Monday, April 24, 2017

Language Learning, Or Not So Much

I can’t say I have a head for learning languages. Not by a long shot. That’s unfortunate, since I ended up in a situation where being a fully functioning member of society requires speaking a tongue that is not my own. And to my great shame I still haven’t got the hang of it.

To make matters worse in some sense, I’m surrounded by people who fluently speak at least two languages, sometimes three or even more. It's not at all unusual here. Finland is clearly a polyglot place, very much unlike where I was born.

As a kid growing up in the mountains of rural North Georgia, I probably encountered very few foreign words -- except perhaps, when I think about it, the word ”parfait”. That was the name of an ice-cream treat at the local Dairy Queen. Whether it was actually perfect, I can’t recall. Probably not bad.

In those days, I might have also occasionally run across some non-English words on T.V., though the only example I can be sure of was “Jawohl!” barked out now and then on “Hogan’s Heroes” the 60s situation comedy set in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II. And I'm sure I sometimes watched Lucille Ball being on the receiving of some choice words from Desi Arnaz in Spanish.

However, my first real exposure to languages other than English probably came in my maternal grandmother’s house, where I spent a decent amount of time as a kid. Grandma Davis had been a school teacher, and most likely had more books than most folks of her generation in my rural county.

One of those books -- in fact, the only one I really remember -- was a specialized dictionary, the Britannica World Language Dictionary, which provided translations of English words in six languages.

The book’s format was simple. On the left side of the page was a column of English words, listed alphabetically. Running from the right of each English word was its equivalent in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Yiddish. At the time, I was puzzled by Yiddish. I’d never heard of such a language, though I could see it appeared somewhat similar to German.

I remember being fascinated by the dictionary, seeing how you could say something in other languages. I recall in particular encountering the German words weiss and wein and thinking it was cool that by combining them you get “white wine”. As a child, I probably didn’t have any inappropriate thirst for weisswein. Maybe it was just the alliteration that appealed to me.

Maybe because of this early brush with the language, I always somehow felt a desire to learn German. For a long time, it was an unfulfilled desire. I suspect not many American high schools offer classes in German even now, but certainly not in the 70s in the rural Appalachian Mountains.

In any case, the only foreign language taught at my high school was French, which was a recommended subject for students planning to go on to college.

It was an exotic notion to study French, and I was excited to start the class. Even today I can recite (more or less) the first bit of dialogue of Français that we learned.

«Papa, mangeons dans un restaurant ce soir.» «Oui, Papa. Dinons en ville.» «Excellente idée, mais demandez à Maman d'abord.» «Ah, non. Ne parlez pas du restaurants ce soir.» «Pourquoi pas, Maman.» «Le dîner est sur la table.»

“Papa, let’s eat in a restaurant tonight.” “Yes, Papa, let’s eat in town.” “Excellent idea, but ask Mama first.” “Ah, don’t talk about restaurants tonight.” “Why not, Mama?” “Dinner is on the table.”

Unfortunately, after a while, despite a really fine French teacher, my attention span fizzed and my enthusiasm waned. I believe I studied a full three quarters, but ended up not doing so well with the French I took.

I’ve put my high-school French to use only rarely and to doubtful effect. The first time was probably in 1983 when my future wife and checked into a mostly empty campground near the coast of Normandy. Unsure where we could pitch our tent, I inquired of the campground’s matron with a “Où?” She understood well enough to answer -- with a Gallic shrug – by pointing around in different directions. I didn't improve much on that over the years. When we hiked in the Alps a few years ago, my French was no use at all and we had to depend on one of our sons to parle with fellow trekkers.

Anyway, that was French. When I went to the University of Georgia, I finally got my chance to study German. As with French, the first bit of German text we learned persisted in my memory:

„Hallo und guten Tag! Mein Name ist Bill Becker, und ich bin ein Amerikaner aus Chicago. Aber ich bin jetzt in Deutschland. Wo in Deutschland? In Marburg. Ich studiere hier. Was studiere ich? Deutsche: die Sprache und die Kultur.“

“Hello and good day. My name is Bill Becker, and I am an American from Chicago. But now I am in Germany. Where in Germany? In Marburg. I study here. What do I study? German: the language and the culture.”

I used to amuse my kids by reciting that. At least, I thought they were amused.

In the end, I took four quarters of German at UGA (compare this to my wife, who took the pitkä kurssi in German, that is, seven years). One of my teachers was an American with an appearance and vibe creepily similar to the Gestapo agent Toht from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You got the sense that he was drawn to the German language for the wrong reasons.

Another teacher, my favorite, was an East German with an iconic Teutonic name -- which I won’t reveal, since after googling him, I see he’s still teaching in the States. Let’s call him Otto. He was tall, with blond hair and sharp, angular features you find in the villainous German characters typecasted in almost every American war movie.

