Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Christmas Goat

I can’t let Christmas pass by without a few words about Santa Claus.  Among Americans, there is a common misconception – at least as Finns would see it – that Santa resides at the North Pole.  Everyone in this country, however, knows the real story:  Saint Nicholas in fact lives in Finnish Lapland, and always has.  He makes his home at Korvatunturi, a remote fell (rounded, treeless mountain) that is close to the Russian border and not much else.  Deep in one of Finland’s largest national parks, with few roads nearby, Korvatunturi gives Santa the extreme privacy that, at least for eleven months out of the year, he obviously craves. 

The Finnish name for Santa is “joulupukki”, which if translated literally means “Christmas Goat”, or more precisely “Yule Goat” after the Nordic pagan holiday of Yule.  In keeping with his pagan background, joulupukki started off being much more naughty than nice.  The original joulupukki was an old man dressing as a goat, complete with horns, who went house to house demanding gifts and leftovers from the Yule feast.  Nowadays people might actually welcome someone taking all that excess ham and turkey off their hands after a bit of over-indulgent Christmas feasting. 

File:Santaandgoat.gifLike so many pagan customs, Yule and the goat that came to symbolize it were eventually absorbed -- or looking at it another way co-opted -- by Christianity to create the present-day celebration of a child born in the Middle East at a time when Finland had barely emerged from the Bronze Age.  Along the way, the Finnish joulupukki was transformed from a cantankerous goat-man into the familiar bearded, jolly old elf who today brings joy to children and retailers around the world. 

While Finns have happily adopted the American-style Santa, there are still differences in his modus operandi.  I don’t know what the practice is today in the States, but when I was a kid, we never saw Santa except in a department store, and only rarely then.  Santa visited our house in the dead of the night on Christmas Eve, deposited his presents under the tree while the whole household (or so we thought) was fast asleep, and left without a trace.  The secrecy of it only seemed to add to the magic of the whole enterprise. 

In Finland, most children come face to face with the old goat himself.  Maybe it helps that the journey from Korvatunturi is so short that when Santa drops by on Christmas Eve it's still well before bedtime, in fact, often soon after the Christmas dinner has just ended.  Funny how that works.

Joulupukki's visit is great theater for little kids, who excitedly wait for the jingle of a bell announcing his arrival, and are awe-struck when he comes through the door.  It’s also a good source of seasonal income for enterprising folks with the right costume, a flair for amateur acting, and a deep, jolly voice.  Not only does Santa simply carry in the bags of wrapped gifts, he also sits for a few minutes chatting with the children, who often treat him to a song or two.  Before he sets off again, he’s also sometimes treated to a toast by the father of the house, usually in the form of a “snaps” of vodka.  The obvious problem with this custom becomes apparent if a Santa is feted with a toast at each stop on his appointed rounds through the neighborhood so that over the course of the evening he gets jollier and jollier -- even to the point that it impairs his credibility as Santa.  Or his ability to drive.

Despite the unshakable certainty in the minds of Finns that Santa is a local boy, there are other claims to the contrary.  Norway and Sweden (which, with Finland and Russia, occupy parts of Lapland, the natural habitat of reindeer) also claim to be the natural habitat of Santa.  I think, however, that Finland has won the battle for world opinion.  Thanks to persistent marketing, or to the fact that Finland has the much stronger claim, many people around the world have come to believe Santa is a Finn. 

It is said that every year some 600,000 admirers in 150 countries send letters to Finland, addressed to Santa.  They are delivered to the small city of Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle, around which a local Christmas-themed cottage industry has sprung up, including Santa Claus Village and a special Santa Claus Post Office.  These attractions are completely dedicated to promoting the modern, heartwarming, and commercialized Santa, combined with the natural allure of exotic Lapland.

Rovaniemi isn’t really that close to joulupukki's traditional hideout, but it is in Lapland and, unlike Korvatunturi, it benefits from having an airstrip long enough to accommodate aircraft bigger than a reindeer-drawn sleigh.  Every December, charter flights from Britain and most other large western European countries arrive with planeloads of Santa tourists.  Back when the Concorde was still flying, British Airways used them to ferry UK tourist in and out of Rovaniemi on 8-hour visits to the land of Santa Claus. 

They might reconsider such trips after watching a new Finnish movie called “Rare Exports”.  The film, which certainly appeals to the quirky and somewhat dark sense of humor that Finns sometimes display, draws on the original myth of the Finnish joulupukki to tell a suspenseful tale about life in Santa’s home turf.  Watch it with care.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Today is one of the days I most look forward to during the year, in a perverse sort of way.  The Winter Solstice is when those of us on the northern half of the globe, get to enjoy – if you can use that word – the shortest day of the year.

Now, while this is true for anyone living north of the tropics, the Winter Solstice takes on a much greater significance the closer you get to the North Pole.  Sure, even in Florida or Los Angeles the sun will not hang in the sky today quite as long as it did yesterday, but who would ever notice?  It’s only up here in the far north that the true meaning of the solstice becomes so painfully clear.

Location does matter.  The further north you travel, the shorter the winter days become until, way past the Arctic Circle, the whole concept of “day” becomes moot.  Up there, for a couple of months, there isn’t any such a thing as “day”.

Luckily, here in Helsinki, about 700 kilometers (440 miles) below the Arctic Circle, we still have some hope of sunshine even on the shortest day of the year.  Theoretically, the sun rose this morning at 9:24 and will set less than six hours later at 15:24.  We’ll have to take the astronomers’ word for this, since we live under a semi-permanent cover of gray clouds that doesn’t allow us even the smallest glimpse of the sun.  What we are likely to get today is varying shades of gray light for a few hours before total darkness creeps in again.  Unfortunately – and especially so for those of us born in sunnier climes – these gray days are not exceptional.

Once in Georgia, after I had moved back there in the late 80s to study journalism, we had a spell of cloudy weather that lasted more than two days.  On the third day of completely overcast skies, my friends were about to pull their hair out, asking "Where is the sun?”  I couldn’t help but laugh and say:  “This is nothing.  This is nothing.”  It’s true:  here in Finland you can easily go two weeks without the sun ever penetrating the soup of clouds overhead.

