Monday, June 22, 2009

Midnight sun

At some point while the sky morphed from sunset to sunrise on Midsummer night, I realized why this night is so celebrated: the sky never stopped varying in shades of pink of orange, with the sun just dipping below the horizon for an hour or two. It's a view worth its own weekend of traditions...

I was invited to a friend's cottage for the weekend: this is what everyone in Finland does for the weekend: head to a cottage on a lake and hang out in the sauna. And by everyone, I mean EVERYONE: the cities are apparently turned into ghost towns with almost every store, restaurant and hotel emptied. There are standard cottage pleasures: we cooked frequently and ate massive quantities of crepes (cooked them on what I can only describe as an outdoor pan over a cauldron of fire) and potatoes and porridge, went hiking around the lake, and sat on the old rocking chairs and watched the birds. But there are additional Midsummer traditions: in the sauna, we had a vihta: a bunch of birch branches bound together with new twigs with which you thwack yourself. It may sound odd, but it enhances the tingling sensation you get as your skin adjusts from the 15C lake water to the 83C sauna. It also smells heavenly.

More than all that, though, the highlight of the weekend was the dancing. On Friday and Saturday night, we drove about ten or fifteen minutes to the local Dance Hall - a large ballroom on the lake with windows for walls and a wooden patio extending to the water's edge. The bands were excellent and played the whole gamut from foxtrot and waltz to traditional yenka and humppa (which I at least managed to follow, and am quite proud of the fact) - punctuated with a little jive and lindy hop for good measure. The dances started at 9pm, and ended around 2 to 3am. Which meant a new version of jetlag in which waking up at 7am (what? before noon?) seemed rather dreadful this morning.

Fortunately, my hosts warned me about the protocol: you dance two songs (always in the same style) with one partner, and then get taken to the lines. If you want to dance, the women line up along a wall - roughly by age, as do the men. The men then ask the ladies to dance, unless it's the hour of Naisen haku and the ladies do the asking. I had, of course, the additional awkwardness of not speaking Finnish. I was the only foreigner at the dance hall - potentially the only one ever? I found that my line of "Sorry, I don't speak Finnish" in response to my partner's first comment was either a great conversation starter or ender. A few blithely ignored me and continued to speak in Finnish, others in English (with the inevitable question of 'are there dance halls like this in America?'), and one notable one in Spanish (we were both equally amused about our one common language).

Despite my lack of dancing shoes, I managed to dance most of the evening. By about 1am, the floor cleared a little and the bands played a little more of the 50s rock n' roll. There's something particularly endearing about Rock Around the Clock in Finnish - especially when the band has their guitar movements coordinated and choreographed...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Finnish tango on a white night

We are 3 nights from the longest day of the year. I have to admit that I don't understand how the days could get any longer and the nights any shorter: last night I was apparently up all through sunset, night and sunrise. Except that I never noticed it get dark. Hence I didn't even consider asking what time it was, and found myself crawling (in broad daylight) to my room at 2am.

These 'white nights' are celebrated by the long Midsummer weekend in Finland. And to begin the celebrations a little early, the forestry students threw a party last night. By party, I mean full-out dance party. The theme was 1950s - and while I might have expected a few poodle skirts and leather jackets - indeed, several of the girls did have puffy skirts - you must remember that most forestry students are male. And 1950s fashion at Hyytiala apparently involved a lot of plaid, flannel, suspenders and fedoras: yes, the stereotypical 1950s Finnish man was a lumberjack. But it gets even more awesome...

While some American parties might be themed, they rarely take the extreme measure of adapting music and social customs to the evening. This was different. The hall (one of the original 1910ish wood buildings at the field station) was decorated with birches - branches the size of small trees towered on either side of every door. The music was genuine 1950s Finnish dance hall music - lots of accordion and some surprisingly excellent voices. Everyone was given a brief dance lesson - the basics of the waltz, the foxtrot, the Finnish tango (which is nothing like Argentinean tango, and similar to the foxtrot), and a couple of traditional Finnish dances including the humppa (pron. oompah). There is a jump-y dance called the yenka (sp?) that is very tricky and loads of fun. I have yet to master it. I tried hard, though.

Once the dancing began, the gentlemen were beautifully courteous, escorting their partners to and from the dance floor. There was a clear 'men's side' and women's side' of the room - though the unequal gender balance of a forestry research station meant that there were no wallflowers. There were signs held up when dances were "Women's choice" (Naissen Haku).

