party the week before, 2 for the staff here (who've been so nice), and 2 for ME!  (Hey, I LOVE the lemon ones.)  It turns out that ginger cookies are pretty old hat here, and while I've been told they have molasses, I haven't been able to find anything that I was certain was molasses in the grocery stores.  With that in mind, I went for one of my more "exotic" cookies, and I learned at the Mexican party that these were a big hit.  Not one to let a tried-and-true good thing go to waste, I settled myself down in the communal kitchen for my mini-bake fest and brought appropriate entertainment.

Extra cookies next year to anyone who guesses the movie!  Title and correct year, please. :-)  (If the movie got too grim, I  switched to Bruce Springsteen or Roxette for a little holiday boogie.  Poor Ted couldn't decide what his role was in this party, so he supervised the cooling cookies and even managed to get glaze on his forehead and hip and--I kid you not--right between his eyes.)

Unfortunately after that time got away from me--or should I say laziness and the short daylight caught up--so it took me most of the next week to get around to buying and putting up my final batch of Christmas decorations.  I'm quite happy with them, though.

Yep, those are little, tiny Christmas trees.  Unfortunately, they are artificial so no great smell, but can you seriously imagine me getting a real tree and trying to find a place for it, much less decorate it so that it could survive Ted, in this apartment!  As it is, I found these little guys in a store, and they came pre-lit and with a really solid and nicely decorative base.  Add little, blue, glass ornaments--this is Finland, after all, and the national colors must be respected--install them on the deep window ledges I have here, and, volià, instant Christmas.  Not trusting my ability to figure out how a Finnish light timer works, I just plug and unplug them normally, but they really do make a nice atmosphere--and are very, very cool looking from the outside.  (Yes, I went and checked.)

It's really nice to have something homey in this somewhat stark room, especially since I know I'll spend a lot of time in here over the next several weeks; the university is closed until after the 1st, and while my keys can let me in and out, I find sitting alone in an office 100 times more creepy than sitting in my apartment--where I alternate actually between the apartment and the common room with its big picture window.

You can see, too, that the decorations keep evolving.  I've now put my fruit and a few packages up by the one on the right, and the one on the left still has the candles next to it.  Also, as a carryover from Independence Day, I put the little Finnish flags that came with my cakes in the base of the tree.  Don't know why, but they make me smile.

Now I'm off to see about online Christmas cards.  I know they do these things; I just have no idea how they work.  Hmmmmm.  Maybe more football's in order instead. :-)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Northern European Christmas Markets

One of the things I've really looked forward to ever since I learned about this fellowship was getting to have a Christmas in northern Europe.  I liked the idea of the atmosphere being more "Christmasy," and northern Europeans just know how to do Christmas right.  In particular, I think the outdoor Christmas fairs they have here are just lovely, and I've imagined Ted and I wandering around the booths checking out the wares, munching on hot chestnuts (please have those in Finland), and drinking whatever the local version of mulled wine is.  Just the thing to add to the Christmas mood!

I've really benefited, too, because the main Christmas market in Helsinki is now all of 2 blocks from my office.  Even when it used to be in the Esplanade park instead of Senate Square, it was only 3 blocks.  Perfect for a lunchtime stroll, although I must admit that I'm not a huge fan of the many fish dishes that seem to dominate the Helsinki market's food stalls.  There are, however, enough places to get mulled wine (glögi), chestnuts (starts with a k), and wurst that I'm a happy lady.

Well, on the 13th I actually remembered my camera so that I could take a few pictures to share.  This first one here looks across the market at twilight (about 3:30 pm) towards the Senate house.

If you look close, you can see the individual stalls.  Basically they're red, wooden sheds, although "shed" makes it sound like they're much more flimsy than they are.  Each stall has 3 solid walls and a big, deep ledge in the front where people can display goods if they want; about a third of the stalls let people inside somewhat, while the others just use the ledge and display other goods on the walls behind.  Some of the crafts are really interesting--I especially liked the couple of blacksmiths they had on the ends of two rows and some of the handweaving--but, unfortunately, there was some of the standard, mass-produced super-kitch, too.  I guess I shouldn't be cranky about that considering Senate Square is in the heart of tourist land and the craftspeople have to earn a living, but I was hoping for more Finnish handcrafts.

Having overcome the temptation to buy something from the blacksmiths--can you imagine explaining THAT to TSA on the flight back?--I worked my way around to the Senate side of the market and took this photo looking back towards the university.

