Friday, December 23, 2011


Last weekend we bought our Christmas tree (joulukuusi), a bit earlier than we normally do, mainly so that our son, who’s on leave from the army, would have a chance to help decorate it before he unfortunately had to return to his barracks for the holidays

The tradition here in Finland is to decorate the tree only on Christmas Eve itself, but our habit has always been to do it a day or so earlier, just after my in-laws arrived from eastern Finland with a tree freshly cut from their farmer neighbor’s forest. 

A landscape made for Christmas, Repovesi National Park.
Photo: M . Passinen.
In recent years, however, we’ve started doing what most Helsinkians do, schlep out to one of the many stores and pick out a tree from those freshly unloaded from trucks.  Not surprising for a country covered in boreal forests, the supply seems almost endless.  For most people here, only one kind of Christmas tree will do, the kuusi, or Norway spruce (Picea abies), though it's also possible to buy other species imported from abroad.  

An interesting thing about Christmas trees sold in Finland is that most of them are just the leftovers from full-grown trees that have been harvested in the normal course of commercial logging.  The loggers simply keep the top two or three meters a 30-meter tall spruce and put it aside for the Christmas tree market.  As far as I know, almost no trees are grown for the sole purpose of brightening up someone’s living room for a week or so.  Maybe that’s why I’ve never seen a single Christmas-tree farm anywhere in Finland. 

My late parents had a tree farm in Georgia, a small one.  After they had sold their mom-and-pop dry-cleaning shop and became retired, they decided to turn the unused pasture around our house into a tree farm.  It was a brilliant idea.  It gave them a way to stay busy, especially around Christmastime, make some extra money and -- maybe just as importantly -- interact with the public, something I think they were missing after they stopped running a small business where townspeople came and went all day.  The farm was a great business for my parents.  They had many repeat customers, people who would drive up from places like Atlanta every year to walk around the farm and find just the right tree for my father to cut for them. 

Commercial X-mas tree farm in Iowa.
Georgia being Georgia, the trees that my parents grew were mostly white pines (Pinus strobus).  Though it’s a species that most Finns would not recognize as a real Christmas tree, white pines actually do make fine Christmas trees, especially when carefully shaped and trimmed. 

But what seemed a bit too strange for my Finnish wife was how my parents would spruce up the white pines for the cutting season by -- white pines being, well, not so dark -- spraying them with green dye to make them “greener”.  America being America, that’s just the way things are done there in the Christmas tree growing business. 

Whether dyed, naturally green, or even 100% plastic, you have to admit that once you’ve added the lights, the ornaments, and, not least of all, the presents, any Christmas tree in the home brings the right amount of cheer and excitement for the holiday season. 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

Christmas tree in Denmark.  Photo: Malene Thyssen, 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Day the Day Stood Still

Today is a day that I admit I never once paid the least bit attention to when I lived in Georgia, but has taken on a certain significance for me since I moved to Finland. It's päivänseisaus, which in the literal English translation would be "the stopping of day", or as I like to think of it, "the day that day stood still".  (To be exact, this is talvipäivänseisaus, or “the winter stopping of day”.  I know, but it makes a big difference.)

Sunrise at Stonehenge.  Photo: Mark Grant.
What this day is actually called in English is, of course, "winter solstice". It's the first day of winter, the shortest day of the year, and –  most importantly for us up here in the near Arctic trying to cope with winter darkness – it is the precise moment when days start, very gradually at first, to get longer. The worm has turned.  Earth will now somehow not keep growing darker and darker until there is no hope of a return to a world of sunlight.  There is an end to nights that get ever longer and deeper.  We’re over the hump and can now really believe in the coming of summer.   

I’m happy to see the solstice and encouraged that this is now as dark as it gets, and can understand why (without all the New Age nonsense) this day was important enough for prehistoric people to go to elaborate means to observe its occurrence.  Stonehenge very possibly was built with this in mind, as it is aligned to the direction the sun sets at the winter solstice.  In Ireland, I have visited a similar site even older than Stonehenge.  Newgrange is a circular earthen mound with a narrow tunnel that allows sunlight to fill a tiny room deep in its interior, but only once a year – at sunrise on the winter solstice.

Without all the artificial light that we now take for granted, the end of longer nights must surely have been a cause for celebration for the ancients.  And so it was.  Different cultures all over the world have long marked the solstice in various ways.  It’s why we celebrate Christmas at this time of year, instead of whenever Jesus may have actually been born.  

