Ruoka! (food)

It’s time to talk food.  I’ve been here 10 weeks, and since eating is my favorite thing to do, I’ve dedicated considerable effort to experiencing a variety of Finnish cuisine.  Don’t tell the Finns, but Finnish food is known for being heavy, fatty and lacking in variety, as meat, potatoes and butter are staples (I’m not even kidding, people carry around their own personal butter containers).  I keep thinking how much my Dad would like it here – you have meat for all 3 meals, every day, and butter-slathering and saltiness is a given.  There is a modern movement towards reinventing the classic Finnish cuisine, using all the traditional ingredients but putting a fresher, healthier spin on the preparation.  While I admit to a troublesome lack of variety in the flavors and spices used, I have been pleasantly surprised by the food, and anyone who thinks otherwise should consider taking a culinary tour of northern Nigeria…. 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… :)

Have you lost something??

Unbeknownst to me, I have ‘lost something’.  I have no idea what, where or when, but a local man placed a cryptic phone call to one of the Kevo staff members’ cell phones to inform him simply that “the American girl has lost something”.  According to the recipient of this unsatisfactorily vague phone call, the caller then just hung up with no further explanation.  Personally, I would have been much more grateful for the shout-out had the caller told us either a ‘what’ or a ‘where’, or even a ‘when’.  The funniest part about the whole thing is that I keep getting asked if I’ve lost something by all the various members of staff and researchers here at the Kevo site.  Apparently the story of the phone call has spread, but not that I have been informed and quizzed, and am ignorant of, and somewhat concerned about, what exactly I’ve lost.  My biggest fear was that my ‘lost’ item was actually all my scientific equipment that I’ve (hopefully) permanently installed at my field site, and that this taciturn good Samaritan would take it upon himself to extract and bring it all back to me.  I visited my field site yesterday and all my equipment appears to be in order, but it did remind me that I should draft a sign informing passersby of the permanent and delicate nature of my installations.  And so the mystery of my missing item(s) continues.  And all this still leaves me wondering: how did he know I was American??


I want to preface this with another tangent about how I feel like I’ve found common ground with the Finnish – these are a people that value picking and eating raw foods in the woods.  Finns have a legislated right to harvest from the bosom of Mother Nature almost anywhere they want – it’s called ‘Everyman’s Right’, and entitles people to gather and catch (fish caught with a rod and line are included) what they will, no matter who owns the land, and even if the intent is sale.  As a result, Finns are aficionados of wild berries, mushrooms, herbs, and other yummy stuff that you can hunt and gather.

I’m a girl who likes life.  I grew up with a healthy respect for poisons and allergies, as I seem to have my fair share of run-ins with both.  One of the strongest memories of my childhood is learning about the ‘no-no berry’.  The ‘no-no berry’ is not a specific berry, but rather the entire class of small, colorful, botanical fruits that will cause one harm.  My mother instilled a bone-deep respect for the ‘no-no berry’ in me at a young age.  I think perhaps the poison control operators in Fort Worth may have sent her a muffin basket after I finally retained her ‘no-no berry’ wisdom.  :)  The ‘no-no berry’ wisdom boils down to this: if you haven’t ever seen it on your mother-prepared cereal or pancakes, DON’T EAT IT!  This is especially true of anything red-colored.  Red = dangerous.  In its most reduced form, the idea that you don’t put anything you harvest in your mouth that you haven’t already survived eating is a pretty good one.  I’m a fan.

Over the years, I’ve continued to use the phrase ‘no-no berry’, much to Brandon’s chagrin.  It’s made a major reappearance in my internal dialogue since moving here, since there’s a lot of stuff of a tempingly edible-looking nature in the woods.  I refrained from ingesting any of it before seeking the counsel of Finns, which is why meeting Heini borders on the providential.  I have now been given the green light on eating anything I can find (not including mushrooms), save one exception, explained further below.  So here’s an intro to all the yummy things that I have subsequently been gobbling!

Hilla (hee-lah) 

English: Cloudberries

Puffy and proud, these little yellow to red gems are an Arctic specialty.  I found them in both Kevo and Kilpisjärvi, both in wetter, acidic soils.  They look a lot like a blackberry in form and size, but are shot forth from the tundra soils on single stalks that only extend an inch or so from the ground (hence the ‘proud’ moniker, because they look so defiant in their tiny, solitary thrusts).  I got here a little late in the cloudberry season, so the ones that I found and snacked on were a little past their prime, evident in their raisin-wrinkly skins and gooey-rather-than-bursting juices.  They pack a punch of vitamin C, though.  Heini says you get the same amount of vitamin C as you’d get from a whole orange in only 2-3 of these raspberry-sized powerhouses!

I found cloudberry ice cream at the grocery store in Utsjoki and snagged it up.  The tart, creamy taste of the berries is a really good complement to the vanilla base, and I see why it’s so common to pair cloudberries with both vanilla and dairy.  Cloudberry jam is also a Finnish staple, and has graced every breakfast buffet I’ve seen here, although I thought it was marmalade for the first few weeks until I asked.

