Our readers share tales of their ramblings around the world.
Who: Kerry Korpi (the author) and her husband, Nathan Seppa, both of Silver Spring, Md.
Where, when, why: We went to Finland for three weeks, from mid-February to early March. We are from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where many Finnish immigrants, including our ancestors, settled more than a century ago. We grew up eating Finnish foods and following some Finnish customs. We heard the old folks speak Finnish and learned a random smattering of words ourselves. (Knowing how to say “trouser cuffs” or “the hairs on the back of your neck” isn’t too handy, unfortunately.) We had never been there ourselves, and wanted to see “the old country.”
Highlights and high points: Much of Finland felt like Upper Michigan — woods, rivers, and lakes ringed by small cabins with saunas. But the Arctic was something else altogether. As you go north, the population gets sparser. Reindeer really do lumber across roads, nestle in the snow and move in herds guided by Sami ranchers. Trees get sparser, then disappear altogether. Instead of flora, we saw a sky that never ended. On a clear night, we saw the Aurora Borealis living up to its reputation. The daytime sky doesn’t have a reputation but it should. During the day, at that latitude, the flat Arctic light gives the sky an otherworldly, melancholy lavender hue that’s impossible to capture in pictures or words. You could freeze staring at it — and we almost did.
Cultural connection or disconnect: We wanted to try dog-sledding. The nice Finnish proprietor asked casually why we were going in the evening. As Americans, we’re not used to subtlety so we didn’t realize she was recommending against it. Dog sledding at night is even colder than during the day. You also don’t see much. It’s also a bone-jarring ride. What’s more, day or night, riding behind sled dogs shares some drawbacks with, say, riding behind a horse, if you get my drift — interesting visuals and a fragrant journey. We checked that experience off of our list and were cured of any desire to be pulled by animals in the future.
Biggest laugh or cry: It’s true the Finns are a reticent bunch, which can be pretty funny. We went to the World Nordic Games in Lahti. The peppy emcee at the ski-jumping tournament was doing a good job of working the crowd up between jumps. But then he asked people to pose for the Kiss Cam. He even staged a shot of two kissers on the big screen. At any American sporting event, the crowd would be competing for the sloppiest public display of affection. That was not the case in Finland — just 25,000 people looking at their shoes. Although awkward at first, all reserve was cast aside later when a tango band started playing in the expo hall. Finns packed the dance floor in snow pants and boots and danced some steamy tango. That reserve also melted away, so to speak, at the public sauna in Helsinki. Swimsuits were not the norm in the separate baths for men and women. Fortunately, they were the norm outside, where we dipped into the Baltic Sea.
As for a cry, memories of the Finnish-Soviet Winter War of 1939 are inescapable. Every cemetery had a distinct section for war dead. The memorial to the Winter War has 105 bells for each day it lasted and an enormous field of boulders for the Finnish and Soviet soldiers who died. Getting into the trenches in February was chilling even in our warm clothes, knowing we would sleep in a comfortable bed. Finns are proud of that war. They lost, but they fought fiercely and honorably against formidable odds. The wry Finnish sense of humor came through when we asked one man to reflect on giving up a tenth of Finland to an aggressor that started the war. He shrugged and said, “I guess Russia wasn’t big enough.”
How unexpected: It’s no surprise that Finns don’t fear winter — they live in a Nordic climate, after all. What was a surprise is how enthusiastically they embrace it. There are paths along most roads and on frozen rivers and lakes. They are well-used no matter how cold or windy, day and night, with people walking, skiing, skating, riding on kick-sleds or pushing baby buggies. Kids were out riding bikes and sliding down any incline they could find. The Scottish comedian Billy Connolly once said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothes.” He must have been to Finland, as we felt like wimps.
We were also pleasantly surprised to see how accommodations for kids are built into Finnish life. Public buildings, business establishments, events like the Winter Games all had clever and cozy spaces where kids could run, play or just relax. We were tempted to try some of them out ourselves.
Favorite memento or memory: There’s a Finnish word — “sisu” — that has no English equivalent but roughly translates as grit or resilience, or some might say plain old stubbornness, and it’s an essential part of Finnish identity. We saw sisu in Finns’ embrace of the winter weather. We also felt it in the tributes to the Winter War, and realized that we had seen it in the immigrants of our grandparents’ generation. Like immigrants today, they left their homes, their families and hard times and didn’t know what they would find in America. They faced suspicion and bigotry, and in spite of it all, embraced their new country and built a life for themselves and their descendants here. We are grateful that they did, and eternally grateful for their sisu.
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