Since this was 1978, a decade before the Berlin Wall fell and his countrymen could easily travel abroad, I got the impression that Otto came from some privileged, highly placed East German family. He had a slightly imperious air about him. He would sometimes lecture us on the faults of capitalist, and once brought to class a handful of empty food packaging from McDonald’s -- visual aids to berate us with over the wastefulness of the American throw-away society (which, natürlich, was true).

Otto also had a second job teaching at a private school near Atlanta, some 80 miles (130 km) away, and he often complained of getting speeding tickets as he tried to shuttle between the two schools, apparently at Autobahn speeds.

He once taught us how to say, “Step on it, Goddammit” in Norwegian, which seemed slightly sinister to me. He was a character.

I’ve gotten a bit more mileage out of my German. In the past, I sometimes used it as a “secret language” with my wife if we wanted to keep the kids in the dark about what we were discussing. Otherwise, I’ve hardly ever used it with actual Germans, even though I once worked for a half-German company and made regular business trips to München.

At the Baltic port of Travemünde back in the early 80s, as my wife and I waited to get a flat tire repaired at a service station, a man said something to me which I naturally didn’t understand. In response, I said “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.” (“I speak no German.“)

He corrected me: “Nein, du sprichst schlecht Deutsch.” (“No, you speak bad German.”) Genau!

So, that was German. When I briefly went back to university to study journalism in the late 80s, I decided to take another stab at language learning, apparently just for the hell of it. In this case, it was Spanish. And it was for one quarter only, so no hablo mucho Español. Obviously.

Even from that single course in Spanish, I came away with one little language artifact. My teacher was a Spaniard, as in from Spain across the ocean -- and this in a hemisphere of almost 420 million native Spanish speakers. Because of her, I learned the Old World Spanish pronunciation of the letter “c” (before “i” or “e”), that is, the Castilian pronouncement. For this reason, I think of Barcelona as “Barthelona”.  

I’m bizarrely proud of this, though that doesn't speak well for my solidarity with my fellow New Worlders in Latin America. As it is, we don’t talk with each other that much anyway.

I’d like to think that if I had remained living in the States, I would have actually learned Spanish. It is, after all, America’s de facto second language.

And then there’s Finnish, which I’ve been struggling to learn for, well, for decades, despite dozens of books and courses and living fulltime in the country where people speak it constantly. I have no excuse other than, as I said, I don’t have a head for languages.

That’s five languages I’ve studied, and still haven’t come close to mastering any of them, except for English – and I may be regressing with that one.

But I'm not stopping, it seems. I’ve now gotten hooked on the online language-learning apt, Duolingo.

I can't be sure how effective Duolingo really is as a learning tool. But its game-like format (with positive reinforcement through "rewards” and triumphant sound effects, and your progress marked by reaching different "levels" and other metrics) makes it a “fun” approach to language study. If nothing else, it’s a decent way to spend time, educational, you might say. And, similar to crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia, it’s available for free.

It currently offers English-speakers the chance to learn some 20 languages, mostly European, but also Vietnamese and Swahili. Other courses are under development (“hatching” in Duolingo parlance), including Japanese, Hindi, and...Klingon! Unfortunately, not Finnish. Not yet. Obviously, that’s harder to implement than Klingon.

I started doing occasional Duolingo lessons in German and French three or four years ago, just to brush up on those two. When the long-awaited Russian course was added in late 2015, I begun that one, too. And just recently I started studying the language of another neighboring country, namely Swedish.

It’s true that “studying” these four languages simultaneously may not be wise, especially when I've got much more Finnish still to learn. But that’s the way I do it, generally one lesson of each language every day. The lessons are short, so it usually takes about half-an-hour to do all four. In other words, it doesn’t eat up much of my day.

Am I learning anything? Well, according to Duolingo’s algorithm, I am now 42% fluent in French – my wife often chokes on her café au lait when I boast about this fact.

In German, my fluency is 33% and in Swedish it’s already 27%, although I started it only six months ago. It’s such a damn easy language. So far, Duolingo hasn’t given me a fluency score for Russian (which is NOT an easy language), but that course still seems to be very much a work in progress. It wouldn’t be an impressive score anyway. It’s fair to say I am struggling with Russian. 

But considering my track record with languages, that should come as no surprise.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Helsinki Voted: The Also Rans

I didn’t manage to cover, as I originally planned to do, all the parties involved in the Helsinki city council election, at least not before election day itself, this past Sunday. 

So, for the sake of tying up loose threads, I’m going to briefly mention the seven plus parties that also ran. 

Liberaalipuolue, (The Liberal Party). This is another one of those very minor parties, and a new one. It was registered as a formal party only last year, after existing briefly as an unofficial protest group called the “Whiskey Party”. I’m guessing by its slogan Vapaus valita (“Freedom to Choose”), that it has a libertarian bent. It won no seats on the council. 


The Liberal Party. "Cheaper housing, freer Helsinki."

Itsenäisyyspuolue or IPU, (The Independence Party). Another small, fringe party, whose main program is Finland’s exiting the EU. It won no seats. 


