Saturday, November 26, 2011

We went to St. Petersburg last week.  Russia is a very, very different place than Finland.  In Finland, the societal pressure to follow all rules is so strong that if you don't take a number at the cashier in line at the department store EVEN THOUGH you are the next and only person in line, some ruthless old lady will come up and cut in front of you and not feel sorry about it because you're the idiot who didn't follow the rules to the letter.  In Russia, the rules are either ignored or absent entirely.  People were crossing the street in the middle, taking photos right in front of "NO CAMERA" signs in museums, parking three deep on the sidewalk (not kidding), and generally behaving like they didn't give a shit.  Which makes sense because, as far as I could tell, Russians don't give a shit.

People were openly drinking duty-free vodka at the customs checkpoint at 9 o'clock in the morning.  There were four booths open but none had lines; everyone seemed to think it was a better idea to push forward in an amorphous blob.  Once we were through, we rode the shuttle bus (read:  van with a paper sign in the windshield) to St. Isaac's in the touristy area of town.  St. Petersburg is a beautiful place and I enjoyed being there, but it really gives Terre Haute and Lafayette a run for their money in the competition for World's Smelliest City.  And in contrast to these cities in Indiana, I don't think the smell in St. Petersburg is due to any industry or factory, unless it is a factory that produces raw sewage.  We'd be walking down the street and suddenly it was like everyone in the whole city farted at the same time.

Anyway, on a more cultural note, we went to The Hermitage (not to be confused with The Hermitage) and followed the crowd through an entrance that was marked "exit."  We walked through an incredibly ornate entrance hall and some dude was vacuuming the carpet, patiently waiting for groups of tourists to move on so he could get the carpet beneath their feet.  The art was amazing, the building itself was amazing (it's a palace, after all), but the museum seemed to run according to what I was beginning to think was the typical Russian style of having rules for the simple pleasure of ignoring them.

The next day we had an American Thanksgiving party where we tried to show our Finnish friends the finer points of this excellent holiday.  Only one of them got a stomach ache by the end of the party, so I guess we mostly failed.  It was still fun, though.  There was pumpkin pie, chicken and dumplings, glögi (Finnish mulled wine), and all kinds of other awesome things that I will leave to the reader's imagination.

Tonight I am going to a mixed martial arts training session with my friend Tommi, which I agreed to do while apparently drunk.  He assures me that I "most certainly will not get kicked in the face."  I mostly believe him, since I have yet to meet a Finn who would be impolite enough to do such a thing.  Either way, I haven't had a black eye in quite awhile and I think even if I get beat up it'll make me feel like a bit of a badass.  My goal is to either knock someone out or get a visible injury that I can show off.

HOW will I fare against the most fearsome fighters that show up to beginner's MMA lessons on Tuesday nights in Helsinki???  WHERE on my body will my visible injury be???  WHAT was I thinking agreeing to do this???  Tune in next week for the exciting answers to these questions and more.

Monday, November 21, 2011

It's finally getting cold here in Finland.  For awhile I was starting to think that maybe Finns exaggerate their winters for the sake of storytelling, but no, they're not kidding.  It's plenty cold.

The sun is setting by about 3:30 in the afternoon these days.  The effect of the lack of sunlight is also something I thought maybe people were exaggerating, but this is also no joke (I think the common thread here is that I should start believing what I'm told instead of just thinking I'm smarter than everyone else).  My brain is telling me it's dinnertime by about 4 and time for pajamas at around 6.  By 8 o'clock my brain thinks it's midnight and by midnight I'm expecting the sun to come up any minute.  It's very disorienting.  Also unless the sky is perfectly clear during the day (which is rare) it never gets truly light outside, so it's basically either twilight or deep night around the clock.  Lyndsey and I are going to have to be super careful not to go all The Shining on each other.

Apparently it has now become expected by my friends and family that if they come to visit me in Helsinki that I'm going to embarrass them on this blog.  Only partially true!  If you come to visit Helsinki and you embarrass YOURSELF, then you will be embarrassed on this blog.  I consider myself only a reporter of facts. Far be it from me to stand between the people and what they want, which is humorous anecdotes that they can read at work and have a chuckle, telling themselves that should they find themselves in a foreign country there is no WAY that they would do one of the foolish things my friends and family seem to do regularly.

So, Dustin and Sofia, your fate is in your own hands.  If you, for example, fail to grasp the complex bus pass system used in Helsinki and have to have a Finn help you use the machine even though young children regularly ride the bus by themselves with no trouble, then you have no one to blame but yourself.  Or if, for example, you tell me that you think salmiakki tastes like "an old man" and I relate it here, I cannot be held responsible.

Tonight we are going to see Gogol Bordello and on Thursday we're going to St. Petersburg.  I've heard many times that Helsinki is a crossroads of western and eastern European cultures, and I think it's high time we started exploring the eastern parts.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Normally, if I get invited to dinner anywhere and the host asks me if I have any food allergies or if there's anything I don't like, I'll respond with something like "I like everything but mushrooms."  This is far from true, but it conveys the fact that if there is one thing I would be fine with never putting in my mouth ever again, it's mushrooms.  They're slimy and mushy and they grow in nasty places.  Blech.

So imagine my surprise when, after a successful afternoon of hunting yellow foot mushrooms near Vantaa, I not only tried but enjoyed a soup made by our friend Elina and her mother Tarja that prominently featured mushrooms.  It also featured butter, onions, cheese, cream, pepper, and some other ingredients I didn't catch, but to eat anything that can legitimately be described as "mushroom soup" was a huge step for me.

I've also begun to be a coffee drinker for the first time since we moved to Finland.  I never used to see the point of trying to drink a scalding hot cup of bitter liquid first thing in the morning, but I think I'm starting to get it.  (It's the caffeine, right?)  When I started setting up meetings with people related to my research project, so many of them would ask if I wanted to meet up for coffee that pretty soon it was just easier to acquiesce than to come up with a reason why not.  Lyndsey tells me that Finnish coffee is bitter and a bit weak, so I'm looking forward to trying American coffee when we get back and comparing them.  I feel so sophisticated.

But please do not think my personality is coming completely unmoored.  I assure you that even though I have a new appreciation for coffee, I still consider mushrooms to be mostly gross.  I have also not become so sophisticated that products like the Arizona-ateria are still powerfully appealing to me.  There are posters for this thing in bus stops all over Helsinki right now and I am considering suing the advertiser because I cannot stop thinking about this specialty cheeseburger long enough to get any work done and I consider this to be a disability for which they are responsible.  Sooner or later some evil genius is going to bring either Hesburger or Schnitzel Planet to the United States and bring the country to its diabetic knees.  Oh man, I wish I were in a Schnitzel Planet right now...

No!  I have to focus.  The public library policy of Finland isn't going to research itself.