The Country of Moomin
Margaret, October 10-16, 2003


Once again I stepped into a world where I had no idea what anyone was saying or what was written on any of the signs. “Good grief,” I thought, looking at one, “how do you even start with the word pääkaupunki?” Or even one as short as sää? Don’t get me wrong: after living in Germany for over eight months, I was quite comfortable with umlauts, those little dots over vowels that someone early on in the history of the English language cleverly did away with. In German, the umlauts make the letters a, o, and u longer and deeper, but that is no guarantee of their effect in other languages. In fact, I was to learn later that an ä in Finnish is pronounced like a short a in English, while the un-umlauted version, a, is a deeper “aw” sound, like English’s short o. Okay, fine, but what about the double ää? Yikes! It wasn’t just these examples, either; Finnish sports an amazing quantity of double letters, many of them vowels. While ee and oo are nice and cozy with the language part of my brain, seeing things like ii and yy everywhere were a little disturbing. Here’s a good word: pyytää. Never mind what it means; how do you pronounce it?! On top of the double letters and strange umlauts, Finnish has very long words. And this is coming from someone who’s learning German. In fact, according the the Guinness Book of World Records, the Finnish word saippuakivikauppias is the longest one-word palindrome in any language. Now that’s saying something.

As Ben and I made our way through the airport, I consciously quashed my now-reflexive danke’s and entschuldigung’s; German wasn’t going to do me any good here, and I might as well just switch to English. We easily found our bags and were met outside the gate by Mark. It was a delightful surprise; we knew we’d meet up with Mark at some point, but I didn’t realize he’d wait for us at the airport. So we, all three, hopped on a bus from the Helsinki airport to Turku. After several hours and one bus switch we arrived and then made our way up the hill to downtown Turku.

After checking into our hotels, we got in touch with Jussi, Ben’s former Boston fencing coach, a native Finn, and our host for the second part of our trip. He had also come out to Turku to fence at the Kupittaa tournament, one of the Scandanavian circuit events and an FIE World Cup Satellite tournament. As the first gesture of what was to be remarkable hospitality, Jussi treated the three of us to dinner, accompanied by his older daughter who lives in Turku. She was the one to explain to me the details of the Finnish language – or at least as many as I asked about. It turns out that in all those words with double letters, both of the letters are pronounced – or at least the letter’s sound is extended. So I was careful not to clip off the end of the word “Kupittaa”; that’s a long-lasted “aw” there. And I finally had my answer to the scary-looking ää – it’s just a long lasting short a sound. Hmm, well I was glad, anyway, of the prevelence of English-speakers everywhere. As Jussi’s daughter explained, whenever Finns go abroad or have visitors from outside Finland, it’s highly unusual that the foreigner speaks Finnish. Thus, Finns have to learn another language; and that often means English. Although, it didn’t slip by me that many people could speak at least three or four languages – Finnish, English, Swedish, and often German or French.

The next day, Saturday, was the men’s tournament. I got up early with the guys and had a stellar breakfast in the hotel dining room, including Karelian pastries filled with rice. I knew I had to enjoy breakfast that first day as I can never eat much the morning of a competition. Then Ben, Mark, and Jussi headed over to the venue and I went back to the room for a morning nap. Refreshed, I went for a run along the river and then mingled with the masses in the central square, browsing among the food, flower, and clothing vendors. I hopped a bus, then, and had a pleasant chat with the driver who informed me that the trip would cost 200 … cents. And I arrived just in time to see the end of the second round of pools.

Jussi, unfortunately, hadn’t fenced well and didn’t make the direct elimination round, but Mark and Ben did, and so I spent several hours watching them fence and watching them wait to fence. In the end, both were satisified with their results but wished they had done better. Out of 91, Mark took 13th and Ben 21st. In the evening we headed to a restaurant that Jussi had recommended only to discover that the entire street had lost its power. The resaurant was closed, though there were candles lit on the tables, and so we returned to the center to find an alternative grazing establishment. Later on, as I prepared for bed, Mark and Ben headed out to experience Turku nightlife and then watch the Fencing World Championships broadcast live from Cuba. This meant staying up until 3am. I heard from Ben that it was neat to watch; I heard, also, that he’s the only one who stayed awake long enough to see it.