The Independence Party. "Decision-making close, humanity the priority."

Perussuomalaiset, (The True Finns). This party has gained some international attention as one of those rising anti-immigrant, xenophobic, EU-skeptic right-wing parties, like France’s National Front or UKIP. It seems, however, that PS is rising no longer. 

In a US context, PS wouldn’t be seen as so completely right-wing, in the sense that it has no desire to touch Finland’s generous welfare system, a system which any right-thinking American conservatives would recoil at as being “socialist”. PS would probably argue that it’s safeguarding the social welfare system -- by keeping unwanted and undeserving immigrants from accessing it. It may not be a winning argument. 

In the Helsinki city council PS lost two of its previous eight seats. Its municipal support in the country overall dropped by 3.5%, making it this election’s biggest loser. 


True Finns. "Your vote worth it, because of True Finns"

Svenska folkpartiet i Finland, (Swedish People’s Party of Finland). This is the party that has traditionally advocated for the interests of Swedish speakers, Finland largest linguistic minority (about five percent of the country). Other than protecting the official status of the Swedish language in the public sphere, the party has a broadly liberal agenda that no doubt attracts the votes of some non-Swedish speakers. The party retained its five seats (eller, dess fim platser). 


The Swedish People's Party. "Near you in Helsinki."

Suomen Keskusta, (The Central Party of Finland). This is one of the three major parties nationwide, along with Kokoomus and the Social Democrats. It is basically an agrarian party, so naturally its support base is concentrated in the countryside. Urban Helsinki, no so much. The party lost one of the three seats it held in the last council.


Keskusta. "Caregivers in Helsinki."

Kansallinen Kokoomus, (The National Coalition Party). Finland’s pro-business party, which you might think makes it analogous to the American Republicans, or at least old fashioned “Country Club” Republicans. That is, it’s pro-business without the social conservativism and anti-government obsessions of modern-day Republicans. 

Kokoomus gained two seats in Sunday’s elections, strengthening its position as the council’s biggest party with 25 seats. 


Kokoomus. "The makers of Helsinki's future."

Vihreä liitto, (The Green League). The Greens, a well-established, yet relatively young party (30-years-old, this year), was the big winner in the election, increasing its support nationwide by almost 4%, the most of any party, and adding three seats in Helsinki, bringing it to 21. 

It is, naturally enough, a party dedicated to environmental and human-rights issues. 


The Greens. "Together a better Helsinki."

Otherwise in the election, the SDP lost 3 seats, holding its position as the third-biggest party, with 12 seats. Vasemmisto gained one seat, bringing it up to ten. The Feminist party won its first ever seat, as did the Pirate Party. 

The Christian Democrats kept its two seats, though one will now be filled by Keskusta politician Paavo Väyrynen, whom I was earlier shocked to see on the Christian Dems list. I have since learned that Väyrynen joined the CD list after Keskusta refused to allow him to run in his native Lapland. The move seemed to work out for him. 

Parties that won not even a single seat were the marginal leftist parties the Communist Workers’ Party and the Communist Party of Finland, which lost the one seat it did have. 

Some parties I’d never even heard of, such as the Suomen Eläinoikeuspuolue (Animal Rights Party) and Edistyksellistä Helsinkiä (Progressive Helsinki) also got no seats. 

I’m happy to say voter turnout in my neighborhood was 71.8%, better than the 61.6% for Helsinki overall. We are some politically engaged folks around here! 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Helsinki Votes: Not So Marginal Leftists

There are four parties in the Helsinki city council race that can be described as “leftist”. The two that I’ve talked about already I called “marginal”, as in totally insignificant. The remaining two are anything but. 

The biggest of these, the Social Democratic Party of Finland (“Suomen Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue”, or SDP) is one of the nation’s three bellwether parties. Of the four presidents who have been in office since I first came to Finland in 1982, three have been Social Democrats, including Finland’s first woman president Tarja Halonen. 

I’ve always imagined the demarit, as they are nicknamed, sit somewhere between capitalism and actual communism, with strongly pro-labor values, but with no intent of imposing on Finland anything like a dictatorship of the proletariat. 

No similar party of any note exists in the US, certainly not the Democrats. Of all America's household-name politicians, only Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders self-identifies as a Social Democrat, which makes him an outlier in American mainstream politics. Here, he’d be the mainstream. 

Until 2004, the SDP was the second biggest party in the Helsinki city council, behind business-friendly Kokoomus. Since then, it’s often come in third place behind the Greens. And so it was in the last election, in which the party won 15 seats (Kokoomus 23 and Greens 19).

This time around it’s fielding 127 candidates. 


The SDP list. "Anna ääni kaupungille!" ("Give a vote to the city!")

To the left of the SDP, but smaller, is the Left Alliance (Vasemmistoliitto), which currently has nine seats in the 85-seat city council. 

