Here comes the snow, dah dah dah dah…

This week I got snowed in at the Kevo field station.  Ensilumen (en-see-lou-men) is what they call the ‘first snow of the year that sticks’.  It’s slippery, and loose and not yet compacted.  I bused up to Kevo while it was really cold, but there was no snow on the ground yet, but when I woke up on my field day this week, this is what I saw from the front door of the station:

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Tervetuloa Turkuun

Last week I went to Turku, which is a coastal city in the far southwest of the country, very close to Sweden.  

I traveled to Turku to participate in the ‘American Voices Seminar’ held by the University of Turku’s North American Studies department, and co-hosted by the Finnish Fulbright Center.  All of the American Fulbrighters were invited to give a short (20-minute) presentation on ‘something American’.  We were instructed to choose a topic that was of interest to us, and that was ‘American’ – this was actually really hard for me.  What’s ‘American’?  Because I didn’t want to talk about politics, or history, or something equally likely to showcase my ignorance of exactly what it means to be ‘American’.  I chose to go the silly route, and presented about Halloween traditions.  The other Fulbrighters pulled out all the stops, though, really stepping up to the cultural ambassador plate.

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It seems like I should introduce my field site, since it’s the whole reason I’m here this year.  Welcome to Petsikko (pet-see-koh), as it’s called by locals here, which is a system of close-to-the-road wetlands in the higher elevations near Kevo.  It’s 50km south of Utsjoki, and 25km south of the Kevo field station.  There is a little path leading from the road out to the ‘wet places’, as the field tech here calls them.  The wetlands are actually pretty extensive, interspersed with higher mounds and areas known as palsas (the little islands of soil in the wetness, shown below), some of which contain ice lenses, or permanent ice inside of the mounds.  There’s no permafrost (permanently frozen soil) anywhere in Finland, but this is about as close as it gets.  Continue reading


Salatut elämät (sa-la-toot eh-la-mat).  Say it again.  Salatut elämät.  Do you feel the tingling of anticipation?

This is a Finnish TV show that I have become somewhat obsessed with.  It’s a primetime serial drama (aka, a soap opera) that was recommended to me by a friend here who used this slow-speaking, overly dramatically-acted show to help him learn Finnish.  It’s got all the markers of a soap opera – an obscene number of characters, unbelievable plot twists, and no transition scenes (showing people actually moving between sets).  Aside: I was actually once told that the lack of transition scenes is the definitive indication of a soap opera.

Anyways, ‘salatut elämät’ translates as ‘Secret Lives’, and this program follows the dozens of tenants of an apartment building in Helsinki (the building shown in the show’s credits above).  Perhaps because I’m not a soaps expert, but this seems brilliant – want to get rid of a character?  Have them move out!  Want your characters to sleep together?  Have them meet in the sauna in the basement ‘accidentally’!  Need some fresh blood?  New tenant time!

As a language learning tool, it’s shockingly appropriate.  The quality of acting actually helps me understand, because when you can’t really act, turns out miming and an unsubtle score is the next best thing.  I’d say I understand about 50% of what’s going on in any given episode, which is about 46% more than what I usually get out of conversations I actually participate in.

Here are some of the gems of the drama over the last few weeks: 1) a child has been kidnapped by an ex-lover of the mother, who has sequestered the child at his mother’s rural cabin (the mother character was also once an unwilling captive of this gentleman, if the scary flashbacks of chains and locked doors are any indication).  Despite the child actor’s obvious 10+ age, the kid’s character can apparently not remember his former (last week’s) family, and has been having a romping good time with his ‘daddy’ playing the gamut of winter sports in the woods.  2) A double extramarital affair – perhaps they should just agree to switch?

3) A dude got his sister’s boyfriend drunk and put him on a train to Rovaniemi, thereby forcing him into violating his parole, so he got arrested.  While in jail, the couple had a fight, broke up, the girl turned to street drugs for a few days, but then decided that she’d rather be married.  So she showed up at the jail in a white dress with a preacher man.  They got hitched, but then he got put in solitary, so on a whim she stole a guard uniform to “visit” him, but she went to the wrong cell, since the husband had actually been released earlier that day.  Whoops!  