An oddity about the solstice in Finland is that it often arrives a day later than it appears on American calendars, due to the time difference.  It seems that the exact moment the North Pole is pointed the farthest away from the sun (in other words, the solstice) occurred this year in the wee hours of this morning Finnish time, when it was still December 21st back in the States.   Who knew astronomy could be so complicated?

While I can’t claim to know that much about the stars, I do like looking up at them now and then.  That’s not something you can often do in Finland, and it’s something I especially miss about living in the States.

When they were small, our kids had the chance to enjoy a couple of classic summer activities on our yearly visits to my parents, activities that were denied them in Finland.  One was running around in the pasture trying to catch “lightning bugs” (fireflies).  The other was stretching out flat on our backs on my parents’ driveway, gazing at a sky full of stars like they never had seen before.  Sprawling side by side on concrete that was still warm from the heat of the day, we would take in the entire spectacle of the Milky Way, the constellations, the planets, the occasional meteor streaking overhead. 

Here in Finland, in summer (the flip-side of the dark winters), it’s never dark enough to see stars.  The most you get, even at midnight, is a bit of twilight.  And in winter, when it is undeniably dark enough to see stars, it’s either too cloudy or too cold.  Try standing in knee-deep snow, craning your neck at the heavens in -20 C weather and see how long it takes before you decide instead to go inside and marvel at the cosmos on the Discovery Channel. 

It’s this lack of sun and sky, and not the frigid climate, that has always been the part of the Finnish winter hardest for me to adjust to.  While winters here are cold, it’s not always as cold as you might think.  On any given winter day, it can even be warmer in Helsinki than in my hometown in the north Georgia mountains.  It does sometimes happen.  I can easily put up with the cold weather here – it’s the darkness that can sometimes be hard to take.  That’s why I get some perverse pleasure when the shortest and darkest day of the year finally arrives.  From here on, it’s all downhill.  Beginning tomorrow, the days start getting longer. 

Monday, December 20, 2010


My wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this past weekend.  It’s an important milestone, if for no other reason than it reminds us how long and rich our life has been together.  But to be honest, we haven’t often paid much attention to our anniversary. 

It’s not that we’re unhappy with our marriage – far from it.  It’s more that, when we paid a visit to the courthouse in Valdosta, Georgia, on that day 25 Decembers ago, it was a wedding of convenience, a kind of formality.  By that time, we had been living together in Finland for three years, cohabitating, if you will.  Some would perhaps say "shacking up".  And we had no special desire to change that situation. 

But as it happened, during a Christmas-time visit to the States, we started thinking about making honest people of each other.  The idea took root on the long drive back to Georgia from a camping trip in Big Bend National Park, on the border with Mexico. 

(Big Bend, by the way, is a great place to visit in winter – warm during the day, dramatic desert scenery, and not many people when we were there back in 1985.  In that more innocent age, there was even a spot on the Rio Grande across where you could pay a Mexican a dollar to row you across the river for a visit to an incredibly isolated village.  I suspect that’s not the case anymore.)

As we were driving back east across Texas, with a winter storm close on our heels, it occurred to us that a marriage license would come in handy if my (then future) wife wanted to apply for a green card.  As we toyed with the idea, we also realized that marrying a foreigner would be easier to arrange in the States than in more bureaucratic Finland. 

When we made it to Valdosta, where we were to spend a couple of days with my sister, we got hitched at an almost Las Vegas speed.  We had to wait only one day (for the results of our blood tests to affirm that neither of us was suffering from venereal disease) before showing up at the Lowndes County courthouse, where the Justice of the Peace, in the presence of my sister, pronounced us man and wife.  Then, freshly wed, we promptly drove out to the Okefenokee Swamp for a day of canoeing over black water trying spot alligators (it was too cold for them to show themselves).  We’ve always referred to this as our “honeymoon”. 

When I’ve described the glib approach we took to our “wedding”, some friends have been a bit horrified about now “unromantic” it sounds.  In a way, I suppose they’re right, but it didn’t matter to us.  (More importantly, it didn’t matter to my wife – I’m a lucky man that way.) 

By the time we got married we were already completely devoted and committed to each other.  To us, the ten-minute ceremony at the courthouse was just a formality.  And I still feel that way.  Without sounding too schmaltzy (or obvious) about it, I see our marriage as the life we’ve built together.  The marriage license, with its silhouette of a bride and groom right out of the 1950s and its official seal attesting to our “bond in holy matrimony”, is just a piece of paper. 

And yes, for so many of those legal necessities in life it is, of course, an important piece of paper.  I’m sure we would have eventually taken the step of getting married, and not only to smooth the path to legal residence in the States.  (It did help my wife jump through the hoops of obtaining a green card a few years later.) 

Our take-or-leave-it approach to official matrimony was not exactly groundbreaking.  I’m sure lots of married couples in America – maybe even in the pious South where I’m from – have lived together for some time before finally tying the knot.  But unless things have changed a lot in the last 30 years, there are huge pressures from society and family to keep such living arrangements under wraps.  Not to mention religious pressures. 

Finland, in keeping with its liberal Scandinavian tradition, has a much more relaxed and open attitude in these matters.  When I first came to live here, I was surprised how some long-time couples I knew had gotten married only when they started having kids, if they had bothered to get married at all.  The practice of delaying or forgoing marriage completely is still quite common today, with over 20% of families consisting of unmarried couples, including 18% of families with children.  One thing is certain:  there is no stigma attached here to couples cohabitating in a “common-law” marriage. 

A telling example is the current Finnish president, Tarja Halonen, who married her long-time partner only after winning the presidential election in 2000.  While she and her husband might not have been technically cohabitating (they were neighbors living in separate apartments), their 15-year relationship was a marriage in all but name and was completely public.  What’s more, Halonen has a grown daughter from a previous relationship that was never consecrated by marriage. 

It’s hard to imagine someone in the States being elected to the highest office in the land under those circumstances, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Finland who really cares. 

