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This is a blog of various impressions and experiences during the first of my settled life in Finland, home of my Finnish vaimo, in 2010-2011 and 2013-.
It was a cold day in January 2015, not long after New Year's, when P and I found ourselves driving out to Espoo, a big, semi-suburban area west of Helsinki that might as well be part of it. It plays much of the role that the western part of Long Island does for Manhattan. Or, scratch that, all of Long Island. After all, Espoo's got a national park tucked into its northwestern reaches. But we weren't driving there, but more towards Brooklyn. Brooklyn Heights even, or Park Slope. Tapiola is the neighborhood you end up in right after you get off the bridge from Lauttasaari, one of the islands making up the westernmost part of Helsinki.
Tapiola. I had a vague idea I wanted to live there, and now that we were searching for a place to buy in P's home and my adopted country, I had gravitated to the apartment ads we'd seen in this area. But why?
It all comes back to a bicycle ride. A few years earlier when we were living in Finland for the first time I bought a brand new bike at the beginning of the summer. It had been years since I'd been cycling to any significant extent and I felt like a kid again when I was riding it. But so far I'd only been taking it around short trips in the city. One weekend when P was working and there was going to be a nice day, I took out a biking map we had and looked for somewhere I could go. West was the obvious choice, given that we lived near the west side of Helsinki ourselves and I had my best shot at open roads that way, and so early on a fine Saturday morning I found myself crossing the bridges on two wheels, rolling down past the glass towers of the Nokia headquarters into Espoo's eastern edge.
I had the map with me but still it didn't take me long to get lost once I got there. Few things are more confusing than Finnish bike paths, the way they wind back and forth across roads, finding both subterranean and aerial ways across them, and transforming ordinary four-way intersections into three-dimensional octopuses from hell. I had just completed one long east-west path, and another one waited around a kilometer west, but getting between the two was a bit tricky.
I hooked around the south end of Nokia and started heading north a bit in from Espoo's east coast. An elevated highway ran to the left, and after a couple of hundred yards a tunnel crossed under it. I think I was supposed to wait until a bit further north before cutting over to take the simplest route, but something about this tunnel looked very tempting. Perhaps I thought there'd be an endless traffic light at the next intersection, whereas here I could just shoot under. Still, I actually continued a bit further on before all my internal wheels completed their revolutions and I decided to turn back and take it.
And so I did -- and immediately after crossing under found myself confronted with another cycling path leading north-south parallel to this one, and a trail into the trees heading west. Well, I took the trail through the trees, it just looked so inviting, walking my bike through the first narrow part and then riding it on gravel until I popped out into a parking lot. In fact, an interconnected series of small parking lots set at different elevations. I wended through these, descending every time, much to my worry about being faced with ascents should I end up turning back. Finally I ended up out on a residential road -- leading, unfortunately enough, north and south. Probably I had not saved any time at all with my "shortcut".
And then something wonderful happened.
The low, angular hyper modern houses on the left side dropped away, and so did the trees, and I was faced with a green lawn stretching hundreds of yards down to the shores of a blue body of water. I say "lawn" and not "field" as it was almost entirely grass, uniformly mown though not too recently, and it had very much of a cared-for look about it despite its great extent and irregular boundaries. The lawn was ringed by trees except for the water's shore, and this is where I headed now -- since it was vaguely to the west and also I saw a gravel path down there.
And so now I rode slowly along the shore, blue water sparkling in the sun, looking up at modernist white buildings emerging here and there beyond the trees like marble monoliths. I had found Utopia, or maybe something like the far future H.G. Wells's narrator visited in The Time Machine, where small numbers of beautiful people dressed in loose-fitting white garments relaxed and played in meandering gardens amidst the trees.
Other wonders awaited me. I continued west to the trees on the far side and then through them, where I came to an area paved in white concrete squares perhaps a meter across. Sculptures were set here and there, as well as tall pine trees, given gracious space for their trunks by irregularly-shaped holes in the paving. Again there were the hypermodern buildings, set more closely together this time. A long, low three-story rectangle, white with large square windows, announced itself as the Sokos Tapiola Garden (a hotel), and behind that was a great pool more than a hundred yards wide and nearly square, with fountains firing spreading crystalline streams in its midst. A series of steps ascended through various right-angle turns beyond it, leading up to a fantasy of stacked cubes offset from each other but set at right angles: a Cultural Center, with waterfalls cascading down another series of angled tiers in front. Squares, right angles, and white colors were repeating everywhere. It might sound boring or relentlessly machinelike but somehow the effect was quite the opposite. As if the simplicity of the shapes made up for the complexity of their variations in size and positioning, and the scene almost felt natural -- or if not that, then at least harmonizing nicely with the truly natural shapes of the abundant trees and other greenery that surrounded them.
I continued heading west and eventually found my way to the next phase of my ride, and went on to the rest of my day. But the impressions from this place (which I later learned was named "Otsolahti", or 'Bear Bay') lingered on long afterwards, planting seeds for what was to come.
