Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Borders and Differences Are a Matter of Perception - My latest column in the New World Finn

The following is an article of mine that was published in the Summer 2010 edition of the New World Finn. As always, if you are interested in Finnish-American/Finlander cultural issues, I suggest that you subscribe to this fine quarterly.

Borders and Differences Are a Matter of Perception
©Willie Lahti 2010

For the first time in two years I’m heading back to the country of my birth. Our son is almost a year old and I want to show him where his daddy is from. I want him to hear the wind blowing through the popple leaves. I want him to feel the way the sun shines up north in Minnesota. I want him to taste the dirt from the fields where I grew up.

A lot has changed in the U.S. since I last visited, or at least that’s how I imagine things. A new regime has replaced the old. The national debt is bigger than ever although the dollar seems to be getting stronger, and someone has torn a hole in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico that no one seems to be able to close. We are still force-feeding freedom and democracy to people who may not actually want the brand that we are selling. One percent of the population of the United States is behind bars. The rich get richer and the poor get fatter. After all my years away, these things seem distant and strange to me, regardless of the fact that we live in the age of the internet and 24/7 global media broadcasting.

I’m not living under a rock. I have a pretty good grasp of the world we live in. If Obama cranks out a fart at the dinner table you can be sure we’ll hear about in Finland. When multi-national greed in the form of the third largest energy company (and the fourth largest company in the world) results in the worst human-made disaster in the history of capitalism (capitalism, incidentally is as nearly as old as humanity itself) I understand the global consequences.

I try to buy local as much as possible, but sometimes in the winter the only red bell peppers are trucked in to Finland from Spain. I like grapes, which are pretty much are never produced in Finland, with the exception of a few vineyards in Ahvenanmaa. When the grapes are out of season in Italy and Spain, they are shipped in to Finland from Chile and South Africa. Before asparagus is in season anywhere in Europe it is flown in from Peru. Pineapples, kiwis, tree-ripened mangos, sweet potatoes - the list of delicious fruits and vegetables that make up a varied (and sometimes expensive) diet goes on and on. Wild Finnish blueberries are the all rage in Japan, Finnish perch fillets are worth their weight in Foie gras in the restaurants of France. Any food is a super food if it’s marketed the right way.

People travel the globe almost as much as food does. As of 2009 there were approximately 155,000 people of foreign origin residing in Finland officially, myself included. This is approximately 40,000 more of us than there were in 2005. Our new homeland is struggling to come to terms with us. The laws regarding immigration haven’t managed to keep up with the times. Before the summer vacation season hits full swing, our Finnish government is planning on deporting grandmothers. One has already been granted sanctuary by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, her official whereabouts unknown. The other is in too poor of health to hide. Chances are if either of them is deported to their respective homeland (Egypt and Russia) they won’t have much longer to live since their only living family members are children who reside in Finland. And what is the crime of these grandmothers? According to current law, parents and grandparents of legal immigrants aren’t classified as family members. I haven’t yet decided whether or not this is the result of bigotry, protectionism, or just plain old stone-hearted bureaucracy but I do know that I get angry because I know how important my gramma was to me. Sometimes you know in your heart that the law is unjust. I’m waiting for a Finnish Sam Cooke to write a song about how change is gonna come.

I don’t have the time or energy to spend my whole life being angry and worrying about the world. I like to focus on the simple things. Mixing pine tar with linseed oil and brushing it on the old wooden rowboat. Turning the clay in the garden with a shovel and busting the clods with a hoe. Heading off to work and then watching the clock till it’s time to go home. Pushing my boy down the street in the stroller and stopping to say hello to the people that I run across- the old duffers and the grammas, the natives and the immigrants, the working folks, the white collars, the park bench winos. We all have our own place and purpose; we all breathe the same air. Borders and differences are a matter of perception. Someday change will come.

Electric Fish

Here is a painting of mine that I ran across during our recent visit to Minneapolis. This one can be found in the legendary Hard Times Cafe located at 1821 Riverside.

Electric Fish
Acrylic and junk on plywood
late 90s/early 00s?
Private Collection

Monday, June 28, 2010

Finnish Cultural Assimilation Lesson # 32.7 - Vain Suomessa - Only in Finland

Warning! This post is extremely gross!

Usually my blogposts concerning Finland highlight everything that I find to be wonderful about my adopted homeland. On occasion I'll run across something so negative that I have to write about it, just so people know that I realize that I am not living in some magical fairyland where everything is perfect. A past example of this type of post would be my Finnish Cultural Assimilation Lesson # 53. Unfortunately, once again I have made an observation that, like it or not, I must write about.

Dear recent and/or future immigrants to Finland: Usually I am of the opinion that cultural assimilation is the best policy for those of us who want to succeed in our adopted homeland. On occasion I discover cultural phenomenon practiced by the host culture that, in the interest of building a better society, should only be observed by immigrants - these habits should not be taken into practice! Just because the original residents of our new land find this acceptable does not mean that we should follow in suit!

