Sunday, 15 December 2013

Christmas Culture

So an old school friend of mine on facebook recently posted "Culture is really something yuh know. Who remembers seeing their neighbour still painting their front wall at 4.30 Christmas morning with a torch light for illumination?" And it started me thinking of the Christmas cultural differences between Finland and Trinidad.

I so do not miss Trinidad in that respect. When I look at my Finnish mother-in-law slaving away in the kitchen for two weeks before Christmas preparing ginger bread cookies, plum pastries, Christmas casseroles and all those goodies it makes me tired. I could not imagine how it would be if she also had to clean the whole house top to bottom, mop floors, polish them, clean windows and shine them, change and wash all the curtains, dust everywhere including under the bed, and paint the whole house inside and out like we did in Trinidad?

Wherever did this tradition come from in the first place? This is just another tradition created to kill wives and mothers and harass little children. Because in the old days maybe the husband would paint but you think he would do any of the household cleaning? No! Not men's work. So it was the women who did all the cleaning and roped the children into helping. So our Christmas holidays away from school consisted of helping mommy mop, dust, polish, scrub and paint. As I am writing this I am having flash backs, like the remnants of a bad trip, of Christmases past when I sat outside in the hot sun on a stool painting the front gate. I ponder the uselessness of it all when children should be outside learning through play (I love that Finnish concept). Instead we re-paint the entire house even if we have to beg borrow or steal to afford it, just to keep up with every one else in the neighborhood.

Needless to say I am not doing that. And I especially love the fact that nobody here is expecting me to do that. I enjoy my freedom to just worry about the usual cleaning and the making of the Christmas foods which in and of itself is more than enough trouble in my mind. Especially when you have little children. I think it is more important to spend time with my child than worry about having a spick and span house for Christmas guests.  The only thing that I may be made to feel guilty about is not making all the Finnish casseroles and ginger bread cookies and plum pastries by hand. But I long ago stopped feeling guilty about that. I was recently told by an older work colleague that "You can't buy the Christmas casseroles, you have to make them yourself, it's just not as good". First of all, as an immigrant I have a built in excuse. I am not expected to know how to make Finnish Christmas food. But as I said earlier, it is more important to be rested and happy so that I can spend quality time with my family, rather than being a tired and cranky mess. I learned from my mother-in-law, who is quite the homemaker and enjoys it, not to do the same. As she is always tired and complaining of an aching back after Christmas and spends most of her time in the kitchen instead of with the children who fly across the globe to spend Christmas with her. To her it makes sense, but to me it doesn't. And I have noticed that nowadays a lot of younger Finns feel the same as I do. So I am not alone in my freakish foreign ideas. 

But the Trini habit of totally redoing your home and making all the Christmas foods, foods too many to count, is just too much. What with all the black fruit cake which must be prepared in advance as the prunes have to be pitted and soaked in liqueur with raisins, currants and cherries weeks before the actual baking of the cake. Then there is pastels where the meat filling has to be cooked, then corn meal based dough has to be made, separated into balls, rolled out and the filling added. Then each is folded individually and wrapped in a banana leaf, and foil and steamed. This process takes all day! There is also the sorrel making, which requires pitting those horribly prickly seeds from the sorrel flower (I shudder at the memory of having my little hands pricked) and boiled with spices then strained, cooled and sweetened. The pigeon peas stew which needs to be shelled first before it can be cooked. Another labour intensive en-devour. Not to mention the macaroni pie, ham, bread, turkey, calalloo, rice and salads that have to made all to be inhaled in under an hour at the Christmas table. The preparation of this feast usually began weeks in advance and culminated after midnight on Christmas eve. How did our parents ever have the energy to deal with us children on Christmas day I don't know. We Trinis take this Christmas preparation thing to an extreme. An extreme I gladly enjoyed as a recipient when I was growing up but refuse to bother with as an adult on the other side of the fence.

