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.  :)

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