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Not a single to-go cup . . .

After a few days walking the streets of Helsinki, I began noticing something strange . . . whether people are walking, driving, or taking public transportation, there is a conspicuous lack of travel mugs, to-go cups, and those huge Dunkin’s iced coffees. I saw a water bottle here and there, and more than a few cans of beer or cider consumption in the parks (it is legal after all), but no coffee.

IMG_1106Yet the coffee here is some of the best I’ve had; plus, Finland leads the world in coffee consumption per capita; some studies claim the average Finn drinks up to a liter and a half a day. That’s a staggering 50 ounces, an amount made more astounding since they’re not consuming it on the go. I set out to determine how, where, and why the Finns manage to drink so much.

  1. Prohibition. When Finland gained independence from Russia in 1917 (Happy 100th Birthday Free Finland!), the new government wanted freedom not just from Russian rule, but also Russian vodka. Alcohol was banned, and while the country dealt with a similar period of lawlessness like America did during almost the same time, prohibition also gave rise to coffee culture where guests were treated to coffee rather than booze or beer.
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    Even giraffes at the Zoological Institute of Helsinki drink coffee.

    Friends in High Places. Rumor has it that Urho Kekkonen, Finland’s president from 1956-1982 (yes, that is ridiculously long to be “president,” but that’s a topic for another time), pushed legislation through regulating that coffee beans be more lightly roasted, and thus less bitter than the dark-roasted Russian beans Finns had been forced to drink thus far. Even Henry Kissinger mentions Kekkonen’s love for coffee in his memoirs, while also claiming Brezhnev hated the stuff. Cold War or Coffee War?

  3. Water. Finland is renowned for terrific water. There are even signs in public bathrooms letting you know it’s okay to drink the tap water; it’s that good. Anyone who makes coffee on their own knows how vital it is to begin with good water.
  4. Treats. As coffee became part of the fabric of Finnish life, kahvi ja pulla (coffee and a bun) became a standard in the workplace, when hosting guests at home, and now in the cafe. Pastries I’ve tried thus far are the korvapuusti, which is a tidy little cinnamon bun, and the mustikkapiirakka (yes, I just pointed when I requested that one in the cafe), which is basically a blueberry kolache or danish. Yum.
  5. Cafés Instead of Take Aways. There are even more cafés within walking distance than there are record shops, and people linger with their coffee instead of just refueling on the run. While it might have more to do with summertime–maybe in winter everyone carries a to-go mug for warming the fingers as well as the belly–I prefer to think it has more to do with taking the time to enjoy a cup (or 10) and relaxing before the caffeine kicks in.

So I’ve determined Finns don’t need travel mugs because they prefer savoring a drink they’ve spent more than a century perfecting. . . and I also have determined that I both endorse and hope to emulate their efforts. Kippis!

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IMG_1139The entryway to our apartment in Helsinki has a plaque to the left of the door, which reads:

Blueslengenda Eddie Boyd

asui ässä talossa

vuosina 1971-1994

(Blues legend Eddie Boyd lived in this house from 1971-1994)

At first I confused Boyd in my head with Eddie Floyd, who sang one of my favorite soul tunes from the sixties, “Big Bird,” but Eddie Boyd was a Mississippi bluesman signed with the famous Chicago Chess Records who played with Chess greats Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, and who later toured with Waters, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and the early, more bluesy, incarnation of Fleetwood Mac (thanks YouTube and Wiki).

downloadWhy move to Finland? Any American who reveres the blues knows that however dedicated we are to this music, Europeans have proven more dedicated, particularly with their wallets, and particularly when it comes to African-American blues artists. Boyd’s move to Finland in 1971 was in part financial—he could make a living as an artist—but he also said he moved to escape the racism of America. A shameful truth. And while there is audio of Boyd playing his hit, most YouTube versions are from Eric Clapton, John Mayer, et al.

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I admit to feeling a collective guilt that Boyd had to move to Finland for respect and income, but I also feel staying where he lived was an auspicious beginning to the trip, reinforced by the fun and fantastic music I’ve heard from the apartment window since we arrived. There are two charming and different bars within earshot, and they both represent just some of the musical delights Finland has to offer.

The first is Tenho, a low-key and classy club, and second is Tennka, a dive karaoke bar. Both are directly across the street from the apartment, separated only by an Alko shop, the state-owned liquor store. This means there’s almost always activity inside and also outside, with people openly drinking from pints of vodka or very large cans of beer (here they’re called long drinks instead of tall boys).

