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!