Saturday, September 22, 2007

On a different note... (September)

Alright. So, I haven't quite achieved the goal of posting every two or three days. However, I do have a good excuse. I was away in Lapland for awhile and now my mother is visiting me from the States. She has gone to Norway to explore the fjords for a few days, so I have some time to catch up on my blogging. Next week, I'm going to meet up with her in Copenhagen, which I'm really looking forward to. I've been interested in Denmark and, more specifically, Copenhagen for awhile. In fact, it was my first choice to apply for a Fulbright to Denmark. Unfortunately, they only had one scholarship to grant this year and it was for marketing research/lecturing, which ruled it out for me. As a result, I'm here in Finland and not Denmark.

Anyway, I'm going to devote a separate post to the topic of Lapland. I don't want to go into my trip too much right now, but suffice it to say that it was spectacularly beautiful. I took a ton of photos, so I'll make sure to post them on this blog.

The purpose of this particular post is to introduce a new concept. Every now and then, I'll walk around Helsinki and see something that catches my eye. Usually, it's something that is unique to Finland/Helsinki (or at least to me it appears unique). More often than not, it's an observation I find humorous or interesting and, as a result, would be something worthwhile to post on this blog.

So, I thought I would start this thing called "On a different note..." and each month I'll try to post these different observations as I make them.

For example:
1) A trend amongst men here appears to be to grow their hair long (i.e., long enough to put in a ponytail), but then they pull it back into this thing that's like a samurai knot, instead. I've noticed this on more than a few guys. It makes me think of that Tom Cruise movie about the American samurai.

2) The Finns have a real love affair with candy. They particularly appear to like candy with licorice flavoring and gummy candy (like gummy bears, gum drops, etc.). If you go to the supermarket, you will see at least one entire aisle devoted to different varieties of candy in bags. It's INSANE. Plus, I've had conversations with Finns about this and each person seems to be the devoted follower of a particular type/brand/mix of candy. I had occasion to go to the Helsinki convention center awhile back and, I kid you not, there were at least four or five kiosks devoted exclusively to candy. Crazy.

3) Here in Finland, they do not appear to have mastered the art of the door frame. It appears very common to walk through an exterior doorway only to find the door has this little lip to the bottom of the door frame. 'not such a big deal if you know about it, but somewhat dangerous if you're not looking out for them. I learned my lesson pretty quickly. After about a day here, I tripped over one (no, I didn't fall flat on my face). Anyway, it's the weirdest thing. It doesn't seem like there's any practical reason behind this (they're only about an inch+ high, but enough to really hurt yourself if you trip and fall). I mentioned it to another American who lives here and she knew exactly what I was talking about when I was like, "What's up with the door frames?" According to her, there have been stories in the papers, etc. about the door frames and how they're dangerous. What were they thinking????

4) Last, but not least... I joined a gym here and one thing that is sort of funny (but also a bit gross) is that people don't wipe down the machines after they've used them. I, like a lot of folks, have seen all those news pieces in the U.S. about gyms and how they're virtual breeding grounds for germs. So, whenever I see a person dripping sweat all over the machines and just getting up and walking away, I cringe. What makes the whole thing funny, is that most Finns are fussy about taking their shoes off when they get home/enter an apartment/etc. So, the deal with the gym is that people will take their shoes off and leave them on these shelves and then change into another pair of sneakers to work out. Why? So they don't track germs or dirt into the place. On the one hand, they're compulsive about keeping the germs out of the gym, but then there's this total inconsistency because everyone's sweating and not wiping down the machines in a super-warm room (read: incubator). Interesting.

Enough for now. Like I said, I'm going to try to keep up with this whole "on a different note" idea. I'll try to post again tomorrow and fill you in on Lapland because it really was a singular experience.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sign Language

Just a quick blog entry for now. I'm actually in the process of planning a trip up to Lapland for the next few days... up to Rovaniemi (close to the Arctic Circle) and Oulu. I'm sure I'll have lots more to share upon my return. I'll be very disappointed if I don't see at least one reindeer while I'm up there.

