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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Finnish Michelin Men

In homage to the gradual approach of spring, I thought I'd finally post about how parents here deal with kids in winter, particularly their clothing.  It has been a great source of amusement to me all winter long.  On the one hand, as you will see, the outfits are absolutely adorable and quite practical.  On the other hand, the kids look like a cross between the Michelin Man and the little brother in A Christmas Story.  And, yes, there is that turtle effect and, yes, I have seen a kid fall down who can't get up.

Here's what I mean.

I think for people who know nothing about northern Europe, like me before I came here, if they have any idea about winter clothing at all it might be something like this.  This is a group of historical reinactors doing the whole Finnish "national" clothing thing (I won't even get into the anachronisms of national clothing in the Finnish circumstance, but in any case ...)  I particularly loved this one because of the guys in down coats and cargo pants in the center:  2 sets of Finnish national clothing for the price of one picture!

The best part of the picture, though, is the baby.  See what I mean about the little brother in A Christmas Story!  And, although the clothing is all natural, and therefore ridiculously bulky compared to normal modern Finnish kids' clothes, the idea of having the baby wrapped up from head to toe in multiple layers is totally Finnish.  In fact, yesterday I saw a kid dressed somewhat like this in one of the incredibly insulated baby carriages that I'll show in a second, but in addition he was wearing wrap-around sunglasses.  I thought I was going to gag I was laughing so hard, and I pretended that I was laughing at Ted so that I didn't offend the parents (not too difficult to pretend).  Yes, I know all about UV protection, but did you really need to find sunglasses that looked like swim goggles.  (And, yes, even as I type that, I realize how incredibly practical they are.  The laughter is a mix of the kid's style and my reaction to my reaction.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Basically the kids-as-giant-balls-of-clothing phenomenon started around November, and by December I was determined that I HAD to get some photos of this!  They were absolutely adorable, and those of you who know me know that I'm not someone who melts at the sight of any old kid.  (Remember the children I described as needing to be "thrown to the wolves"?)  The problem was basically one of public safety.  In other words, how do you convince people that a stranger taking photos of their baby is not a pedophile?  And, you know, you actually look more like a pedophile when you take pictures from a distance.

In any case, by mid-December I was getting desperate enough to try some stealth cellphone shots, which are how these first few photos were taken.

Baby #1 (imagine a "Price is Right," Bob Barker voice there) was taken in front of the Stockmann's window at Christmas.  I had to get him because basically he was a giant ball of brown down, even including his mittens.  Mittens, not gloves, are the pattern for maximum warmth, because--let's be real--when you're dressing your kids like this, manual dexterity just isn't a major concern.  Here I particularly like the hat and the quilted cover on what is a VERY low-key stroller by Helsinki standards.  After all, it was only right around freezing, so the real, cold weather had not yet begun.

In fact, one of the things you see on lots of kids' clothes are reflectors of some sort, which makes sense considering it's dark by 3 pm and dim long before that in late December (This was taken c. 5 pm in early November).  It gives children this somewhat surreal glow, especially when attached to the Michelin clothing: is the shape human or a demonic Pillsbury doughboy?  In fact, lots of folks have these little, rubber things hanging from bags, backpacks, purses, and zippers on coats, and I only recently learned that they're there to glow in the dark, too.  Ideally you wear them at around hip level so that it's easier for drivers and cyclists to see you.   I was glad to learn that because I'd really wondered if all of Finland had succumbed to one of those weird crazes for stickers and buttons that tend to sweep high school campuses back home; the fact that a bunch of these are in the shapes of flowers or cartoon characters just added to that impression.  Then again, they're much more discreet than the blinking lights some people and dogs wore.  Dogs blinking brightly--that really took Ted aback!

I just love the full body effect of this kid's outfit.  It also gives you a sense of how waterproof these things are.  In fact, it seems like the entire population under age 5 or 6 doesn't wear a natural fiber from November until at least now!  Makes sense since these are a lot more waterproof.  Wish I had a close-up of the great, little kids' snowboots that are part of this outfit!

