Friday, March 29, 2013

Winter Blast

For the last couple of weeks or so Finland has been experiencing an impressive blast of winter weather, thanks to a persistent high-pressure system that has brought blue-dome skies, more sunshine than we’re used to, and nighttime temperatures that are unusually bitter for March. 

As late as last week, the mercury would rise to almost freezing almost every day, but plunge down to well below -15 Celsius (5 Fahrenheit) at night, even once down to -24 (-11 F). Even now, as daytime temps finally reach beyond the freezing point and the melt off has slowly begun, we still have some 60 centimeters (two feet) of snow in the yard. 

The month of March is on track to be colder than December – an unexpected late blooming of winter that I’ve never seen in all my time in Finland. To be honest, it has suited me just fine.

The stubborn departure of frigid weather has given me a chance to do some wintery stuff that I’d put off to almost the last minute, making the most of the cold spell with a winter blast of my own. 

Out on the ice on a sunny afternoon.
I began a couple of Sundays ago by taking an offshore walk -- that is, a long stroll out on the frozen sea. I wasn’t alone. There were hordes out there, in fact. Venturing out on a flat expanse of snow-covered ice stretching toward the open sea is just too enticing for many, especially in the waning days of winter, when the sky is full of sunshine and the ice hasn’t begun to weaken enough to make the exercise suicidal. 

Make no mistake, being on the ice in the wrong place (such as under bridges or where a current flows) can be very risky. But on my outing, I prudently kept to the parts of the ice that had clearly been tread recently by other people, mainly well-worn paths crisscrossing between the small islands scattered offshore, islands I have kayaked around in the summer. I hopped from one to the other for a couple of hours, visiting places that ordinarily require a boat to reach.

I haven’t been out on the ice like that for almost thirty years. It was more personally convenient back then because I lived downtown, only a few blocks from the shore of the Baltic. And in those days, there were even more destinations to walk to. 

We walked once to Suomenlinna, the island fortress a kilometer offshore from Kaivopuisto, the city park at the southern tip of mainland Helsinki. Not only was a temporary boardwalk laid down on the ice for pedestrians back then (at least during the coldest winters), but a seasonal bus route ran across the ice to Suomenlinna, giving visitors and residents a way to reach the island after the public ferry stopped operating for the winter. 

Such a direct, solid route is not possible nowadays, as the giant passenger ferries leaving for Estonia and Sweden now use the channel separating Suomenlinna and Kaivopuisto, preventing the water from ever freezing enough to bear the weight of anything heaver than a swan. 

Two days after my expedition over horizontal ice, I tried a route in a different direction, 90 degrees different. Just a few kilometers from my house is a spot along the Vantaa River called Pikkukoski (“Little Rapids”). There are no actual rapids there, but there is a fine swimming beach and a 15-meter-high (50-foot) kallio (“rock outcrop”) with a mostly vertical face on one side. (When my sons were small I used to take them rappelling off part of that wall.) 

Three winters ago, someone came up with the excellent idea of pumping river water up to the top of the kallio in order to form massive ice cliffs and create a perfect little ice-climbing garden in the middle of suburban Helsinki. 

I’ve done a tiny amount of guided mountaineering, including glacier walking with rope and crampons, but I’ve never done ice climbing, and the idea of giving it a little try at Pikkukoski has kicked around in my head all winter. With the season coming to a close, I decided not to wait any longer. 

A company called Adventure Partners offers novices, like me, a chance to conquer a bit of vertical ice at Pikkukoski. For our two-hour session, they provide all the needed gear, even the boots, plus instruction and, most importantly, close supervision as me and the other four clients took turns climbing and belaying.

The feeling of being able to move up the ice, poised only on the front points of your crampons and the tips of two axes barley biting into the ice, was absolutely awesome. And exhausting. 

I wasn’t sure I’d had any strength left after reaching the top the first time, but I did manage to make four more trips up the cliff before it was time to stop. Although it was a bit pricy, I was completely satisfied. Hands down, the coolest thing I’ve done all winter. 

I finished out my weeklong “winter blast” with more ordinary winter fun, namely skiing. Almost solely on principle, I went downhill skiing one afternoon. In recent years, I’ve gotten in only about one ski trip a winter, which is a shame, since I have my own skis and the nearest hills are only about 45 minutes away. All that’s needed is the cost of a lift ticket. Maybe my only excuse is that no one else in the family is that keen on slalom. 