You can see much better here the lovely glow things start to take on once the sun goes down.  It's especially enhanced by the Finnish custom of putting candles in the windows as part of the Christmas decorations.  In fact, the ones in the buildings around Senate Square here are up and on until January 9 as part of something called the Festival of Lights.  Given that I love to look in the lit-up windows at night anyway--I know, it's bad manners, but if I see something I don't like, I figure it's my problem--the candles really add to the atmosphere and make taking Ted out for his evening constitutional much more interesting!

In any case, one of the reasons I was hanging around the market so much on the 13th is that it's the festival of St. Lucia, which is one of the big social and religious celebrations in town.  (You can read more about it by clicking here.)  St. Lucia and her court are crowned in the Helsinki Cathedral, one of the buildings on Senate Square, and then process around the square and down Alexanderinkatu.  Myself, as a specialist in Reformation religion, I find the whole thing hysterical: the Lutheran Church crowns a symbolic saint?!  Why am I imagining Martin Luther rolling over in his grave?  So, as you might imagine, this I had to see!

Before then, though, I had time to kill (twilight is at 3:30, the coronation at 5, and the procession starts around 6), so I meandered a few blocks to the glass cafe I mentioned in the blog on Helsinki's Christmas, had some coffee and cake (yum), taught myself how to use my Finnish cellphone (finally), and decided it was a cool building albeit with overpriced stuff.  Worth it every once in awhile for the ambiance, though.  By around 5 I wandered back to the Square and did another tour of the market, this time at night.

Here you can really see the candles in the windows?  Aren't they great?  As you can see, another person had the same idea about photos!

While I was waiting, I had this conversation with 3 Finnish ladies who were sharing the edge of the blacksmith's shed with me.  (No fools us--great residual heat!)  They were the ones who told me that St. Lucia would come out of the cathedral at 6 pm; they also bemoaned the quality of the handicrafts at the market (things are never so good as they were in your youth) and pointed out the saint's float that was sitting off to the side of the cathedral steps.

Yep, St. Lucia's float.  While the truck is quite nifty, I was smiling at the float as I imagined Lucia hitching up her flowing skirt to climb in the bed! :-)  Or maybe she just levitated?

In any case, after interesting conversation and much people watching, St. Lucia processed her way down the steps (unfortunately I couldn't see exactly how she got into the truck).  Because the night was so dark, I pulled this picture of the glowing girl (I hear it's a big status thing to be chosen) from the local newspaper.  She is lovely, but then again, I suffer from my Catholic sensibilities. :-)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bracing Myself for the Shortest Day

One of the oddest things I've dealt with here in Helsinki is getting used to the variability in the day's length and just climate things more generally.  It isn't helped by the fact that we're having the warmest autumn and early winter on record; in fact, we've only had snow once so far, and that was just a dusting.  Given that I'm trying to restabilize Ted's bad knee and my own innate klutziness, I'm not complaining about dodging the inevitable ice as long as possible.  It's just surprising, that's all.

More than the lack of snow, the variability in daylight is amazing to me.  For example, even though the shortest day of the year isn't for c. 10 days or so, the days are already less than 6 hours long.  Today sunrise was after 9:15 am and sunset will be around 3 pm.  Those numbers are deceptive, though.  What you don't think about unless you've experienced it is how high the sun will be in the sky during those hours.  Right now even when the sun's "up," it isn't much past the horizon.  For example, across the park from us are a series of 6-story buildings.  For the summer and much of the autumn daylight in the park wasn't a problem, but for the last several weeks the sun hasn't risen above the buildings.  Amazing.

As for me, I seem to adapt okay--at least I'm not depressed and sleeping all the time.  When it's cool enough to sleep with my window closed--and thereby drown out the construction noise that starts punctually at 7 am--I'm usually out until 8 am, but it's really unusual for me to sleep more than 8 hours.  Once I'm at work, the lights on in the other offices actually act as incentive to stay: I don't want to be the first one to leave!  The gray only seems to bother me when it's raining, and then the real issues are slogging through all the mud and dealing with a grubby Ted.  (He's especially messy right now considering he was due for a bath when he slipped and pulled his knee.)