Sunday. My fencing day. Up early, but not too early; the Europeans have a good sense of appropriate rising time. Small breakfast, and then a taxi ride to the venue. Ben and Mark repeated my trick from the day before and headed back to sleep after breakfast. I arrived at the by-then familiar venue and went to check my equipment. In my eleven years of fencing I have never had an actual weapons check. Usually, the mask is checked for bent mesh, sewn-in bib, other safety matters. And often enough the body cords are tested to make sure they work so as to keep the tournament moving along without having to stop to fix or replace them. The weapons themselves have two tests performed on them before each bout – both to make sure no one is cheating. The fencing rule book states the minimum and maximum sizes for everything – blade length, blade bend, guard size, etc. But since vendors only sell legal-sized weapons, local tournaments never bother to test these things, and even the national tournaments in the US don’t. So I was slightly unprepared when the armorer took my first weapon and the bell guard didn’t fit through the regulation-size hole that it’s supposed to fit through. Weapon failed. I handed him my next one. Same thing. Weapon failed. And the last: failed. In a state of half-shock, I took my weapons back and sat down. I needed a legal epee to fence with!

It should be noted that while I cycle through epee blades every year as they break, I simply canabalize the working parts from my broken epee – screws, tip, grip, and, yup, bell guard – and put them together with a new blade to form a new weapon. That means that the bell guards that I have are the ones I’ve always had – for seven, eight years perhaps; I don’t even remember when I bought them. So while my blades are the up-to-date, international standard, (expensive) FIE-approved ones, my guards are from some who-knows-where fencing supplier that probably had the cheapest weapons available at the time. For a moment I wondered if they had ever been legal. Or have I been fencing with illegal weapons for nine years?!

I thanked the lords of technology, whipped out my cell phone, and called Ben, waking him from his abbrievated nap. “All my weapons failed. I need epees!” Saving the day, as often, Ben showed up a half hour later, his epees in hand. I had something to fence with. While I warmed up, he switched two of his bell guards over to my weapons, and managed to bend my other guard back to legality. From this I’m guessing that the years of dings and dents have forced my guards from their original shape and that they were, originally, the correct size.

So, panic subsiding, I fenced. And I fenced all right. The first round was simply a seeding round. There were thirty fencers total – a somewhat disappointing few – split into five pools of six. In that round I went 3-2 and felt that I should have won one of my losses. But not too bad. I had a low-teen seed for the second round in which six people were dropped for a direct-elimination round of 24. In that pool I went 2-3, which was frustrating; I felt I wasn’t fencing poorly, but I also wasn’t winning. One bout in particular in that pool was frustrating because I knew what would work against my opponent, but I couldn’t execute it. I was seeded 17th into the DE’s which meant I fenced number 16 who, as it turned out, was the frustrating opponent from the pool. Half-worried because of the difficulty I had in the pool and half-confident because I knew already how she fenced, I started out the bout determined to win. But I didn’t. It was a horribly annoying bout and I ended up a lackluster 18th out of 30 fencers, perhaps my worst result numbers-wise in quite a while. Ah well, I was on vacation and had three days of seeing Helsinki ahead of me. It was easy to leave the tournament behind.

Ben, Mark, and I made our way to the nearby train station and bought tickets to Helsinki. As it turned out, they cost less than the bus tickets on the reverse trip! It was only about €20 per person for the three hour trip. And a three hour trip, I might add, that was spent in the best of train luxury. It’s hard to describe exactly what it is that makes the standard of living in one place just a step above another place. But this train would be a good example. It was an InterCity train, common throughout Europe, but unlike any train I had ever seen before. We had second class tickets and those afforded us a private four-person cabin, two seats facing two seats with a small, but notable table between the two. The seats fit the curve of the back and reclined. There was a screen that could be pulled down to block out glaring sunlight (although we didn’t have that problem as it was raining.) There was a TV. There was an attendant call button. All in all, it seemed rather nice.

