Monday, February 27, 2012

Cold Storage

One of the advantages of winter in Finland is the deep freeze that exists right outside your door.  Not everyone would really see this as a plus, but it does occasionally have its uses, at least for storing food.  For example, once a winter my wife makes sure we carry all our frozen food outside and stack it on the porch while we defrost the freezer. 

That’s not all we use the “walk out” freezer for.  It’s great for all that excess Christmas food that won’t fit in the fridge, not to mention the occasional over-sized pot of soup.  We regularly cook salmon soup, or the equally Finnish “hotdog” soup, in batches big enough to last for two or three meals, which makes it hard to find room for it in the refrigerator.  That’s not a problem during the approximately five months of icebox-like weather.  We just keep the soup outside on the porch, bringing it in to thaw out as needed. 

A few weeks ago, however, we had to rethink the “porch fridge”.  I started to put a fresh batch of soup out for the night, when I remembered that it was something like -25 (-13F) outside.  Needless to say, turning a tasty meal of potatoes, carrots and sliced hotdogs into a solid block of ice heavy enough to have its own gravity would be overkill in the food preservation department. 

Faced with this realization, I came up with the bright idea of using the eteinen.  This extremely common “room” in Finnish houses is unknown in America, at least in the south, where I’m from.  Eteinen translates into English as “vestibule”, but I like to think of it as an “airlock”.  It’s basically a closet-sized space between a house’s front door and an inner door that leads to the rest of the house.  The idea is that when someone enters a house only one of the two doors is opened at a time, so that the warm, cozy interior is never directly exposed to the unforgiving elements outside.  It’s also a good place to store boots. 

And, in our case, soup.  We haven’t heated our tiny eteinen since we added an extension on our house and started using a different front door.  Nowadays, the eteinen doesn’t stay nearly as warm as the rest of the house.  As it turns out, when it’s -25 outside, inside our vestibule it’s only about nine degrees (50F), not hugely warmer than our fridge. 

While I thought my idea of using the eteinen as a poor man’s icebox was a stroke of genius, to my wife it was perfectly obvious.  In fact, it’s a variation of something she grew up with   the kylmäkomero.  This literally means “cold closet”, and it is, literally, a cold closet.  A kylmäkomero was an otherwise normal closet, with a pipe connecting it to the outside, keeping it cooler than the rest of the house.  When my wife first came to study in Helsinki, kylmäkomerot were still being used in the 60s-era dormitory where she lived. 

Kylmäkomerot might sound primitive now, and I wouldn't want to rely on them for keeping my beer cold.  But, like the root cellars that were traditionally part of every Finnish house in the past, cold closets were a practical, low-tech way of making use of one resource Finns always have plenty of this time of the year – cold air.  

Our pot of soup on the porch.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Election Standards

The second round of the Finnish presidential election was held over a week ago, and I’m only now posting something about it (I’ve been tied up with other projects and chores).  Despite a buildup that included a lot of news coverage, one sedate debate after another, and a fair amount of political advertizing, the whole race seemed to be over in the blink of an eye.  Which it kind of was.  It started in earnest only in December, meaning it lasted all of two months, three tops. 

That’s nothing compared to the US election, which after almost a year into the Republican nomination process, is just now building up a good head of steam, with another seven months of grandstanding, self-serving rhetoric, and over-inflated egos to go.

President-elect Sauli Niinistö
Photo by Soppakanuuna
Finns don’t much go in for American-style glitter and flash, especially in politics, so voters here were spared the Hollywood game-show veneer that campaigning has taken on in the US.  Also, there was none of the negative advertizing that I’ve heard so much about bombarding American TV viewers this campaign season.  And no demagogy – just imagine!  (Well, I can’t say for sure whether there might have been some demagogy on the part of the True Finn’s candidate Timo Soini’s, but I feel sure it never reached US standards.) 

Another amazing feature of Finnish elections is how fast the votes are counted, which I guess shouldn’t be surprising in a country of just over 4.4 million voters.  Still, considering that in America you often hear the election results only the morning after (or in a certain famous case back in 2000, a full month later), it’s amazing how fast it all gets done here. 

Forty-five minutes after the polls closed at 8 p.m. on Election Day two Sundays ago the outcome was clear.  The entire tally had been completed in a little over two hours, and well before bedtime the official results were announced, both candidates interviewed on TV, and the whole thing wrapped up.  And keep in mind, these are paper ballots they’re counting.  By hand.  Nothing electronic.

Still, perhaps the most glaring difference between elections here and in the US is the money.  The Helsingin Sanomat reported that Sauli Niinistö’s campaign spent something like 1.2 million euros ($1.6 million) to win the contest.  That’s considerably more than the 710,000 euros that Pekka Haavisto had at his disposal, even after an almost 3-fold boost in donations in the last two weeks of the race, including 80,000 euros raked in by a one-time comeback concert put on by the hugely popular band “Ultra Bra”. 

Pekka Haavisto, Green Party candidate
Photo by Soppakauuna
Compare all that to the roughly $220 million (€165 million) that has been spent in the US presidential race as of December 31, more or less evenly divided between the Democrats and Republicans.  And the race is far from over.  It’s expected that President Obama’s campaign alone will eventually raise a record-breaking billion dollars.  As everyone knows, everything is bigger in American.  Still, whether or not a cool billion is an obscene amount of money, it’s certainly mindboggling, and not just by Finnish standards. 