You may see this as either an enlightened attitude (I do) or an disturbing sign of moral decay, but most Finns don’t seem to give it much thought one way or the other.  I would like to think Finland’s more tolerate attitude toward marriage has resulted in divorce rates much lower than the often-quoted 50% rate in the US.  Sadly, that’s not the case.  The rate here is not much better, nor much worse.  When it comes to the regrettable tendency of some marriages to unravel while others endure, Finland and America have more in common than it might first appear.  

Thursday, December 9, 2010


During this past week, southern Finland has gotten a healthy heaping of snow, breaking a near-75-year record for this time of the year.  At our house we got a whopping 24 centimeters (9 inches) in one day, thankfully, all very dry powder, which made clearing it from the sidewalk and driveway fairly painless.  We have a full half-meter (foot and a half) of snow standing in our yard, so there’s no doubt we’ll have a white Christmas this year.  You might think that Helsinki, at the same latitude as Anchorage would never have to worry about something like that.  But you’d be wrong, at least in recent years. 

When I first came here in the early 80s the white stuff started falling around the end of November and wouldn’t melt until the end of March.  For almost four months, the mercury rarely got above freezing until – with the days rapidly growing longer – winter would finally break and the “big melt off” would begin.  Roads and sidewalks turned into broad swaths of sloppy (and very dirty) slush as the snow and ice melted to reveal a winter’s accumulation of road grime, assorted litter, and dog crap.  In our neighborhood, lots of dog crap.  And then after having to slosh through all that mess for about two weeks, it was over and spring started. 

That was then, the good old days.  In recent years, that cycle of snowing and melting has played out not just at the beginning and end of winter, but repeatedly throughout the season.  We might get a nice blanket of powdery snow, only to see temperatures rise two days later and the whole thing dissolve into a soup of deep slush during the day, which then freezes into treacherous icy terrain during the night.  When you suffer through several of these thaw-freeze cycles each winter, you quickly become nostalgic for the hard winters where it never got above freezing for months. 

These milder winters have gotten so bad that for three years in a row starting in 2006 Old Man Winter surprised us with the cheerless gift of a snowless Christmas.  I never thought that possible here.  Happily, the past two winters have switched back to the old style, with wintery scenery on December 25th worthy of Currier and Ives.  We had more than enough of snow last year, mountains of it, vast oceans of it in fact, that didn’t finally melt until mid-April. 

As you might expect, Finland is well equipped to handle all this snow, usually.  A typical winter experience here is waking to the sound of snowplows briskly scraping the streets and sidewalks clear of the previous night’s snowfall.  Sometimes that’s the first hint that it’s been snowing during the night.  Another typical experience is having to shovel a breach in the wall of snow at the end of your driveway left by the plow in its wake. 

In twenty-plus years I’ve lived here, I’ve learned a thing or two about shoveling snow.  And driving in slippery weather.  Needless to say, these are not skills I brought with me from Georgia, though I did have some experience with snow growing up. 

While it’s true that Georgia is nestled in the warm, moist bosom of the South, I come from the mountainous, northern part of the state, where snow in the winter wasn’t exactly rare.  When I was a kid, we had a chance every winter to build snowmen, sled in our pasture, and make “snowcream”.  I wonder if anyone else made snowcream.  In the morning after a typical one-inch (2.5cm) snowfall (and usually after the welcome news that there would be no school that day), we’d scoop up a pan-full of fresh snow, add vanilla extract, sugar, and a bit of milk – voilà “snowcream!” 

So, even in Georgia we knew how to have a good time in the snow.  Functioning normally, however, was another matter.  In 1982, when I was living in the college town of Athens, we had a storm that dumped maybe one inch of snow overnight.  The University of Georgia administration promptly closed the university.  For three days.  My future wife who as a seven-year-old in Finland had walked alone two and a half kilometers (1.5 miles) to school in temperatures of -30 degree (-22 F) couldn’t believe it. 

The university overreacted, to be sure, but there was a good reason to shut the school down for at least the first day:  many, maybe most, students drove to campus.  If you’ve watched young people with no experience with snow hell, for students from Florida hardly any experience even with frost trying to force their parent’s hand-me-down Pontiac up one of the hills in Athens on bald tires, you would agree that school officials were wise to do whatever they could to keep the kids off the streets.  What they couldn’t do, however, was prevent students with a unexpected day off from classes from looting lunch trays from the university cafeterias and turning them into pretty good substitutes for sleds.  They sure knew how to enjoy snow.  I even remember someone flying down the slippery slope of Baxter Hill in an aluminum canoe. 
Finns may know how to live with lots of snow, how to enjoy it, appreciate its beauty, even become blasé about it or completely fed up with the stuff by April.  But, when it comes to being truly excited by the wonder of it, they can’t match the reckless joy of some lucky pre-law undergrad from Miami who, during his first ever encounter with a little snow, somehow gets his hands on a canoe.  

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Last Sunday, my family celebrated Thanksgiving, which we do every year to give our children, growing up here in Finland, some familiarity with American holiday traditions.  The actual holiday was three days earlier on Thursday, but since it’s just us — one of the few families in Finland observing it — I feel we can take some liberties and move this feast to suit our schedule. 

Our version of the holiday is, in any case, a kind of “slimmed down” Thanksgiving, though “slim” and “Thanksgiving” aren’t two words that naturally go together.  Since there are only five of us - and since it’s me who is doing the cooking — it’s not an extravagant spread that we sit down to.  Instead of a boulder-sized bird, we make do with a one-kilo turkey roll, normally served with corn (what could be more American than corn?), and substituting cranberry sauce with the lingonberry jelly typically found in the far north and in IKEA stores around the world. 

While slicing up our turkey roll, I’ve made the point over the years of telling the kids the story of the first Thanksgiving.  I explain how the holiday celebrates the bountiful harvest that the agriculturally challenged Pilgrims — with not a green thumb among them — were able to enjoy after the local Indians saved them from certain starvation by showing how to grow native crops like corn and beans. 

As I hope every schoolchild in the US still learns, the Pilgrims were religious dissidents from England who fled to the shores of America in 1620 to find the freedom to practice religion as they saw fit.  They were a Protestant separatist congregation that had long suffered persecution in England for their Puritan beliefs that the Church of England was not protestant enough, smacking too much as it did of Catholicism.  Only by starting a new life in faraway America, the Pilgrims felt, could they truly separate from the English church. 

