Return to index page

July 21, 2003

Scandinavian Rhapsody/a cultural quiz

(After my trip to Sweden, Finland and Estonia, June 27-July 11, 2003)

Last Friday I returned from an idyllic, adventuresome, fantastic trip to Sweden and Finland. As many of you know, it is often my custom when abroad to send back emails detailing my picaresque mishaps and successes while beyond our American borders. However, the proliferation of WAP-phones and the SMS culture of Scandinavia, combined with the utter non-online-ness of Lapland, prevented me from communicating in any kind of digital fashion. I resorted to keeping an ana-log in a little pink notebook acquired prior to leaving Seattle. It now contains 80 pages of expense tallies, confused language notes regarding Finnish and Estonian, and a daily narrative. I cannot here transcribe it.

You may have many of your own perceptions about Scandinavia - as I had prior to seeing it for myself. I provide a cultural quiz here drawn from my 14 days in the North as a measure of your conjecture against my experiences.


1. It is warm enough to enjoy your drinks outside the bar on a Swedish evening.
2. The slowdown of the economy makes it impossible for everyone to have a knife at a restaurant.
3. Girls in white dresses ride the Stockholm subway.
4. The family sauna on the overnight Silja ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki is a positive experience.
5. Barhopping on the Silja ferry's 3 bars is fun.
6. The Finnish language is difficult to master, but easy to imitate.
7. I was immediately identified as an American everywhere I went.
8. I was marked as a member of the reindeer herd in a special ceremony by a Lappish shaman.
9. I am somehow related to everyone in the southern Lappish province of Posio.
10. I saw Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer meet an untimely end on the Finnish highway.
11. It seems a horrible fate to be a parent in Scandinavia.
12. Muikku are everywhere.


1. False. But, perhaps, if you have just survived your 29th winter in Stockholm, it feels warm enough at midnight in June to wear a skimpy top and strappy sandals. I was not of this opinion. I made use instead of the thoughtfully-placed little fleece blankets laid over the back of each bistro chair everywhere I went. It was very "Red Cloud" meets "Stylish Swedish Bar." It was all I could do to not make off with one.

2. True, if your Swedish father says so. My first meal in Stockholm, a well-humored Swedish father sat at the table next to me as his toddler son clambered up to sit. The little boy wanted a knife. "Why can't I have a knife?" he asked. He looked around. "We got here too late to get knives," his father said. "They're not handing them out anymore." The little boy thought about this for a minute. "But *they* have knives!" he cried out, gesturing toward the table where my friend and I were sitting and laughing. "Yes, well." The father shrugged his shoulders. "The economic slowdown makes it impossible for everyone to have a knife these days."

3. True. The Stockholm subway is so clean and non-urban feeling (compared to other subways I have had the pleasure of riding) that three-year- olds in immaculate white cotton dresses hop on and off the cars as though in an IKEA commercial of well-ordered cleanliness.

4. False. I *thought* it sounded very nice at first. However, one accidental glimpse at a window of the helm of the ferry offered an undesireable view of a Finnish father in a Speedo scratching his belly with his arm around his son. I quickly axed the "public sauna" idea (also due to my particularly grandmotherly swimsuit - an article of clothing I have never been proud of) and headed off to my cabin for a nap.

5. False. What would you think if a Malaysian woman who introduced herself as "Ring-Ring, but you can call me Candy - I live in Finland" invited you out for a drink, and proceeded to disdain in high profanity all of Finnish culture, while correctly predicting the arrival of the very boisterously drunk young men at 11 to replace the very dourly older drunk men? And then what if the potbellied older man who was pinching your upper arm and asking you to dance was suddenly replaced by a younger paperback bookmaker from Tampere who spoke in broken English, shattered with wayward elbows almost all the glasses on the bar, drained your new drink, and exhaled vomit-scented puffs of warm air on you? And then everyone went upstairs to a discotheque to dance and watch the Finn pass out? That's right, you might have wished you'd purchased the airfare instead. This experience will henceforth be filed under "Funny, But Not Fun."