In any case, I do much more cross-country skiing nowadays, and in that regard, this season has been very good. I’ve put in more kilometers on the tracks this winter than ever before (yes, I’m one of those folks who like to measure and keep track of such things). I just passed the 160-kilometer (100-mile) mark, which might not seem like a lot for some more serious skiers I know, but it’s more than twice as much as I did last winter. 

Normally, I go out for only an hour or so, skiing around the woods and fields near my home on the edge of Helsinki’s Central Park, not far from Paloheinä, the city’s most popular skiing spot. Recently, though, I decided to try something a little different, namely skiing from my home all the way to downtown Helsinki (or as close as I could). 

I got this somewhat contrived notion because of a new pedestrian bridge that was built last summer over a busy thoroughfare at the southern end of Central Park. The bridge makes it possible to (theoretically) ski continuously from Central Park almost to the Opera House at the head of Töölö Bay, if anyone other than me would want to do that. 

When I finally got around to making the 12-kilometer (seven miles) trip last Saturday, it was clear that conditions were deteriorating. A lot of the tracks through the forest were littered with twigs, needles and other plant material typical of late-season skiing, when there is no longer fresh snowfall to replenish the ski paths. Such debris on the tracks has a high degree of what renowned skiologists refer to as “negative back-and-forth non-ski glide factor” – in other words, it’s sticky. It can really cramp your skiing style.

I did make it to the bridge, but not much further, as the tracks beyond that petered out onto gritty, thawed-out sidewalks. Still, by checking this off my list before winter finally ended, I had one more reason to feel content that I’ve gotten all I want to out of the season. I’m really to let winter go, and just in the nick of time. Let the melting begin. Summer, I’m ready! 

The new Aurora Bridge links Central Park
with downtown Helsinki.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Androgynous and Collective Nature of Finnish

There are a couple of features of the Finnish language that I think are, for lack of a less-embarrassing word, ”neat”.

One is the language’s somewhat androgynous nature. That’s not to say that most Finns walk around looking like David Bowie or Tilda Swinton. Hardly.

No, it’s just that Finnish is gender-blind. Unlike Finns themselves, obviously, the Finnish language, for the most part, does not distinguish between males and females. Finnish words have no grammatical gender, that little detail people learning French or German are forced to remember for each noun in order to use the right article (le or la; der or das or die).

To Finns, they're both hän.
Photos: Jeffchat1 & dalekhelen

We English speakers are lucky that way, because our nouns (as in Finnish) are genderless. The good old all-purpose “the” works for everything. Finnish goes even one better by doing away with articles (almost) entirely (there is no “the” there) and essentially neutering its pronouns.

Finnish uses one word “hän” for both “she” and “he”. This is why many Finns when speaking English use those two pronouns interchangeably. A common experience for newcomers to Finland is hearing their friends here change  in midsentence  the gender of someone they’re talking about, as if Jaana’s brother Pekka went to Thailand on holiday and returned last week as a woman. Such things can happen, but visitors to Finland quickly learn it’s more likely that Jaana isn’t used to the idea of having to specify whether someone, even her brother, is “he” or “she”. At least when it comes to pronouns.

It’s tempting to think that this linguistic “meh” attitude toward gender has something to do with the generally progressive state of equal rights in Finland.

Who knows? But, having a unisex pronoun does simplify some things. When I had a job writing marketing and press materials, a common bugbear was how to politically correctly get around the gender of hypothetical customers.

Using “he” for everybody was, of course, out of the question, smacking as it does of the less liberated mindset of Don Draper and his fellow 1960s admen, as in: “Widget Software Plus allows any small business owner to outsmart his competitors and grind them into the earth, in real time.”

Why should we expect that only men would want to do that?

But, most alternatives to using “he” (“he or she”, or “s/he”, or “they”) were awkward or ungrammatical How much easier it would have been to just use the Finnish “hän”.

Of course, I should mention that not all of the Finnish language is so androgynous. Much like in English, the traditional names of certain professions indicate that it once really was a man’s world.

Job titles that end with the word for man “mies” include plumber or putkimies (“pipeman”), reporter or lehtimies (“pressman”) and speaker or puhemies (“talkman”), as in speaker of parliament. When that post is held by a woman, she is solemnly addressed as rouva puhemies (“Madam Talkman”, or more realistically, “Madam Chairman”). There is no exact equivalent to the English “chairwoman”. The speaker remains a mies, no matter what his or her gender may be.