There was one notable pause between the waltzes and foxtrots in which some hiphop was played, and one of the students did some surprisingly impressive break dancing.

Needless to say, I had a blast - especially when one of my friends, who turns out to be one of the best dancers with whom I've ever had the pleasure of waltzing, reminded me how to jive and taught me the Swedish version of swing dancing. It was slightly surreal to find myself being twirled to Elvis Presley in a 1910 dance hall in the middle of a forest in Finland. Did I mention that I LOVE this country?

And that's just the beginning: no matter what your experiment or job, staying at the field station over Midsummer is culturally unacceptable, so I accepted an invitation to a co-worker's cottage for Midsummer weekend (cottage. lake. sauna. forest. for a change of scenery and all), and have been promised that Friday and Saturday night will be spent at the nearby Dance Hall. Bring on the Finnish tango. And perhaps a little more Elvis...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

an eery sense of deja vu

As I staked out my padded bench, I realized that it was two years and four days since I last found myself sleeping on the benches in Helsinki airport. That time, I was traveling from the Ukraine to Denver. This time, it's a little more straight-forward, and I'm going from Denver to Hyytiala. I was supposed to spend the night in Tampere, but my hotel reservation apparently got cancelled (they realized they didn't have enough space?), and all the other hotels in Helsinki, Tampere and Hammeenliinna (sp?) were booked due to some conferences and a massive Finland-Russia soccer match that apparently result in minor riots and the closing of streets. I know this, because several snoring Russians also ended up sleeping on nearby airport benches.

I can't complain - once again, I got bumped to Business class on the trans-atlantic flight, and in the end I'd actually take that and a night in the airport over the middle seat in Economy class on United with an airport hotel at the other end. Or so I'm telling myself.

Other highlights of the trip included having a nasty cold - that included a mild fever, runny nose, sore throat, headache, mild nausea and general feeling of being unwell - which in my half-awake state I accidentally answered yes to when asked in the Frankfurt airport by the security officials, and was strongly encouraged to go see the doctor to make sure I don't have swine flu. It seemed easier to just go and see the doctor in the airport, so 30 euros later I can conclusively tell any over-anxious airport security and immigration guards that no, I don't have the swine flue. It's just a bad cold. And it's almost gone now. It's amazing what twelve hours of sleep in a real bed will do for you.

But I made it home to Hyytiala, and spent the afternoon in a daze trying to fix a broken instrument. Apparently the PTR-ToF-MS has so much love and affection for me that it threw a petulant fit about two days after I left, and shut down for some mysterious reason. It took me a day and a half to make amends and get it (mostly) working again. Not that I know what the problems were, but if you turn an instrument off and then on again and take it apart and put it back together again enough times, they generally get fed up and start working again - dare I say... cry themselves to sleep and then wake up having forgotten about the argument? or is that too much anthropomorphosizing of machines?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

half-way (almost)

After the hike, the 3 buses, the two airport shuttles, the three planes, the night in an airport hotel, and the taxi ride to Boulder, I made it home. Middle seat and minimal sleep on the flights, but I did get to watch two trashy romantic comedies followed by several hours of paper reviews.

There was mild drama, as my second flight was delayed, and my visa renewal seemed to take forever - and I needed to catch the last flight to Denver. I was the only person in the Immigration office, but it was late at night and their photocopier was broken. This turns out to have been unnecessary, as they mistakenly handed back all the photocopies AND originals of the documents to me (but who am I to argue with grouchy immigration officials: no matter what, they are ALWAYS right). They openly acknowledged that they didn't seem to have the right visa stamp, so wrote a note (!) on my visa. Ah, Homeland Security, you make me feel so much safer.

Friday, June 5, 2009

If only I was on the Amazing Race

It is one of those great ironies that climate scientists fly to - at least, relative to, say, doctors, teachers, lawyers or other non-international business professionals - a large number of domestic and international destinations. I didn't get Star Alliance Gold status for nothing, and I do feel twinges of guilt over my carbon footprint. That said, I have been quite good on public transit so far...

