All Things Weird and Wonderful

I think it was the beginning of Mrs. Bond’s unquestioning faith in me when she saw me quickly enveloping the cat till all you could see of him was a small black and white head protruding from an immovable cocoon of cloth. He and I were now facing each other, more or less eyeball to eyeball, and George couldn’t do a thing about it. As I say, I rather pride myself on this little expertise, and even today my veterinary colleagues have been known to remark, “Old Herriot may be limited in many respects, but by God he can wrap a cat.” 
                                       ― James Herriot

I’ve mentioned a couple of things in previous posts, but I thought it was maybe time to do a list of Things I’ve Noticed That Surprised Me about living and interacting with people in Helsinki so far.  It’s going to be a words kind of post, to fit the rainy bad-for-pictures weather lately.  Hopefully my sparkling sense of humor will make up for the lack of pictures!  

There are a lot of men with long hair.  Maybe it’s me comparing Europe in general to the suburbs of Ohio, but I’m really starting to think that long hair on some men is pretty attractive.  Although, there is a big difference between a well-dressed, well-groomed guy with long hair neatly pulled back, and a dude with cargo pants and a bucket hat with a greasy ponytail poking out.  Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian men can wear whatever the heck they want, in my book.

Speaking of men, there are way more men pushing prams than I’ve ever seen before.  I think it’s probably much less common in the States for men to be taking as much or more responsibility for childcare as women, whereas in many European countries, Finland included, it is common for men to get almost as much time off work as women, when they have babies.  Socially and personally, I think that’s a fantastic system.  It goes a long way towards gender equality, and in a more constructive way, I think, than this dollars-per-hour battle of the sexes that we have going on in the States.  That does not negate a little bit of curiosity when I see tattooed, tough-looking biker guys or uptight-looking businessmen carrying ruffly diaper bags and baby-talking.

Sometimes when I’m walking around I see full-grown adults seemingly in control of their mental faculties stop to sniff and examine the landscaping intensely.  Several times I’ve seen women break off a few sprigs of branches or shrubs (not pretty wildflowers or roses or anything) after careful consideration, and carry them off.  I really have no idea what is going on there.  I used to do that as a child; I had a “naturalist phase” between the ages of about 5 and 12, but I’ve never seen an adult do that in public for no apparent reason.  There can’t be that many botanists in Helsinki, can there?

European sizing.  I know, no one wants to talk about this, but I’m going to say it.  Obviously, I know that the number sizes for things like shoes and trousers are going to be different. They’re just codes–abstractions–they don’t really mean anything.  Even in the States, I can be a size 2 in one brand and a size 10 in another.  Ugh, vanity sizing, am I right?  For the popular brands, at least in Helsinki, they often have a tag with international sizes to compare.  But I’ve noticed recently that when you come across for example shirts that are sized with Large, Medium, Small etc, the European sizes will all be Small and the US will be Extra Small.  I felt the same way about coffee for a while after coming back to the States from London; I would order the smallest size and it would still look like a Large.  This kind of thing makes me very glad I’m a petite person in general–I think if I were taller, I would be really self-conscious about perpetuating the “fat American” stereotype.  And honestly, the stereotype is more true than most Americans want to admit.  In the States, you can take a quick survey of your environment and find recreation that encourages a sedentary lifestyle, fast food on every corner, millions of cars.  Whereas in two months here, I feel like a porker compared to the locals.  What you can find on every corner here are even little grocery stores and corner shops that offer fresh salads, organic produce, responsibly raised and sourced meat, and street vendors who happily sell out of bushels and bushels of fresh berries, onions, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, greens, and sugar snap peas.  Food is expensive and high quality, if not always of great variety, and several Finns have told me that they see it more as sustenance than something to get enjoyment from.  I don’t exactly agree with that, but at least that mindset won’t give you diabetes.  There are more bicycles and pedestrians than cars, and it’s much easier to get around walking and taking trams than by driving anyway.  The idea of a great weekend is not stressing out about your 60-hour work week and sitting in front of the computer or television eating chips, but hiking, cycling, kayaking, even just walking in the park or sharing some beers with friends.  It’s a much healthier environment, physically and mentally, and I think if we tried, people in the States could really learn something.