The first night, I heard the most amazing music coming from Tenho. I’d seen the band unloading their gear from a taxi the afternoon we arrived and I was intrigued. Keyboard, drums, trumpet, gargantuan bass. What were they up to? Unable to sleep, I was transfixed by the Chet Baker infused jazz that came through my window later that night. The horn was so amazing, I looked them up the next day. Kudos to trumpeter Mikko Karjalainen and the Gunu Jazz Quartet.

IMG_1121The next night? Classic rock karaoke from Tennka, where I listened from my window and played name that tune to a group of guys singing at the top of their lungs. Karaoke is super popular in Finland, not just in bars throughout the country, but even some libraries as well.  From across the street I could easily make out an eclectic set list: “Born To Be Wild,” “Let The Sun Shine In,” and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” The Finns have a reputation for being even more reserved than us folks from New Hampshire, and that’s definitely been my experience thus far, but just like the Northeast, you give us a beer or three and some good tunes and we can let loose.

But it’s not just the sing-a-long that’s huge here–Helsinki really takes music to the next level. Just within a few blocks of the apartment I’ve come across no less than five used record and CD shops, two large shops selling instruments and sheet music, and one shop that specializes in custom-built amplifiers.

However, the most terrific music discovery I made came from TV; the apartment has the Finnish version of basic cable, which basically means there’s a lot of American and British and Finnish reality TV, Scandinavian crime shows, and then a weird hodgepodge of old movies, music, and documentaries. After a show that I’m pretty sure was about Finnish furniture design, then a documentary on British band The Jam, I came across an open-air concert of the Ricky-Tick Big Band, a Finnish group that plays a crazy wonderful mix of hip-hop jazz that completely took me by storm. Holy Moly these guys are fun. I think Eddie Boyd (and for that matter Eddie Floyd) would approve.

IMG_1036Why Finland? Many friends asked this question when I shared where Emi and I would be for a large part of our summer. Frankly, as soon as I arrived, I only wish I’d thought to come sooner! Finland is fantastic, for reasons I hope this, and future dispatches, will delve into more fully.

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First, Emi is studying linguistics at UNH; through her I have glimpsed the marvelous way that languages overlap and evolve. Second, while Emi has formally studied French, German, and Japanese, she also has long been interested in the culture and languages of Scandinavian and Nordic countries; without me, Em has traveled to Iceland, Norway, and Denmark. When Emi said she wanted to travel to Finland, in part to attend Worldcon, the 75th World Science Fiction convention, I decided this time I would tag along.

downloadMany of you are probably familiar with Comic-Con International, held every year in San Diego, best known as the place where rabid fans can geek out to the creators, actors, and artists who produce the multimedia starring whichever comic book characters they most connect with. Costumes are encouraged.

images-2Worldcon is similar, and there’s a lot of overlap, but the focus is intended to be on the art forms–film, graphic novels, literature, games (both board and computer)–that fall under the science fiction/fantasy umbrella. Yeah, that covers a LOT. Game of Thrones, Dungeons and Dragons, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the cheesetastic Supernatural, plus Tolkien, Le Guin, L’Engle,  . . . the offerings are wonderfully endless. And yes, costumes are encouraged.

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A Finnish genderbent Doctor Who – her scarf took a month to make.

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A group cosplay of the webcomic Scandinavia and the World, which anthropomorphizes the world’s nations.

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Two blacksmiths from Oulu, Finland showcase their weapons. After hours, the forge is used to barbecue ribs.

Having only been to literature conferences, most of which were somewhat dry and uptight (no costumes because we take ourselves oh, so seriously), I have loved going with Emi and wandering around the venue with people who don’t just read these books and watch these shows, they shamelessly devour them. I’m not an attendee so only Em is going to panels–with names like “On the Care and Feeding of Secondary Characters,” and “Golems and Flying Carpets,” and a film showing and discussion of Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues, where the featured speaker was David Peterson, the linguist who created Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones. Check out the trailer, and not just for Jason Momoa:


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/219368643″>Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues trailer</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/conlanging”>Conlanging</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Next year’s Worldcon is in San Jose, California; I’m thinking that gives me a whole year to work on my Captain Kathryn Janeway costume. . . until then I’ll leave you with Emi’s creation: Nausicaä from Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; she’s posing with Worldcon mascot, Major Ursa. Yes, of course puns are encouraged as well as costumes.