This picture I had to put in for the sake of one of my colleagues in the General History seminar.  We were talking about the kids' winter clothes before seminar one day, and he mentioned how much he hated being dressed up to go out for field trips when he was a kid.  Until then I hadn't really paid attention, but once he spoke up, I noticed these groups of little kids in neon reflective vests being shepherded around Helsinki in the winter.  Is it just me, or do they look like oversized, irradiated ducklings?  Then again, I like the artistic side of the orange against the white and dark brown.

Part of why kids are so bundled up here--and look so cutely Michelin-like--is that there doesn't seem to be anytime that kids are not taken outside.  Really.  Even on days of "heavy snow" they're in the park (I put "heavy snow" in quotes because people have called c. 8" heavy snow here.  The Sierras would freak Helsinki folks out!).  Even when it was -20F, they were skating in the park.  Even now with it icy and muddy, kids're out running through it.  And even when they can't move, they must be exposed to the elements!

That leads to the most seriously impressive strollers that I have EVER seen.

This photo was taken in late January when I was out with Ted in 0F weather.  I saw Mom marching towards me in the distance--yes, marching, even though the entire sidewalk was ice--and knew I had to get this because it epitomized Finnish kids "taking the air" in winter.  So I removed my gloves, dug out the camera from inside the Burgundy duvet, blew on the camera to make sure it was warm enough to work, frantically wiped the condensation off before it froze, waited for the remaining condensation to evaporate, and eventually got my zoom lens working just before she marched past (across the street).

What makes this photo quintessentially Finnish?  Check out the carriage!  That is a winter, four-wheeler!  I mean, you could go off road in that thing while simultaneously maintaining your baby in perfect 75 degree comfort!  It had wider tires with snow grips (not kidding), several layers of insulation (not kidding), waterproof covers on the top, bottom, and sides (not kidding), a movable insulated hood (not kidding), and automatic wheel locks (Okay, I can't see them from this distance, but I'll bet they're there, so I'm not kidding).  The only thing that isn't quintessentially Finnish is the bright red coat, which is lovely but should be blue or black, please.

In fact, friends of mine here who aren't Finnish have hysterical stories about elderly Finnish ladies coming up to them in the park to scold them when they've dressed their child inappropriately.  For example, can you see why in the photo below the child is a victim of child abuse?

It's not the lightweight, albeit fancy, stroller or even the fact that he appears to be sitting all alone.  It's that he isn't appropriately covered.  Yes, even though he's in full Michelin man regalia, it is snowing and he doesn't have a stroller cover over him!!  What neglectful parents!  In fact, I showed this to some Finnish colleagues, and they were a bit surprised that this was up on a website.  In fact, I had even been surprised (Hey, I found this in early March and had been well indoctrinated by that point!)

Lest you think I'm kidding, let me tell you a story.  One of my colleagues here is from Switzerland, and he and his wife have a lovely 2-year-old boy with a head of thick, curly hair.  Well, one day in November when it was c. 50 degrees Fahrenheit out, he, his wife, and his boy were in one of Helsinki's many parks.  Their son was all bundled up, but he didn't have a hat on.  My colleague noted that 5 times in a one-hour period people came up to them to tell them they really needed a hat for their little boy.  A few others also commented that his stroller would never provide sufficient protection in the winter.  They have since dutifully started dressing their son in hats and got a bigger stroller just to stop the harassment.  Of course, the winter stroller doesn't fit in the old-style elevator in his building, so they now have the joy of carrying it up several flights of stairs.  Better that than cross a Finnish grandmother!

Not everyone, even in the somewhat posh neighborhood where I live, can or wants to afford the big, fancy winter strollers (those things are 100s and 100s of Euros!), though, and that's when Finnish inventiveness takes over.  (After all, babies are too young to have to learn about sisu, right?)  This was another of my hidden-camera shots of one of the ladies at the tram stop.  She has literally covered her baby and carriage in blankets, so much so that I was wondering how the kid was breathing!