There’s a kioski for everything.  The corner newsstand is called R-Kioski.  There’s the Salmiakkikioski, and the Jäätelökioski (ice cream kiosk).  One of the little cobbled streets linking the Senate Square with the park on Esplandi is the home of a trailer voileipäkioski (sandwich kiosk).  There’s also a lot of monopoly of services; the pharmacies are all called Apteekki and they all look exactly the same, and there is only one kind of ATM, called Otto, which is owned by a separate company.  There are only a few types of phone services, and some of them you can manage at the Otto; the others you can top-up at R-Kioski.  If you have a really fancy plan, there’s probably a kiosk for you in the bus station.

It’s not weird to do your grocery shopping, your banking, or manage your mobile phone accounts in the bus station.  I think I’ve got this phenomenon figured out though; it has to do with the winter.  It’s just practical in a place where much of the year people would have difficulty going all around town to get their errands done, so the Finns have found the places where most people would congregate–the bus and rail stations–and have built shopping malls around them.  Shopping malls complete with restaurants, banks, grocery stores, clothing stores, and housewares shops, as well as some artisan candy vendors and the obligatory berries-and-peas stalls.  Oh, and don’t forget the kahvikioski!

It is perfectly legal and socially acceptable to drink alcohol in public. It’s also perfectly legal to drink alcohol in public at 10:30am on a weekday with your Finnish early lunch. At least I’m giving people the benefit of the doubt and assuming it’s with lunch. I can’t stomach a pint of anything except maybe coffee at that hour.  Speaking of alcohol, if you get the chance, check out Salmiakki Koskenkorva.  Drinking that stuff feels like being waterboarded by a bucket of ouzo that’s gone a bit off.  Generic store-bought beer is palatable, but not great (€5 would be worth it for a half pint of Leffe), although anything tastes fantastic after sauna at the cabin!   Stay tuned for forays into the artisan brews.

Automatic doors.  They’re everywhere, they don’t look like automatic doors, and I think it’s weird.  I keep falling into them thinking they’re just regular doors, and then they make a little electronic whining sound and open.  I don’t understand the necessity for all of the automatic doors, especially since they open slower than if you were to open them by hand.  And they aren’t the kind of automatic doors that slide to the side into the wall like they do in the States, in malls and big office buildings.  They all have handles, which makes no sense to me, and they open either toward you or away from you, so it seems like you’re always wrong in guessing which way they’re going to open, and if someone else is also heading through the door in the opposite direction, one of you is going to get a faceful of door.  It just seems like a needless opportunity for many awkward encounters.

While we’re on the subject of doors, I also think the elevators are weird.  The one at the university took me a while to get accustomed to.  It looks like a regular wooden door that opens toward you with a handle, and you get in this little elevator box and push your button like normal.  But instead of there being two sets of doors, one keeping the people waiting for the elevator out of the shaft and one keeping the people inside the elevator out of the shaft, there is only one set, so while you are inside the elevator you can see the walls of the shaft and the doors of each floor whoosh by right next to you.  If you were particularly stupid, you could touch them. It’s kind of like the escalator of elevators–I wonder if anyone’s ever gotten stuck in one.  And because the doors all have windows in them, you can wave to your friends on each floor as you go by.  Not all of the elevators are like this.  The one in the very nice university-owned apartment I’m staying in at the moment is just like the ones we have in the States.  But even more fun are the ones in the older flats that I’m soon moving into.  They’re like wrought-iron cages, barely big enough for two people to fit awkwardly into at the same time.  There is an outer door which has a lock on it, and an inner door that you have to latch carefully.  The little cage is completely open and shakes a little as it goes up.  Makes me feel kind of hipstery.