Newgrange, a neolithic mound in Ireland.  Photo: Shira.
The pagan Finnish celebration of kekri, an autumn harvest festival that may not be  directly related to the solstice, was likewise incorporated into Christmas, though it lived on as the main wintertime feast (not Christmas) in rural farming communities well into the 1800s, with elements of it still existing today. 

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the true meaning of Christmas is that the darkest days of winter are behind us, knowing this is so does give me a lot of cheer.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Variability

It’s only a few days before Christmas, and I’m finding it a little depressing.  It’s been raining for days, the river near our house is swollen and brown, and outside it’s inky black by four in the afternoon.  It shouldn’t be this way.  It feels unnatural. 

What’s missing is the snow.  Big fluffy flakes should be falling from the sky, not rain, the river should be almost frozen enough to ski on, and even the long nights should be more luminescent, with white snow covering everything. 

We’ve been suffering unseasonably mild weather the past month, with temperatures hovering just a few degrees above freezing, way too warm for snow.  This time last year, our yard was covered in 60 centimeters (two feet) of the white stuff, though admittedly that winter was the snowiest we’ve had in years.  As it is now, we’re well on our way to a non-white Christmas, only the second or third time that’s happened in the twenty-five years or so I’ve lived here.  The last time was in 2007. 

I’ve heard it’s been unusually warm in some parts of the States as well, despite a freakily early winter storm that hit the Northeast in late October.  Georgia saw highs of about 20 (68 F) last week, prompting one of my Facebook friends to comment that if this was global warming, he was all for it. 

Of course, as with almost everything else these days, “the weather” has become politicized.  My wife, who is a scientist, was recently in a meeting where an agricultural researcher from Kentucky told her how political correctness has forced American universities to change the way they talk about climate change. 

Already some years ago, the term “global warming”, which is in fact a correct description of what is happening to the Earth’s climate, fell out of favor.  This was because “global warming” made it too easy for skeptics to ridicule the idea whenever some part of the world experienced weather that was much colder than normal.  The term “climate change” seemed more acceptable.  But, as the man from Kentucky told my wife, today even “climate change” is not politically neutral enough for the skeptics.  Now the current PC term is climate variability.  It’s like trying to avoid using the word “war” by instead saying “peace variability”. 

When the big storm hit in October, conservative commentator Erick Erickson tweeted something to the effect that major snowstorms at Halloween are not exactly making a strong case for “global warming”.  Being from Georgia, he should know better. 

This past summer, Georgia experienced extreme drought conditions across most of the state.  Temperatures in Atlanta were over two degrees (4 F) above average.  Rainfall for the year has been about 25% below normal, with Atlanta even now having a rainfall deficit of about 12 inches (30 cm).  Water levels in rivers and lakes are significantly down.  Lake Lanier (the state’s biggest reservoir and a major source of water for Atlanta) is currently eleven feet (over three meters) below the “full” level.  The “good” news is that even as low as Lanier has dropped this year, it is still not as bad as during Georgia’s last severe drought, in 2007, the same year we in Finland celebrated Christmas without snow. 

While Erick Erickson was quick to crow about how (in his mind) an unseasonal winter storm helps to disprove global warming, I suspect he didn’t come to the opposite conclusion during the long summer of abnormally hot and dry weather.  Nor should he.

One bad early winter storm or even a whole summer of drought can simply be outliers to the overall trend in the weather.  They are just single data points.  What’s important is the overall trend, based on a lot of such data points, lots of observations over time.  I tend to trust the scientists who have looked at all the data and found the long-range trend clearly pointing to a warmer planet.  But the data point that concerns me the most at the moment is the fact that, once again, there’ll be no snow at Christmas.  

Helsinki's Senate Square, as it should look this time of the year.  Photo by Jonik

Friday, December 9, 2011

Pearl Harbor

This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the December 7th attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor.  Though I was born long after that surprise raid, which ushered American’s entry into World War II, the date is firmly planted in my memory – much like “9/11” will be embedded in the consciousness of Americans who were not born ten years ago, or even yet today.   