Public urination is a common problem in cities throughout the world. Only in Finland have I encountered the phenomenon of public defecation. It has occured at our address twice in the last twelve months. The first offense was found in the entrance of our building. This time an individual who obviously was enjoying their Midsummer holiday a little bit too much chose to lighten their load in the gateway to the courtyard of our building.

My fellow immigrants, please remember that although it is usually a safe bet to do as the Finns do if we want to become productive members of society, sometimes it is indeed a better policy to follow our own norms of what is and what is not socially acceptable behavior.

Kesäkeitto - Summer Soup

We finally made it to the marketplace for the first time since we got back to Finland last week. I decided that since the proper ingredients could be found from local producers, it was high time that we enjoy some kesäkeitto. Since summer has officially begun, why not celebrate the fact with a nice pot of Summer Soup?

I'm recycling part of a blog post from last year, mainly because the recipe works and works well. - Why reinvent the wheel?

Kesäkeitto is simple and when preparing food is concerned, simple is good.

To make kesäkeitto for 4 people you will need the following ingredients (the fresher the better):

1 small cauliflower or half of a larger one

6-8 teeny tiny baby carrots (real baby carrots - not the ones that have been whittled out of big carrots) or 3-4 not-so-tiny carrots

about 6 new potatoes

a few handfulls of shelled peas

about 3 cups of water (that's about 7 dl)

salt (use something good that doesn't taste of iodine)

black pepper

2 tablespoons of flour (wheat or all-purpose)

about 2 cups of milk (4-5 dl)

about 1/3 cup of cream (1/2 dl)

1 egg yolk

fresh parsley

1. Prep your vegetables. Mine ended up looking like this:

I happened to have a stalk that was left from a head of broccoli, so I peeled and sliced it and threw it into the mix.

2. Salt the water and bring it to a boil. Add the cauliflower, carrots, and potatoes. Simmer for 5 - 10 minutes, or until they begin to become tender.

3. Mix the flour with a splash of milk until smooth. Add this mixture and the rest of the milk to the vegetables and saltwater. Simmer for another 3 -5 minutes or so, while constantly stirring.

4. Add the peas and some coarse ground black pepper. Turn off the heat.

5. Mix the cream with the egg yolk using a fork or a whisk. Temper this mixture with a few spoonfuls of the hot soup and then add to the kettle. Stir the soup well, put the lid on the kettle and let it rest for a few minutes.

6. Add a handfull of chopped parsley and you are good to go. Serve with real butter and your favorite bread.

The finished product should look something like this:

Kesäkeitto aka Summer soup

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Little Red Hen

On a recent trip to MN I managed to take a photo of this painting, which I signed and dated over a decade ago.

Little Red Hen
Acrylic on canvas, lumber scraps
Private Collection

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Kuokkalan Kartano - The Kuokkala Mansion

A great place to have a coffee and cake. The selection of cakes and pastries was almost too much to handle. We each had coffee and a slice of cake and the bill came to 11 €. Not bad considering that table service is included and you get to enjoy a pretty swanky atmosphere as you sip your coffee.

Chocolate cake and Tosca cake along with some pretty decent coffee.

We enjoyed our coffee on the porch, but we could have also been in this elegant little salon.

Kuokkalan Kartano
was designed by Wiwi Lönn and built in 1904. The cafe and upstairs art display are open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m and weekends from noon until 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Maisemalampaat - landscape sheep

Every summer the city of Jyväskylä hires a diligent team of summer laborers. These sheep not only add to the landscape by looking good - when they graze they help maintain a landscape that is part of Finland's cultural heritage.

When the grasses and shrubs are cropped close to the ground and the surface of the soil is disturbed by their grazing, the seeds from wildflowers and other plants are allowed to take root and develop. Quite often, plants that haven't been seen in an area for years will return after the sheep are allowed to graze for a while.

The sheep can be found in the Kuokkala area of Jyväskylä. The sheep in these photos are fine examples of the Finnsheep, a variety known for multiple births.

If you go to check them out, please do not feed them, harrass them, or enter their pasture. If you are walking your dog in the area, please keep it on the leash.

The sheep were taking a break when I visited them.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ruthin Leipomon Arinalimppu

Since few weeks a go, a great local option has been available in the bread section of grocery stores in Jyväskylä. After about a ten year absence, Ruthin Leipomo (Ruth's Bakery) has resumed production.

I wasn't in Jyväskylä when Ruthin Leipomo quit baking (year 2000 I guess) so I am completely unqualified to make any comparisons between the breads produced by the old bakery and the ones produced today, but as a guy who appreciates good local food in any form I can say that their arinalimppu (rough translation - hearth loaf) is absolutely spectactular.

With a nice and crunchy crust that takes a little bit of toothwork to get through, revealing a lovely, soft center, this is sour rye at its finest.

I hope that the rest of Jyväskylä comes to the same conclusion that I have and begins to buy this local bread regularly. With a bit of consumer power behind them, this local company can succeed (where a national corporation has failed) and provide good bread (and jobs) to the people who live in our fine city.