The Left Alliance was founded only in 1990 (compared to 1899 for the SDP), and my impression is that it rose from the kind of messy splitting and merging of various leftist parties that leftist parties everywhere seem to be known for. Think of the old Monty Python joke in “The Life of Brian” – where the bitterest enemy of “the People’s Front of Judea” other than the Romans were, naturally, “the Judean People’s Front”, if not "the Popular Front of Judea".  

While a truly “leftist” party, the Left Alliance is not fringe by any means. Its 29-year-old leader, Li Andersson, has been prominently featured on all the public-affairs shows and televised political debates, something the small Communist parties can only dream of. 

The party currently accounts for about 6% of the national parliament, and for a while even occupied a cabinet seat in the government's famous “six-pack” grand coalition a few years back. Chances are that won’t happen again any time soon, but keeping its seats in the Helsinki city council is a much surer bet.

The 127 Vasemmisto candidates for the Helsinki city council. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Helsinki Votes: Marginal Leftists

Not surprisingly for a European country, and you might say especially for one that was on the fringes of the Russian Revolution, leftist politics has a long and storied history in Finland.  

When under threat of arrest in Petrograd in 1917, it was to Finland that Lenin – apparently not a man of great personal courage -- had escaped, living some months underground in Hakaniemi, the traditionally “Red” part of Helsinki.  

In a Hakaniemi bar called Juttutupa, there is still today a table where Lenin and Finnish Bolshevik Otto-Ville Kuusinen used to sit, maybe having a drink or two, but no doubt mostly discussing Marxism and revolution and other such breezy topics. It’s called “The Revolution Table”.  

(On an American-related note, the leader of the Communist Party USA was for some forty years a man named Gus Hall, the son of Finnish immigrants to Minnesota.)  

So, it’s perhaps not shock that there is an assortment of leftist parties to choose from in Finland, though for the most part, their influence has been greatly diminished over the last few decades.  

Two of them could be charitably called “marginal”, at best.  

The Communist Party of Finland (Suomen Kommunistinen Puolue or SKP), won only 9 municipal council seats in the 2012 election – in the entire country. One of those was in Helsinki. In this election, they are fielding 53 candidates (including unaffiliated ones) for the Helsinki city council.  


The SKP list. "Helsinkimme ei ole myytävänä" ("Our Helsinki is not for sale")

The Communist Workers’ Party – For Peace and Socialism (Kommunistinen Työäenpuolue – Rauhan ja Sosialismin puolesta) is even more marginal. In the last election, it didn’t win a single council seat nationwide, and got a total of only 704 votes -- also in the entire country. It has only seven candidates in the Helsinki race.  


The Communist Workers' Party -- For Peace and Socialism.

I don’t have the deep understanding of Marxism (or any for that matter) or patience to tease out what sets these two parties apart. Way too esoteric for me. I also can’t be bothered to contemplate how many angles can dance on the head of a pin.  

In any case, the SKP is described as a Marxist party, while the other one is described as a Marxist-Leninist party. With only 704 votes last year, the extra ingredient of Leninist doesn’t seem to be doing the trick.  

A side note: the term “Leninism” has popped recently in American political discourse, since Donald Trump’s “Senior Counselor”, Steven Bannon, has described himself as a “Leninist” -- in the sense that he wants to blow up the status quo, in particular the “administrative state”. 

Of course, as of this writing, it seems Bannon’s star is falling, so you might say he’s being marginalized. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Helsinki Votes: Feminists and Pirates

Unlike the United States, Finland has quite a few political parties to choose from, including some fairly small ones. Many of the small fry, it has to be said, hold no real sway over public affairs. Or ever will. 

Still, compared to the US paradigm where you basically have the choice of voting for one of two big parties, even if those parties only partly match your view of what matters in public life, Finnish voters can probably take some satisfaction in being able to cast a ballot for a more personalized party, one that much better fit their points of view. Even if those may be very niche points of view.

One such "niche" party I've noticed now fielding candidates in the Helsinki city election is a completely brand new one: Feministinen Puolue (The Feminist Party). Color-branded in pink, naturally enough.

The party's three focus areas are gender equality, non-discrimination, and human security. In other words, an overarching concern for human-rights issues. This dovetails, from a progressive perspective, with some of the most relevant -- or some would say contentious -- issues in Finland today: immigration and multiculturalism.

This progressive bent is reflected somewhat in the makeup of the 24 candidates in the Helsinki race. Two are wearing hajids, for example. 

Of course, multiculturalism and gender issues figure prominently in other Finnish parties on the progressive side, so you might think there's some redundancy in launching a new, narrowly focused party. But, if you really wanted to concentrate your political energies on these particular issues, a new start-up targeting a niche of voters could be the right way to go. The marketplace at work in politics, you could say. 


"Kaupunki ilman rasismia" (City without racism.) 
Another niche party is, in a sense, an immigrant. Okay, more like an import. The Finnish Piraattipuolue (Pirate Party) was created in 2008, a couple of years after its sister (or maternal?) party was founded in Sweden. 

