Thursday, May 19, 2011

Glory Hallelujah

What a weekend we had in Finland.  By coincidence, two big events that could bring some international glory to Finland took place over the weekend.  The first was the Eurovision song contest.  The name Eurovision means nothing to folks in the US, but for many in Europe it’s a legendary pop-culture institution, though just as many people probably also see it as something of a joke. 

Eurovision, a yearly contest pitting the best pop songs European nations have to offer against each other, was around long before Idol was even a glimmer in someone’s eye.  The contest was conceived in the mid-1950s as an entertaining way to unite post-war Europe.  Or rather post-war Western Europe.  Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, the only Communist land to take part in Eurovision was Yugoslavia, which joined in 1961, the same year as Finland. 

From its first broadcast, when only seven nations took part, the show has evolved into a gaudy extravaganza expanded to include over 40 countries – especially thanks to the breakup of eastern European countries into smaller states – and watched by an audience of well over 100 million worldwide. 

All competing countries have the same voting rights, even tiny places like San Marino (pop. 30,000 – which incidentally would fit, with room to spare, into the stadium venue of this year’s contest in Dusseldorf).  Even tinier Vatican City, as an active member of the European Broadcasting Union, would qualify to participate, though it never has.  I’d love to see what kind act the Vatican would come up with for Eurovision, though I suspect the Holy See would find the whole thing a little too tacky to ever take part in. 

And often it would be right.  While some song entries are stirring acoustic ballads or operatic solos, most of the acts in recent years tend towards the highly energized, highly choreographed, highly sexualized, and even highly farcical.  In fact, farcical often seems to do quite well.  For example, donning giant gnome hats, as the Moldavian entry did this year, might help an act stand out among all the cookie-cutter boy bands and clones of Céline Dion and Shakira strutting across the stage. 

Even the winning acts don’t typically stand out for very long after the show ends.  Céline Dion is one who actually did.  Canadian vocalist and future Las Vegas attraction, Dion won the contest in 1988, representing Switzerland.  That goes to show that when it comes to the Eurovision song contest, nationality is fungible.  Another well-known alumnus is ABBA, which launched its international career after winning the 1974 contest with “Waterloo”.  These two are the exceptions, however, with most winners usually fading from global view rather quickly. 

And doing well in the contest doesn’t even always come down to having a decent song, as very often the voting is based on cultural and geographical politics.  Countries tend to give most of their votes to their closest neighbors, or at least to songs they can understand.  This has historically worked against Finland, especially earlier when contest rules called for songs to be sung only in the national language.  This made it difficult for Finland to garner many votes, even from like-minded Nordic countries, because no one outside the country could understand the lyrics.  (To be honest, for some Eurovision songs, not understanding the lyrics can be an advantage.) 

Finland’s peculiar language might help to explain its tradition of always doing badly.  In nine out of 45 Eurovision contests, the country has come in last place, three times receiving no points at all.  This is why the 2006 contest was a seismic event, with Finland blowing everyone away to win the top spot with “Hard Rock Hallelujah”, a monster hit by a thematic band called Lordi.  I guess you could say it was a freakish win. 

This year, Finland’s entry was Lordi’s polar opposite, a fresh-face singer-songwriter of 20 named Paradise Oskar, who sang “Da Da Dam”, a song about an idealistic young boy setting out to save the world from ecological disaster.  (Disclosure: Paradise Oskar is a friend of one of my sons.)

The song was a breath of fresh air, I thought, with a clean, positive (though perhaps slightly naive) message.  Almost unheard of for today’s Eurovision, the song was written by the singer himself and, bucking the trend even further, performed without the aid of pyrotechnics or impossibly leggy dancers.  Not even (gasp) a wind machine.  And it was certainly catchy enough, I thought, to do fairly well in the contest. 

We were encouraged when Paradise Oskar came in third-place in the semifinal earlier in the week.  Still, like most everyone watching the show on Saturday, we were realistic enough not to expect a repeat of 2006, though an outcome near the top ten seemed possible.  Sadly, it was not to be.  “Da Da Dam” came in 21st place behind the winning entry from relative newcomer, and seriously peripheral European, Azerbaijan. 

It was a result that I think doesn’t do real justice to Finland’s entry.  To be fair, the Azerbaijani number wasn’t too bad and more typical of Eurovision fare.  (It was bought from Sweden, where there is something of a cottage industry in Eurovision songwriting.)  And it came in first place in the semifinal, just 30 points ahead of Paradise Oskar, which makes the Finn’s poor showing in the final even more disappointing.  I chalk it up to Eurovision politics. 

The other big contest of the weekend was a much more serious one for ice-hockey obsessed Finland.  For two weeks every spring, the Ice Hockey World Championship brings out the ardent fan in almost every Finn.  I admit I’m only a fair-weather hockey fan, and certainly no expert on the sport.  To be honest, I only get interested when the high-stakes championships games roll around and the international rivalries heat up. 