I spent some time this summer in New England, not far from Plymouth, Massachusetts, the site of the first Thanksgiving.  Because I was going to be a week in Rhode Island, I read up on the history of that tiny state, which I, and I bet most Americans, know precious little about. 

What struck me was how the first English immigrants to the future Rhode Island like the original Pilgrim settlers of Massachusetts itself were religious refugees  who were being persecuted in, wait for it, Massachusetts.  By 1636, the colony founded by Puritans separatists looking for religious freedom had essentially become a theocracy, in which religious dissent was not tolerated.

Now, as anyone familiar with the bloody saga of European history knows, this isn’t surprising at all.  It seems to be the nature of all religions to eventually splinter into different groups, which then become fierce enemies of one another.  A scene in the movie “The Life of Brian” illustrates this hilariously.  As a crowd of “followers” who have mistaken Brian as the messiah chase after him, he accidently loses a sandal and drops the gourd he was carrying.  The crowd instantly splits into two, one group venerating the gourd, the other the sandal.  As both groups begin to argue they completely lose track of their “messiah” Brian.

But back to Rhode Island.  A man named Roger Williams felt that his fellows Puritans of Massachusetts had not separated sufficiently from the Church of England, and he wouldn’t shut up about it.  He was ultimately forced to flee to what would become Rhode Island, where he founded a new community where, unlike in Massachusetts, the roles of church and state were kept separate.  Rhode Island became a haven for religious mavericks, like Quakers, and as early as 1658 was also giving sanctuary to Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. 

Meanwhile, Massachusetts authorities would only loosen their control over religion gradually, and not before hanging Quakers for the crime of, well, being Quakers, and independent women for the crime of being “witches”. 

The separation of church and state, conceived in Rhode Island, went on to become the model for all America, and is something that makes the US exceptional.  Naturally, religion has evolved differently in many countries like Finland, where it has been traditionally tied closely to the political establishment.  The most noticeable thing about religious life here is that, out of custom, almost everyone belongs to a church, but almost no one takes it seriously enough to step inside one more than once a year. 

That’s not to say that no one here believes in a deity.  Many, maybe most, probably do, at least in a casual way.  Nor does it mean that some Finns don’t have heartfelt religious beliefs – they just keep it to themselves for the most part.  It’s rare to hear Finns voluntarily express their religious feelings in the way that many Americans do.  This is an extremely secular society which, as someone who’s not religious at all, suits me fine. 

An old colleague of mine, a devout Catholic from the Boston area, had a theory about this lack of religiosity in Finland:  he wondered whether it was because there’s no separation of church and state here. 

There are two national churches here, Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox, both of which are part of the national government.  In practice, this mainly means that church members study religion in public school as a compulsory subject (not unlike algebra) and that the Finnish government collects a “church tax” of about 1% from all church members to fund church operations.  (There are also smaller, more-charismatic denominations that are not state-supported.) 

The church tax alone has been reason enough for many people who have no real religious feelings and belong to the church only because their parents had them baptized at the age of two months to leave the church altogether.  Nowadays you can do it on-line.  This year alone, tens of thousands of Finns have decided to separate from the Lutheran church for an entirely different reason.  The church’s position against gay marriage, which seems a bit out of step with this generally tolerant society, has prompted many of the younger parishioners to vote with their feet. 

It seems my friend from Boston might have been on to something.  While the US has a “free market” of churches that encourages a vibrant religious life, the “official” status of churches in Finland which can make faith just another part of citizenship, like voting, and easily taken for granted seems to encourage the opposite.  At least, it doesn’t seem to help. 

But maybe that’s only true in secular Europe.  There are many countries where state involvement in religion and strong religiosity do go hand in hand.  Iran comes to mind.  In any case, I think the “hands off” approach of government to religion in America is something that both believers and non-believers should be thankful for.  I know I am.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thankless outrage

One thing I’m grateful for this Thanksgiving holiday is that I’m not traveling in the States.  Already the busiest travelling time of the year, as people take to the road or the skies to gather for the traditional turkey dinner and equally traditional tense family situations, this year’s Thanksgiving is likely to take travel misery to new heights. 

It’s all because the new security measures by the Transportation Security Administration (the folks in blue gloves at US airports who x-ray your luggage and invite you to walk through metal detectors) have sparked outrage among the traveling public.  Or, at least, among a very vocal element of the traveling public. 

The measures in question are the new full-body x-ray machines that can peer beneath your clothing and the “enhanced pat-downs” where TSA agents gain a passing familiarity with your nether regions.  The outrage comes from folks who apparently want no part of either of these procedures.  The outrage was really unleashed two weeks ago when a passenger, John Tyner, “opted out” of the x-ray scan, apparently over his concerns about the safety of the scan.  He then refused to have his groin area patted down by a TSA agent saying, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested.”  He was not allowed to board his flight and escorted out of the airport.  And, of course, it was all videoed and shared on YouTube.

Supporters of Tyner have called for a “National Opt Out Day” today, encouraging air travelers to refuse to be scanned by the new equipment, and kicking off a huge storm of news reporting, blogging and loud gnashing of teeth.  It will be interesting to see how many air travelers actually jump on the Opt Out bandwagon and choose the more time-consuming and invasive physical pat down instead of the faster, more convenient hands-off x-ray scan. 

To me, it seems like a tempest in a teapot, and an example of how American anger these days seems to jump in an instant from one outrage to another.  I can understand that some people may have health concerns over a full-body x-ray, no matter how low the dosage might be – and besides, the hard-core scanner skeptics don’t trust anything the government does anyway.  What I have a harder time comprehending is the outrage over privacy, the fear that an anonymous TSA agent sitting in a booth somewhere is inappropriately admiring a mannequin-like image of myself.  Maybe I’m not bashful – or vain – enough to be bothered by this. 

Once, about twenty years ago I was flying from Heathrow with some Finnish colleagues when a security officer pulled me out of the line for closer inspection.  In those much more innocent days, this probably entailed only rummaging through my carry-on bag, or maybe even a light pat down.  I don’t exactly recall.  In any case, my travel companions were outraged by this, on my behalf.  They thought, “How dare he do that to you.”  I, on the contrary, didn’t care.  My attitude was that if it helps keep bombs off the plane, I’m not bothered by a little extra scrutiny from the security folks. 