Which brings me to the idea of safety and lawsuits.  Not the hipsters, the elevators.  Another thing I’ve noticed is that there are several construction sites around here, and they don’t seem to be very concerned with pedestrian safety.  In the States I have actually been yelled at to go around the block rather than dare walk down the same street (on the other sidewalk) where construction is being done, and everyone knows those orange barrels and CAUTION tape multiply like rabbits in the springtime.  Here, there is a cherrypicker parked unceremoniously on the sidewalk outside the block of flats remodeling some windows, and it apparently took a few days for them to make the careful decision to put out a few small orange cones and some bunting, outlining a slightly repositioned pedestrian zone.  A few days ago there was a huge cement mixer and a jackhammer with wheels plodding down Runeberginkatu, a main road, and there was no orange in sight.  I asked a Finn what would happen if an accident, even one that was nobody’s fault, occurred.  Say a rough wind knocked some shrapnel off the cherrypicker and onto a pedestrian.  The answer was pragmatic: well, why were you walking under the cherrypicker in the first place?  The state will pay for your medical bills, but you kind of deserved it.

I think a lot of my observations have one main concept running through them: the idea that Finns are a very logical and efficient people.  The language has a lot of rules but tends not to break them (compare English, which tends to have more exceptions than rules that hold).  I’m finding that it’s a very semantically sensible language.  I commented once that I think it’s funny that the English translation of the Finnish words for broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cauliflower (parsakaali, ruusukaali, lehtikaali, and kukkakaali, respectively) are all compound words of the form “[descriptive noun] + [Finnish word for cabbage],” that is: “asparagus cabbage,” “rose cabbage,” “leaf cabbage,” and “flower cabbage.”  I was told, quite seriously, that those vegetables are all phylogenetically related to cabbage, so why should we not name them in a way that describes them and informs you of their relation to cabbage?

I’ve found Finnish resourcefulness quite stunningly useful in everyday life; for example, the water here is very soft, which is fabulous on the hair and skin (I’ve barely used conditioner since I’ve been here, which is a miracle), but also dries very quickly.  Accordingly, the Finns have developed this highly amusing dishwashing system wherein there is a dish cupboard above the sink that has slotted metal racks in place of shelves on the bottom.  Instead of taking the time to hand-dry your dishes or cluttering up your counter space with a drying rack, you simply put the wet dishes directly into the cupboard and they drip-dry right down into the sink basin.  The soft water means they dry very fast and leave no spots on your glassware.  There is a little slotted cup to put the silverware in while it’s drying, which sits on the edge of the sink and drains into the basin.  I was also recently introduced to the mushroom knife, which is simply a sharp little paring knife with a brush stuck on the end.  Why have we not thought about this?  I know we have the little mushroom brushes, and we all know which little knife in the drawer is sharp enough to cut the mushrooms without crushing them… why have we not thought to put them together?!

Speaking of food, bagging your own groceries.  I’m quite accustomed to the idea, having lived in London and spent a lot of time in Holland; I’m pretty sure it’s common throughout Europe, but Europeans tend to be just as surprised as Americans when you point out that in Europe, you bag your own groceries, and that is weird to Americans.  “Why can’t you bag your own groceries?  Don’t your arms work?”  “You have to PAY for bags?!”  Yes, the consternation is equally intense on both sides.  I support reusable bags and doing things myself, so I think I’ve gotten to the point where shopping in the States makes me uncomfortable.  I usually use the self-check-out.  Though there are also a few inter-country differences that I’ve noticed in check-out lines.  Dutch grocery stores are a stressful maze of people shoving you to the side of very narrow aisles and rushing you along at the checkout.  Cashiers scan your items so fast it’s hard to watch, and God forbid you don’t have a “chipkaart,” exact change, or get in the wrong lane.  If you don’t speak Dutch you can only pray they don’t ask you anything–just shake your head and hopefully you won’t get the frustrated eye roll.  Then it’s a panicked few seconds of shoving your stuff into your bag, hoping it’ll fit because if you end up needing to buy one you’ll have to get back in line.  Perks, however, are free coffee and on holidays, free cookies (lookin’ at you, Albert Heijn!).  English grocery stores are similar to American ones–the setup of products is very similar and you can usually find the same sorts of things.  The cashiers are friendly and greet you, asking about your day.  Like in America, you are supposed to say “I’m fine,” even if you’re not.  Sometimes people next to you in line will strike up a conversation, usually about the terrible weather.  If it’s actually sunny and warm (about 3 days a year), they will complain that it’s too hot.  And the English, of course, can queue like it’s nobody’s business.