Here once again I have a wonderful built in excuse. I live abroad so I can't get calalloo, pigeon peas or sorrel. No one here knows about pastels and black cake so no one is the wiser that I have not bothered to make them. When I remember how my parents used to criticise the neighbour's "blender" calalloo (as opposed to using a swizzle stick, Google swizzle stick if you are not a Trini) and pastels with a press (as opposed to using a rolling pin and folding), implying that their cooking was inferior. I laugh at the stupidity. As we grow older we realize the adults are not as clever as we thought. I think this whole Christmas mania that adults put themselves through for Christmas around the world is silly and the Trini Christmas mania is the silliest of all. I can say this because I am a Trini!

P.S. I made fish sticks for lunch today on a Sunday not the whole "Sunday lunch" (macaroni pie, peas, rice, salad, meat roast or stew for those of you who don't know). In fact I rarely do except for on the occasional nostalgic Sunday. Another Trini slave-driver tradition that no one here cares about and won't judge me for. Ha!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

How Finnish do you have to be to be considered Finnish?

A Somali who grew up in Finland was on a television talk show panel this week talking about Islam. No I am not about to blog on Islam or any religion for that matter. But she made an off topic comment that got me thinking. She said although she was originally from Somalia she had moved here at the age of two. Consequently she spent all her life in Finland, grew up in Finland, speaks Finnish and identifies with Finland. She also said she and her family had adapted and assimilated to the Finnish lifestyle and culture yet she was always considered an immigrant. She said it seems that if you don't look like the stereotypical "ethnic Finn", white with blond hair and blue eyes, you are not considered Finnish. Her comment made me ask "How Finnish do you have to be, to be considered Finnish?" Will my daughter ever be considered Finnish?

There is a sort of mindset in Europe, but especially in mono-cultural Finland, that if your forefathers aren't from here and you don't look ethnically Finnish then you are not Finnish. It is a mindset foreign to us from the western hemisphere. A Brazilian friend and I once had this discussion. In our countries it didn't matter what someone looked like or where their ancestors were from, they were seen first and foremost as a Trinidadian or a Brazilian. It comes from being from a country where everyone's heritage is from somewhere else. We naturally assume someone is a Trinidadian or Brazilian until they say otherwise. Here it is the opposite.

Even my husband who is white with dirty blond hair, but his father is Hungarian, is sometimes introduced as "Robert who is half Hungarian". Or "This is Robert, his father is from Hungary". The first time I heard someone introduce him like this I was bewildered. I didn't understand the need for the explanation/qualification of where his father was from. To me he looks Finnish, sounds Finnish, thinks Finnish acts Finnish therefore he is Finnish and should just be introduced as Robert.

And these stories of Finns assumed to be immigrants because they look Latino or Asian or Middle Eastern are quite common. I was on the bus one day and a lady I had met at the local perhetalo came on the bus with her child and the stroller. Her child didn't want to sit in the stroller so they both sat on a bus seat while the stroller stood in it's designated space. When they were getting off the bus an elderly woman said " You foreigners should do like everyone else and ride the bus with your child sitting in the stroller!" She assumed my friend was a foreigner because she looks Latina as her mother is Colombian and she has dark hair and brown eyes. But the lady was born and grown in Finland! At work I have a co-worker who was adopted from Vietnam and she said she gets the assumption that she is a mamu (Finnish slang/derogatory word for immigrant) all the time. Even my open minded husband has made the mistaken assumption that someone is foreign based on how they look and I have to correct him. I guess this way of thinking is the consequence of still being such a mono-cultural country with very little immigration.

So my question is how Finnish will my daughter need to be to be considered Finnish? If she is born here, raised here, speaks Finnish without an accent, thinks like a Finn and acts like a Finn will that be enough for her to ever be considered Finnish? Or will Finns always assume she is an immigrant based on how she looks? Hopefully in the future mindsets will have changed.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Summer In Finland

So it's the middle of October and though summer has long come and gone in Finland I am finally writing this post which I meant to do since June! The summers in Finland are very short, basically only two months. That may be why Finns seem to worship the sun in the summer and are always outside. People walk around half naked already at 19 degrees centigrade! You will sometimes spot young women in pum pum shorts with a little of their butt cheek on view.

Finns who are usually quiet and somber during the summer are a bit more outgoing and smiling. I am sure it has to do with the sun. 