Today, though, I really realized how things have affected me when we had a brief moment of sunlight for a couple of hours in the early afternoon.  I was sitting in the common room in front of the big picture windows reading when suddenly the sun broke through.  It was as if a light had been turned on, not just on the landscape but on my mood.  I wanted to go for a long walk with the Dude--unfortunately not an option--and generally go outside and have fun.  So I took Ted out for his afternoon stroll and sat for a bit on one of the benches in the park.  What was especially wild about the whole experience is that, because the sun was so low on the horizon, it looked like sunset most of the time, even though it was 1 pm: the light was diffuse and pink & orange against the clouds.  Pretty but odd.

Wonder what it'll be like or I'll be like come the shortest day (December 21)?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Finnish Independence Day

Well, today, December 6, is Finnish independence day.  Unlike the Fourth of July, my impression is that Independence Day can be very immediate to people here.  Not only was independence really recent (1917), but they've lost it or had to fight like hell to retain it much more recently, especially in the Winter War with Russia (part of WWII).  There are lots of people who lost family in the latter, in the suffering coming out of it, or in the flight from Russian-occupied territories.

There are several big public celebrations, but the one I went to started at 5 pm with a wreath laying at a major monument in the big city cemetery to the soldiers who fought for independence.  It's also very common for people to light candles here in memory of the departed. (Please excuse the web photos; I forgot to bring a camera!)

From there, the students had a torch-lit procession to Senate Square, which effectively closed down traffic in downtown.  At least by the evening the snow was off the streets and sidewalks and there were enough people walking that there wasn't much opportunity for ice to build.  (I wore my new snow boots anyway, and they worked well.)

The final big event of the evening, other than the myriad of parties and few protests in the student quarters around Senate Square, is the Presidential Ball.  It's held in the Presidential Palace, which is now primarily used for administration and state events and is about 3 blocks from my office at the university, and by tradition all of the guests are Finnish.

It turns out that there are 1,600-2,000 guests, all prominent Finns, and the President and her husband greet every single one of them in this gargantuan receiving line, all of which is televised.  Several of my Finnish colleagues here said I really had to watch the receiving line, so I obliged.  Not only is it something a lot of older Finns do, but my colleagues said there was something quintessentially Finnish about the process.

Not wanting to miss any quintessence, I settled down about 7 pm to watch the line.  Unfortunately I can't understand the commentary and only thought to start blogging after 45 minutes, but it was just too inspiring too ignore.

1.  This is SO refreshing after all the heavily staged and consulted balls, broadcast ceremonies, etc. we get in the US!  The President was clearly cracking jokes to her husband when they walked up, and although she seems quite vivacious and pleased to see people, you can tell by now that the line is grinding on her.  Moreover, the people look normal--different heights, hair colors, weights, etc.  Even better they clearly haven't worked with stylists, or at least not everyone has, so they dress like normal people--more or less successfully.

2.  OMG, I just saw Dolly Parton without the boobs.  (She's clearly some biggie, because the cameras followed her after she left the President.)

3.  Wow, some women actually have flabby arms and double chins.  God, I love the real people aspect of this.

4.  Some folks are wearing regional costumes, which I find interesting.  Granted some are a little dorky by modern standards, but I appreciate the nod to heritage in a national celebration.

5.  Why, oh why, would someone wear something that looks like the Finnish national flag but has a necklace of full sized lilies (no, I'm not kidding).  I guess she consulted with the the woman who wore the yellow gown with a leopard print bra on the outside.

6.  The men have it so easy: they all seem to be wearing coat and tails with maybe some national or military award as decoration or they are wearing full dress uniforms.  It's hard to make that look anything other than sharp, even with some customization.

7.  I was just about to make a rude comment about women needing to get better bras when a woman built like me came through who was channeling her inner Scarlett Johannson.  Yes, I wanted to tell her to get a LESS supportive bra!

8.  It's fascinating how many women are wearing their hair in elaborate updos.  I bet the name hairdressers in Helsinki were busy today.

9.  Wow, I've actually met a couple of the people there.  That's kind of cool and would never happen to me back home.

10.  While the President's husband seems the less demonstrative of the two in general, by now (75 minutes into the line), he looks like a zombie with an automated shaking hand.  Poor guy.

11.  Alice Cooper just walked in--at least blond, Finnish Alice Cooper.

12.  Guys, if you're going to wear flesh-toned gauze to make your dress seem more revealing than it is, it's got to be flesh-toned.  Orange is only flesh-toned if you're John Boehner.  (Oh goody, someone just got the flesh-tone really right, although the corseting must be killing her!)

13.  A gay couple just walked off holding hands.  How refreshing in a political event!!

14.  If you have military or civic honors that mean that you have to wear medals, you really need to take them into account when choosing your outfit.  At the least, be sure to hang them straight.