As a kid, I wasn't so far removed from the events that occurred on that infamous day.  (And let’s face it, I was born only 15 years later.)  In one sense, I was separated from the event by only two degrees.  The little elementary school I attended employed a janitor/bus driver named Leroy.  I remember this kindly, mild-mannered man mainly for his pleading with us students not to flush popsicle sticks down the toilets.  One day, however, our teacher asked Leroy to come and speak to the class about something considerably more serious.  Leroy had been there at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack.  I’m sure we woolly-brained kids were not the most attentive audience, and I don't really remember anything he told us then about that day, except that he was stationed at the army base there.   I now regret not understanding at the time what a rare chance we were given to hear a first-person account of something so historic. 

Still, the real reason World War II featured prominently in my young mind was that my father fought in the Pacific.  A couple of years before Pearl Harbor, my father and a buddy had left home (without his mother's knowledge) to join the Coast Guard, partly because he felt that war was coming anyway and he didn't want to be just another raw recruit when it did.

Gunner's Mate 1st Class Hoover Tankersley.

When the Japanese attacked on December 7th, my father was on leave in Savannah, Georgia, where his Coast Guard cutter was stationed.  As news of the attack came in, the Shore Patrol scoured the streets of Savannah to find him and enough of his shipmates to man the cutter and put her to sea as quickly as possible.

The war never really came to Georgia, though, and my father, along with the rest of the Coast Guard, was incorporated into the US Navy during the war.  He went on to serve as a Gunner's Mate operating an anti-aircraft battery on a Navy LST (Landing Ship, Tank), a specialized ship used during amphibious invasions to off-load men and heavy equipment directly onto a beachhead.  

On the way to the action against the Japanese, my father's ship was first used for the more mundane task of transporting supplies to Hawaii, including a large consignment of beer – which my father noted somehow became a little less large as the LST made its way from San Diego to Pearl Harbor.  

After that beer run, my father's ship, LST-782, took part in one amphibious landing after another in the “island hopping” campaign across the Pacific, eventually joining the invasion of Iwo Jima as part of a 450-vessel flotilla.  I remember as a kid once playing on the top of a six-foot-high mound of clay uprooted by a fallen tree near our house, a mound that we named Mount Suribachi after the volcanic peak that was the objective of fierce fighting in the battle for Iwo Jima.  Even as a kid I had internalized the name of the summit where six servicemen raised the American flag in a moment captured in an iconic photo made famous worldwide.  Maybe it was because of my father telling us kids how from his ship he could see the flag flying high atop Suribachi.  

An LST preparing for action in Korea, 1950.

My father's LST delivered its cargo of equipment, food and ammo via various smaller amphibious craft over a period of four days, retiring to anchor offshore at night while the hellish fighting ensued on the island.  On the fourth day, the LST beached itself on the volcanic sand of the beach and opened its gaping bow doors to bring on casualties and serve hot food to weary Marines taking a break from the fighting.  It was reported that they served 5500 cups of coffee in a 12-hour period.

When the war ended, five months later, with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my father's ship was preparing for the ultimate invasion of the Japanese home islands, something I'm sure he dreaded, as fierce resistance was expected.  When the news broke of Japan's surrender, the crew of LST-782 was ordered to dump into the sea its cargo of Army jeeps, which would have been used in the invasion.   

Dropping the atomic bombs brought the war in Pacific to an abrupt end, as we all know, removing the need for an invasion of Japan that my father might have not survived.  It's sobering, humbling in fact, to think that the horrific bombing of two cities, which extinguished upwards of a quarter of a million lives, might have been indirectly responsible for my own life being brought into existence – which I do realize doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things.  Still, it does make you think about how events, some too horrible to contemplate, that happened long ago in places we'll never see can ripple over our own lives in unexpected ways.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Red Carpet Finland

Nations, like people, don’t get to choose when they’re born.  If they did, I’d wager Finland would have opted for a birth in summertime, a season made for celebrations outside in the sunshine.  It all comes down to an accident of history, of course.  Americans can be thankful that the Founding Fathers suffered through the sweltering heat of a Philadelphia summer to finally put the finishing touches on our Declaration of Independence just in time for the 4th of July. 

Finland’s birth in 1917 was not so well-timed.  Already with the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II earlier that year, Finland – an autonomous part of Russia – set its sights on even more autonomy.  During the pleasant months of summer, chaos ensued in Russia and civil war erupted in Finland.  The tumult finally came to a head in the dreary days of November, when the Bolsheviks ignited the second Russian revolution of that year and the Soviet Union was born.  Finland took that opportunity to rush for the exits, declaring its independence on December 6th

Pekka Haavisto, parliament member and Green Party 
presidential candidate, with his partner at last year's party.  