In the summer, on good-weather days, the parks are all full. There is always some happening in the city. There are many concerts and festivals and many of them are free. Everyone is always grilling, at home or in the park. It's the only time of year my husband cooks regularly because that's when he can grill. People try to find activities to do which would require going outdoors. Going to the beach, drinking in the park, fishing, sailing or biking. Any excuse to be outside really. I guess because the sun is so seldom available you have to take it when you can. When I first came to Finland in the summer of 2002 my husband begged me to go do something outside everyday. I didn't understand why he felt the need to go out every day. Now I do. In Trinidad we try to stay out of the sun as much as possible. You tend to change that Trini mindset once you experience one winter here.

Many people spend their summer vacation at the family summer cottage. Traditionally it's some ancestor's humble house on the lake, handed down through the generations while everyone migrated to the cities. The basic cottage has no running water or electricity but water can be had from a well or nearby lake. But many have been "pimped" or "tricked out" to contain all the modern luxuries. Nowadays many people buy a cottage of their own. Other people choose to go abroad during the summer. While most of Europe takes their summer holidays in August, Finns take theirs in July, as July is most likely to be the warmest month of the summer. However, his year the warmest month was June with a couple weeks of close to 30 degrees centigrade weather. At the same time it was rainy in Central Europe and cool in the southern countries such as Spain. This was highly unusual for June.

This year we went to the Taste of Helsinki food festival where you can try food from some of the best restaurants in Helsinki. It was a beautiful warm day and I really enjoyed our "date". I think this is the day I enjoyed most this summer. Here are some photos of that beautiful Helsinki summer's day.

The University of Helsinki's main building at Senate Square

                                                               Thai cultural festival

                                                   Street performers

                                               The Lutheran Cathedral at Senate Square

                                                                  Orthodox Cathedral

                                                   We had a beer at this boat bar

                                                            View from boat bar

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Will the Royal Babies of Europe Start Sleeping in Cardboard Boxes?

My first ever blog talked about strange Finnish parenting habits like putting our babies to sleep in cardboard boxes. Recently BBC ran an article about the Finnish maternity package titled "Why Finnish Babies sleep in Cardboard Boxes" The Finnish welfare department said that after this article they got many calls from around the world asking to buy the maternity package. Here is what's in this year's maternity package:

Now it seems the royal babies of Europe may start sleeping in cardboard boxes because the Finnish state has recently given the soon-to-be parents, Prince William of Britain and his wife Kate, a maternity package and its associated mattress and linens as a present. Finland reportedly also sent the crown Princess of Sweden and her husband a package when they had their baby last year.

According to the BBC article, the idea behind offering a mattress in the box so that it could be used as a cot, came about to encourage people to put their babies to sleep in it's own bed and to stop the "unsafe" practice of co-sleeping. The article goes on to chronicle the history of the box and it's origins and how it evolved as a means to encourage healthy parenting habits such as seeing a doctor for prenatal care (you don't get the package unless you see the state doctor), breast feeding (they do not include bottles or pacifiers) and care for the environment (they include reusable diapers).

So maybe this trend of the maternity package may catch on around the world with a few governments starting a similar program. Maybe in addition to seeing other Finnish babies in the same clothes as mine and knowing what year they were born, I may see the royal babies of Europe sporting the same Finnish baby clothes as mine. Or maybe I should start a business buying and selling the same products in the box to people abroad ; )

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Difficulties of the Finnish language.

I have always thought that my moving to Finland where I have had to learn Finnish is divine retribution for all the pain I caused my French and Spanish teachers in school. At that time I never saw the need to learn a foreign language and so I never really studied or paid much attention in the classes. Consequently, I barely passed these subjects in school.