Then I went to use the restroom. The first trick was to figure out how to open the doors between trains. In Germany, you generally pull on  a door handle to open the door and then the door stays open several seconds and then closes automatically behind you. There were no handles here. I glanced around, hoping there wasn’t anyone behind me, and found a little green square button off to the left with something in Finnish written on it. Hoping it wasn’t any sort of alarm (those are usually red), I pushed it. Voila! The door opened. I walked through several cars noting the layout of the train as I did so. There were mini-conference rooms with eight seats around a table, bicycle areas, larger areas with many seats – though spacious ones, storage closets,  and an entire upper level. I had some trouble locating the bathroom partially because I was looking for the wrong thing. Train bathrooms, as I was used to them, are tiny smaller-than-phone-booth sized rooms often squished between a storage area and an exit. When I found the “WC” sign, it was on a large door with a green button. So I pushed the button and the door slid silently open, like something from Star Trek. I stepped in; the bathroom was huge – several times the size of our four-person cabin – and spotlessly clean. I turned around; the door was so large it was still in the process of opening. And here there were two buttons – one green and one red. I pressed the green one and the door reversed direction. “Hmm,” I thought. “I wonder if it’s locked.” I pushed the red button (It didn’t look like an alarm), I heard a click, and the button lit up. Cool.

By the time I returned to the cabin, the attendants had come by with a cart of reasonably priced (!) food and drinks and there was a chicken sandwich waiting for me. I was famished. We spent the rest of the train trip playing the card game Crazy Eights, and met up with Jussi soon after arriving at the Helsinki train station. He drove us around the downtown, giving us a brief tour of the city, which was a little bit difficult in that it was dark and raining, and then drove Mark to his hotel near one of the markets.

Jussi lives in Espoo, originally just a small outlying suburb of Helsinki, that has since grown into its own little city. Ben and I were staying with him, and as he drove us to his place, he took the route the bus takes so that we’d recognize the way. Across the bridge, along the highway, through the mall underpass, left, right, right, left, left, right, left, right, and then hit the “request stop” button. Got it. I think. We spent a couple hours relaxing: Ben napped, and I read – or tried to read – while Jussi made dinner. I say “tried to read” because I don’t think much of what I was reading made it into my head. I was tired from the fencing that day and the trip to Helsinki, and there was a distraction.

Jussi has three-year old daughter named Viivi. (Pronounce both those i's. It should sound like three syllables.) And while I was sitting there “reading”, Viivi was playing with her toys, drawing, and occasionally looking up at the TV to follow the adventures of the Moomins. Yes, the Moomins. I first encountered the Moomins in Turku while browsing the grocery store for tournament food. There was this little box of cookies – it looked like animal crackers – except there were these strange colorful cartoons on them. So I picked one up to send to my brother as part of a random-stuff care package. Only later did I learn that the Moomins are a Finnish national phenomenon. It all started back in the 1940’s when a woman began writing, and more importantly, illustrating, childrens’ books. The books were a hit and the characters caught on in a big way. Now the Moomins can be found everywhere: books, videos (like the one that was on for Viivi), apparel, magnets, mugs, jewelry, posters, everything.

So these cartoon (Japanese animation, actually) Moomin creatures were going about their lives, entertaining young Finnish children. I couldn’t understand a word it, but it was nevertheless captivating. Three hours later I was able to recount several story lines and outline the major characters and their personalities. What I found particularly interesting is the themes that seemed to come up again and again: the changing seasons – especially winter, being outdoors, sleeping, camping (that’s both outdoors and sleeping), the sea – swimming, fishing, boating – along with the usual children’s story themes: family, friends, overcoming adversity, etc. But the former themes made the show distinctly Finnish.

Jussi’s dinner that night was exquisit. Appetizers of salmon, olives, beans, and other delectables were followed by a fish main course, with a pie for dessert. Yum. Dinner was followed by a sauna. Yep, even though Jussi’s house – more of a townhouse, really – is small, built into the upstairs bathroom is a sauna. And I don’t think this is unusual in Finland; we were in the land of the suana. Jussi and Viiva saunaed first and then Ben and I. Ben followed Jussi’s lead and sat outside (in the very cold air), drank a beer, and chatted, before hopping back for a second round of sauna. As I was getting over a cold and had no desire for the traditional invigoration, I skipped it, showered and headed for bed, relaxed and well-fed.