15.  Wow, a middle-aged woman wearing a white dress just walked in with a bearing and style that'd put anyone in Hollywood to shame.  Real classic style, not an obvious pose.

16.  You know, the Finnish national colors of white and a dark cornflower blue are really beautiful (symbolizing the snow and sky), but I have yet to see an outfit combining both that's worth shooting (there have been some lovely versions of the blue).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Musings on the Warmest Autumn in 50 Years

Like many of my American friends, I imagined living in Finland would be like living on the North Pole: slogging through 10-foot high snowdrifts, skating and skiing 8 months of the year, braving -20 degree (Fahrenheit) weather to get to work, and chipping chunks of ice off of Ted regularly.  Heck, there was even some drunken speculation (I won't name names, Betsy and John) about how quickly Ted would need to pee before it froze!  Definitely not a SC concern.

Well, so far my experience here has made me a believer in the Finnish weather.  To be honest, it's been a lot like Dublin, save for much less rain--yippee!!  The last month or so where the days have been getting shorter and the highs are in the low 40s haven't actually bothered me at all; I've gotten used to having gloves, scarf, and a good coat with me at all times (and a hat sometimes) and am gaining expertise at gaging which way the wind is blowing to minimize the wind chill.  Ted, of course, thinks he's in Golden Retriever heaven: he can walk forever without getting overheated, and with every change of climate there are new smells.  (Walks for him are ALL about the smells.) 

Imagine my disappointment then when I learned that this wasn't typical, that some people were actually starting to freak out about how warm it was (witness the broadcasts about some plants starting to put out spring buds).  Even though they've had snow and winter weather advisories just 50 miles north of Helsinki, it seems like anyone with any sort of climatological inclination is a little freaked by the balmy weather we've been having.  (Hint: it's not balmy when I wear my down coat/duvet to take Ted for an afternoon walk.)

With that in mind, it inspired some musings on what has passed for a Finnish autumn and the Finn's relation to it:

1.  What a difference a few feet make!  Even though it was frosty this morning in the park, by now it's fine.  But if you turn towards the lake instead of towards the Bay, the park narrows, and with 20 feet less width, that makes the difference between sun and ice.  I almost found this out the hard way when I stepped onto the sidewalk at the end.  Even though we hadn't had rain or snow, it was still a bit slick.  It would've been more than a bit embarrassing to explain that I broke my ankle on THAT!

2.  I guess different parts of your body get colder here than they do in America.  I don't know about you, but when it's 30 degrees out, I'm pretty much cold all over.  Not Finnish women.  More times than I can count I have seen Finnish women with thick hats, huge scarves, and a down coat on top with a miniskirt and black tights or even fishnets below standing outside waiting for buses and trams or running errands.  They are tougher souls than I.

3.  Determination abounds.  The Finns have this quality called, I think, sisu which means determination or steadfastness--you just deal with things and move on.  Sometimes this plays out in amusing ways.  My current source of amusement are all the people who insist on walking with ski poles (Nordic walking, it's called) even though there's no snow anywhere and very little ice, my comment above notwithstanding.  By God, it's December so I should be able to do winter sports!!

4.  You've got to be kidding me.  For most people with dogs, this weather doesn't cause a blink; a few people with short-haired ones have put on the standard dog blankets/jackets, but almost everyone else just lets the dog do its thing, even down to swimming in the ocean.  Imagine my surprise when I saw a dog last week downtown in a full winter outfit complete with little sleeves and legs.  It had a fleece shirt and pants apparently attached with Velcro and little cut outs so that it could do its business.  You know, that's when your dog is just too much of a child-substitute!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Christmas Lights Downtown

As part of my post-Thanksgiving holiday celebrations, this past Saturday I decided I'd head to downtown with Ted after dark to wander around and take in the lights.  Although there may be some additional displays over the next week or so--it seems like a new shop sets things up everyday--I figured this would be a way of indulging that impulse that kept saying, "Thanksgiving is past.  Now it's Christmas."

If you want to follow my wanderings on a map, here one is.  Home base is up on the top left; I've also marked where we got off the tram at Kamppi and where we got back on to head home (by the train station).

So once it got dark on Saturday I piled onto the ole 3T tram and got off at the Kamppi mall.  Although it's only halfway to work according to the number of stops, it's actually right in downtown and less than 15 minutes to the university.  I'd gone past it I don't know how many times without getting off the tram and was starting to feel a bit weird about it, since so many people refer to services and stores in Kamppi.