Cue six years latter and I move to Finland where I have had to learn Finnish. One of the most difficult foreign languages for English speakers to try to learn according to the Language Difficulty Ranking put together by the US State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, FSI.
Local news channel YLE has written a short article about how difficult it is to learn Finnish. 
I didn't need to learn Finnish to live in Finland because most Finns speak very good or fluent English. It is mostly the older generation who do not speak any English. As a small country Finns think it important to learn a foreign language in order to manage in the wider world. And since the lingua franca of the twenty-first century is English everyone speaks it. Also luckily for me I work in such an international field (scientific research) that English is widely used at work and it was not necessary for me to learn Finnish in order to find employment. But my mother and father-in-law do not speak much English and if you live in a foreign country it is wise to learn the local language. And so I did. I took approximately three years of Finnish courses and learned even the most complicated grammar construction of literature and poetry. But for the life of me, I couldn't express myself, because I never used the language. When I decided to apply for Finnish citizenship I was forced to practice the use of the language in order to pass the test for the language requirement. That's when my Finnish language ability really developed. Finnish is very difficult for English speakers to learn because the grammar and structure is totally different to English. There are no articles. There is no gender and hän is used to mean both he and she. There is no future tense. Tulen can mean both, I am coming right now, or I will come tomorrow. The language uses double letters a lot which can change the meaning of a word if you pronounce it wrongly. For instance Tuuli means wind but tuli means fire. Words can become extremely long because the tenses and cases are expressed by adding various suffixes (of which there are fifteen) instead of prefixes. You can read about the fifteen cases and suffixes here:

Consider the longest word in Finnish: lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas. Which means technical warrant officer trainee specialized in aircraft jet engines, and is supposedly actually used by the Finnish Air Force. It consists of sixty-one letters! Now try saying that word while drunk. It's a skill even few Finns can master. On the other hand Finnish is very easy to pronounce or spell once you get the hang of it because the words are pronounced exactly the way they are written. There are no silent letters or endings like in French. Finnish people have a hard time learning French for this reason. There are no same sounding words with different spellings like, meat and meet. Is it any wonder J.R.R. Tolkien was fascinated by the language and used it as his inspiration for Elvish? Though my Finnish has vastly improved over the last five years, I would still not consider myself fluent in the language. I come across new words I don't know on a daily basis and I make grammatical mistakes. On a bad day when I am tired or my brain stops working I have a hard time stringing two words together in Finnish. So nowadays I can shop, order, watch TV, listen to the news or radio, read simple news articles, have conversations with friends and write e-mails and simple notes in Finnish. Because most Finnish people realize theirs is a complicated language they are usually pleasantly surprised and happy when a foreigner can speak their language. Knowing that their language is only used by Finns in Finland and is therefore not a particularly useful language to learn they are happy that you even bothered to try. I am praised all the time for my faulty Finnish skills because there are many English speakers who never bothered to learn Finnish even though they have lived in Finland many years. My parents-in-law on the other hand are of the opposite opinion and always criticize me for not speaking better Finnish after living here for almost eleven years. But it is really hard to improve when it is so easy to be lazy and speak English and when everyone usually switches to Finnish if they notice you are having trouble. Many times people answer me in English even when I have started the conversation in Finnish! 

I have made colourful gaffs like saying pakolainen (refugee) when I meant pakollinen (mandatory), or lihavia (obese) instead of lihaksia (muscles). It's a complicated language which I doubt I will ever truly master, but after my near failing grades in French in school, I am never the less proud of my Finnish skills. 

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Daycare in Helsinki

So I started working again so my daughter is now in daycare. Most of the day care centres here are state run and operated. So the standard of care is pretty uniform. There are some private day care centres but they are mostly specialized in that they use a special method or philosophy in child rearing, like Steiner or Montessori. Or they teach the children a foreign language or about ecology and nature. Because the day care centres are state run they are subsidized and cost a maximum of 263 euros a month. Depending on your salary you may pay less or nothing at all. And some mothers who do not work also put their children in daycare. The private day care centres cost more. But you can get some financial support from the state to pay for the private daycare. So many of the English language centres I called cost between four hundred to seven hundred euros after state subsidies. 

None of the English speaking daycare centres are close to our home and they are a bit expensive in my opinion so we opted for regular public day care. It has been almost three months since our daughter started day care and it has been great. I was worried that I was not doing the right thing by sending her to day care at one and a half years old. Because all the child development experts say it is best for small children to be at home with their care giver until up to two or three years old. And for the first two weeks it really tore my heart to see her cry when we left her. But it has been the best decision we could have made. She loves it there and she is learning so many new things. Her Finnish vocabulary is growing very rapidly and she can now count from two to ten in Finnish (not that she understands what she is saying). She has also learned to drink from a mug by herself.