Monday Ben and I got up and headed to the bus stop where we boarded the bus and attempted to buy tickets. We had read about a tourist day-ticket that cost only €8 per person and was good on all the public transit in and around Helsinki, including to Espoo. As it was, the one-way bus trip from Espoo to Helsinki is €3 and so we figured the day ticket would be a good idea. We boarded and tried asking the driver for a day ticket, but she spoke no English. No problem; these days I’m used to communication barriers. Out come the hands. “We,” I indicate myself and Ben, “want to go to Helsinki,” I make a dramatic gesture pointing down the road, “and then come back,” I bring my hands back and point to where we’re standing. She nods slightly, punches the ticket machine, and charges us €11. Hmm. Wonder what we got. It’s not the €16 I was expecting, nor the €3 one-way charge. I’m guessing we got just round-trip tickets to Helsinki and back; maybe we can upgrade to the day ticket once we’re in Helsinki. But, as it turned out, there is a partner day ticket that wasn’t listed in the book, and that is exactly what we had.

We met up with Mark, who had taken a bus tour of Helsinki that morning and was bursting with information about the city, and went to find somewhere to eat. Our meanderings took us all around the city as I rejected the prices of the “Kosmos Café”, Mark inadvertantely took us to a place that’s closed on Mondays, and Ben lead us the wrong way down a street looking for a vegetarian joint that Jussi had recommended. We did eventually find it, though, and had a tasty hot (meat-free) meal to warm us up. The afternoon we spending being tourists, gazing at buildings, wandering through a market hall, perusing a sauna shop, and eventually ending up at a café where we chatted over warm beverages.

Then it was back to Jussi’s – all three of us. Jussi wanted to have us all over for a good dinner and prepared yet another wonderful treat. Afterwards we lounged and looked at samples of Jussi’s work, writing children’s history textbooks. Mark took a taxi back to his hotel and then flew home the next morning. He had realized, on the bus, that he had accidentally left his sauna purchases at the café. Jussi tried to call, but couldn’t get through, and the place didn’t open early enough for Mark to stop by before his flight. So Ben said we’d stop by and inquire the next morning.

And, happily, the items were still there, waiting behind the counter for the owner to reclaim them. With an early-morning success, Ben and I spent our Tuesday being tourists yet again. We headed down to the pier, walked through the old market hall, and up to the Orthodox cathedral. We took the bus back to Espoo early because Jussi had an outing planned for us.

He drove us, that evening, away from Helsinki, down along the shore, and through the woods. We stopped at a small empty parking lot, bundled up into our coats and wind pants and boots and hats and trundled across rocks and through trees towards the sea. The sun was setting then and the pink of the horizon echoed the rosy hues of the shrubs peaking up through rock cracks. There were several islands in sight, only a few of the hundreds that spread like stepping stones across the Gulf of Finland to Sweden. We saw one of the major cruise liners in the distance – an entire small city on one boat. And as the sun set and set the horizon on fire with red and orange streaks, a pair of swans swam by.

We backtracked a little ways to a camping area where we could start a fire in a small stone fireplace. And there we grilled sausages for Jussi, Viivi, and me, and fish for Ben. We munched in the darkness, huddling close to the fire for heat. Viivi would wander off a little, playing in the dark, unscared of not being able to see. But she never went far. Then it was time to head back, and, we realized, no one had a flashlight. So it was navigation by feel, on the cloudy almost pitch black night. Jussi was in the lead with Viivi on his back; he had been here several times before and had a better chance of finding the way. I could see only a few feet ahead, just enough to avoid stepping in deep puddles, or tripping on logs or rocks. And we made it, without any major incident, through the dark twenty-minute hike back to the car. When we got back to Jussi’s we had a sauna.

Wednesday Ben and I again took the bus to Helsinki. We bought lunchstuffs at the market and then hopped on a ferry to the island of Suomenlinna, once a protective fortress off the coast of Helsinki. We wandered the ruins of the island for a few hours in the bitter cold. And then had a hot drink inside before heading back to Helsinki and back to Espoo. That evening it was our turn to cook. With such wonderful hosting, it was the least we could do. Jussi enjoyed an evening of rest while we toiled in the kitchen with the market vegetables we had bought that day. The meal was a success, without upstaging Jussi’s amazing dinners, and we retired to the living room to chat until bedtime.

On our last day in Finland, Ben and I got up to say goodbye to Jussi and Viivi, then it was on the bus to Helsinki with all our bags – fencing and otherwise. We dropped them off at the train station and then stopped at a few places where I wanted to purchase gifts. Then it was on the bus to the airport and back to Munich through the sky.

Oh, and by the way, a saippuakivikauppias is a soapstone-seller.