And last, but not least, 4) an old character has returned, bringing up the news that Cindy’s 9-month old son ‘OJ’ (seriously?!) is actually the child of another of the residents in the apartment building, who believes her son is dead.  There was a secret switch when the one died at the hospital (from what I can gather from the flashbacks), and the return of a person who knows the true identity of baby OJ is really rocking the boat of OJ’s ‘mother’, who has let slip to a few people the reason for her distraction.  They’re dragging the suspense out, though, so I don’t have any finality to offer yet, unfortunately.

Soaps aside, TV here is a trip.  My favorite thing about Finnish TV though is not the programming, but the ‘TV Tax’, which is a pretty substantial fee that TV-possessing citizens must pay.  To enforce this tax, there are “TV inspectors”, who knock on the doors of people NOT paying the tax so as to verify the lack of a TV in the household.  They’re not allowed to enter your home unless invited in, though, so as long as the TV is not visible (or audible) from the front doorway, you can theoretically bullshit your way through an inspection.  Every single Finn I’ve talked to has a story about how they’ve hidden from, or lied to, the TV inspector.  This has created an otherwise-misunderstood-as-prickly cultural practice of calling a person prior to a visitation, as otherwise, your door knock might be mistaken as the TV inspector’s, and they won’t answer.  The possibility of the TV inspector being at the door is enough to send even the most straight-laced of Finns into frantic lockdown mode – lights off, TV off, and there’s often hiding and quiet huddling waiting for the knocking to stop.  Worst case scenario, you expect a friend over so you answer the door, but it’s the TV inspector!  Don’t panic… Lie!

What?  That obvious program noise you can hear?  Radio program, of course.  You don’t recognize this program?  That’s because it’s actually a recording my children’s grandmother made for them because we don’t have a TV to entertain them, duh!  [this is actually a series of excuses that was tried – it failed, unfortunately]

If you get caught, you have to pay back tax, as well as a fine for trying to skirt the tax.  All of this will soon be moot, though, as starting on January 1st, the TV tax becomes an inescapable part of the basic federal taxation, which everyone will pay regardless of whether they own a TV or not.  Just imagine what this lack of fear of the doorbell will do to the community!  Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses countrywide are going to have a field day.  :)

Yes and No

I’m not a natural whiz with language, never have been.  I always feel slightly embarrassed and awkward when speaking anything other than English.  I blame my parents.  Or perhaps my monolingual-loving culture.  Either way, learning languages, and especially the verbal aspect of it all, is challenging to me.

Which brings me to the point of this particular diatribe: the words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’.  Usually these are two words you grasp early when learning a language – the ones you use constantly, and fall back on when you’re not quite sure what’s going on.  In this respect the Finnish language is my kryptonite, as the words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Finnish are impossible for me.  The word for ‘yes’ in Finnish is ‘joo’ (pronounced: yo, as in ‘yo, what’s up?’), and ‘no’ is ‘ei’ (like ‘hey’ without the ‘h’).  My issues are not with pronunciation.  For me, it’s a re-purposing problem.

My issue with ‘yo’ should be obvious, because I’m hip.  ‘Yo’ is in my core vocabulary – the stuff I use everyday.  Re-purposing one of my favorite words in English is hard!  The ‘ei’ is probably less obvious, but is actually a much bigger problem for me, because it just so happens that ‘ei’ means yes in Hausa.  And in case you didn’t know, I learned Hausa by spending my days surrounded by mothers and young children, which means that simple commands you’d use with toddlers are my forte, and pretty ingrained.  So, I’m constantly saying ‘ei’ when I mean ‘yes’, but all these Finnish people are hearing ‘no’.  This seemingly simple miscommunication has led to some interesting problems, not all of them pleasant or easy to get out of.

It’s also really frustrating, because what are the chances that the two languages I learn have the same core word, but with opposite meanings?  Really?!?  It would be comical if it didn’t feel so frustrating.  It actually brings to mind my favorite part of the movie-musical Singing in the Rain, where they’re doing the premiere of the ‘talkie’ movie, and the sound and picture become unsynchronized, so the audio is saying ‘yes, yes, yes’ as the woman violently shakes her head, and then you hear ‘no, no, no’ when the man wildly nods.  I feel like that.  I’ll nod and say ‘ei’, effectively signaling both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ response, respectively.  These Finns must think I’m deranged.

And completely unrelated, but I saw my first Northern Lights tonight!  Green.  I’m still trying to figure out how to capture them on film with my camera.  Stay tuned for visuals… :)