The result is a national day of celebration at the bleakest and less fun time of the year.  Grilling hotdogs outside in freezing rain or snow during the mere six hours of near-twilight that passes for daytime in November is no one’s idea of fun.  It’s not for nothing that marraskuu, Finnish for “November”, derives from a word that means death. 

It’s not due to the weather alone that Itsenäisyyspäivä is a more solemn affair than Fourth of July.  The fact that people died in a bitter civil war at the birth of modern Finland is still a harsh reality nearly within living memory.  One way the holiday is celebrated is by somber candle-lit marches along dark streets.  More common is the custom, followed almost without exception, of every home placing a lit candle on a windowsill from precisely six to eight in the evening to commemorate those who died, 94 years ago and since, to ensure Finland's independence. 

But it’s not all gloom.  In fact, the real centerpiece of the holiday is the president’s ball, a festive tradition hard to underestimate for its power to captivate the Finnish nation, especially the female portion.  It is, in some sense, the Finnish equivalent to the hoopla surrounding the Oscars.  The basic idea, which never varies, is that the president and his or her spouse stand for two hours at the head of a reception line, shaking the hands of a couple of thousand guests, who slowly file along a red carpet into a stately ballroom while a military band provides a constant background of sedate, semi-martial music. 

Eija-Riitta Korhola, EU parliament member, 
at last year's party.

The lucky invitees include all parliament and cabinet members, high-ranking government and military officials, foreign diplomats, and captains of Finnish industry (such as, this year, the marketing genius behind Angry Birds).  Also, invited are sports and entertainment personalities who have been especially successful during the year.  The guests move slowly along the red carpet accompanied by their spouses or dates, which – befitting liberal Finland – also nowadays include same-sex couples. 

The entire procession of dignitaries is televised by YLE, the state-run TV station, with off-camera presenters explaining who the most notable guests are and – in true red-carpet fashion – commenting on their fashion.  The more stunning evening gowns are examined in close-up shots and replayed in slow motion.  These will also be featured in the pages of the next day’s tabloids, along with other highlights from the party. 

Champion figure skater Laura Lepistö, in 2010.

After greeting the president, all the guests wait, packed almost sardine-like, in the ballroom watching the procession until the last honored guests, always the former presidents, have been greeted by the first couple.  Refreshments then follow, with the most distinguished guests joining President Halonen in the "Yellow Salon" for coffee and dessert and polite conversation (also televised). 

This is also when the TV hosts begin on-air interviews with notable partygoers.  A popular target for the reporters this year was Olli Rehn, the current EU economic and finance commissioner, who had taken a break from trying to avert the complete collapse of the eurozone to fly in from Brussels just for the party. 

After coffee, the dancing starts, with President Halonen and her husband kicking off the first waltz.  As the evening progresses, the military band ups the tempo with slightly more contemporary tunes, while cadets stand by to dance with any female guest who doesn't have a date.  The dance floor is so crowded that couples can hardly move, but I’ve heard that after the television cameras shut off, the room  quickly clears out except for those who just want to dance. 

Parliament member Tanja Karpela at last year's ball.

Before the night is through, the celebration moves to after parties located at various Helsinki nightspots, some with television crews on hand to capture the action.  Television coverage continues the next day when one of the commercial stations airs its own condensed version of the previous night’s festivities.  

For all the self-conscious showiness of the party, it is genuinely considered an honor to be invited and probably a lot of fun, not to mention popular to watch – about half the population is estimated to have tuned into last night's ball.  And why shouldn’t Finns put on a little glitz and party down (after a fashion) in front of the cameras.  You could say they’ve won the right to choose how to celebrate the independence of their nation – despite weather outside that might, just might, tempt some to forsake it for one with a bit more sunshine.    

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Moon-eyed Finns

Situated to the west of my hometown in Georgia is a mountaintop called Fort Mountain.  It’s a spot that always figured prominently in our summertime visits to the States because of the 3712-acre (1500-hectare) state park that occupies the top of the mountain.  When the kids were small, we never failed to make at least one trip to the park each summer so they could enjoy a round of mini-golf and cool off in the park’s lake, one of the highest in the state. 

At 2848 feet (868 meters), Fort Mountain is not an extremely high peak, even by Georgia standards.  But from the west, where the mountain plunges over 2000 feet to a flat, broad valley, it appears like a towering rampart. 