The other neat feature of Finnish that I like is the way it forms what I’m tempted to call “collectives”. There may be a linguistic term for this kind of structure, but I have no idea what it would be. The way it works is that the suffix –sto is added to the word for some object (for example, kirjat “books”) to create a word that denotes a group of that object (kirjasto, “library”).

It isn’t used for every object (for example, there is no word lehmästö for “a herd of cows”. Still, it does make it a bit easier to remember that a collection of words (sanat) is a sanasto (vocabulary), and likewise for such things as islands/archipelago (saarit/saaristo), ships/navy (laivat/laivasto), men/crew (miehet/miehistö), rooms/apartment (huoneet/huoneisto), and air/climate (ilma/ilmasto).

And speaking of air (ilma), I also like how Finnish forms its word for “world” – maailma. This literally means “land-air”, which to my mind sums it up pretty well. Neatly, in fact. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Cognates, and Other Relatives

Recently when I had to buy a new ink cartridge for our printer, I was reminded of what an outlier the Finnish language is.

As I searched the selection of cartridges for the one that fits my particular model of Canon printer, I noticed how on the packaging all the relevant models were listed under the text “for/para”.

I thought, “How economical.”

Finland's cousins, the Udmurts.
In a diverse European market, where product information often has to be presented in dozens of languages, Canon could safely get by using just two (English and Spanish) for this purpose. To be honest, to convey such an obvious message as “this cartridge is for the printers listed below”, Canon could have probably just as well used Egyptian hieroglyphics, with no danger of confusing customers no matter what  country they are in. Maybe even the Finnish word “varten” would work.

Still, it made me think how much easier it is to connect to speakers of more “mainstream” languages that share a fair number of similar-looking cognates.

It’s not just an English or Spanish speaker who will effortlessly comprehend (or comprender) the “for/para” on the cartridge package. Speakers of related languages will easily recognize the same words in their own tongue:  für (German), for (English, Danish), voor (Dutch), för (Swedish), pour (French), para (Spanish, Portuguese), per (Italian).

Those languages alone are spoken by roughly three-quarters of the EU citizenry – not counting others who speak one as a second- or third-language.

That might be nice, you say, but what does it have to do with Finnish? Well, nothing in fact. And that’s precisely the problem for many of us trying to learn this language.

Finnish and other modern languages have almost no words in common, other than recent loanwords like katu (“street”, from Swedish), huora (“whore”, from German), lusikka (“spoon”, from Russian), and of course sauna, practically the only Finnish contribution to the English language.

This makes Finnish even more challenging for speakers of English – or of any Indo-European language, for that matter. (Indo-European is the broad linguistic family that includes languages ranging from Albanian to Armenian, from Portuguese to Persian, but not Finnish, which belongs to the much smaller Finno-Ugric family.)

Unlike those lucky students of, for example, German, folks learning Finnish can’t rely on helpful cognates (words sharing a common origin) to give them a hint about a word’s meaning:  Haus vs. "house", jung vs. "young", Eis, vs. "ice" – all of which are much more natural for English speakers to pick up than talo, nuori, and jää.  

In Finnish, you’re not going to encounter any true cognates unless you’re an Estonian or Hungarian speaker, and even then you might not recognize them. While pesa, the equivalent of "nest" in Estonian (Finnish's closest relative), is almost the same as the Finnish pesä, in Hungarian it’s fészek, which doesn’t exactly jump off the page as having anything to do with pesä  or anything else I can imagine.

Modern-day Komi. Photo: Irina Kazanskaya
To be fair, Hungarian isn’t that closely related to Finnish anyway, kind of like the first cousin thrice removed that moved to New Mexico before you were born and you’ve never even heard of.

Relations aren’t that much closer with some of Finnish’s other linguistic kinfolk, such as the Komi, Mordvinic, or Mari, indigenous peoples who live far away in the Russian forests along the Volga River just west of the Ural Mountains.

Recently, Finnish television has been airing a documentary series called Suomensukuiset 30 päivässä (“Finland’s Relatives in 30 Days”), presented by Ville Haapasalo, an actor who is apparently something of a celebrity in Russia, thanks to the dozen or so Russian films he has appeared in. In the series, Haapasalo spends a month off the beaten path touring the ancient homeland of the Finns in the Volga basin, searching out folkloric customs, and meeting his distant linguistic cousins, like the Mari and Udmurt people, who still live there.

In all his encounters with his fellow Finno-Ugric kindred, Haapasalo has to speak Russian, the only language that he and his guests both understand. It’s a shame, isn’t it, when family members have grown so far apart that they no longer speak the same language.