While the party has a unsurprisingly computer-geek/renegade vibe to it, many of the issues it is concerned with are now -- in this age of Wikileaks and surveillance worries -- a big part of today's mainstream news cycle. 

The party's wheelhouse are "information" policies that touch on privacy, transparency, freedom of speech, and -- as you might expect for a party with "pirate" in its name -- the overhauling of copyright and patent restrictions. The temptation to say "keelhauling" instead was very hard to resist. Arrr!

The party also proposes replacing the existing social welfare system with "basic income", which has been widely discussed in Finland in recent years, and is in fact being trialed on a limited basis. 

It's a distinctive set of issues that might very well pique the interest of some voters, though in its nine years of existence, the party has apparently never had a candidate elected to any office. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how its 31 candidates for the Helsinki City Council fare on Sunday. 


Some of these guys do have a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp.
Well, maybe one anyway




https://piraattipuolue.fi/en/

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Helsinki Votes: Christian Democrats

In the Helsinki City Council election this Sunday, one of the mainstream parties vying for my vote is the Christian Democrats (Kristillisdemokraatit). It’s a somewhat minor party, currently holding only two seats in the city council and only five in the national parliament.

The national party is led by Sari Essayah, a 50 year-old woman who I still more often think of as a champion race walker. She competed in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. She also enjoys, in a sense, some name-recognition due to having a decidedly non-Finnish family name, Essayah, which comes from her Moroccan father.

As I scanned the list of KD’s 123 candidates displayed on a placard at the end of my street last week, I was shocked to see among them Paavo Väyrynen, a veteran Finnish politician. Very veteran. He’s been around forever. What surprised me was that, as far as I knew, Väryrynen has always been a member of a different party, the Keskusta, for which he has been a parliament and cabinet member and two-time presidential candidate. And, I thought he lives in Lapland, at least officially, not Helsinki. As it turns out, in the KD list he is marked as sitoutumaton (unaffiliated), which means he’s attaching his wagon to the Christian Democrats only for this race.

As the name Christian Democrat implies – well not implies, but states outright – the party is based on a particular religion and reflects the concerns of the more religious elements of the Finland population. My sense is that KD supporters are drawn mostly from Lutherans, and not so much from the Russian Orthodox.

As an openly religious party, you might compare the KD to America’s Republican Party, which is now, more than ever, an implicitly Christian party, despite recently electing the most un-Christ-like president you can possibly imagine.

But there are big differences. On the KD’s website (available in Finnish, Swedish, and English), you’ll find that its concerns are mainly health and well-being for families and the environment.

Some of the specific aims detailed in what might be called its manifesto for the municipal elections, entitled in English “Called to Care”, are such goals as: 
  • Services for families must be increased to support parenthood and to help manage everyday life.
  • School performance must be improved. Finland succeeds with know-how.
  • We want mould resistant municipalities. [For Americans, this would be "mold resistant".]
  • We want a comprehensive [health] service promise. Treatment must be available quickly and neighbourhood services accessible. Health inequalities have to be decreased.
  • We defend smooth and affordable public transport
Missing from the list are many of the hot-button issues that get Republican Christians in the US so riled up. There’s no mention of abortion. There’s certainly no mention of same-sex marriage or which public bathroom a transgender person should be allowed to use. No mention of "religious freedom". (Of course, you might not expect such national-level issues to feature in local elections anyway.)

Now, I can’t say for certain that such culturally conservative topics aren’t, in fact, motivating issues for some Christians in Finland, and maybe even internally within the Christian Democratic Party. 

But, if so they aren’t widely discussed, perhaps due to the fact that such socially conservative views would be considered far outside the Finnish mainstream. Religious Finns don’t typically wear their faith on their sleeves the way Americans do and certainly don't political about it. You might say this reflect a general Finnish "live-and-let live" attitude.  Or maybe it's a reluctance to stray far outside a relatively narrow consensus of society.  

In any case, the word “Christian” (or any kind of reference to religion) appears only once in the KD "manifesto", in the following statement:
  • Let’s play Suvivirsi. We cherish the Christian cultural heritage of Finland.
Now, this is an interesting issue, and it involves a song. 

Suvivirsi, which translates to “Summer Hymn”, is a song about the end of the school year and the beauty of the approaching summer. As any parent who has attended a year-end grammar-school happening will tell you, Suvivirsi is a firmly embedded Finnish traditional. After the schoolkids have finished their little plays and musical performances, after the ceremonious handing out of certificates for graduating students, after the fidgeting of the kids in the audience reaches a critical mass, everyone in the auditorium stands up and sings Suvivirsi as a long-awaited denouement to the school year.

In years past, I took part in this sing-along many times but, as with any song in Finnish, I was able to only hum along, since I had no clue about the lyrics. Everyone else in the auditorium knew the words by heart. And it’s an issue over those words – including a couple of references to God, the Creator – that has caused the song to be specifically mentioned in KD’s manifesto.