She is so active and social that it is the best place for her to be as there are lots of people around and lots of things to do. They sometimes take trips to the library or the marketplace square or nature areas. And last month the entire day care centre put on a circus performance for the parents.

The daycare centre opens at 6:15. We drop our daughter off at 8:00 at which time they feed them breakfast. After breakfast they read, sing nursery rhymes, count, talk about the weather, the day's schedule and play games. Then they play outside from 9:30 to 11:30. 11:00 is lunch tim and then the children nap from 12:00 to 2:00. They have a snack when they wake up and then go outside to play again until we pick her up. There are also 24 hour day care centres for parents who do shift work. All the meals are provided by the day care. They have a cook onsite who cooks all the day's meals. The meals are regular home cooked Finnish food like fish soup and berry fool. The personnel all seem very nice and Emilia sometimes cries to see them leave in the afternoon or when she leaves to come home with us. But she always has a big smile and happy greeting shouting "moi!" when we arrive to pick her up. I think that the day care is worth every penny and I am very satisfied with it thus far.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

How to dress a Finnish child for all types of weather

The Finnish daycare centres let the children play outside for much of the day. If they are not eating or sleeping they are outside. So a Finnish parent has to have a variety of clothing to suit the four seasons of weather which sometimes all occur in one day. Though the calendar says it is officially spring in reality it is still the dead of winter here and although it was +5 degrees Celcius one day a couple weeks ago now it is snowing and -18 degrees again! So we still have to wear our winter clothing. To give you an idea of what outdoor clothing a little child in daycare needs I have taken pictures. These are the clothes I put on over her regular clothing.

So basically her outdoor clothes consists of: one pair of 100% woolen mittens worn underneath proper insulated winter mittens, two pairs of 100% woolen socks, 100% woolen jumper, a woolen balaclava hat (it negates the need for a scarf), a winter jumper which is made of windproof, slightly waterproof material with an inner insulating layer and of course insulated winter boots two sizes bigger in order to accommodate all the socks!

Then when spring really comes it will be rainy and wet. So I will have the added challenge of dressing her for cold/chilly and wet weather. I will dress her in something like this: a rain jumper lined with fleece, a fleece jumper underneath when it is cold, rain gloves, maybe the woolen under mittens from above if cold, rain boots with warm socks inside, and a hat. It may be that on a really cold spring day these rubber boats may not be warm enough so I am thinking of buying these: They are very warm and water proof.

Then there are the wind breaker jumpers for when it is chilly and or windy and maybe slightly wet but not rainy. These are useful also in the summer as the summer can sometimes be disappointingly cool and or wet.

The day care center asked that we leave a spare pair of rain boats and outerwear in case they are not dressed for rain and it rains. So I left some plastic rain pants and coat in her cupboard at day care. She should be ready for anything now. Some of these pieces of outdoor clothing are not cheap but luckily I got many pieces from my friends. She has already outgrown some of her outdoor clothes. So this could be an expensive proposition to buy two of these winter jumpers and under jumpers each year. You Trinis don't know how lucky you have it!

Alas life for my little girl will never be as simple as her mother's was. There will be no running outside, clad only in a diaper, to play. But fortunately she is an active child and loves being outside no matter the temperature, rain or shine.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Could human warmth and interaction be worth more than gold?

Recently the results of a gallup poll listed Trinidad and Tobago as the fifth happiest nation in the world based on feelings of well-being. In the poll people were asked questions such as if they smiled a lot yesterday, if they felt respected and well-rested and if they had learned or accomplished something interesting that day. Our Latin American neighbours Panama, Paraguay, El Salvador and Venezuela were in the top four. These results are opposed to some previous studies which measured happiness based mostly on one's standard of living. In that poll relatively wealthy Scandinavian nations like Denmark and Norway, and other "first world" countries like Switzerland, Netherlands and Austria were in the top five. Finland, where I live was number nine on this list.