One of the things I wondered about during all of this was how or why the Finns pushed those strollers everywhere through ice and mush and snow.  I mean, it seemed like somewhere a better solution had to have been developed.  Then one day in the park I saw this.

Here I really couldn't stop myself and cracked up.  Since the lady noticed I explained what was up, she thought it was funny too when looked at it from a Californian's perspective, and she kindly volunteered to stage a photo.  Those plastic sleds are the bomb, and hers even had a little lip on the back so that she could strap the baby in somewhat upright.  It was actually one of the few I saw like that; more often they were just flat pieces of plastic and the kid was laid out like a log (Michelin log--check out the clothing!).  And, yes, I once saw one kid roll right off the sled, but don't worry; the dad noticed right away.  I mean, it's hard to balance if you're a fuzzy log.  In fact, my personal favorite moment with the little plastic sleds was a parent who'd gone shopping.  The 2-3 year old was laying out flat in the back holding all the groceries on his/her (couldn't tell) tummy while the mom pulled it all along.

As you can see here, some manufacturers really get into doing these things up.  Not only does Dad here have a very high-tech one of these sleds with a big backrest and specially grooved slides (I never actually saw one like this), but he's also able to wear a baby carrier simultaneously.  Thereby, you have the true Finnish "technical/masculine but maternal" dad.

And isn't the baby an adorable Michelin man?

1 comment:

  1. Just a few brief comments by Anna, my renter in SC who's from Helsinki:

    I wish I'd taken some reflectors here with us! I feel very unsafe walking outside after dark, because I just know that drivers are not able to see me. They are a cheap life insurance.. Mine are design ones, quite pretty.. :) ...

    Well, if we would wait for a nice weather, we would still be inside come May..
    Riku and I were just talking about the things we are going to miss when we leave, and SC weather is certainly one of them! It has rained less than 20 times in 8 months!!...

    I am probably quite low-key compared to most mothers when it comes to dressing a child (I never could get those blankets and plastic covers), but I still agree with the grandmas about the hat. Kids get ear infections etc. easily, so for toddlers, it's just practical to wear a hat when it's below 15, especially in Helsinki, where it always winds so much. Bigger kids can wait until below 10. (Heck, I wear a hat myself when it's below 10!)

    You'll see that Finnish kids always wear a hat. After woolen caps, they transfer straight to sun hats in spring. Guess how hard it has been to make Iris to wear a sun hat here, as no other kid does that! I still make her to do it, as she burns easily and will get nauseous in the sun without a hat. (I know that she hides her hat in her book bag when she gets to the school grounds, though.)

    And the shoes! Every little girl wears Uggs in winter (Uggs! Here!) and flip-flops in summer. I spent considerable time trying to find Iris decent sandals that would not give her blisters or to fall off when running. I went to every store in Columbia where they sell kids' shoes, but everything they had for girls was plastic flip-flops! (For infants and toddlers, the flip-flops just had an extra strap to keep them on. I couldn't believe my eyes.) I finally ordered sandals on-line. Luckily many on-line stores have good, comfortable and pretty leather shoes. And yes, I bought her a pair flip-flops too, so she can wear them for school like the other girls. :) I constantly tell her that she will not be able to wear similar clothes for school in Finland, but she just says that she will wear whatever others do. (I am so going to have trouble with her when she's a teenager.)

    I had so much fun reading your blog as usual. I have been desperate with SC kids' clothing (skorts?! I had to have my mother-in-law to send Iris skirts because I couldn't find them here), not realizing that Finnish clothing can be a laugh too. Perhaps things have been getting out of hands for some moms. I've always dressed Iris like I would myself at that temperature. I remember a baby I saw in that winter overall when it was June; Iris (then 9 months) was wearing just a long-sleeved shirt and pants. And the mother asked condescendingly if I thought that it was warm enough. (Then again, it was only +20.)