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Hello from Helsinki!  It took about twelve solid hours for Emi and me to get from New Hampshire to our little apartment on Helsinginkatu Street, and once we had some much-needed shut-eye, we headed out for supplies.

We began at the open-air Hakaniemi Market, about a 10-minute walk away; markets like these are scattered throughout the city and are generally open at least a couple times a week. A few stalls are creperies and cafes, a few sell knick-knacks and souvenirs, and the rest sell bread, cheese, and the most delightful produce.

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My first discovery, which you can see here nestled between berries and sugar snap peas, is that my favorite mushroom, the chanterelle, is considered the national mushroom of Finland. The wonderfully mild and delicate chanterelle can be foraged from New Hampshire forests, but they are rare–I still remember the one time I found a tiny cluster while hiking in North Sandwich near my friend Holly’s cabin. Hadn’t seen them in the wild before, haven’t seen them since.

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So I usually forage for chanterelles from my favorite mushroom hunters at the NH Mushroom Company when I get up to the farmer’s market in Tamworth, and their rarity means they tend to go for more than $20 a pound. In Finland they cost half that, and they’re EVERYWHERE. Even better, I discovered that research is underway at Aalto University in Helsinki to cultivate chanterelles, a feat previously considered impossible! NH Mushroom Co., will you please try next?

It was when I checked out the S-Market grocery store without the consult of my linguist daughter, that imagesmy illiteracy in Finnish took its toll. Buying produce, bread, and cheese is fairly straightforward; what you see is what you get. Walking the aisles of the S-Market, there was a smattering of English, but more often I was relegated to deciphering the pictures on the package or the etymology of the words, with limited success. As my linguist daughter could tell you, this has much to do with the fact that, unlike English, Finnish is neither Germanic nor Latinate so there’s not a lot of overlap. Here’s the start of my market basket:

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I started off easy: the puddings were English, the salad container had pictures of cuke slices, and I picked out the word risotto on the middle package, so I figured I’d be okay. And with the exception of the risotto also containing lemon and chicken (thankfully I’m not veg) and the cuke salad being pickled rather than fresh, I was okay. With the below items however, I went slightly awry.

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The top left package has a tasty picture of what I thought was some version of pad thai–rice noodles, peas, and little chunks of tofu in what I imagined would be a savory fusion-type tomato sauce. However, the box contained only tofu chunks, with some kind of Italian-based seasoning as far as I could tell. Emi figured the picture was a suggestion of what one could make with the little basil-infused tofu bits.

And no, the bottom left package is not butter, but some butter-type product, which, if I hadn’t been so jet-lagged, I might have known due to the fact that butter does not have those healthy Omegas, just good ole butterfat, which is why I like it. Actually, though, it’s pretty tasty–much better than any margarine I’ve had. Any guesses for bottom right? Pita bread? WRONG. It is fried cheese with a tiny container of cloudberry jam, which I might have suspected since I did buy it from the cold case, though the cold case was directly across from the bread! So close and yet so far away!

For the rest of our stay, whether in the grocery or the cafe, I plan to cultivate a healthy anticipation for the unknown and play Finnish Food Roulette. Just this morning, Emi and I had breakfast at the Cafe Cardemumma where the only word on the menu I recognized was latte (other than cardemumma, of course, which I sincerely hope is cardemom). So I ordered a latte, then pointed to one of the three specials, not quite brave enough to sound anything out.

WP_20130606_004“Oh, I’m sorry,” the barista said, brilliantly intuiting I spoke no Finnish, “we’re all out of the porridge.” Ah, porridge, I thought, that’s what that was. I pointed to the next special on the list. “Omelette?” she said. “With?” “Ham?” I said, “cheese?” “Both?” she asked, and I panicked. Was it improper to order more than one filling for an omelette in Finland? Was I over the top? “Yes?” I said meekly. “Okay then,” she answered, then took Emi’s order of salmon quiche (quiche is quiche is quiche no matter what language you speak apparently).

Our breakfast was delicious, the latte the best I’ve ever had, in part due to my gratefulness at the barista’s kindness and complete lack of condescension at my ignorant American helplessness. Emboldened by the wonderful food and invigorating latte, I tried out my first Finnish word on her when we left. “Kiitos,” I said. Thanks.