It makes you wonder. Could it be possible that people from so-called "third world" countries are actually happier than those from "first world" countries? If so why? Well some friends and I were discussing this new gallup poll on Facebook. And we all agreed that regardless of Trinidad and Tobago's economic and social problems such as crime, faltering education and health systems and a large class divide, Trinbagonians are still very happy people.  We noted that despite the hardships people are more friendly with each other than in many other countries in the north. People can count on their neighbour, family or friends to help them out and are more optimistic. In addition, your dollar or euro can stretch further in many ways in Trinidad and Tobago than in Finland for instance. With our gas and oil subsidies and incredibly low property taxes, and cheaper labour the cost of living is not as high as in many developed nations. For instance my old school friends in Trinidad who have comparable levels of education and professions can afford household help because labour is cheaper. That might not seem like a big deal but consider how hiring a housekeeper can prevent bickering over who's turn it is to vacuum or prevent resentment towards your spouse for doing less housework. Or how being able to hire a nanny means that mummy can have a nap during the day if the baby has kept her up all night and still have time to exercise or go run errands and not feel rushed and stressed every day. Or think of how having someone cut your front lawn and trim your hedges every week means you don't have to nag your husband to do it. It definitely makes for a happier life.

On the other hand the more money you make in Finland the more tax you pay. In addition to which labour is very expensive so to hire a nanny or housekeeper would mean paying a salary of at least 1400 euros a month. The strong Finnish work ethic means that people work hard trying to show that they are independent and industrious and it is almost a sign of weakness to ask for help. Add to that the cold interpersonal relations and you can see that this society can be harsh.  People tend to internalize their stresses and problems rather than talk about them. Hence, depression and suicide is much higher than in Latin America and the Caribbean for instance. Sure my life here is easier in many ways. The health care system is much better than in Trinidad, though still not perfect. Everything runs well and on time so it is not much of a hassle to go to the authorities to deal with things like social security or passport renewal etc. If I am laid off tomorrow and in dire financial straights there is a wide array of financial support I can access from the state. There is very little crime and even the supposed bad (low income) areas are very safe. And of course Finland is economically more prosperous than Trinidad and Tobago. But the quality of everyday life is sometimes a struggle. Being a stay at home mom I realize now how very little human warmth and interaction there is here in Finland. If you don't see any friends and family you will not get it from strangers. Most people walk around looking miserable even when they are supposedly having fun. For instance my husband complains about the middle aged Finnish women who, in the summer time, love to dress in their bright summer dresses and go to the market square with their shopping basket, the whole while with a big frown on their faces. No one talks to or even looks at or smiles at strangers. For people living alone it can be a life saver just to get out of the house and have someone smile at them and have a mini chat. In Trinidad and Tobago you can't take public transport or go to the store without someone starting a conversation. And many times those are the funniest and most interesting conversations you will ever have. People smile a lot more and there is a more relaxed and happy atmosphere which in and of itself can lift your spirits. Of course the lovely sunny weather year round helps a lot too.

A former colleague at the University of Helsinki has echoed similar sentiments many times on his Facebook page. He has noticed that there are a lot of colleagues who complain of burn out at work and a lot of depression in Finland. He says that the Finnish society can be easy but the interpersonal relations are cold. He believes that if more Finns would start being more friendly and warm to each other they would probably feel better and have less burn out at their jobs and less depression in their lives. This phenomenon of depression and suicide seems to be a common thing in cultures which stress hard work, achievement and independence above all. Japan and Singapore for instance have many stressed people and high suicide rates. Singapore also has wonderful tropical weather like Trinidad but people reported being unhappy in the gallup poll. Singapore was 46 on the list. But the Japanese and Singaporeans work too much and don't play hard enough and so are much more stressed than Trinis who probably play harder than they work. See the eighth paragraph in the following link.

Many people from developed nations would wonder how could anyone from a "third world " country be happy? People like the Finnish politician who's statement has become Finnish lexicon "To be born in Finland is like winning the lottery". Or people like my in-laws who cannot understand the dream to one day go back to the Caribbean. "Your life is much better here of course" or "Who would want to move to Trinidad?" are just a couple of statements they have uttered. First it shows that many "first worlders" do not understand that many so called "third world" countries like Trinidad are actually thriving economies in their own right and are not all squalid slums of poverty. According to the OECD Trinidad and Tobago actually achieved developed nation status in October 2011.
Secondly it shows that many people forget that there is more to life and happiness than just economic well being. They do not understand that human beings, being social animals, are happiest when they can have human warmth, support and interaction regardless of their wealth or lack thereof.