Apparently, a growing number of Americans don’t share that attitude, or at least not anymore.  After 9/11, people learned to accept removing their shoes in the security line, taking out their laptops, having their jars of peanut butter confiscated (it happened to me), all in the name of preventing another terrorist attack.  Yet, apparently, for some people there are limits, and now that limit seems to be letting someone see you naked or run their hand all the way up your inner thigh. 

Unsurprisingly, considering the mood of the country lately, the discourse over this issue has turned ugly.  Many commenters on various blogs I’ve read have compared the TSA agents to perverts and Nazis.  One commenter, taking umbrage at the erosion of his 4th Amendment rights, stated he would rather see his family blown up in an airplane bombing than to submit to the enhanced security measures of the TSA. 

I know Internet commenters as a group don’t represent society’s best and brightest (God I hope not).  But, with sentiments like these, it’s impossible to take the outrage of these people seriously or to see Opt Out Day as a well-thought-out protest.  What is true, however, is that fear of al-Qaida has forced Americans to make some uncomfortable concessions.  I, for one, am not that uncomfortable with a little backscatter x-ray.  Or, even a polite enhanced pat down, if it comes to that.  But, maybe that’s my limit. 

Safe travels, everyone!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Prince William announced last week his engagement to Kate Middleton, apparently some long-anticipated news.  Not that I would know, since this is not an area of current events I follow closely.  Still, the buzz about William’s upcoming nuptials was inescapable and instantly made me think of the Grand Canyon. 

I don’t claim to know that much about William.  I imagine he’s a right fine bloke and as “normal” as any young man could be growing up in the bubble of the British royal family.  (His father Charles, on the other hand, comes across as a genuine cold fish and more than a little flakey.)  The one thing about William that I do happen to know, more or less, is when he was born. 

In June 1982, my future wife and I were on one of those epic cross-continental road trips that are a mainstay of many a Hollywood film.  I remember thinking of it as my “Good Bye to America” trip.  I was moving soon to Finland and didn’t expect to be living in the States again for some time, and I wanted to see as much of my homeland as we could before heading across the Atlantic. 

For three weeks, we crossed the southern tier of the US in my beat-up vomit-yellow Toyota station wagon, vagabonding from Georgia to the Pacific shore.  We pitched our tent in the mountains of New Mexico, the desert of Arizona, and the redwood groves of California.  Some nights we spent (not very comfortable or safe) just sleeping in the car, parked in picnic areas in Texas, Utah, Colorado, and most glamorously once in a parking lot in the hills above Los Angeles -- from where we descended the next day to watch E.T. in a theater on Sunset Boulevard the week of the movie’s premiere.  In short, it was a fantastic journey through some of the most amazing scenery on Earth, and easily one of the best trips I’ve ever made. 

During those three weeks on the road, we were mostly cut off from the outside world, probably not picking up much news on the radio and only occasionally buying a newspaper.  But, we did hear about Prince William.  For some reason, I remember sitting at a picnic table on the Kaibab Plateau, a stone’s throw from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, reading about his birth two days earlier, when we had been crossing the Sierra Nevada over a road only recently cleared of snow. 

Ever since, the mention of his name often brings to mind that brief conversation I had with my future wife – amid a landscape of pinyon pines and awesome geological beauty – about a baby prince being born in London. 

Now he’s grown and getting married, raising the specter of another wedding spectacular.  His father’s wedding to Diana was, as everyone knows, a huge affair with a fairy-tale luster.  That luster, as it turns out, was deceptive, but some female friends of mine at the time were so caught up in the whole frenzy over Charles and Diana’s wedding that they got up at four in the morning to watch it live.  Some of us -- all males, I must say -- couldn’t understand the attraction or why Americans should care enough about a British royal wedding to lose sleep over it.  We kidded our wedding-obsessed friends along the lines of “Didn’t we fight a war so we wouldn’t have to care about a royal family?” 

Of course, the attraction was Diana.  I’m sure our friends were not the only citizens of a republic to go a little gaga over her, showing that you don’t have to be a committed royalist to indulge in some good old-fashion celebrity worship when a beautiful princess is concerned.  (And, once again at the risk of sounding sexist, I think it’s mostly a female thing.) 

Probably it was the same in Finland.  People here sometimes joke that Finland doesn’t need its own royal family since it can always borrow a neighbor’s to gawk at.  Judging by the amount of attention that Finnish tabloids sometimes give to the personal lives of Sweden’s royals, you might think that Finns actually do yearn for a little of that pageantry.  Princess Victoria, on her recent visit to Finland, was greeted by appropriately enthusiastic crowds. 

In reality, Finland did come close to having its own royal family.  After declaring independence from Russia, the Finns briefly chose to become a monarchy and even went so far as to invite a German prince to be its king.  Frederick Charles of Hesse, brother-in-law of the German Kaiser, was king, kind of, sort of, maybe, for only 67 days before Germany’s defeat and the unraveling of its royal family at the end of World War I caused the Finns to have second thoughts.  Frederick never even set foot in what was to have been his realm.  Instead, the Finns elected to become a republic, the only one – along with Iceland – among the Nordic countries. 

The only royalty in Finland nowadays is the Tango King or Queen chosen each year from among the country’s abundant nobility of tango singers in highly popular televised singing contests.  As far as I can tell, they tend to be quite benign monarchs.  

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Freeze-dried emergencies

In my daily trolling of the Internet, I saw that Glenn Beck is now encouraging Americans to stockpile a year’s worth of food in order to survive the hyperinflation catastrophe that he sees looming just around the corner.  On his radio show, Beck predicted that, due to mismanagement of the economy by the Federal Reserve, the price of food could skyrocket like in Weimar Germany of the 1920s.  He goes on to advise his listeners to prepare for this potential disaster by buying “food insurance” now.  Food insurance in this case means boxes of freeze-dried meals that can feed your family in times of dire emergencies, such as hurricanes, tsunamis, or food-riots by well-armed Wall Street bankers.  Good luck with that. 