You might be mistaken in thinking that the striking view from the valley of this natural barricade was the inspiration for the mountain’s name.  It’s more complicated, and strange, than that. 

Near one of the mountain’s summits, a short distance from rocky cliffs that overlook the valley far below, is the mountain’s real namesake, a primitive “fort” of low zigzagging walls made up of loose rock.  The builders of this rudimentary structure are a mystery, and archeologists doubt that defense was even its intended purpose.  Still, popular speculation is that Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto’s men might have constructed the walls as improvised fortifications when passing through the area almost 500 years ago. 

Conquistador Hernando de Soto, probably never 
mistaken for a Moon-eyed Person himself.

The native Cherokees had a different explanation.  According to a legend of theirs, the rubble walls were built by a race of “Moon-eyed People” who lived in the area before them.  Adding to the mystery, the Cherokee said this tribe of fort-builders were blond, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, and able to see in the dark. 

Some people have seen these stories as enticing evidence for the hoary legend that a Welsh explorer, Prince Madoc, sailed twice to America three hundred years before Columbus and settled among the Indians. 

I used to joke with my kids on our visits to Fort Mountain that they, in fact, are the Moon-eyed People, because of their blue eyes and blond hair.  And because they, like all Finns, can see in the dark.  Or so it seems to someone like me who needs all the bright light he can get. 

I’m reminded of this now that we’re at the end of November, it’s dark by four o’clock, and the very gloomiest time of the year is still three weeks away.  Already for several weeks now, I’ve been going around the house in the evening turning on lights for members of my Finnish family who somehow haven’t noticed that they’ve been sitting there for an hour reading in the dark.  Being a Moon-eyed Person certainly has its advantages during these dark Finnish nights – at least you can save a bundle on electricity bills.  

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Famous Georgians

Often when I tell someone in Finland that I’m from the American state of Georgia, I get a blank look in return.  If “Georgia” seems to mean nothing to them, I offer the explanation of “Floridan lähellä” (near Florida).  Everyone knows Florida. 

In the past I’ve tried to correct this lack of Finnish awareness of Georgia by listing (or boasting, as the case may be) some of the famous people who have come from the Peach State.  I even gained a bit of a reputation among my colleges for doing this to a highly annoying degree. 

Foremost is Martin Luther King, who is without question the best-known Georgian anywhere in the world.  And, of course, there’s Jimmy Carter, whom Finns of a certain age are definitely familiar with, though they might not necessarily associate him with Georgia. 

Beyond these two famous men, Finns (and, for that matter, anyone else outside of Georgia) are much less aware of the other prominent folks from the state. 

This is where I come in, happy to enlighten the uninformed that renowned Georgians also include Mr. Ray Charles and Mr. James Brown.  Okay, it’s true the Godfather of Soul was born across the river in South Carolina, but he lived most of his life in Georgia.  And Ray Charles, the man who made “Georgia on My Mind” such a classic, would deserve to be an honorary Georgian, even if he hadn’t been born there. 

But, the list goes on, especially in the musical realm:  Little Richard, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, all R&B and Soul legends, all from my home state.  Closer to my own time, the alternate musical scene in the college town of Athens -- a liberal oasis in a sea of diehard conservatives -- spawned acts such as The B-52s and, of course, R.E.M., the best band ever, period.  Sorry, Tenacious D. 

And then there’s the Georgians who left home to make it big in Hollywood, starting with Oliver Hardy, the larger half of the Laurel and Hardy comedy duo.  Hardy briefly attended boarding school in Young Harris, the tiny mountain town where I went to college almost 70 years later.  Other, somewhat more modern entertainers from Georgia are Julia Roberts, Burt Reynolds (how could Burt not be from Georgia), and the delectable Kim Basinger.  I once worked with someone in Athens who had gone to school with Kim.  She once showed her high school yearbook, where the teenage Basinger certainly looked pretty in her school photo, but not so different at the time from many of the other girls in her class. 

I realize I’m dating myself badly with all these references to figures who are already starting to fade from the scene.  Or maybe it shows I haven’t lived in the state for a long time.  Anyway, the best-known native sons of Georgia nowadays are two that sadly I’m not proud of at all.  And both are running for president. 

One of them, Newt Gingrich, is in fact the current Republican frontrunner, which means he is the “anti-Romney” of the moment.  (Republicans seem desperate to find some marginally acceptable candidate who is not Mitt Romney so that this person [fill in the blank] will appeal to Republicans apparently desperate to vote for anybody – except maybe Mitt Romney – who is not Barack Obama.) 