I have a 3.5 day meeting in Boulder, Colorado. From the approximate hour I arrive at home in Boulder to the hour I will stand at the bus stop outside of the university to catch the airport bus, that's 87 hours in Boulder. The travel time to and from my room in Hyytiala is about 79 hours. (This is particularly long because bus schedules mean that I have to stay the night at a Helsinki-Vantaa airport hotel on either end of the trip.)

So far it's been:
- a 30 minute hike (in the pouring rain! but it was actually a very picturesque hike by the lake, and my bags are light, so I didn't mind at all) from the field station to the bus stop
- 3 buses to the airport (one very nice, smiling bus driver who charged me the 'student rate' even though i said i was an adult, one not-so-nice bus driver who took my ticket and wouldn't give it back so have no receipt for reimbursement)
- a night in an airport hotel. I watched Project Runway with Finnish subtitles. Improving my Finnish vocabulary one catty fashion designer at a time.

And now I'm in the Helsinki airport waiting for plane 1 of 3 today. Somehow I leave at 1pm and arrive in Denver at midnight - ah, timezones, you lovely things.

And on a note of nostalgia, the Helsinki airport is filled with the Moomin trolls. These are a Finnish child's story - a sort of Tintin, or Babar family - but Scandinavian, so round trolls. When I was very young, my family lived in Bergen, Norway for a summer, where I discovered these child's books.
Some of my first memories of a foreign country are based around those stories and drawings. I hadn't seen them in decades, but here in the Helsinki airport is a whole store devoted to them. I covet the recently released 3 hard cover books of Moomin comic strips, but they are large and hard cover, and would displace my laptop computer from the backpack.

Well, the odyssey continues, as I hear an announcement for my flight...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hey, it was the weekend.

It was a tough weekend. Sunbathing on the dock (yes mom, I wore sunscreen). Well, I *had* to finish my novel, and why sit inside and waste all that energy for a light, when you could be on the dock using natural sunlight? Swimming in the lake (had to cool down from all that sun). Going for a trip around the lake in the old wooden boat (cultural experience).

Keeping an eye on the baby woodpeckers as they waited noisily for their parent to come and feed them (mmm... regurgitated insects... tasty...).

Occasionally moseying up the hill to check on my instruments.

Field work: it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

First impressions

Were I to broadly generalize from my limited experiences in Hyytiala to the rest of Finland, I might come to certain conclusions.

For example, I might generalize that Finland looks eerily like Northern Ontario: full of lakes and pretty flat (except when I go for a run, and then I find that it becomes an Escher drawing, made entirely of up-hills). I might generalize that the entire country is littered with flux towers and expensive aerosol chemistry equipment (there are THREE aerosol mass specs here right now. Three?? That's more than in the entire country of France). And from the about 100, mostly large, burly & male foresters I've met here at the field station, I might generalize that all Finns are quiet and eat a lot of potatoes. But I have decided that my first impressions and preliminary generalizations from a week and a half of an atmospheric chemistry field campaign might be slightly skewed.

I've been working on the foresters for over a week now, and have found that some of them do indeed talk (relatively speaking). The tree-cutting types, not so much: but the soil scientists and at least one summer researcher from Lapland are a little more willing to practice their English and indulge the crazy American girl (the fact that I don't drink much beer, see lots of vipers and go running every afternoon leads to some interesting generalizations about North Americans). And every person I've gotten to know surprises me in some way. For example, there's a big guy from Kuopio who might fit the Finnish stereotype: he drinks a lot of beer, plays ice hockey, and is the drummer in a heavy metal band (this makes sense: Finland is at least as big a fan of hockey as Canada, and as for Eurovision, just google Lordi). However, he also likes a canned alcoholic grape drink that tastes eerily like a wine cooler (one of the fruitier drinks that I gave up drinking in college. Early in college). We have since developed an excellent relationship: I help him fix his instruments, and he drives me into town to buy cider and chocolate.

There's the resident handy-man, who looked like a standard forester until I spotted him one evening decked out in leather riding a motorcycle. And the station director, who is one of the tallest people I've ever encountered, and, despite his initially intimidating demeanor - carefully constructed to scare incoming forestry students, I think - turns out to also be one of the nicest people I've ever encountered, patiently translating signs and checking in on my instruments.

So my initial generalizations and first impressions of the people at Hyytiala (quiet, beer-drinking, slightly intimidating) were clearly wrong. Except for the potatoes. They do eat an awful lot of potatoes here.