Along with his prophecy of really ugly times ahead, Beck is promoting a company (one of his sponsors) selling emergency food kits that will see you through the darkest days.  At you can select from a variety of options, starting with the basic “emergency kit” (which contains two-weeks of freeze-dried meals, a very basic camp stove, water filter and a backpack to carry it all in case of evacuation) on up to a year’s supply of food for an entire family (3792 freeze-dried entrées for a family of five). 

The meals are edible for 25 years, so all you have to do is stack it all in the back of your walk-in closet and forget about it until the hurricane strikes, or until bread reaches $50 a loaf and civil society completely breaks down.  While the zombies, er, I mean, rioters scour the neighborhood for scraps, you’ll be dining on reconstituted chicken ala king. 

I actually have fond memories of dining on freeze-dried entrées.  When backpacking in my high school and college days, those ultra-light meals were a rare luxury.  Normally, we carried much heavier food, since anything freeze-dried was beyond our budget.  So, the few occasions when we did splurge, for example, on vanilla ice cream with the consistency of Styrofoam, well, it was memorable.  I can still recall the campsite by a creek deep in the Smoky Mountains where we feasted on Turkey Tetrazzini one night.  (Buying freeze-dried meals in bulk this way might, in fact, be ideal for someone planning to do the Appalachian Trail next summer.) 

What I especially love about the website is the photo of a beautiful model wearing one of the emergency backpacks of food, smiling broadly, and looking for all the world like a sorority girl off to a barbeque on the beach.  You would think that -- for a company trading on the prospect of disaster -- they would have asked the model to look a bit more, well, distressed, or at least pout. 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  While I think Beck’s fear mongering is beyond the pale (and unhinged) and that you’d have to be some kind of paranoid survivalist to buy an entire year of emergency rations, I do agree that most people probably are not prepared enough for life’s little emergencies.  Here, I’m thinking more like having extra batteries in the house or even a portable generator.  Or candles.  And in a similar vein, a few pouches of freeze-dried food can’t hurt -- but seriously, 4000 entrées? 

And to be sure, there have been times when squirreling away food was the prudent thing to do.  My wife reminded me that her nearly 100-year-old aunt still keeps bags of rice, flour and sugar tucked under her bed, just in case.  It’s an old habit that harks back to the food scarcity she lived through during a time when there was real hardship to be fearful of. 

When I first moved to Finland in the early 80s, I taught English at a language school where one of my fellow teachers was an older Finnish lady.  She told how, as a young woman living in wartime Helsinki, she slept fully clothed with a packed rucksack under her bed so she could escape to the bomb shelter at the first sound of the air-raid sirens. 

She also told an old family story about how during the Finnish Civil War the local Reds had ransacked the home of her fairly well-to-do family.  As they looted the house, the Reds, poor workers from the town’s factory, had found a large ham still cooking in the oven.  They placed it on top of the family’s grand piano, and then proceeded to carve off slices of the meat to dole out, cafeteria-style, to the rioters as they filed past. 

So, it’s not as if the kind of worse case scenario and social disruption that Glenn Beck seems fixated on has never ever happened.  It’s just hard for me to believe that the state of the US economy is so close to tipping into a Zimbabwean-like nightmare that we should all really be hoarding food and gold.  Just call me optimistic.   

Sunday, November 14, 2010


One day last week, I glanced out my window and noticed a flag flying at half-mast above the pastel, wooden row houses across our street.  It’s mostly young families with school-aged children who live in those hundred or so apartments, so it was mildly shocking to see that someone apparently had passed away over there. 

It also got me to thinking about the differences in flag customs between the US and here in Finland, where the death of ordinary citizens -- not only presidents -- is honored by lowering the flag at their homes.  To me, the most striking difference has to do with, as in so many other things, emotion and the public display of affection -- in this case, for a piece of colorful cloth.

I know how emotional and sensitive people can be about flags.  After all, I come from a state – Georgia -- that went through a big kerfuffle a few years ago over the issue of removing the Confederate Battle Flag (that old “rebel” banner) from our state flag.  Georgia had added this emblem of the Confederacy -- familiar even to folks here in Finland -- to its flag in the year of my birth, just as the civil rights movement was taking off.  It served as a none-too-subtle reminder in those turbulent times of where Georgia stood on the issue of racial segregation, and it shamefully remained part of the flag for 45 years before decency finally prevailed. 

The fact that some Americans could be so resistant to the removal of an emblem that led armies into bloody battles against the United States goes to show how strong – even surprising – are the passions that flags can inspire.  (The controversy over cleansing the Georgia flag of Confederate symbolism probably led to the Democratic governor who spearheaded the campaign subsequently losing his job.) 

Clearly, Americans take flags seriously, and while other nations might be as passionate about their flags, I imagine most are not as conspicuous about it as the US.  When traveling in the States after a long absence, I’m always impressed how you’re almost never out of sight of the Stars and Stripes, whether it’s emblazoned on roadside advertisements, plastered as decals on cars, or even suspended off freeway overpasses. 

I guess it’s always been that way.  From thirty years back I can recall the gigantic American flags – large enough to cover a dozen stretch limos – that used to tower over certain car dealerships, apparently to reassure even the most near-sighted patriotic car buyer that this was indeed an American place of business. 

This profusion of flag-waving seems to have only become more intensive in recent years.  I imagine it has to do with the mood of the nation after 9/11 and the way Americans rallied around the country following that horrible day. 

But as someone living overseas I’m sometimes surprised by the lengths it has gone to.  Watching a college football game on TV recently, I noticed that the referees were wearing American flag patches on their uniforms.  That struck me as a bit odd, as if anyone in a position of any kind of authority has now been inducted into the ranks of US “officialdom”.  It’s not as if anyone watching a game between Oregon and Washington played on American soil would doubt for an instant that these are Americans officiating the game.  Are only quasi-authority figures, like referees, expected to wear the flag these days, or is it anyone wearing a uniform?  Do UPS drivers wear them?  Maybe they do. 