Finns might be puzzled by the name “Newt”, especially if they realize that it’s English for vesilisko Of course, Newt’s simply a nickname for Gingrich’s actual first name “Newton”, but it’s hard to imagine a name more fitting to his personality.  (And for this I mean no disrespect to actual newts, God bless ‘em.)

As Speaker of the House in the 90s, Gingrich led rebellious Republicans in a failed and ill-advised attempt to shut down the federal government.  A bit later, he was more successful in clamoring for the impeachment of Bill Clinton over his lying about sexual misconduct – while Gingrich himself (who was 55 at the time and married) was dappling in a little sexual misconduct of his own with a 32-year-old congressional employee.  She became his third and  at least for now  current wife.  Gingrich has since blamed his forays into adultery on his overriding passion for America.  Seriously. 

Despite all this, Newt has somehow gained the reputation of being an intellectual, the gray eminence of the Republican Party, which does nothing to mask the belligerent, mean-spirited nature that makes him a uniquely unlikable person. 

On the other hand, the other Georgian running for president appears to be extremely likeable.  Too bad he also appears completely incompetent for the job of highest office in the land.  Herman Cain is, by all accounts, a likeable guy, a powerful motivational speaker, and – as the former CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain – probably a fairly successful businessman.  That doesn’t, however, make him presidential material, as recent events have shown.  His only shtick is a simplistic flat tax plan, branded “9-9-9”, that most economists agree would hurt poor people the most.  Beyond that – and a fine singing voice – he’s got nothing. 

But Cain is good at promoting himself and was briefly the frontrunner in the quest for the “Anti-Romney-Obama”.  That was until his star began to fade a few weeks ago after stories of past sexual misconduct started to emerge and his campaign started to stumble. 

The sex allegations now seemed to have fizzled, with no new developments lately, and I think that’s fine.  I would hate to see Cain drop out of the race due to unproven claims of hanky panky with any woman he happens to run across who isn’t his wife.  Instead, it is much more fitting that his campaign self-destructs because voters finally can’t ignore the fact that, behind his upbeat nature and his gimmicky 9-9-9 plan, he hasn’t got a clue what he would do as president.  His recent flubs at answering straightforward foreign policy questions on Libya have proven just how out of his depth he is. 

I think that even more than Gingrich, who probably seriously thinks he could be president and actually has some chance of winning, Cain is only in the race for free publicity to sell his books and boost his personal brand.  Both men, in their own ways, are embarrassments and not the kind of Georgians I would want to brag about – or be president.   

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fungus of the Forest

This autumn on my regular bike rides through the local forest, I have occasionally encountered some earthy-looking individuals suddenly emerging at random spots from the woods.  They were all carrying plastic bags.  Some were holding knives in their hands. 

There was nothing, of course, to be alarmed about.  As everyone here would instantly recognize, these people are mushroom hunters, taking advantage of this autumn’s unseasonably warm and wet weather that has resulted in one of the best seasons ever for fungus foraging. 

Chanterelle mushrooms. Photo: Strobilomyces
Finns are great forest scavengers.  Even for urban Helsinkians, it’s not uncommon to head out to the nearest woods to pick berries or mushrooms.  It’s practically a national pastime, and another one of the ways that Finns are more closely connected to the land than, say, the average American would be. 

When I was growing up in Georgia, my family did its share of berry picking, mostly blackberries.  (Blackberries do not grow wild in Finland, where they are called karhunvatukka or “bear’s raspberries”).  My parents would have us put on sturdy boots and long-sleeve shirts (almost unbearable in the middle of a Georgia summer) and wade into thorny thickets of blackberry “vines”, sometimes chest high.  My mom would make jelly and jam from the berries, and fantastic cobbler pies that I can still almost taste. 

But mushroom picking is not something that we – or, for that matter, anyone I knew in Georgia - ever did, so I’ve never felt inclined to search out rotten logs for a little something to put on my pizza.  In any case, as long as I’ve lived here, we’ve had enough wild mushrooms in the freezer, thanks to my wife’s parents who keep us well supplied with various berries and fungal staples, like chanterelles, that they find in the forest. 

Poisonous false morels for sale.
Photo:  Imari Karonen
And then there’s the poison thing.  The woods here are full of delicious safe mushrooms, and others that can kill you in a matter of hours (which may also be delicious, but that’s kind of beside the point as your liver turns to goo).  So, I’ve been happy to leave the mushroom gathering to the experts in my family, or just stick with store-bought variety. 