Like many of the malls here in Helsinki, this one is so enclosed that it's often hard to figure out what shops are inside, although some companies pay to have neon names attached to the outside of the building (an odd sight at first, but now I find it useful and nicer than the towers of store names that we have at home.  Granted, though, the building signs would be harder to read at a distance.)

In any case, in mid-November Kamppi had started putting red lights around the bottom story of the mall.  Not only were the little red lights cool, but they had interspersed blinking white ones.  It makes it look as if wind is causing them to flicker, which in Helsinki it sometimes is!  The pictures only give you a slight sense of the effect.  This is the square outside the main Kamppi mall; the tram stop is just to the right and a big movie theater is right behind me.  (Yep, movie theaters and malls go together here, too!)

Let me apologize now for the blurriness of some of the shots.  Although my camera supposedly has a "night" feature, I realized once I got started that it was really only for nighttime portraits.  I hadn't brought a real tripod and wasn't going to go back to get the small one I use for digital archive shooting, so I took most of these via the tried-and-true method of gritting my teeth and holding my breath.  Realize, too, that I held Ted at the same time as I took these, although by about halfway through I'd figured out that I could drop his flexi-lead and stand on it.  Made life infinitely easier!

This was walking down the outside square; you can see another person had the same idea I did but a fancier camera.  The red lights all around are those twinkling Christmas lights.

Once you walk through the plaza above, you go down a few stairs into another plaza.  In this one you get a better sense of the lights courtesy of the big, neon bulletin board.  (Let's hear it for artificial lighting!)  The place was bustling because it was only 4:30 pm when I took this.  Yep, 4:30 on a Saturday at the end of November--Christmas-shopping time!

BTW, if you look to the left, you'll see what I mean about the signs on the buildings.

Once I walked through the mall and down the road a bit, I ran into one of the main streets in Helsinki, Mannerheimintie.  It's lined with trees and big imposing buildings, which would seem to be just the thing for Christmas decorations.  What I found interesting was how variable things were; some of the stretches in front of the big stores like Stockmann and Sokos and the Forum shopping center had decorations and lights in the trees, while other areas were pretty barren.  That hasn't changed over the past week either, so my guess is that each building is responsible for the stretch of road in front of them and some are willing to decorate while others aren't.

Here I tried to get a picture of the lit trees in front of Sokos.  What I really like about these is they have these long, white lights that, at night, make it look as if light is raining down the tree.  When you intersperse those with regular lights, it's a lovely effect.

Some might think of this as blurry; I'm trying to pretend it's artsy.  In any case, this is looking down Mannerheimintie as we walked down it.  (I'm standing on the little island in the middle of the road between the tram tracks trying to balance the camera and Ted; it's a miracle I didn't cause a wreck--or get yelled at by Finnish cops!)

Once I got around the backside of Stockmann, that is, the side on Pohjoisesplanadi, I saw this great series of Christmas trees.  It appears that this is one of the favorite spots to have someone take a Christmas portrait.

What I really liked, though, were the multi-colored light streaks hanging above the street.  These are like those ones they hang in the trees, but these remained solid color all the time.  This is the only street I know that has them, and I wish they did them on more streets.  Great effect!

Well, after a brief foray around the back of Stockmann and some pretty woeful attempts to take a picture of the Old Student House, which is on the corner of Mannerheimintie and Pohjoisesplandi, I gave up and started heading to the far end of the Esplanades.  I really wish I could've gotten a picture of the Old Student House, too,  because it was one of the most festive I saw.  They had outlined every window and doorway in this 18th-century stone building with string lights.  Very cool!)

As you can see, most of the park is pretty understated--like much of Helsinki in general--but I loved the areas where they did do up the lights.  The blue lights in the trees were pretty dramatic, as you'll see.  Blue seems to be a common holiday color here, and I can think of several reasons: blue and white are the national colors and blue is a natural complement to the snow most people presume will be on the ground this time of year, although there hasn't been any yet and none is forecast anytime soon.

Here you can look down from the center of the Esplanade towards Alexsanterinkatu, one of Helsinki's main shopping streets.  I just love how the buildings glow in the dark winter's night.

Here's more of the blue-lit trees against one of the great old buildings on the Esplanade: the Kamp hotel, one of the poshest in Finland.