I have heard that, as highly secular Finland has become perhaps more conspicuously less Christian than in years past, Suvivirsi has created a controversy of some sort. 

Some people have questioned why schoolkids who are non-religious or of another faith, for example Muslim, should have to sing a hymn that flatters a Lutheran deity. I think there may even be cases where schools have already dispensed with the song altogether. This, naturally, can rub some people the wrong way.

Since our kids left school some years ago I can't say if anything has actually changed at our local school. I'm guessing the song is still being sung at the end of the year, the lyrics unchanged. And, personally, I don’t see why this should be a big deal.

Okay, it’s true that it’s a Lutheran hymn, referencing Jumala (“God”) and Herra (“Lord”). So, the song obviously assumes some religious belief. Naturally, I can't say for certain how Muslims see it, but – wading into some tricky theological waters here – I’ve understood they worship the same “God” as the Lutherans do, so singing a line or two about that god shouldn’t seem so out of line. Perhaps they would take issue with Herra, which I assume refers to Jesus. Still, how much of an affront should this be to the average Muslim? Again, I can't claim any special insight to that question. 

In many ways, it's the atheists who should have more cause for objecting to Suvivirsi. and perhaps do. Yet, I know atheists, principally in my own family, who have no problem with singing it. They see it as more "cultural", than actually "religious". I tend to agree. Perhaps another example of the Finnish live-and-let-live attitude. 

In any case, Suvivirse may be a natural talking point for the Christian Democrats that sets them apart from most of the other parties, but I can't imagine it will be a big enough issue to garner another Helsinki City Council seat or two. Guess we'll see after Sunday's election. 


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Street-level Elections

A week from today, Finland will hold elections for kunnat (basically county-level municipalities). These are held across the nation every four years and have a major impact on local governance. (Well, duh!)

In the case of Helsinki, this means electing the Helsinki City Council, which is made up of 85 members, almost as big as the US Senate.

As a legal resident of Finland, I’ve been eligible to vote in these local elections for a couple of decades already, long before I became a citizen. I usually vote for the Greens.

I can’t claim to be an expert on Finnish politics, other than having a rough idea where the major parties stand on the political spectrum. And in truth, Finland, being a very consensus-minded country, with regard to many issues there aren’t large gaps between major parties.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to profile, over several posts, at least some of the parties involved in the Helsinki election. But, of course, first I needed to acquaint myself with who’s running.

The most concrete way to do that is check out the old-school placards displayed in long, purpose-built metal frames located around the city. One of these is set up every election season in the same spot in our neighborhood, on the sidewalk at the end of my street opposite a garden supply store. You can’t miss it.

The empty frame appeared there already a couple of weeks ago and has gradually been filled with placards from different parties listing all their candidates in the Helsinki race.

A few days ago, I took a walk down the street to take a look. About half of the spots in the frames were still empty, with placards absent from some of the major parties, such as Kokoomus and the Swedish People's Party.

The parties that were represented were:
 

  • Feminist Party (Feministinen puolue)
  • Social Democratic Party of Finland (SDP) (Suomen Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue)
  • Greens (Vihreät)
  • Christian Democrats (Kristillisdemokraatit)
  • Independence Party (Itsenäisyyspuolue)
  • Communist Labor Party (Kommunistinen Työväenpuolue)
  • Finnish Center Party (Suomen Keskusta)
  • Finnish Communist Party (Suomen kommunistinen puolue)
  • Pirate Party (Piraattipuolue)
  • Liberal Party (Liberaalipuolue)
  • Martti Linnoaro (some guy with no party affiliation “sitoutumaton”)
I’ll try to cover at least some of these parties in the next few days -- maybe starting with the Christians. 



Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Cutting Off Your Nose

There has been a lot of talk, and controversy, about President* Donald Trump's proposed budget for 2018 which was published a couple of weeks ago. Much of the controversy has rightly focused on the unprecedented cuts to many federal departments and programs, especially the ones highly prized by liberals and loathed by conservatives. 

These include the Environmental Protection Agency (hated for its supposedly job-killing regulations), the National Endowment for the Arts (hated for supporting weird, artsy-fartsy high-brow culture), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (hated for its "socialist" TV and radio programming, such as Sesame Street). 

Then there's the elimination of the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, which funds before- and after-school programs for almost two million, mostly impoverished, American school kids. This is a service that in Finland is available for almost all first- and second-grade schoolchildren. Our own kids definitely benefited from it. But it's clearly a luxury that the world's greatest and richest nation cannot afford. Obviously.

Another part of the federal government on the chopping block is the Appalachian Regional Commission, which Trump plans to completely abolish. The ARC is a nation-building agency that provides federal money to help develop the large swath of the United States that is sometimes called "Appalachia". 