Even there you might have watch out.  A few years ago, a foreigner shopping in large grocery store in Helsinki bought some korvasieni (false morels), which are dangerous to even touch but are (apparently) delicious once properly prepared (in this case, that means boiling the piss out of them).  As I recall the story, there was no sign in the store warning that this particular produce was poisonous, since  as steeped in mushroom culture as Finns are  “everyone” here knows this already.  Or, it could be that the warnings were only in Finnish.  (Stores now by law must warn customers in six languages how toxic these morsels are.)  Luckily, the unsuspecting foreign shopper survived his encounter with this delicacy of the forest. 

This is an example of why I’ve never been overeager to go looking for mushrooms on my own.  However, a few weeks ago I joined a group of well-informed friends and harvested my first haul of wild fungi.  I picked only one type, suppilovahvero (trumpet chanterelle), a perfectly safe and impossible-to-mistake-for-anything-that-can-possibly-kill-you mushroom that also happens to be highly prized in Finnish cuisine.  I sautéed them with creme and served them with boiled potatoes.  Can’t get much more Finnish than that.  

My haul of suppilovahvero (trumpet chanterelle).

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Northern Nights, Northern Lights

This past week we in Helsinki have apparently been treated to a display of Northern Lights, or aurora borealis for the scientifically inclined.  I say “apparently”, since I haven’t been lucky enough to see anything through the cover of low clouds that’s been hanging over Helsinki every time I’ve remembered to look up at the sky. 

As with any event that requires peering up at the night sky, Helsinki has the huge disadvantage of almost never having an actual view of the night sky.  Compared, that is, with other parts of the world.  Check out the night sky in the arid American West sometime and you realize just how much of the heavens (the Milky Way!) folks back in Helsinki have never even seen. 

Aurora over Malmesjaur Lake, Swedish Lapland.  Photo:  Jerry Magnum Porsbjer

But when it comes to the Northern Lights, Helsinki is doubly cursed, because here in Finland the ghostly lights synonymous with the Far North are rarely visible this far south.  While I have seen nice displays of revontulet (the Finnish name, which literally means “foxfires”) a few times in Lapland, I’ve seen them in Helsinki only once or twice in all the time I’ve lived here, and even then they were hardly visible. 

That might be surprising for a city sitting at a latitude of 60 degrees, closer to the North Pole than well over 99.7% of everyone else on Earth.  The thing is, the Northern Lights don’t have anything to do with the pole at the top of the world.  The aurora, which is created when the solar wind streaming from the sun collides with Earth’s atmosphere, is spread out in a ring around the magnetic North Pole, which – not tethered to the actual North Pole – has a tendency to wander around.  For the last century or so, it’s been located somewhere in the Arctic wastes of Canada, moving toward Russia.  That’s why those of us who occasionally carry compasses to different parts of the world have to adjust them from time to time. 

It’s also why the Northern Lights are more visible in North America than in Finland.  They even sometimes make an appearance in my home state of Georgia, like this past week when a powerful solar storm pushed them as far south as both Atlanta and Helsinki.  Only, ironically enough, the folks in Georgia had a better chance of actually seeing them. 

Northern Lights with a rare blue streak.  Photo: Varjisakka

Friday, September 23, 2011

Body Parts

The way some things are done back in the States make perfect sense to me, and some don’t.  One example of the former is the “right on red” traffic rule that seems to be in force in most states.  I’ve heard Finns who have driven in the US rave about this simple rule that allows a driver to turn right at an intersection, even when the light is red, provided there’s no oncoming traffic.  It’s left up to the driver to decide whether it’s safe to proceed.  I think it’s great.  It helps keep traffic flowing and seems to be safe enough. 

It’s hard to imagine this being allowed in Finland, or for that matter in most other countries I’ve driven in.  I once turned right on red in Panama City (in Panama, that is, not Florida) after seeing several other cars do it at the very same intersection.  Only, when I made my turn I got pulled over and was requested to pay the policeman an on-the-spot “fine” of forty US dollars, neatly concealed in my passport.  Apparently, he was really good at spotting me as a tourist. 
Something else in the States that I think makes perfect sense is how – at least in Georgia back in the 80s, and probably still today – drivers who want to be organ donors can have this indicated on their licenses.  As I recall, each time you renew your license at the DMV, you are asked if you want to be an organ donor, and if so, it is marked on your new license.  It’s an elegantly simple idea.  Let’s face it, a major source of donated organs is, sadly enough, traffic accidents.  And what better way to give the paramedics attending your demise a heads up that you are a donor than to have your status clearly indicated on the license they find among your personal effects.   