About halfway down the Esplanade park, I stopped to "absorb the atmosphere" and re-sort gloves, scarves, hat, etc.  Ted meanwhile discovered his shadow.  He was so fascinated that I had to take a picture!

In the Esplanade park they have this cafe-bar-restaurant that's all glass.  I've always thought it looked really cool, even though I'm sure it's overpriced.  That being said, I was disappointed when I had to turn down the chance to go there with a group from the History Department after our day at Suomenlinna.  (Ted had been trapped in the apartment for 9 hours at that point.)  I'll definitely hit there at some stage--maybe a pause during a day spent at the Christmas market in the Esplanade park.

Here's a close-up with the Christmas decorations.

Once we got to the end of the Esplanade and reached the market by the port, we wandered around some back streets until we came to Senate Square, one of Helsinki's most important and most dramatic squares.  Not only are the Senate offices and the original university building on the square, but it's dominated by the Lutheran cathedral, as you can see here.

I played around taking photos with different settings on my camera.  While the top is less blurry, the bottom one gives you a more accurate sense of the colors and lighting.

Part of what makes the cathedral so dramatic is that it's built on one of the ubiquitous granite outcroppings of Helsinki, so there are lots and lots of steps just to get to its base level.  My office is about a block and half from here, so I walk by here often with Ted and even the uphill side has a LOT of steps.  It's very cool to stand on the top, though; you can look all around downtown Helsinki and the waterfront.

As you can see, they put a HUGE Christmas tree in front of the church, although it doesn't look huge next to the church itself.  With that in mind, I walked up to the base and took a picture.  It gives you a much better sense of the size.  In fact, I've started walking this way to the tram in the evening, even though it's a bit out of the way, just because I like to look at the tree and other Christmas lights.

If you turned left (facing the cathedral) from where I took the pictures, you'd look down Alexsanterinkatu, and you can see that they've done it all up for the season.  (This is another of the reasons I like to walk this way during Christmas to the tram stop.)  I hear that these decorations are part of a campaign to bring people into the city center to shop for the holidays, although I don't see any lack of shopping going on.  Whether that's because the lights were successful or unnecessary, I don't care; I like the look of them.  It's like the heated sidewalks on Alexskatu, too.  Yep, I hear they've installed heaters so that the sidewalks don't ice up and shoppers feel safe coming down there to shop in the snow and ice seasons.  Me, I'll just want to thank them for making part of my day's walk safe!!

Here are the As hanging down from every batch of lights.  I know why they have them, but aren't they a bit annoying?  I'd love something more "holidayey" in their place.

One of the other things I'd been told about were the windows at Stockmann, so I saved them for last.  The standard thing I'd heard is that they really do them up; they're like the windows at Macy's NY or SF, so I was looking forward to seeing them.

Certainly the big one on the corner was great.  It had animatronics, music, and LOTS of things to watch.  They'd even set up a little viewing platform so that kids could go up there, and the kids were having a great time.

Unfortunately the rest just didn't live up to the hype.  Basically all the rest of the windows at Stockmann were displays of merchandise focused around a different theme for each window--nice but not especially entertaining or Christmasy.  Here's a couple of examples.

The funny part is that I can imagine people (not necessarily Finns) saying that these somewhat meager window displays are because the Finns are less commercial than Americans so they don't put as much into the Christmas windows.  I really don't think that's it, especially because, as you can see above, the prices of everything in the window are clearly marked, whereas the festive windows at home are more like the big window with the reindeer.  I think it has to do with Finnish understatement in general.  I've noticed that everything here about the holidays is much more restrained, although there's frenetic shopping going on.  Although Christmas trees were up in Stockmann in early November, everywhere else it happened a lot later, and the decorations that are up are a lot smaller and more discreet that those in America.  Even the home decorations seem to be that way.  I don't see lots of lights and garlands in houses, although I do LOVE the 7-candle lights in more and more of the windows (No, those aren't menoras; they are a traditional Finnish Christmas display.).  It makes walking home from work just that bit more festive.  As for me, I found two, little, pre-lit trees that are now making their home in the window ledges in my living room.  Definitely makes me feel more Christmasy!

In any case, after my somewhat disappointing foray to Stockmann, I wandered back up the road with Ted to the train station where we repeated our commute by hopping the 3T back to the Towers.  It was fun to be on there with a bunch of people holding shopping bags, and Ted got his usual pats, smiles, and comments.  I just kept imagining the big, 1930s statues flanking the train station with Santa hats--or is that sacreligious?

Hope you enjoy!