That name has taken on a slight derogatory tinge, you might say, bringing to mind cultural and economic backwardness. But, the inescapable fact is that the region around the Appalachian Mountains has been historically slow to develop. 

To alleviate the region's persistent economic disadvantage, the ARC was set up in 1965 to funnel federal money into 420 mostly rural counties in 13 states, including my home county of Gilmer in North Georgia. Among these areas are strongholds of Trump support such as West Virginia (voted 69% for Trump) and Kentucky (63%). It is were much of his "base" is based.

By the way, this is federal money provided by taxpayers in blue states such California, because states such as West Virginia and Kentucky are net takers of tax money, and La La Land is a net giver.

One concrete example of an ARC development program is the four-lane highway that passes by my hometown of Ellijay. Built as part of the Appalachian Development Highway System, the highway certainly cut the travel time to and from metropolitan Atlanta and, judging by the giant shopping plaza, featuring a Wal-Mart, a Starbucks, even a Japanese restaurant, among many other businesses clustered along the highway outside of the town proper, it has generated some conspicuous economic activity. 


Anyway, out of curiosity, I checked to see what kinds of ARC programs would currently be affected by Trump's drastic budget cut. According to the list here, there were around 25 such projects in 2016 funded in large part by the ARC, mostly related to health care and infrastructure. As far as I could tell, none had anything to do directly with Gilmer County.

Examples of these programs, which might well lose their ARC funding in the future, were “North Georgia Healthcare Center Telemedicine Lab Unit”, “Bobby Brown Park Master Plan”, "Cartersville Downtown Water System Improvements", “Georgia Northwest Technical College Chemical Lab Equipment”, and so forth. 

Say good bye to free government money for beakers and test tubes, you lazy moochers at Georgia Northwest Technical! Let Georgia tax payers pick up the tab from now on. Cartersville, it's time you stopped looking to Uncle Sam to help improve your water system!


One of the bigger items in 2016 was $300,000 for “Trion Wastewater Treatment System Improvements”. I’ve never even heard of a town called Trion. I think it’s made up. A fake town used in a scam to spend California tax payers’ money. The perfect con! 

Of course, I'm joking and find it all ironic. It's a prime example of someone, or to be more specific millions of Trump voters in Appalachian states, cutting off their noses to spike their faces. 







* A "so-called" president in my mind, since Trump applied that label to a federal judge who has at least as much legitimacy for the office he holds as a president who lost the popular vote by some three million.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Count Forrest Gump of Finland

On our short trip to St. Petersburg last summer, my wife and I mostly stuck to the typical tourist spots as we wandered around that historic, sprawling city – with one exception, that is.

At my wife’s suggestion, we paid a visit to a cemetery a bit off the beaten path. Now and then, while on holiday, we somehow find ourselves in random graveyards, as ghoulish as that sounds, so this wasn’t so unusual for us.

In the case of this graveyard visit, however, we had a specific goal in mind.

The year before, a colleague of my wife’s had sought out a little-known cemetery while on a work trip to St. Petersburg. He was looking for one grave in particular, the final resting place of a Finnish nobleman with some historical connections to the part of Eastern Finland that my wife’s colleague (and my wife, for that matter) hail from.

This would be southern Savo, a beautiful and quiet part of Finland. Very, very quiet. Other than in the region’s principle town of Mikkeli (pop. just over 50,000), there’s not a lot of “bustling” going on there.

This is especially true in Ristiina, a tiny village south of Mikkeli where the man buried in St. Petersburg lived over 200 years ago, in a house that my wife’s colleague is helping to restore.

As sleepy and unassuming as the village is now, it would be hard to imagine the colorful life led by its former resident, including an unfortunate turn of events in vicinity of Mikkeli itself. 

Count Sprengtporten
Count Georg Magnus Sprengtporten was not a native of Savo. He had been born in 1740 in Borgå (Porvoo, in Finnish) on the southern coast of what was then the eastern part of the Kingdom of Sweden. I, for one, had never heard of him and had to search the Internet to pick up scattered details of his life. In some ways, I may have only scratched the surface, but I hope I got the basic facts right.

As a young Swedish aristocrat and army officer, Sprengtporten first made a name for himself in the Seven Years’ War, which American school kids will know as the “French and Indian War” -- if they know anything about it at all. In what was arguably the first truly “world war”, Sweden played only a small part, joining in on the side of France, Russia and Spain against a coalition of Britain, Prussia and Portugal, mainly to regain territory it had lost to Prussia earlier. Sprengtporten served with distinction in this unsuccessful attempt to reassert Swedish control on the southern Baltic coast.

A decade later, the Count helped his older half-brother Baron Jacob Magnus Sprengtporten in the surprise mutiny and (apparently) bloodless capture of the Sveaborg Fortress (Suomenlinna, in Finnish) off the coast of Helsinki, effectively seizing control of all of Finland as part of a plot to install a new king in Stockholm, Gustav III.