Variksenmarja (var-eek-sen-mar-yah) 

English: Crowberries

I feel somewhat protective of this berry, for it lacks the prestige of all the others, but has a lot going for it.  They’re the most difficult to gather, as they do a pretty good job of hiding in very dense underbrush, and the vegetative parts of this plant are extremely fragile and sensitive to touch and trampling.  You have to do a lot of leaning, and I tend to leave reverse tonsure-esque clusters of berries when harvesting from patches I can’t reach the middle of.  There’s also no hope of recovery if you snag them off their plant and subsequently drop them, as this plant is too thick and sort of floats in a mat of itself above the soil.  It’s a black hole for dropped berries.  I can only assume that this is how it propagates, because they’re slippery little suckers!  That said, they are also ubiquitous and ridiculously bountiful, so they make up for the hassle of gathering by ease of access and quantity.

They taste a lot like pomegranate seeds to me, mostly due to their burst-like texture of slightly watery, red-colored juice.  The flavor is less pronounced than any of the other berries, but they contain all the fiber and antioxidants and other healthy stuff, and the refreshing gusher-like experience gets a little addictive.  I replaced blueberries with crowberries in a batch of banana oat berry muffins I made last night, and they have a great baking quality – they don’t disintegrate in your batter, but they burst when baked.  Perfect.

Mustikka (moo-stee-kah) 

English: Blueberry (US), Bilberry (UK)

Blueberries are also called ‘Bilberries’ when spoken of in English, because Finns are taught British English, and the Brits have some sort of association between Tolkein and the blueberry??  According to my ‘Welcome to Finland’ brochure, bilberries are the most exported of Finnish berries, and they contain three times the amount of anthocyanins found in cultivated blueberries!  These are your standard wild blueberry – round and with a flattish bottom and blue-tinted guts, and a clear but sweet flavor.  Now pay attention, because the berry-gut-color matters in Lappish berry taxonomy, and there will be a quiz!  :)

Juolukka (you-ah-loo-kah)  

English: Bog Blueberry/Bilberry/Whortleberry

In Lapland, the blueberry’s first cousin is the ‘bog blueberry’, which is a slightly elongated version of ol’ blue that boasts clear guts, a slightly smoother texture, and a bit more of an acidic kick at the finish.  And if you can’t tell from the berry itself, the bog blueberry plant has leaves that are more rounded on the ends (see directly above), as opposed to the pointed, more oval leaves on blueberry plants (refer to blueberry picture).  They also seem to hold on to their flower petals pretty well, as there are often dried petals still attached to the berry ends.

Because I’m late in the season, the specimens I’ve been eating of both blue-tinted berry varieties are a bit more sour than commercial blueberries, but pretty thick on the ground, so I’m not complaining.  Yum.

Puolukka (poo-ah-loo-kah) 

English: Lingonberries

These berries are found in grape-like clusters of small, hard, bright red fruits.  You can grab at the top of the cluster and sort wiggle down the stem, knocking off your prey in larger quantities with minimal effort.  These puppies pack a wallop of proanthocyanidins (the same stuff that you find in cranberries that helps urinary health) and have the same, slightly astringent flavor of their boggy brethren.  Finns are big fans of a soupy jam made from lingonberries, and pair it with everything from cake to cheese to meatballs (Finns use lingonberry jam like Midwesterners and their grape jelly meatballs – you heard me, Peggy!).

Lingonberries are the only berry here that I’ve been hesitant to harvest – it’s that ingrained ‘no-no berry’ red = danger thing….  I’ve subsequently gotten over my reticence and have gathered enough of these to make the traditional jam for myself!

According to Heini, there is only one actual ‘no-no berry’ here in Lapland, which is a small red berry (vindicated!) called ruohokanukka marja (in Finnish it means something like ‘weed berry’), but the plant is very different from the lingonberry’s foliage, so it’s easy to distinguish (as you can see in the picture below).  Heini also assures me that this ‘no-no berry’ will cause only a slight stomach upset, but not do me any real harm if ingested accidentally.  Whew.

I’ve also been ruminating about my harvesting predilections – is my inability to walk away while there are still easily visible and reachable berries to be had an American thing?  A Kim thing?  Is this my mortal sin of gluttony rearing its head?  I have to constantly tell myself to leave some berries on the plant and walk away to the next one.  That’s the messed up part – there’s always another patch within eyesight.  So why do I compulsively strip them to their stalks?  I combat my natural greediness by being more conscientious about which berries I pick – if I concentrate on only picking the perfectly ripe berries, I inevitably leave some there.  Despite this, I have a certain amount of guilt associated with my tendency towards berry-associated voracity, so perhaps I was doing more than just doodling pictures in the bibles during mass all those years as a child….

Due to my dedication to making up for those lost 2 weeks before I knew I could eat it all (muwhahaha!), I have been doing a lot of berry picking here at Kevo.  I’ve also found that picking berries in the wild is a lot like those 3D magic eye pictures, where you have to train your eyes to focus on different levels before you can see the hidden image.  I have equipped myself with focus filters for each of the berry varieties.  This is especially needed for the crowberries, which are masters at stealth.  Example: can you see that this is a virtual schmorgasboard of crowberries?



The night frosts are starting in earnest here in Lapland, so the 2012 berry season is coming to a close, but let this serve as an open invitation to all y’all to come for a visit and pick berries with me next summer.  I promise that it’s worth it.