Silence and Noise

There are a few key areas in which the Finnish and I are in complete sync.  The summer cabins are one example.  As is their love and respect for free time and outdoor activities.  And as with all compatibility, there are definitely specific moments when this simpatico appears in a distilled form.  One such moment was earlier this week when I did a ‘town run’ to Utsjoki.  Because the town is quite far away (30km), and we’re all tree-hugging scientists here at the field station, there is a weekly communal trip to town in the station’s 8-passenger minivan.  There’s a signup sheet, so the driver knows who’s coming, and because when the station is full, there are more than 7 potential passengers.  This late in the season, space in the van isn’t a problem.  Anyways, we hit both of the village grocery and supply stores (distinguished as the ‘small’ and ‘big’ stores), and then the public library.

Outside of the public library, there was a small table and informative cardboard sign nestled up to the sidewalk, manned by a handful of children approximately 7-10 years old.  In this Finnish version of a lemonade stand, they were selling WAFFLES!!  Seriously?!  Was I born in the wrong country, or what?  For the low, low price of 1€, you were the recipient of an outdoor-temperature (cold), thin and floppy waffle (höpöttää), and given the option of smearing it with lingonberry jam (duh!).  One could also enjoy a small cup of kahvi (coffee) from a thermos.  We bought them out.  I don’t have the language skills to know what the handmade sign said, so I don’t know if we helped fund some specific activity, or if we were just a cog in the wheel of young capitalism (I’m thinking of a certain niece of mine that likes to try to sell lemonade for $50 a glass…).  Nevertheless, the waffle was scrumptious, and it gives me an added possible dimension to my future as a reindeer taco truck entrepreneur in Finnish Lapland.  “Would you like a coffee and waffle with that reindeer taco?”  I think I’m on to something here…

Finns are well known as a quiet lot – they’re self-proclaimed lovers of peace and quiet, which they call ‘rauha’ (rau-hah) and ‘hiljaisuus’ (heli-aye-suess) in reverential tones.  This respect for ‘rauha’ (peace) manifests in a myriad of ways, from not talking on public transport, to a hesitancy to call people on the telephone lest they disturb their own or others’ rauha.  Rauha is also a legitimate excuse for not answering phone calls, as well – it’s not uncommon for someone to leave their cell phone ringing, preserving the delicate illusion of not always being reachable.  Busy tones and voicemail come standard in the ‘peace’ package, did you know?  I met a professor in Helsinki who is actually writing an academic article on the subject of how the fast-paced, über-connected nature of cell phones is being integrated into Finnish culture and their perhaps overinflated self-identification as ‘quiet’ and ‘not good at verbal communication’.

I have seen the full gradient of ‘quietness’ with people here (there are chatty people everywhere, don’t let them tell you different), but I do feel less verbal communication in my interactions here.  Casual greetings are often conducted entirely non-verbally, with none of the fly-by conversations that I’m used to.  You can get through an acknowledgement of acquaintance, and an implicit measuring of ‘okayness’ with one-second of eye contact and perhaps a nod.  It makes me wonder why I’m so comfortable yelling ‘hey, how’re you doing? what’s up?’ while passing people I know in the street.  Why do I start this conversation, given that I don’t even break stride, but rather I only ever expect to hear a floating, disembodied ‘fine, thanks, and you?’ from behind me, which I will often not even bother answering, depending on walking speed.  If you ask someone here ‘mitä kuuluu?’ (how’re you doing?), it’s not the same as in the states.  Here it’s not a passing greeting, to which only your family and best friends will ever NOT say ‘fine, thanks’.  Here it’s a serious entreaty for information, because if you’re all the way to verbal communication, you’re really interested in the answer.

Perhaps predictably, the silence here is a balm to me.  My husband often despairs of my lack of verbal communication, never letting my completely honest excuse of ‘I just don’t feel like making noise’ fly with him.  I have found a literal haven of quietude here.  It’s not unusual, or even remarked upon, if I don’t say anything for the entire 25 minutes I sit at a meal table with 8 other people.  I’m in good company in my quiet contemplation.  This is not to say that gatherings are silent affairs, far from it.  Like I said, the whole spectrum is present, but there’s an imbalance towards the muted, and a conscious acceptance of it as well.  Combined with my underwhelming Finnish language mojo, my vocal chords might be taking a sabbatical this year….

On to the noise!  I have some kickin’ timing, because I made it to Kevo 4 days before the appearance of an annual concert tour winding around northern Finland, ending each year in Utsjoki!  This is the concert ticket, which was also the same design as the flier/posters.