Under the new regime, Sprengtporten was then appointed as a prominent military leader in Savo, where he commanded a brigade and founded an early cadet school in, you guessed it, Ristiina -- in fact, in the house my wife’s colleague has helped to restore. (The school was later moved to Hamina and became Finland’s premier military school.)

Sprengtporten and his brother Jacob, meanwhile, became increasingly dissatisfied by how they had been treated by Gustav, and following a visit to St. Petersburg Georg began to feel more appreciated by the Russians.

Around this time, he also hired himself out in the service of France, where he came into contact with the ambassador from a newly independent nation on the east coast of North America. This elder statesman, a true renaissance man and creator of, among many other things, bifocal eye-glasses and pithy sayings, was of course Benjamin Franklin.

The Smolenka Lutheran Cemetery

Partly influenced by Franklin, Sprengtporten returned to Finland with the notion of splitting Finland off from the rest of the Swedish Kingdom. This led him to enter into an ill-fated conspiracy with the Swedish king’s brother, among other schemes aimed at bringing about some kind of Finnish autonomy.

The Count wasn’t the only one entertaining embryonic thoughts of independence. Officers in the Suomenlinna garrison were grumbling in secret among themselves about the new war that Gustav had started with Russia for purely political reason. At least some of those officers went on to clandestinely approach Russia, seeking an end to the fighting and perhaps support for Finnish independence, in what became known as the Anjala Conspiracy.

By that point, Sprengtporten had already switched sides. Enticed by Gustav’s cousin, Catherine the Great, the Count put himself at the service of the Russian Empress. When the war with Sweden broke out, he was sent to lead Russian troops in a campaign in what was to him familiar territory in Savo, not far from Ristiina.

In the Battle of Porrassalmi, Russian troops under Sprengtporten’s command marched from the south against Mikkeli, which was defended by a much smaller Swedish force. Despite this, the Russians were defeated and Sprengtporten was badly wounded.

Following the disaster at Porrassalmi, the Count lost the faith and favor of Catherine. Apparently thinking it wise to lay low for a time, he took up residence in Bohemia, in present-day Czech Republic, in the town of Teplice. There, he struck up a friendship with the librarian of a nearby castle, a man by the name of Casanova, who was (and is) better known for tending to something other than dusty books.

Sprengtporten's gravestone.

After Catherine’s death, Sprengtporten once again found himself in the employ of Russia, when the new emperor, Catherine’s estranged son Paul, sent him in 1800 to negotiate with Napoleon over the issue of Malta. Bonaparte had captured the island-nation, ruled by the Knights of Malta Catholic order, while on his way to conquer Egypt. Napoleon was determined to expel the defeated knights from the island, and Sprengtporten’s mission was to arrange for a large number of them to be granted refuge in St. Petersburg.

Following Tsar Paul’s assassination, Sprengtporten was again on the outs with Russian rulers for a number of years. He once more rose to some prominence in 1808 when he was appointed as Russia’s first Governor-General of Finland, after the new tsar, Alexander, won Finland from Sweden in the Napoleonic Wars. Sprengtporten held the position for only a year.

Benjamin Franklin, Casanova, Napoleon, plus various royalty – there’s almost a Forrest Gump vibe to Sprengtporten’s life. And now he’s buried, mostly forgotten, in a somewhat decrepit cemetery in St. Petersburg.

On my wife’s colleague’s visit to the cemetery, the location of the grave sadly eluded him. Still, his quest sparked my wife’s interest, so one afternoon we strolled from our hotel to the other, decidedly not touristy, side of Vasilievsky Island with a vague idea where the cemetery should be.

Following the very narrow and tranquil (you might even say, almost stagnant) Smolenka River we passed through a riverside park where groups of citizens were cooking on braziers and enjoying an early evening drink or two until we came to a bridge that crosses to Decemberists’ Island, directly opposite the heavily wooded Smolenka Lutheran Cemetery.

We really had no idea how we’d find the grave, but we were lucky in that at the cemetery entrance stood a large obviously new signboard listing the most notable of the people buried within. It was almost entirely in Cyrillic. We don’t speak Russia, but by searching for the right dates of birth and death we quickly located the correct bit of text:

СПРЕНГТПОРТЕН Егор Максимович
(Georg Markus) (1740 – 1819)
Граф, генерал от инфантерии, первый русский генера губернатор-Финляндии.

участок 5

Which translates to...

Sprengtporten Egor Maksimovich
Count, general of the infantry, the first Russian general-governor of Finland.

Plot 5

It didn’t take long searching plot 5 to find a tall, stone monument in better shape than many of the surrounding, half-ruined gravestones. It was inscribed on one side in French “Ici repose la dépouille mortelle de George Magne Comte de Sprentporten”. Voilà!

There was a newly laid stone path to the grave, a sign that the grave has recently been spruced up thanks to money from Finland.

And that, of course, would be fitting for a Finnish Count whose remarkable twists and turns in life included even a spell in bucolic Ristiina.


"Ici repose..."