Of course, there’s nothing strange – and certainly nothing wrong -- in displaying the flag and showing support for your country, especially in times of war.  I have a small American flag hanging in my den, bought at the Ace Hardware in my hometown of Ellijay.  But I have to say that the unapologetic, and very public, veneration of the flag in the States sets the US apart from many other countries, where the need to flaunt your patriotism is not felt nearly so strongly. 

Finland is one such country.  I feel pretty sure that most Finns are no less patriotic than Americans.  After all, it is still within living memory that Finland fought for its very survival against the Soviets, so the sense of nationhood is very real here. 

Still, true to their low-key nature, Finns generally don’t wear their patriotism on their sleeves.  “Flag waving” here is, in fact, a quite regimented affair, as you might expect in a somewhat conformist society like this.  Many commercial and residential buildings have flag poles, and so do quite a few private homes.  (We had our own 20-foot pole before we had to take it down when we built an extension to our house and turned our yard into a construction site.) 

But while anyone is free to fly the flag any time – and many do for private celebrations like birthdays – it’s unusual to see the flag except on the 20 or so designated “flag days”.  These are national holidays such as May Day and Independence Day, not to mention Mother’s Day.  And, my personal favorite Father’s Day -- which happens to be today.  (While Mother’s Day here is the same as in the States, the Finns have wisely put some distance between it and Father’s Days.) 

Because many of the other “flag days” commemorate various statesmen or literary figures from Finland’s past, they tend to be a bit obscure and hard to remember even, I dare say, for some Finns and particularly for an American.  This is why in the past on, for example, United Nations Day, we (meaning me) would often forget to raise our flag on time (at the prescribed 8:00 AM) or even not at all, making me feel like a neighborhood pariah.  So, I’m not entirely unhappy we no longer have a flagpole in our yard – who needs that kind of pressure? 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Post Election Stress Disorder

I’m still recovering from the shock of this week’s midterm election in the States.  Well, “shock” isn’t exactly the right word, I suppose, since anyone who had been exposed to more than five minutes of political commentary leading up to the election would have already known that the Republicans were taking back the House.  No contest. 

Still, there was always hope that the margin of the takeover wouldn’t be as great as expected -- that is, until the exit polls actually started coming in.  Being at least seven time zones removed from the action, I had to crawl out of bed in the middle of the night just to see for myself how bad it was going to be and subject myself to the pain of watching it all unfold in real-time.  

I tiptoed downstairs at two in the morning, and for the next three hours kept one eye on CNN and one on my laptop, where I channel-surfed between Twitter, The Daily Beast, Fox News (mainly for its excellent interactive map), Politico, you name it, bombarding myself with every fresh scrap of news I could find.  And there were scraps galore.  The Twitter feed alone was especially busy.  If I toggled away from Twitter for just a couple of minutes, when I toggled back I would find dozens of new tweets from the various journalist I follow.  It was a multimedia soaking of mostly discouraging news. 

Before finally going back to bed, I was able to hang on long enough to be reassured that Nevada was not sending Sharron Angle to the Senate.  That bit of sanity -- and the fact that the Senate didn’t change hands -- was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal spectacle of defeat. 

And now the aftermath.  The passive-aggressive in me wants to say to the Republicans “Fine, I don’t care.  Let’s see you fix this mess.”  The outpouring of anger and frustration that the electorate vented on Tuesday was fueled, in large part, by the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression and by the fact that Obama and the Democrats somehow haven’t been able to turn this runaway disaster around on a dime. 

I think it’s unfair and unrealistic.  Given the magnitude of the mess, it’s hard to imagine anyone could have done a notably better job, least of all John McCain.  (We’ll never know for sure, will we?)  That is not to say that things are great.  The recovery is far too slow and unemployment is too high (though a better-than-expected 151,000 jobs were added in October).  The country is still hurting.  But I honestly believe the Democrats are working to make things better and are the right track.  

The majority of Americans (or of the 40% or so that bothered to vote) don’t agree, and aren’t patient enough to wait and see if the current measures will work.  Maybe this isn’t surprising given the all-too-typical desire for instant greatification and painless, easy answers.  Will they be as unforgiving of John Boehner and the Republican if the GOP is, in fact, not able to perform miracles and orchestrate a recovery faster?  

David Corn, the liberal journalist and prolific Twitterer, posted an ironic tweet the day after the election that said it best:  “Okay, it's been almost 12 hours, Speaker-to-be Boehner, where are the jobs?”  

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Something I’ve come to appreciate after living in Finland is how lucky the US is when it comes to holidays of the more entertaining sort.  The best example of this is Independence Day, which for America happily falls in the middle of summer, perfect weather for enjoying parades, cooking out in the backyard, and watching fireworks in a grassy park under a warm summer sky.  In Finland, by contrast, Independence Day is December 6th, in the depths –- and I do mean “depths” –- of the darkest, rainiest, gloomiest time you can imagine.  (The Finns find ways to compensate for this, however.  Think “month-long vacations” and “white nights”.)

What makes the US even more fortunate than Finland, holiday-wise, is the string of family-focused celebrations that kick off at the end of October.  These three, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, are evenly spaced apart, almost as if design to guarantee a steady flow of fun, shopping, and overeating.  As a kid, I always took it for granted that the three came as a set, with Halloween and Thanksgiving in a way warm-up acts for the main event starring Saint Nicholas. 

Naturally, Finland also celebrates Christmas in a big way (this is, after all, the home of Santa Claus -- as you can never, ever tire of hearing when you live here), but there’s no Thanksgiving in Finland (no early Finns in buckled shoes having to be rescued from starvation by Indians) and no Halloween, either. 

Well, in the case of Halloween, that’s not entirely true, as I recently discovered when I stepped into Tiimari, a store here that sells cards, balloons, and what I can only describe as assorted do-dads.  I found a wall covered in Halloween masks, costumes and plastic implements of gory destruction, like pitchforks and scythes.  I’m not at all surprised to see the American version of Halloween also taking hold here.  As with so many other artifacts of American culture, this holiday where American kids go trolling for candy is something that Finns –- even those who have never set foot in the States -- can’t avoid being exposed to at some point.  This is, after all, a country that was practically raised on Donald Duck comics and consumes its fair share of American movies and TV programs. 