When I was first invited to go by the Kevo station manager, I was told there were 5 bands performing.  I was also told that last year they actually had famous ones participate, not that I’m up on my Fennoscandian rock bands or anything.  This year was less star-studded, but there are very few excuses for Lappish nightlife, so I was advised to grab it with both hands.  Here’s the group that went:

As serious as Finns are about peace and silence, they might be even more serious about their booze.  The concert started at 9pm, and so after the Saturday sauna time at the station, we quickly tried to reduce our eventual bar tab by boozing it up whilst getting gussied up.  There is a German woman staying in my house, and her contribution did the most damage, I’m convinced.  It’s the ‘Mirabell’, which is apparently a fruit something like an apricot that they make into this sickly sweet bottled hangover in the southwestern part of Germany.  I contributed a flask of Honey Jack Daniels, and the Finnish women introduced us to Finland’s unofficial national beverage, the Leijona.  Leijona is ‘salty licorice’ liquor, and it tastes a lot like cough syrup, but saltier and more licorice-y… The nutella was there for when we all got ravenously hungry, and because it’s yummy and European.  See?  This was a purely cultural exchange experience!

The concert started outside, with the bands all together in a semi-circle playing their instruments, and then someone lit these symbol posts, and then spat liquor onto them in time to the music for a couple of minutes.  Strangely mesmerizing….

Then there was a musical procession back into the bar…

And all 5 bands took the stage together!  I had actually been somewhat concerned about the combination of a 5-band lineup and a 9pm start time (I’m not sure if I was ever young enough for that kind of rocking).  It did make for quite the crowded stage, and I couldn’t seem to get them all into a single picture (there’s band members off further to the left).  I had also prepared myself for death metal, or at least ‘black metal’ (brandon assures me there’s a difference).  What I got was a lot more jazzy.  One of the bands, 22-Pistepirkko (this means ’22 little fish’), actually sang all their songs in English, and they sound a little like early Wilco.  There was also a Tanzanian man (one of the men singing in the shot below), whose songs were comforting in their familiarity for me.  There was a whistle used, which made me happy.

This is Heini, who is a graduate student in Oulu here in Finland.  She studies berries!  She will feature prominently in my future post on berries.  She is also the Finn who lives in my house.  Heini and I were having a great time.  We were here extolling the virtues of water drinking (try not to notice my apple cider I’m hiding in the background).

And then there was an arm-shot of me, the German graduate student who plies us with devil booze (aka: Constance), and Ilkka, one of the station researchers.

The concert lasted about 4 hours, and the different bands played their own songs in a sort of round-robin, but each song had been adjusted so that everyone played and just the singers switched out.  The place was hopping!  There were a few dedicated dancers in the front, who were eventually given a wide berth within which to flail, and there were 2 camera people filming the whole time in what looked like a rather official manner.  It also took me all night long to realize there were no women in these bands!

I’m including one last shot of the stage because you can see a few of the audience members in rather distinctive dress.  The first is a man on the left and in the front, who’s rocking a Russian-looking fur cap, and wearing an unidentified flag as a cape.  We are actually straddling the Russian and Norwegian borders here in northeastern Lapland, so this might not actually be completely unfounded conjecture.  And then skip a girl, and the woman in the front on the right is wearing a traditional Saami hat and flannel poncho, for lack of better descriptors.  Utsjoki is the area of Finland which boasts the largest concentration of the Saami nation.  More on this later, but suffice it to say for now that they have a very distinctive traditional dress, partly shown here in the high, starched and flap-eared red hat.

So I’ve had a fair share of both silence and noise so far here in Finland, both of which are extremely enjoyable.  I suggest you not answer your ringing cell phone every so often.  See if it gives you some rauha…

6 thoughts on “Silence and Noise

  1. Interesting analysis of “peace and quiet”. One of my field assistants this summer was from Hawaii and went to Finland on an exchange in high school. She interpreted the “lack of verbal communication” as “cold and standoffish” rather than valuing other’s personal sense of peace. But I guess in Hawaii everyone is super open and talkative, so it was a bit of culture shock for her.

    I love the cultural exchange! Nothing like trading booze for getting to know another country…

  2. I wonder if (the quiet thing ) is one of the reasons that Finland has sometimes been seen as even less welcoming of southern immigrants than other Scandanavian countries. You haven’t spent much time with me in Athens yet, but I spend a non-trivial amount of time being chased down the street by my African students, preceded by a bellowing “Dr. Brandon!” and ending in a rather vigorous handshake. I’m even more of a natural introvert than you are, but I’ve always enjoyed the warm, enthusiastic greetings of most African societies. I’ll definitely miss it when I come to visit in October.

  3. Flask!!!!!!!!!!!!! :D glad it’s going to good use! Let us know if you need a re-up on any honey JD while yr far from the source!!

  4. I never thought I would say this… but reading your blog makes me miss the facebook ‘Like’ button. Because if this was all on facebook I would give the digital thumbs-up vote of approval.
    But maybe ‘liking’ is a step away from intentional, considered verbal communication and a movement toward the brief, fleeting ‘oh yeah, hey, fine’. This way I have to choose my words and selectively comment (or just use many words to indiscriminately comment on everything).
    Liking certainly can feel superficial.
    But verbal or not – resounding thumbs up to you and all loud and silent fun you’re having. Love and miss you!

  5. Ok. Last thing I will say … because it’s hilarious.

    I just got rapped on the knuckles by your blog. It told me:

    ‘You are posting comments too quickly. Slow down.’

    It seems it is adopting those Finnish values.

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