The history of civilization and mankind is in part one of ever-improving living conditions. At the beginning, everyone lived in squallor, scraping out an existence sleeping in trees or on the floors of caves. Later on, as specialization and social structures developed, some people began to live better than others, commanding larger and more comfortable living spaces. At first it was only a very privileged few, who had managed to climb on top of their fellows by one means or another, but as time proceeded this class grew larger and larger. Of course there were stratifications within it, but by the 1950's in the United States large proportions of the population enjoyed private interior and exterior space that most members of earlier generations could only dream of.
At some point during all this relentless expansion it started to be recognized that, while we now had the power to grant spacious living conditions to the masses, the use of that power led to a number of negative effects. Suburban sprawl, traffic-choked marathon commutes, the loss of walking distances to the need to surround everything by vast parking lots, and ultimately the loss of natural land, habitat, and scenery. People began to imagine a middle ground, where people could experience the feelings of spaciousness and green, soothing natural surroundings, without the population spreading over vast areas of land filled with accessing roadways and spending all of their time driving to dense cities for work and cultural activities. Thus, the concept of the Garden City was born.
I'm going to skip over the early development here, which started out in the UK and shifted over to the United States and then eventually ranged as far as Peru, Israel, and Bhutan. Instead we'll fast forward to the 1960s, where one particular realization of a garden city was being built in a section of Espoo, just west of Helsinki in Finland.
This was a private effort, built under the auspices of a committee of enlightened individuals dedicated to creating "the ideal living space for modern man". What IS "ideal living space" for "modern man", you might ask. I don't know exactly what they had in mind, but to me, modern man is a networked creature living in a noisy built environment subject to thousands of nerve- and mind-jangling experiences every day, with less leisure time than former generations. And for a living space it would be best to counteract these influences somewhat, overlaying peace and simplicity to smooth an increasingly rough and tumultuous tapestry. A bit of nature and fresh air, a lack of need to travel long distances to work, and the opportunity be entertained, obtain necessities, and raise a family within a manageable area.
Far easier said than done.
At the broadest level, the principles guiding the committee's work were limiting population density and paying attention to providing workplaces, cultural centers, schools, and shopping within walking distance of all inhabitants. Of course these factors work against each other: for instance, in order to provide sufficient clientele to sustain services there needs to be population density, and on the other hand factories, office towers, and shopping centers can adversely affect the atmosphere of the neighborhood. Compromises were necessary, but in this new development it was precisely these compromises that enabled magic to happen.
The answer was architecture. Architects design buildings, but in a broader sense they are designing living spaces, and that is why we see the best architects extending themselves in one direction or the other, either to design the landscaping and flow surrounding the buildings, or designing furniture, patterns, and even objects like dishes and glassware, in an effort to achieve a more complete realization of the feelings they aspire to invoke. In this new development, which was named "Tapiola" for the pre-Christian Finnish forest god Tapio, the rough nature of the land, with numerous granite outcroppings, was utilized to advantage in placing buildings facing different directions and separated by rocks and trees. Situating structures in this way determined by the lay of the landscape rather than orientation to street grids contributed to an organic feeling. Taller buildings were placed on the high points, which may sound contrary to "organic", but the result was that they would obstruct the view of lower buildings as little as possible and everyone's clear views would be maximized. (A building next to a hill will have its view to that direction blocked no matter what, so why not put a high building there, and even the lower floors of the latter will have clear views.). In this way, a reasonable population density could be accommodated without the area feeling crowded, and a pedestrian center with shops and services, and even performing arts centers and museums, could be supported.
In the end Tapiola became an urban space which is not urban. You CAN walk to get your groceries, visit a museum, even attend church or musical performances. But you do so not along gridded streets lined with buildings, but along winding gravel paths traveling through forest and parklands. Until you actually arrive at the service center, the buildings you do see are glimpsed peeking out between trees. You also hear cars and traffic, but generally in the distance. Overall you are seeing mostly green, with the blue of the sky thrown in, and white for buildings. The overall sensation of peaceful, civilized living one gets in this place cannot be overstated. Modern man, indeed.
You are leaving the train station, walking to work, when you pass an accordion player sitting in the exit tunnel. Your mind is preoccupied with an offer you made on a condo you and your wife looked at the day before, but something about his song catches you for a moment. Although you've heard it before it is not one of the ordinary strains these gypsy types are usually playing, fresh only the first 10 times you hear them. You are in favor of musicians playing on the street and try to support them when you can, but these gypsies and their accordions usually seem too tired and similar to one another to be worth tipping. This one plays something different and you look down, seeing a young man with sharp features, not uneducated, but wearing a wan expression. The song is not a cheerful one either.
You have some coins in your pocket, you remember, but somehow don't end up working up the will to pull one out and toss it by the time you are already walking past. The musician looks back down, more sorrowful than before.