I’ve found that the Finnish grocery stores are on the other end of the spectrum–somewhat relaxing, very quiet, but confusingly laid out.  I suspect it’s a difference between thinking about food in a sort of semantic network, and from a marketing perspective.  In the States and England, people who study the psychology of marketing have told grocery stores that you should lay out the produce first, as the bright colors and variety will make people feel like they are getting the best of fresh, healthy food.  Then you have aisles of other stuff, and you hide the things people normally look for under vague categories like “international,” “baking,” and “snacks.”  You put things that people will shop for most frequently, like meat, eggs, milk, and bread, in the back so shoppers will have to walk through the whole store and hopefully something else will catch their eye and they will buy it on impulse.  You put snacks, candies and tabloids at the register, so people will have the greatest temptation while they are standing idle.  Finnish grocery stores seem much more to answer the questions you ask yourself as you are shopping.  First, what forms the foundation for a hearty meal?  Meat and produce greet you as you come in the door.  Sometimes it’s produce then meat in the next aisle, depending on how big the store is.  It took me about 10 minutes of scouring the aisles at the Ympyrätalo S-Market looking for olive oil and balsamic vinegar until I realized the very simple and logical planning behind it.  What do you cook meat and produce in?  Olive oil.  Of course, I should have thought to look for the olive oil in the produce section!  Balsamic vinegar is conveniently next to the olive oil and the salatti, should you decide to make a vinaigrette.  Which you should, considering the Finnish approach to salad dressing appears to be inspired by the British.  My local Alepa then provides you with a wall of yogurt, next to a display of lunch meat.  Why the lunch meat is not with the rest of the meat nor the yogurt with any other kind of dairy is beyond me.  S-Market similarly segregates the yogurt.  There is then a selection of bread, mostly rye in different shapes and degrees of (intentional) staleness. I’ve been told that I can’t possibly enjoy real rye bread since I am an American.  In my Alepa the bread is followed by an endcap with a few kinds of jam.  Then we have the cheese section, which seems to be made up at least halfway of Emmental swiss cheese masquerading under labels that claim it is gouda or port salut.  Last time I checked, port salut does not come in blocks with giant rubbery holes in it.  Emmental cheese, by the way, is supposed to be eaten at breakfast.  “Cream cheese” appears to be a kind of mild white cheddar or American-style farmer cheese very good on sandwiches and that can also be eaten at breakfast.  In a separate cold case there is the milk, much of it low-lactose, and about five hundred varieties of ruokakerma in different flavors.  Of course, when you finally leave the shop, the door is not automatic.

I realize that most of these things may seem really stupid and insignificant, even nit-picky.  But I want to make the point that I give mad props to people who move to another country, because until you do it, you have no idea how hard it is.  And you start to notice these weird little things.  It can be an incredibly humbling experience, because suddenly things are slightly different than the way they were at home.  Having to be told how to wash dishes, how to do laundry, getting lost in the grocery store, getting reminded to take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home, not being able to read signs and labels–it can make you feel like a child again.  You have to worry about a lot of stuff that you take for granted when you’re a citizen.  Sometimes it gets overwhelming and you wonder if you can really do this, if it’s worth it, or if the world is always going to struggle against immigrants.  But the next day is a new day, and you realize that by just being here, you have already done it, and that is pretty awesome.


Add yours →

  1. The automated doors that looks like normal doors are simply retrofitted. And BTW, (outer) doors open outside for fire safety.

    Lunch meat is seen as something put on a bread and not a part of a main course. It’s not about language, it’s about culture. Frozen/cold stuff is clumped and usually placed for energy efficiency (because otherwise you spend doubly in the winter).


  2. I’ve been thinking about automatic doors with handles. I think that maybe they used to be regular doors that had to be adjusted at some point to make the buildings accessible for people with reduced mobility. (There are EU regulations on this, each public building has to be accessible.) Probably it was easier to just automatize them instead of replacing them with new ones, and in some buildings it might also have to do with monument protection.


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