The Finnish donor card available on-line
and already obsolete. 
It's not done that way in Finland, so after I moved here my status as an organ donor lapsed.  This I regret, since making sure my organs can be put to good use if I come to an untimely end is something I feel strongly about.  When I finally got around to asking my wife about how I could correct this, she told me I just need to pick up a donor card from any pharmacy.  That turned out to be slightly outdated info, since nowadays the cards are (of course) available online and only need to be printed out and signed. 

But, it’s even simpler than that.  Until August of last year, the law allowed organs to be harvested even without explicit permission, confirmed by a donor card, as long as the deceased’s wishes were known.  A wife, knowing her late husband would have wanted it that way, could give the okay even if the lazy bum had never got around to signing a card. 

Such a policy might not fly in the US.  But last year Finland, to combat a serious shortage of organs for transplants, changed the law again to make organ donation even more elegantly simple.  Now organs can be harvested from any brain-dead patient, unless they were known to have explicitly been against donating their organs.  In effect, it’s an opt-out system, which is mirrored by several other European countries.  I can imagine that certain libertarian types in the US would have fits over such a policy, but here – where a reported 90% of Finns are personally in favor of donation – the switch to the new policy went largely unnoticed.  And that seems like a very Finnish attitude to me.  

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Tale of Two EU Capitals

I occasionally get plenty frustrated with the US Congress, as do most other Americans judging by the pitiful approval rating of only 12% that Congress enjoys today.  Its arcane procedures, its filibusters, its frequent inability – especially in the current toxic climate – to rise above petty politics do little, as they say, to enhance its reputation.  I’m reminded of graffiti that I once saw in a bathroom in Athens, Georgia:  If “pro” is the opposite of “con”, then what is the opposite of “progress”?  Congress!

Parliament's home in Brussels...
A case in point:  an important funding bill supported by 92% of the Senate was recently completely blocked until the last minute by a single Senator who didn’t agree with some small details in the bill.  If the issue had not been resolved, the agency that oversees all air travel in the US would have been partially shut down – for the second time this summer.

As dysfunctional as that sounds, Congress does have a leg up on the EU's parliament in one aspect.  At least it’s made up its mind where to sit.  Few Americans realize (or would care, for that matter) that the European Parliament is constantly moving between two cities. 

It does most of its work in Brussels, where most EU institutions are located and which is considered by most people to be the “capital” of the EU.  However, once a month (except for the holiday month of August) all 736 parliament members pack up for a one-week sojourn to Strasbourg, France, the parliament’s other home. 

And they don’t come alone.  The entourage making the twice-monthly 350-kilometer (220-mile) trip between Brussels and Strasbourg reportedly includes 2000 interpreters and other staff member, as well as some 15 truckloads of documents and other baggage.  It would be as if the entire US Congress decamped once a month to Pittsburg for a week. 

Strasbourg, which I understand is a delightful city, is in actual fact the official seat of parliament.  It is the place where, by treaty, all votes on EU legislation must take place, and is obviously a point of pride for the French.  Since unanimous agreement between all 27 EU countries is needed to amend the treaty, any single country can block any proposal to keep parliament in Brussels, and – it goes without saying – this will happen only over France’s dead body. 

...and its second residence in Strasbourg.
The choice of somewhat provincial Strasbourg as the official seat of parliament is not accidental, as the city holds a special place in European history and geography.  Situated on the border between France and Germany, Strasbourg has been a bone of contention between these two countries time and time again.  Peacetime Strasbourg is living proof of the reconciliation between France and Germany, and a fitting symbol of the union that was formed to keep these two former enemies from going at each other again.

Symbolism aside, this itinerant parliament arrangement can best be summed up by the precise legal term, “idiotic”, especially when you consider that the annual cost of this monthly schlepping back and forth is a reported 230 million euros ($300 million).  Green members of the EU Parliament from Britain have also estimated that, in addition to the monetary costs, the arrangement results in emissions of over 20,000 additional tons of carbon dioxide every year.  The joke about political hot air contributing to global warming just writes itself.