This Finnish presidential race, though dull by US standards, was more electrifying than recent races.  Niinistö’s win with nearly 63% of the vote would be seen as a landslide in the US, where margins are often very narrow.  But in Finland, voters have almost always rewarded career politicians, like Niinistö, who’ve spent decades paying their dues within one of the mainstream parties.  Over the years, Niinistö has held various high positions in government, almost won the presidency when he ran six years ago, and continues to be popular, so he probably seemed like the most obvious choice for many people.  

Against that background, the fact that Haavisto inspired enough support to force Niinistö into a second round of voting is impressive enough.  The surge in Haavisto’s funding surely helped his campaign, as well as the use of social media by his supporters, such as a flash-mob video posted on Youtube. 

For a first-time candidate from a minor party, and one who’s openly gay (which even in Finland might turn some voters off), Haavisto’s 37% share of the final vote is totally respectable.  That doesn’t mean it’s any less of a disappointment for his supporters, which seemed to have included most people I know (my neighborhood went 40% for Haavisto).  My daughter said she and all her friends would have voted for him if they had been old enough, which should give Haavisto some solace.  Six years from now, with the younger generation coming of age, the outcome might be very different. 

Monday, February 6, 2012


One of my favorite words in the Finnish language is aina (always, in English).  Also such words as jos (if), koska (because), kun (when), and ja (and).

It’s not because they’re all short and easy to understand, though that doesn’t hurt.  No, what makes these very common words special in my mind is a rare quality they all share – rare in Finnish, that is.  These words don’t change.  Ever.  They always, always look the same.  This might not sound like a big deal to English speakers, blessed as we are with a tongue so simple that even I once managed to get job teaching it.  We take it for granted that English words can be relied on to stay more or less the same, however they’re used.

I only wish the same were true of Finnish, which I’ve been trying to master on-again, off-again for well over 20 years.  The Finnish language is typified by “agglutination”, a word that by the sound of it alone should be a clue that the language is going to be a pain in the ass to learn.  Heavily “agglutinative” languages, such as Navajo, Turkish, and Georgian (not “Peach State” Georgian), form longish words by putting bits and pieces together to express something that we in English would do with several smaller words.  Finnish does this in spades.

Take the simple English phrase “the big red house”.  In Finnish, this is iso punainen talo.  Fine, so far.  If you want to say “in the big red house”, in English you simply add a tiny word, “in”.  Finnish does it differently:  iso punainen talo becomes isossa punaisessa talossa.  To make the house yours, English only adds another small word, “my”.  In Finnish, you say isossa punaisessa talossani.  Tack on another bit (–kin) as in talossanikin and you get “also in my house”.

I often think of the difference between learning Finnish and English in terms of rice or meat.  For a beginner, learning and speaking English is like eating a meal of rice.  If you drop a few grains of rice here and there, you can still get your point across.  Learning Finnish, on the other hand, is like eating big pieces of meat, which must be chewed and chewed before swallowing.  And some Finnish words require a lot of chewing.

I’ve seen it claimed that the Guinness world record for the longest word is the Finnish epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkäänköhän.  This, as you can imagine, doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.  And it’s not a word you’ll likely ever see spray-painted on a wall.  Or hear spoken in the sauna or, well, anywhere.  The word means:  “I wonder if – even with his/her quality of not having been made unsystematized”.  I can say without hesitation that this is a thought I’ve never felt compelled to blurt out to any other human being, even in English.  (By the way, as any check of the Guinness web site will show you, this 48-letter Finnish word has apparently been deposed as the world’s longest by a 195-character-long word in Sanskrit, another language I won’t be learning anytime soon.)

Still, Finnish is full of words that can become maddeningly long and variable enough, as you can see with talo.  While English gets by with only four words to talk about a building where people live (“house”, “houses”, “house’s”, and “houses’”), Finnish requires at least 26 different forms of the word, depending on how it’s used.  These are:  talo, talot, talon, talojen, taloon, taloihin, talossa, taloissa, talosta, taloista, talolle, taloille, talolla, taloilla, talolta, taloilta, taloa, taloja, talona, taloina, taloksi, taloiksi, talotta, taloitta, plus some others I’ve only vaugely heard of.

And, talo is a simple case, where the original four letters remain unchanged, unlike the word for “wolf” (susi).  Instead of “wolf”, “wolves”, “wolf’s” and “wolves’”, the Finnish susi can be changed, transformed, contorted into sudet, suden, susien, suteen, susiin, sudessa, susissa, sudesta, susista, sudelle, susille, sudella, susilla, sudelta, susilta, sutta, susia, sutena, susina, sudeksi, susiksi, sudetta, and susitta.

It’s way complicated.  And then there are the verbs.  While English employs only five forms to get across everything you ever wanted to say about “speaking” (“speak”, “speaks”, “spoke”, “spoken” and “speaking”), Finnish forces you to learn at least 37 different forms of the verb puhua.  I won’t list them here, but trust me, it’s mindboggling.

Of course, there's a system to this madness, and Finnish packs a lot of meaning into these different word forms:  taloon means “into the house”, taloihin “into the houses”, talosta means “from the house”, etc.  It takes a little getting used to.  Also, because of all the metamorphosing, the words you see in actual texts may look nothing like their basic, familiar forms.  Even if you know the words for “wolf” (susi) and “speak” (puhua), you might not recognize them in the sentence:  Pidin häntä puhuvana sutena -- “I thought of him as a talking wolf.”  Just try finding puhuvana or sutena in most Finnish-English dictionaries.  You won’t.

Maybe it’s true that Finnish has an elegant logic and an economical way of conveying a lot of meaning in a few, complicated words.  Maybe even those of us not born into the language can eventually learn to appreciate how remarkable it really is, beautiful even – if only we didn’t have to chew so hard on all those elegant, beautiful words.