Loss of Light (and other adventures)

Okay, so the combination of a grant application, a roadtrip, another trip to Helsinki, and sample analysis that requires my attention means that I’ve been sort of a slacker with the updates.  So here’s my attempt at catching you up on the last month – don’t worry!  It’s only a highlight reel.

Based on a tip from a friend here, I dragged Brandon out into the cold one evening for ‘Rovaniemi on Fire’, an annual event here in Rovaniemi where local artists and groups build themed wooden and grass structures that are placed along the bank of one of the rivers and lit on fire (!).  This year’s theme was “the microbiological life of the river”, which is pretty awesome. Brandon and I showed up early enough to see the structures pre-fire, but it was too dark to actually get pictures of them before the burning began.  There were these lit, drum-like things farther up on the riverbank where we were all standing that the kids were playing in/on/around.

And just when we thought they were taking dramatic suspense to an unreasonable level (given the foot of snow we were standing in and the 15°F weather), there was a parade of torches:

And then they slowly lit each structure on fire, waiting for each to burn entirely before lighting the next one.  You can imagine how long this process took.  Here are some of the good ones:

(a snail)

(a midge)

And then sometime in the middle an interpretive dance was performed behind this back-lit screen, which was then lit on fire and the red-spandex-clad performer leapt through the burning structure (and then immediately put on a giant coat).

Brandon was losing feeling in his feet when they (thankfully) lit the largest 3 structures on fire all at the same time as the finale.  This diatom was one of the ‘big ones’:

Continuing on in our Lapland adventures and experiences, one of the other Fulbrighters came for a visit and accompanied Brandon and myself up to Kevo for my November sampling event.  Lesley is a museum curator in St. Paul, MN in ‘real life’, and is working with a trio of museums in Helsinki during her Fulbright tenure.  She was particularly interested in the Sámi people, so Inari and Utsjoki were perfect, because they’re on the short list of Finnish strongholds for Sámi people and culture.  So one car rental and crash-course (thankfully, not literally) in snow/ice-driving later, we were on our way – the drive should take about 6-7 hours, but I was driving quite slowly because of the road conditions, and we were stopping whenever anything looked even remotely interesting.

My field day was interesting, mostly because I underestimated the snow and the not-sampling-related logistics. I forgot 2 very important tools when I set out to sample: (1) a snow shovel to make myself a parking space along the side of the highway, and (2)  some snowshoes to save me from quicksand-style sinking into the thigh-deep snow during the 300-yard walk through the forest out to the boardwalks.

Note to self (and all readers): ramming a front-wheel drive compact car into a 2-ft high snowbank does not a parking space make… Thankfully, Finns are awesome, and when my admittedly-idiotic plan to create a parking space by repeatedly ramming my tiny car into a 2-foot high snowbank ended in ¾ of my car sticking out into the highway while my front tires were spinning and stuck, the very first person who drove past stopped to help!  And they were smart enough to have a snow shovel with them.  They didn’t speak any English, so I stiltingly communicated that I was an American researcher at Kevo who needed to park for the entire day, at which point they just started frenetically shoveling out a parking space.  The couple, who were in their 70’s, refused to let me help with the shovel – I suppose I had already proven that I am an imbecile, but I was seriously concerned that my parking space creation was going to cause lasting health effects, so I starting ‘helping’ by digging with my hands.  What I wouldn’t give to have been a Finnish-speaking fly inside their car after this encounter….

So I eventually get parked, thank my saviors, and start off towards my site – this is when I realize my mistake in not bringing snow shoes.  I’m not in super great shape at this point, but I had to stop every 5 yards to catch my breath with all the high-stepping snow trudging I was doing.  It was also quite chilly (-16°C) and after the delay of my arrival antics, I only had 2 of my 6 hours of sampling when the sun was out (there’s only 4 hours of light at this point anyway).

The snow, frost and horizon-bound sun were all really pretty, though.

Field day survived, on Saturday we set out for Utsjoki village, where we hung out at the coffee shop/thrift store/local art gallery for a while, and then found the most amazing thing ever!  Utsjoki is a really small town (population: 0.25 people/km2), so brick and mortar businesses are thin on the ground, especially during the winter season. So it’s not so strange that we found a traveling store (an 18-wheeler parked in the town hall parking lot) – but it was a craft store!!  How awesome is that?  After picking up some wintertime crafting supplies, we made the short trip over the Teno river into Norway!  Here is me and Lesley, who actually took the time to learn a few phrases in Norwegian special for our excursion over the border.