In the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to share a photo of a random street sign, here in Helsinki. As you can see, the name of the street is written twice. The top is in Finnish and the bottom is in Swedish. Like Quebec, all legal documents in Finland have to be written in two languages: Finnish and Swedish. In fact, I think it's in the constitution that Finland is officially bilingual. The presence of the Swedish language partly flows from Finland's having long been a part of the Swedish empire.
All government employees have to pass an exam demonstrating their aptitude in Swedish and everyone has a right to use Swedish when dealing with government authorities. That said, you'll see all road signs, etc. in both Finnish and Swedish. Depending on where you are in the country, you may see the Swedish on the top and the Finnish on the bottom (e.g., if you're in a part of the country where Swedish is the primary language spoken). I'm actually having a much easier time reading the Swedish, given its similarities with German. Finnish is a whole other matter!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Summer Cottage 101

OK, OK... I think we can all agree I have a lot of work to do when it comes to blogging. Let me set the record straight, though. I thoroughly admire all those folks who faithfully post to their blogs. However, I've always believed in the whole concept of baby steps. That said, while it appears I've started with posting every 2-3 weeks, I aspire to posting at least once every few days. I'm here in Helsinki until the end of the year, so I have a bit of time to practice, I suppose!

All that said, I don't want any readers to think I've been sitting here, twiddling my thumbs. Oh no!!!! Lots of stuff has been going on and I've made an effort to jot down notes, reminding myself of things that might be worthwhile posting to this blog. One such topic (and one which I think is incredibly relevant to any visit to Finland) is that of the summer cottage. Pray tell: What is the summer cottage? Well, here in Finland, there are over 476,000 summer cottages (that's a statistic I read associated with 2006, so the number is probably higher, now) in Finland. That's for a country with roughly 5 million inhabitants. The summer cottage is preferably located as far from civilization as possible. That means at least an hour outside of any city. Ideally, the cottage is situated right on a lake. As a result, a number of these cottages are located in the lake district north of Helsinki (there are about 190,000 lakes from which to choose). This location is desirable for a couple of reasons: 1) it provides an idyllic location with beautiful scenery; and 2) it makes the sauna experience that much better if you have an icy cold lake to jump into once you're heated up to perfection!

A good number of these summer cottages haven't been winterized, but I've been told by some of my new Finnish friends that the Finns so love being outdoors and the solitude their summer cottages afford that they have increasingly begun to winterize the cottages, allowing for full utilization both during the short summer season and what is better known as "the rest of the year" or "winter".

I had the tremendous fortune of being invited to a summer cottage somewhere in the general region of Tampere (see the photo of the red house, up top), located almost two hours northwest of Helsinki. The weekend entailed a group of about ten Finns (all old friends) getting together for an annual fiesta. I happen to know one of the attendees through the research work I'm doing on Finnish housing policy and housing finance. I had mentioned to him that I love crawfish and had read that crawfish are a delicacy, here in Finland. Anyway, my "co-worker" remembered my saying that and took the liberty of inviting me to attend this annual get-together as crawfish plays a big role in the weekend... every year they assemble a big crawfish feast.

So, we packed our bags and headed off to the lake region! I'm fairly new to blogging, but I'm going to try to attach some photos of the weekend. It was a fabulous time, particularly as I cannot stress just how important the summer cottage is to Finnish culture. As I previously mentioned, Finns truly value their solitude and time spent in the great outdoors and the summer cottage usually affords them with precisely that!

In addition to indulging in a lot of crawfish (I had cuts on my fingers to prove it!), I was initiated into a world including terrible Finnish vodka (they told me it gets better the more you drink it... a COMPLETE lie!), weird lawn bowling and loud, Finnish singing. I can barely pronounce Finnish phonetically when I'm sober, let alone sing it when I've indulged in a couple of shots of Korskenkova (trust me... this stuff is DANGEROUS!!!). On a side note: It's very amusing to hang out with a bunch of Finns after they've consumed a lot of alcohol. It's in stark contrast to what they are like when they're sober. They go from being very quiet and reserved to very loud and vocal. Anyway, back to the summer cottage... when we weren't eating crawfish, drinking or singing we were partaking of that other famous Finnish pastime... sauna!!!!

Now, I've been in a sauna before. Actually, I've been in a sauna on more than one occasion. Usually, I think it's been at health clubs or the like. Let me tell you... Finnish sauna is totally different (only in the best ways possible). Sauna is an absolute obsession in this country. Like I mentioned, the population of Finland hovers somewhere around five million. However, there are approximately two million saunas in this country. Like the number of summer cottages, this number is also increasing. What is funny to many people is just how small many apartments are, here. Still, many Finns are insistent about having their own sauna. Kitchen... who needs one???? Give me my sauna!!!!