Finland has long been a hockey powerhouse, though this isn’t always reflected in its performance in the world championship finals.  While the Lions – as the country’s team is called – have won a total of 11 medals over the years, it has won gold only once, a distinction it shares with – wait for it – Great Britain, a country probably associated more with hockey of the “field” variety. 

Though Finland has reached the finals in almost half of the last 20 championships, the gold medal always eluded it until 1995, and has continued to do so in the ensuing 16 years since that first taste of gold glory.  Some have attributed the long dry spell to a tendency of the Finnish team to choke under pressure, especially when playing archrivals (and neighbors) Sweden and Russia.  Whether that’s true I’ll leave to be debated by others who know the game better than I do.  What I do know is that this serial disappointment has left a serious bruise in Finland’s national sporting pride. 

So, it was with huge anticipation that we sat down on Sunday night to watch the Lions face off against eight-time championship winner Sweden.  The history of grudge matches goes way back for these two.  The play was fiercely even in the first period, which ended scoreless.  Only about halfway through the second period did the puck find the net, deftly delivered by a Swedish player who ironically has a Finnish surname.  In such a tightly contested match, the goal could have been a psychological blow for Finland.  Then, with only seven seconds left in the period, Finland evened the score, setting up the third period to be a tense all-or-nothing battle. 

It didn’t take long to see which way it would go.  Less than three minutes into the period, Finland took the lead after scoring in a spirited two-man attack.  Then almost without a beat, a lone Finn broke away half a minute later to charge the Swedish goal and narrowly miss scoring.  A mere 47 seconds after that a scuffle in front of the Swedish net produced Finland’s third goal, essentially sealing Sweden’s fate.  The Finns didn’t let up, pummeling Sweden with three more goals.  It was impossible to sit still for the rest of the game. 

Winning the gold, and doing it by giving Sweden such a thrashing, unleashed wild scenes of spontaneous partying the streets of Helsinki have rarely seen.  The next afternoon over 100,000 exuberant fans gathered in front of a hastily erected stage at South Harbor’s market square to welcome the team home, cheering as the jubilant – in some cases perhaps a bit too “jubilant” – Lions celebrated on stage with President Halonen.  A visiting colleague of my wife’s, who witnessed the throngs in the streets and stayed at the same hotel as the Lions, reported that the party was still going strong, and loud, at four the next morning.  Being from Canada (winner of 24 gold medals), he might wonder at such celebration over just one long-awaited, but absolutely glorious, victory.  Or maybe he understands it completely.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Thin Ice

When my children were small, they religiously watched Pikku Kakkonen (“Little Two”), a TV program that I dare say enjoys the undivided attention of the entire Finnish-speaking population of preschoolers every afternoon around five-thirty.  (Swedish-speaking youngsters are probably likewise riveted to Pikku Kakkonen’s linguistic counterpart, BUU-klubben.)  Pikku Kakkonen has been an institution on Finland's channel two for over thirty years now and – like most shows aimed at very young viewers who don’t mind predictable programming at all – the show has an amazing timelessness to it. 

For decades, one sure sign of the changing season is the little public-service announcement added at the end of Pikku Kakkonen for a few weeks at the beginning of spring.  The short animated spot stars a boy and teddy bear – who, along with a moon, fish, ghost and a TV-shaped bird, form the mosaic of the show’s logo.  As the spot opens, the bear and the boy are playing in the snow across a lake from the TV studio and are interrupted when the bird summons them to hurry back.  Presumably, they need to take their places in the logo before the show signs off. 

While the boy does the prudent thing and walks around the lake, the impetuous bear decides to cut straight across to the studio, as he’s probably done dozens of times during the winter when the ice was thick.  But now it’s spring and the ice is thin.  Near the other shore, he falls through to the frigid water underneath and is saved only by the quick action of his friend.  The boy demonstrates the correct rescue technique by flattening himself on the ice to reach the floundering bear and extend his scarf as a lifeline.  The bear pulls himself onto the fragile ice and, lying flat to distribute his weight, carefully rolls safely to shore. 

The animation ends with the teddy bear, recovered from his ordeal, joining his friends in the logo and solemnly intoning:  "Varokaa heikkoa jäätä."  ("Beware of weak ice.") 

The animation is quaint, but the message is deadly serious.  Throughout the long winter, the ice of countless lakes and rivers is usually more than strong enough to bear the weight of anyone who ventures out on those inviting, flat expanses of white.  Skiers and the heaviest of ice fishermen can safely travel across the ice in many places, even on the sea in certain spots near shore.  In some places the ice is strong enough even for cars and buses.  But once the days turn longer and milder, it’s only a matter of time before – although the snow on the surface might look unchanged – the ice becomes treacherously thin.    

Every year, the spring thaw brings tragedy to some Finnish family, a sad reminder that despite the welcome sight of emerging crocuses and tender leafs spouting on the birches, the coming of warm weather also has a deceptively dangerous side.  

