Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sharecropping and vice versa

I live on the northern edge of Helsinki in a suburb called Torpparinmäki, a community clustered around a hill that barely rises above the flat bottomland of the slow-moving Vantaa River.  The name Torpparinmäki translates in English to “Sharecropper’s Hill”, which gives a clue to the earlier tenants of this quiet neighborhood. 

View toward Torpparinmäki at harvest time.
While on the subject of Finnish place names, many of them, when translated, would fit perfectly with some countrified spots back in the States.  I used to live near a part of Helsinki called “Buckwheat Ridge”, which evokes a certain nostalgia for bygone Americana.  No doubt, there are scores of prim, upscale, gated communities across the US called “Buckwheat Ridge”. 

The Tuomarinkylä Manor house, built in 1790.
The name “Sharecropper’s Hill” perhaps doesn’t carry the same kind of cachet, but it’s still a nice place.  This used to be part of Tuomarinkylä Manor, a large farming estate, something close to what back in Georgia we would call a plantation.  This stretch of rich agricultural land at the confluence of the Vantaa and Kerava rivers was already a prominent estate by the mid-1700s.  The sharecroppers who used to work this land are long gone, but the “big house”, built in 1790, still stands today, restored as a museum.  And the land, or at least part of it, is still being cultivated. 

Checking out the livestock at Haltiala.
The Haltiala Farm, which butts up against the backyards of Torpparinmäki’s row houses and single-family homes, is apparently the last working farm within Helsinki city limits.  It’s owned and operated by the city and is a popular spot for families who want to briefly treat the kids to the sight (and smell) of farm animals.  At Easter, the public is even allowed into the stables where the newborn lambs are kept. 

Bikers welcome.
Haltiala also operates a small café that has been doing extremely good business all during this summer, especially – for some reason – with motorcyclists.  The farm is a big attraction as well for the flocks of geese that have been flying over our house lately to feed among the stubble of wheat and rye. 

Associating with the locals.
Some crops have been sown especially to be reaped by a different type of two-legged visitor.  Along the road leading to the farm are fields of peas, sunflowers and assorted other flowers that members of the public can help themselves to at harvest time.  In the past, I would get at least a bag or two of peas this way, but sadly I haven’t been paying enough attention in recent years and have noticed the fields are open for harvesting only after they’ve been trampled down and mostly picked clean. 

Searching for that last pea in the field.
Still, it’s a nice touch, I think, that in Helsinki even city slickers have the opportunity to share a slice of Torpparinmäki’s history and be a pea-picker for a day. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Buyer's Remorse?

I think it’s great how some figures of speech in English perfectly sum up a concept in just a couple of words.  Though I’m sure Finnish and practically any other language have expressions that are just as pithy and colorful, I’d like to think that English is especially inventive this way, being as it is a hugely cosmopolitan and vibrant language.  Examples of such vivid word-parings that come to mind are “bar fly”, “mission creep”, and one of my all-time favorites, “pillow talk”. 

Lately, I’ve been seeing another such phrase sprinkled all over some of the political blogs I read:  “buyer’s remorse”.  This is the regret that someone feels after – sometimes immediately after – purchasing something that at first they were probably pretty excited about.  Usually it’s used in the realm of car buying, which has also given us “sticker shock” (the unpleasant jolt you feel when you first see the selling price of a car). 

Everyone has experienced the let down (another succinct phrase) you feel after realizing the wonderful piece of merchandize you finally got your hands on doesn’t quite live up to your expectations.  This has been my standard reaction to any laptop I’ve ever owned. 

However, the “buyer’s remorse” I’ve been hearing about over the last couple of weeks has nothing to do with commerce.  It has all to do with Barack Obama.  Various progressive commentators in the media and blogosphere have started expressing more than mere disappointment with the President’s performance.  They have moved on to outright regret over voting for him. 

The notion recently gaining some currency among these bloggers is that they backed the wrong horse in 2008 and that Hillary Clinton may have been the better choice.  Regrettably, I’m starting to feel the same way. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I think President Obama is a good and decent man.  And honest.  I have no reason to think otherwise.  I think he’s a smart guy and is much better suited for the job than John McCain would have been.  I also think he’s getting a raw deal (another good phrase) from many of the critics who blame him for not being an economic miracle worker. 

Or, on second thought, maybe I agree with them.  I confess that, with the economic collapse that the US was facing in 2008, I was hoping Obama would be the second coming of FDR.  I can’t claim to be a student of the New Deal, but I’ve always had a lot of admiration for Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression, admiration passed on to me from my father who lived through those times and seemed to think a lot of FDR, despite not exactly being Democrat himself. 

When Obama was sworn into office, I was hoping he was going to rise to the occasion and guide the US through these troubling times the way FDR did in the 30s.  Instead, in the face of the conservative backlash following his election, Obama has proven to be far too accommodating to his opponents and, let’s be honest, far too weak a leader to get his agenda across to the American people.  With the exception of health care reform, that is.  That was a huge achievement, but even then it was only a halfway measure, a compromise – maybe a necessary one, but still a compromise nonetheless and one that didn’t gain him any friends among conservatives. 

In almost every confrontation with Republicans, Obama has been far too willing to give ground.  Perhaps he does this in the name of being practical or in the spirit of bipartisanship, which was a centerpiece of his campaign.  I, for one, wasn’t inspired by his promise to reach across the aisle to the other party, and it’s clear his conciliatory instincts haven’t exactly served him well. 

In the 2008 race, I was torn between voting for a history-making first black president or a history-making first female president.  I wanted to vote for both and, in a sense, I did.  I voted for Clinton in the primary, and was then happy to be able to vote for Obama in the general election.  And I was naturally thrilled that he won. 

At the time, I would have imagined that a Clinton presidency would have triggered an even fiercer backlash, given the history of the 90s and the strong hatred that Republicans still seem to feel for the Clintons.  Now, it’s hard to imagine how the backlash could have any worse, and I can’t help think that Hillary – as tough as they come and no stranger to political tangling – would have at least fought back. 

Still, I haven’t completely given up on Obama.  I wouldn’t want to see Clinton challenge him for the nomination next year, and I’ll certainly vote for him no matter what.  I just hope that, in the meantime, Mr. Obama begins to show more conviction and toughness and a willingness to finally give the Republicans a good dose of what can be summed up by another apt phrase:  “whoop ass”.