The paradox is that Finland already has a “Halloween” and already has trick-or-treating.  Only, not at the same time.  In fact, not even at the same time of year.  Like most other European nations, Finland celebrates All Saints Day in early November.  And children here do dress up as witches and go door-to-door to ask for sweets -- only they do it at Easter.  Don’t ask me what the connection is between Easter and button-nosed witches with painted-on freckles, but it is a nice, low-key tradition. 

Even more low-key is the traditional Finnish “celebration” of All Saints Day, from which the modern Halloween arose (as though from a tomb).  The fact is not much happens here on the traditional All Saints  holiday, except that some folks place candles of the graves of loved ones and all the shops are closed for the inconvenience of all, saints and sinners alike. 

This may be why Finland -- as the wall full of ghoulish costumes in Tiimari attests -- seems all too ready to embrace the more exuberant way Americans celebrate All Saints Day Eve (a.k.a, Halloween).  I’d like to think I was in the avant guarde of this trend. 

In the mid 90s, an American friend of mine helped organize a Halloween “spook house” for the school her children attended.  She asked me to take part by playing Dracula, who by the way nowadays must feel a bit like a washed-up Hollywood legend (Mel Gibson, perhaps?) in this age of the Twilight movies.  (I also provided the sound track for the proper Halloween ambience.  The closest thing to spooky music I could come up with was a Philip Glass CD -– it worked surprisingly well.)  All night long I, as Dracula, would suddenly sit up in my “coffin”, laughing diabolically each time a kid passed by.  It was fun.  Maybe a little too fun -- I managed to scare the bejesus out of one of my sons.  

It seems that kind of fun, dressing up in ridiculous costumes and bringing out your inner joker, is starting to make America’s most playful holiday a hit over here as well.  I only hope the neighborhood kids don’t realize they can now trick-or-treat twice a year.  Then the trick would be on us.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Election hoopla

November 2nd is just around the corner, as if anyone could possibly miss it.  With little less than a week to go to the apparently historic 2010 midterms, I am – like lots of Americans - completely caught up in the drama playing out in the States.  Or, in some cases, the melodrama.  Every day I read the latest articles posted on numerous web outlets, and even occasionally engage in some political give and take with Facebook friends in the US.  I can’t seem to get enough of it. 

I’ve never been so obsessed with a political race, except maybe the election two years ago that seemed to signal a real shift in US politics.  Now it appears we’re on the verge of shifting back, which to me, as a partisan Democrat, is not a happy prospect. 

Why the obsession with this particular race?  The obvious answer is the race itself, which has the potential to be a truly monumental train wreck, thanks in large part to a surprising, and distressing,  insurgent political movement that threatens to derail a promising Democratic agenda.  I’m talking here, of course, about the Tea Party. 

But my fixation also has to do with my circumstances at the moment.  I’ve always been fairly interested in following US politics as much as possible, even sheltered here in faraway Finland.  In the simpler world of the 90s, that meant reading slightly dated articles in Newsweek and listening to English-language programming on the radio.  (I still recall giving my kids a bath while listening to NPR news about Newt Gingrich’s attempts to shut down the government.) 

Now in the hyper-connected world of today, I have more opportunities to distract myself with political news than I can reasonably shake a stick at.  Of course, what I’m still missing -– as “tuned in” as I might be today -- is the experience of actually being in the States and encountering the whole gamut of bumper stickers, placards, local news, and even face-to-face conversation.  That said, I’m still able to follow politics in a way now that I never dreamt of 10-15 years ago. 

And now I have more time.  In the stereotype of a retired person, I have plenty of time on my hands to think about events outside my immediate day-to-day life.  That can be a curse, of course, as well as a blessing -- if it is a blessing at all.  Though I’m not retired (at least not yet, not intentionally), being momentarily out of work does allow me to indulge in the kind of political navel-gazing that before I would have had to squeeze in between making a living and raising a family.  Until now, such free moments were always few and far between. 

Having idle hands is something that I suspect I share with many of the Tea Partiers who are making this particular election so fascinating, and frankly so dismaying to me.  The largest demographic of all those angry, angry folks currently dominating the political discourse in the States seems to be one of older, comfortably middle-class, white Americans.  In short, people a lot like me.  Many are probably also people who -- through retirement or unemployment -- have more than their share of opportunities to vent their frustrations. 

It’s the Tea Partier’s many frustrations and grievances, real or imagined, that make up the life force of the movement.  Personally, I don’t understand the reason for all that fear, anger and frustration, and I worry what it will lead to.  It’s also what makes the hoopla about the midterm irresistible to watch, even from 4000 miles away.  Next week we find out what it all means.  

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Let's start off with a cliché

To blog or not to blog, that is the question.  How cliché is that?  Especially, for someone suddenly without a job, without a stressful schedule to fill the day, and with diminishing reasons to change out of his pajamas before lunchtime. 

And why not?  It seems blogging is more contagious than ever, the perfect outlet for anyone anywhere who has something to get off their chest, opinions they want to express, accomplishments they want to brag about, half-baked theories they want to inflict on others, or family events they simply want to share.  How could you resist not doing it? 

When I became unemployed a few months ago, several friends suggested blogging as an option for keeping myself busy.  And, when you think about it, blogging isn’t that much of a leap from the almost daily updates I make on Facebook about the oh-so-mundane circumstances of my life. 

But still, it was with a bit of trepidation that I circled around the idea of starting a blog of my own.  Am I exhibitionistic enough?  Probably.  Narcissistic enough?  Sadly, yes.  Do I have enough to say beyond more than one or two posts?  Ah, there’s the rub.  I guess we’ll find out. 

What I see as the natural subject matter for this blog are my observations and experiences as an American who has lived for a long time oversees in a relatively little-known country in the far northern boreal region of Europe.  Namely, Finland.  I’ve been here long enough to feel this is my home, the land where I’ve settled and raised my family and where I’ll probably live out the rest of my days.  At the same time, I’ve never stopped being interested in what’s happening back in my other “home”, the States.  It’s more fascinating than ever to watch the events unfolding recently Stateside, and especially to see them through the prism of living in what many Americans would probably consider a “socialist” country.  Hopefully, there will be plenty to rant about.  Blog on!