Sunday, May 1, 2011


The first time I saw Helsinki, the city I've ended up spending half my life in, wasn’t from a plane overhead or from one of the ferries from Sweden that dock at South Harbor.  Instead, my first glimpse of the Finnish capital was inside a movie theater in Athens, Georgia.  On the big screen, as it were.  It was at a showing of the newly released movie Reds, which my Finnish girlfriend had been especially eager to see. 

This epic film from 1981 chronicles the career of journalist and devoted communist, John Reed, apparently the only American to be entombed in the Kremlin in Moscow.  Directed by and starring Warren Beatty, along with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, Reds is based on the book “Ten Days that Shook the World”, Reed’s firsthand account of the Russian Revolution of 1917. 

"V.I. Lenin lived in this house in 1917", plaque in Hakaniemi.
To report on the happenings in Russia, Reed traveled through Finland, which was still part of the Russian Empire, on his way to Petrograd, the former St. Petersburg, arriving just in time to witness the tumultuous events that led to the takeover by Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.  The title of the book Reed wrote about his time in Petrograd is no exaggeration.  The course of history was indeed radically changed in those few weeks, though in this post-Soviet era it all begins to feel like ancient history. 

(By the way, it’s funny how in the States the color red – the “brand” of socialists and communists throughout the world – has recently come to symbolize the conservative Republican Party.  A small example of American exceptionalism, if you will.  If you think about it, it gives a whole new meaning to the “Red Scare” of the 1950s and Republican Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts.) 

At the time Reds was made, almost a decade before the collapse of the Soviet Union, filming behind the Iron Curtain was apparently no easy matter to arrange.  Beatty’s film was just one of several Hollywood productions over the years that used Helsinki as a more accessible stand-in for St. Petersburg, Moscow or some other place in the USSR. 

Helsinki doesn’t make its appearance until about halfway through the three-hour movie, as Beatty and Keaton, in the roles of Reed and his companion Louise Bryant, finally make it to Petrograd and are driven through its magnificent Palace Square (played here by Helsinki’s Senate Square).  With an Empire Style architecture that mimics the look of its Russian counterpart, Senate Square does a well enough as a cinematic substitute for St. Petersburg. 

On his way to the real Petrograd, Reed followed in the footsteps of Lenin who had passed through Helsinki a few months earlier on his return from exile in Switzerland.  When the revolutionary government in Russia cracked down on the Bolsheviks, Lenin retreated to Helsinki to lay low for a few months.  There is a plaque on the corner of Hakaniemi Square marking the building where he stayed as a covert guest of the Helsinki chief of police, a fellow Bolshevik. 

The "capping" of Havis Amanda, May Day Eve.
Hakaniemi has long enjoyed a reputation as a leftist stronghold.  It has been the traditional home of Finland’s Social Democratic and Communist parties, as well as all the major trade unions.  I recall when I first came here, even the large advertisements on the buildings overlooking the square added to the leftist atmosphere.  There were the corporate logos of Interflug (the state airline of a former country called East Germany), Intourist (a travel agency founded by Joseph Stalin), and Pepsi (the cola of choice in the Warsaw pact, not that there was really any choice about it.).  Of these, only the Pepsi logo remains high above the cobblestones of Hakaniemi.    

Despite those changes, Hakaniemi Square is still the traditional site for leftist rallies and gatherings, especially at May Day, the international workers’ day.  (In the US, May Day is ignored entirely, in favor of the all-American non-socialistic Labor Day in September – another bit of expectionalism.)  Hakaniemi serves as the starting point for the May Day Parade, where supporters of labor unions, leftist organizations, and assorted socialist and communists parties march a couple of kilometers to Senate Square to listen to speeches made from the steps of the Cathedral.  Nowadays, the number of marchers has been greatly diminished from the early 80s when almost a quarter of the Finnish electorate voted communist. 

Today, the worker-related celebration of May Day is more like a minor sideshow to the real focus of the holiday, namely huge crowds of students – past, present and future – having a good time.  May Day Eve is the closest thing to Carnival in Finland.  While you won’t see as much samba dancing as in Rio (in fact, none), the sea of revelers in their white student hats, still generate plenty of gaiety with the help of lots balloon, streamers, noisemakers and, of course, alcohol.  For first-time visitors, it can be alarming to see such crowds of normally reserved and restrained Finns filling the streets and publicly losing all their inhibitions.  The evening’s main event takes place at the Havis Amanda Fountain near South Harbor.  To roaring encouragement from the crowd, university students – often suspended from a construction crane – place a large white student’s hat on the bronze statue of a nude mermaid at the center of the fountain. 

In recent years, we’ve chosen to skip the chaos at Havis Amanda and instead celebrate May Day at home.  And we seldom ever watched the May Day Parade, most recently in 1989 when my very pregnant wife and I decided to follow along as the ranks of leftists decked out in red and carrying red flags and banners marched earnestly to Senate Square.  Though the route of the march isn’t strenuous by any means, the act of walking that far was for my wife physical enough to kick off a labor movement of an entirely different type.  The next morning our first child was born.  Six months later the Berlin Wall came down.  As far as I’m concerned, they were both equally world-changing events.  

A curious American at the May Day rally, Senate Square 1983.