We briefly thought about doing a short hike, but the snow was a little deep on the trail – we did stop to pose with the stick statues at the trail head, where Brandon bravely prevented a reindeer from being devoured by a fox…

And then we headed to the village pub, where we shared the surprisingly-delicious special: reindeer and lingonberry pizza!

Earlier that day I had gotten a tip from one of the Kevo dudes that there would be ‘Porobingo’ (translation: reindeer bingo) at the elementary school that afternoon.  Lesley and I saw this as an opportunity to practice our Finnish number comprehension, and Brandon had to come because there was nowhere else to go.  We ran into what we estimated was the entire village population, and played 2 hours of bingo – our ears for numbers improved, but we did not ever win.  The grand prize was, in fact, a very nice amount of the best part of the reindeer (the lower back and rump).  Proceeds went towards a field trip for the school to visit Helsinki, so all these losses weren’t really sad.

Before we left Kevo, Nikko and Ilkka brought me the largest single purchase I’ve made in Finland: half a reindeer!  It was dead and semi-butchered (I neither watched it die, nor ever saw it with skin on), and conveniently placed in large plastic bags and a box.  This was a half of a yearling reindeer, so it was only 12 kilograms (about 26 pounds).  Skip the next few photos if you’re at all squeamish!

We just left it in the car on the 2-day trip back to Rovaniemi (safe because it was below freezing outside), and then Brandon and I spent 5 hours butchering the 5 pieces we were given (back leg, front let, ribs, neck and back) into a mound of different cuts and purposes:

This was really hard, and messy – I later found gore and connective tissue in some strange places on our clothing and bodies…  By the end we were much better at the butchering, producing almost normal-looking cuts. :)

But I think it might have been Brandon’s favorite part of his Finnish experience so far (it certainly beat when I made him pose for a photo with Santa), so money well spent.

And that brings up to Thanksgiving!  Because I chose the most awesome place to do a Fulbright, the Finnish Fulbright Center sponsored an American Thanksgiving and festivities in Helsinki!  So down south Brandon and I went on the train (Brandon’s first European train trip).  The Fulbright Center had arranged for a scholar of African Higher Education to give a lecture (Brandon asked a question during Q&A), and then we had a private tour of Parliament, complete with a super fancy, 3-course lunch with the head of the Grand Committee (this is one of the largest and most important committees in Finnish Parliament – the one that deals with EU stuffs), who we peppered with so many questions that she barely got a chance to eat her food.  After Parliament, we visited the Kiasma, Finland’s national modern art gallery.  Here’s Brandon standing next to ‘Babel’ an installment of all-turned-on radios.  Feel lucky I didn’t take a video…

Then we headed over to the apartment of one of the Fulbright Distinguished Chairs (because when professors get Fulbright grants, they come with sweet apartments), where we did what you’re supposed to do on Thanksgiving: watch football, drink and eat until you’re sick from one or the other.  I chose food.  :)

We stayed for an extra two days in Helsinki so Brandon and I could explore the capital a little.  On Saturday morning I dragged Brandon to a giant flea market, which was extraordinary!  And then I did maybe the coolest thing I’ve ever done as a scientist – I appeared as an ‘expert’ on the radio!  One of the Fulbrighters based in Helsinki is a free-lance reporter doing a project focusing on Finland’s response to climate change.  As part of her work, she’s started a science radio show on a local radio station, and she invited me to be a guest to talk about some of the more awesome microbes I study in my dissertation project.  Here’s us walking into the station:

Lesley (and Brandon) gamely served as the ‘laugh track’:

And here’s the setup, where Rae Ellen sat in the sound booth with the fancy board of buttons and knobs, and I got friendly with a number of foam-covered microphones.

I was a little awkward (hence the sad face below), and I tend to ramble when I talk about my work, but she was amazing at asking me questions that brought me back around to the cool and relevant parts.  She also recorded the show, edited out some of my ‘ummm’-ing, and posted it to her blog, so if you’re so inclined, you can hear what we talked about!

Before we left Helsinki, on Sunday afternoon we went to the official “opening of the Christmas season”, where the city turns on all the twinkly lights and Santa makes an appearance.  We were joined by Kate, another Fulbrighter who lives in Helsinki.  We ate roasted chestnuts, “Christmas porridge”…

The porridge is drenched in a syrup made with raisins:

…and drank glögi (mulled berry juice).  And you know you’re in Finland when Santa’s conveyance is shared with giant Angry Birds…

Now we’re back in Rovaniemi, where we need to start making a dent in that mound of reindeer meat – Brandon calculated that we have to eat some every 3 days to finish it in the next 2 months.  ‘Heipa-hei anemia!’ (that’s Finnish for ‘bye bye anemia!).

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