One of the nicest aspects about the whole summer cottage experience is that they come equipped with their own sauna (usually a separate mini-hut) situated alongside the lake. The picture at the top of this post, with the grey, wood house is actually the sauna at the cottage where I stayed. Most of the summer cottage saunas are heated with wood, which lends a really wonderful quality to the heat. There's a chimney, so none of the smoke ends up in the actual sauna room. However, the heat feels very different than when you're in an electrically-heated sauna, which is what I had experienced, to date.
Whenever you take sauna, you are always with members of the same sex (exceptions are only made on very rare occasions). I was really obsessed with not making any faux pas while taking sauna. In my compulsive fashion, I had this checklist of questions running through my head. So, I asked my Finnish hosts, "What should I do? Do I wear a towel?" After all, I had only known these people for less than half-a-day at this point, so I wasn't sure what protocol was. They replied, "You do what ever you want to do. Sauna is meant to be an entirely relaxing experience. If you want to wear a towel, you wear a towel. If you don't want to wear a towel, you don't." My questions continued: Do you have to swim in the lake after sauna? Do you wear a bathing suit when swimming? How many times do you go back into the sauna?
Again, my hosts were really nice and answered patiently: You don't have to swim in the lake after sauna. It's entirely up to you. Again, sauna is meant to be a completely relaxing experience. In the same vein, it's perfectly o.k. to wear a bathing suit when you jump in the lake, but no one is going to look at you funny if decide to skinny dip, either! How many times you repeat the whole process (sauna/lake/etc.) is entirely up to you.

So, you heat up the sauna room for about an hour. Similarly, you start a fire under some water in a antechamber. You use the hot water to bathe with before and/or after you take your sauna. I've got to confess, at first I felt a little awkward sitting naked with a bunch of strangers, but soon you get over your prudish American tendencies and just deal with it. The Finnish attitude is that nudity is totally natural and there is nothing sexual about the experience. In keeping with my new earth mother attitude (i.e., nudity and the like) I elected for the skinny-dip version of swimming in the lake. This was the absolute best part. You sit in the sauna 'til you think you're going to pass out. Then, you run out to the lake and jump in and it's total refreshment like you've never known. You swim in the lake for a few minutes (that's about all it takes for your extremities to start getting numb!), at which point you jump out of the lake and run back into the sauna to warm up and get the circulation going. Like my hosts said, it's really up to you how many times you do this. There's no right or wrong answer.

Once you're done, you feel at least five pounds lighter and super-clean. It is the most incredible experience. After I got done, it was like I had an epiphany. I was like, "So THAT'S what all the fuss is about!" Now, I'm hooked. Unfortunately, there are no lakes by my Helsinki "cell" (masquerading as my studio apartment), but that's o.k. It almost makes sauna by a lake that much more of a precious and treasured experience. OK. Enough waxing poetic about sauna. I have to leave something for my next blog.

Remember... baby steps. 'til the next time!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Settled in Helsinki

Alright, alright... I've been terribly remiss in setting up this blog. I know!!!! However, those who know me know it's a HUGE accomplishment in-and-of itself that I even have a blog. Sometimes I feel like I'm (at least emotionally!) still stuck in the land of pegged jeans, John Hughes movies and BetaMax tapes. Scary stuff!

Just to bring everyone up to speed, I'm in Helsinki for the next five months doing research as a Fulbright Scholar. The purpose of my research is to examine the ways Finland has used housing policy and housing finance to stimulate macroeconomic growth from the end of World War II up to present day. I know! Zzzzzzzzzz. Well, to a person like me (who works in the field of affordable housing), this is exciting stuff. All that said, the purpose of this blog is not to recap my latest research discovery. Instead, I want to use this blog as a way of sharing all my observations about Finland, the culture, the landscape, and lots of other good stuff that accompanies living in a new place. So, I hope to provide lots of interesting tidbits for the folks back home. I also promise to upload some good photos, too.

So, stay tuned... same bat-time, same bat-channel! As they say, here in Finland, moi moi (read: bye-bye)!