6. True. The language was very hard; everyone always says it is very hard; even a fool can, in this linguistically enlightened global village, blurt out "it's part of the Finno-Ugric family" when Finnish is mentioned. The TV programs were very hard to understand when I first arrived. However, immersion is a wonderful thing, and by the end of a week and a half I could hold banal conversations with the sweet Finnish grandmothers who fed and housed me on my journey ("The sun is shining," "the sun isn't shining," "not many mosquitoes now," "is the sauna ready?" &c. &c.) I have always had a theory that my ability to roll r's from an early age derives from imitating my mother's parents on summer visits to Upper Michigan. Baby, just roll those r's and look as stern as Sibelius, and they will understand whatever little phrase you try to eke out.

7. False. Finns and Swedes of all ages approached me speaking their respective languages at a rapid-fire pace. I felt like I did not even get a second look of scrutiny. Usually by the time I broke it to them ("I speak English," "ei suomea!") they were halfway through some complicated discussion of restaurant seating with respect to the arrival of the d.j., or a tirade about my shoddy driving somewhere north of Rovaniemi.

8. True. At the family reunion a very tall, lanky, intimidating Finnish man with piercing blue eyes decked out in a Finnish shaman costume came crashing through the birch trees. Someone had tipped me off as the lone American woman. He seized me and asked me my name. I was dumbstruck by his blue, blue eyes, the large amount of fur atop his head, his leather leggings, and the many hunter-related utensils dangling from his leather belt. He took out a large knife and said he would nick my ears "for the herd." (No, I did not know any of this vocabulary in Finnish. Yes, I had an interpreter speaking English in my ear.) He said his knife was too dull, and that he needed to sharpen it. Out came a massive flint and he sharpened the knife in a shower of yellow sparks. He pretended to nick my ears at the top of each, and then took out a small pot of ashes to smear ash on my forehead - I presume to remind next year's antlers to sprout in time for summer.

It turned out this man was yet another cousin who is also the host of Finland's version of "Survivor," staged in Lapland. My friends in Helsinki were extremely impressed by this piece of information. I, of course, did not know him from Adam, although I suspect he will be visiting me in my dreams, knife dangling, for quite some time.

9. True. And they all want to serve me coffee.

10. True. It happened just south of Kuusamo on our way to Kuopio. I had just seen a "Danger: Reindeer Crossing" sign and the traffic was thick by Finnish standards. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a reindeer bounded out of the ditch, followed by a tiny reindeer. The mother made it across the road but her calf was slower. A red Civic hit it head-on and the baby reindeer circumscribed an arc crosswise over the hood, landing on the pavement. The mama looked back and saw what had happened. She crossed the road again. By this time I was shouting and pulling the car over to the shoulder, paranoid for the demise of an extended reindeer clan. The car who hit the calf pulled over; it is a serious fine in Finland to hit a reindeer and you are required by law to log and report the event. Another car pulled over behind it. I pulled back out onto the road to continue south. The calf twitched on the road. It was horrible. I was very careful to look for reindeer until we were out of the northern provinces, not wanting the bad karma of a baby reindeercide.

11. False. With government-guaranteed stipends and long-term maternity and paternity leave, incredible cultural support for having children, the constant public presence of extremely cute, well-behaved children, and quality government-regulated daycare for a rock-bottom $200 per month, scaled progressively to the number of kids you have, combined with the cooperation of extremely game Scandinavian fathers who are very happy to take the child for a bit, or change it, or whatever, and the prospect of having a family suddenly seems far more attractive than the American "well, good luck to you - hope you find a sitter" model.

12. True. The minnowy, bait-like fish are served fried, smoked, steamed... breaded... in cream sauce ... on toast.... in bowls, on plates.... Every time I shouted "no more muikku!" to the universe, another smiling Finnish matron would appear with a freshly fried batch. At first I ate them, heads, fins, bones, and all, clueless barbarian that I am. I soon noticed that everyone else was surgically removing the spine with a knife and the tine of a fork. I tried this. It moderately improved the muikku experience, but the scratchy tail fins remained to tickle my throat.

Posted by jay at July 21, 2003 12:27 PM | TrackBack
Comment spammers: see our Unauthorized Advertising Policy and rates

Bravo! Thanks so much for the travelogue...

Posted by: Peter on July 21, 2003 01:16 PM

Antlers would be SO COOL!

Posted by: Gary on July 21, 2003 11:33 PM

Oh, to live someplace so enlightened... as further evidence (or maybe evidence that things can go too far), see this article -,4057,6791501%255E13762,00.html - about how the Finns treat the oldest profession. If its too chilly to drink outside, there's always the bordello!

Posted by: Seth on July 23, 2003 09:19 AM
Post a comment