Some minutes later a young woman walks by. She was feeling cheerful when she got off the train, but now she sees this man and hears him playing, both appearance and music lacking energy. It gets her down a bit. She walks into the shopping center nearby and goes to the coffeeshop. The barrista there is someone she recognizes, occasionally has a few words with although they don't know each other by name. But this time she merely nods and requests her coffee. The barrista feels this vibe and later on decides to drive out for lunch rather than walking around and having it outside the shopping center like he usually does. Somehow he just needs to get away for a bit.
On the road coming back he turns onto a main street a good distance ahead of another car, but it is going faster than him and ends up tailing his bumper. Soon a yellow light comes up and he decides to run it, but it turns red just as he's passing it and he looks around nervously for a cop. Behind him the other car doesn't make it.
"D@mn!", says the driver of that other car. The only thing worse than getting stuck behind a slowpoke is getting stuck and then missing a light while the slowpoke makes it! He's on the way to the office of the realtor selling his apartment. There have been a couple of offers and it seemed best to go over them at the office. But now he was running late for a meeting afterwards and this light was a long one and wouldn't help matters.
He gets into the realtor's office and they take a look at the offers. They're both low but the realtor thinks he should make a counteroffer on one of them. It was a nice couple and they seemed like they had their act together and would make for a smooth, speedy transaction. He thinks about it for a moment. Counteroffers are a tricky business, you really have to be sure you'll be happy with what you ask for, but there's no sense in going too high since the customer probably wouldn't take it but tie up a lot of time deciding. He's still irritated from the drive and that annoying other driver, and he really has to leave and get to his afternoon meeting.
"No, let's just forget it," he says. "So no counteroffer?" the realtor asks? "No. Something better will come up. I've got to go."
That evening the realtor emails you with the news your offer has been turned down.
* * *
The word "karma" comes to us from India and in particular Indian spiritual traditions, since it plays a role in all of the major ones. As such we tend to think of it as something mystical. Perhaps God or gods are watching over our actions and take care to redress the accounts for every unkind or improper action we may take. But the word itself originally means, "action". An action has consequences, and a broader view might view those consequences, determined by the action in a world operating according to a strict order (which no Indian tradition would deny), as part of the action itself. We mere humans could not possibly hope to trace out all of the consequences of a simple choice as to whether to toss a coin into a musician's bowl, and we can neither confirm nor deny that chains of reactions such as those described above exist. Even in a simpler, physical, system such as the weather, we know that the scale of a reaction down the line can be far greater than the initial impetus. But a god would be able to see. And he need not intervene to see that accounts are balanced, because he will have set up the ordering of the world in the first place such that reactions are equally compensated.
So much for the gods. We humans though, as always aspiring to see further, may pause to imagine for just a little while what this might be like. We know that a physical system that has some parameters, like for example Wolfram's cellular automata, can be arranged to either damp out, amplify, or simply preserve the effects of events within it. An illustrative instance of a real-world system that damps effects out is a cup of tea. If you stir it vigorously, you will at first see the liquid swirling around in a circle. But after waiting some time it slows down and eventually stops. It hasn't really "stopped", actually, and if you happened to pour some milk into the tea beforehand you would gain some insight into what happens. The milk is at first a big cloud in the water, but with the stirring it stretches out into tendrils and then smaller whisps, ultimately dispersing into the tea entirely to produce a mix. The energies of the stirring have broken down into smaller and smaller scales, ultimately passing beyond our vision and ending in molecular motion, so that the tea/milk mixture would be warmer than it started. (That is, if the stirring had not also sped up the rate of departure of the fastest-moving molecules to the air.) Since we cannot directly perceive this molecular motion or relate it to substantial changes in anything we CAN perceive (like the temperature), the effects of the stirring have effectively been damped out. It doesn't matter whether you started stirring clockwise or counterclockwise, or with a spoon or a stick -- the situation is the same now.
And in the world of human interaction, it would be as if the fact of not receiving the coin had only a temporary effect on the musician, but was quickly lost in deeper and more subtle subconscious thought currents until it might as well never have happened. Or maybe the next woman walking by would have seen his sad face, but not done anything different with the shopkeeper afterwards because of it.
On the other hand, an example of an amplifying system is a pinball machine. Changing the amount you pull the plunger back by the slightest amount, or firing a flipper just a fraction of a section earlier or later, can make the difference between the ball going down an exit hole or entering the highest-scoring bumper region.
It is likely that the human world lies between these two extremes. The effects of some actions become damped out, and other ones pass on a transitive influence. It is even possible that more subtle effects take time to manifest. The subconscious thought currents in the musician's mind may not affect his external actions right away, but some time later when he considers what career to pursue or whether to move to another city, the lingering memory trace may prove to be "the straw that breaks the camel's back" in that accounting.
Maybe, you say, that never ends up having any effect on you, now yourself living far away and moving in other circles. But that is not given us to know. And in any event it is only an illusion to think that the two fates are separate things in the first place. We are one being as surely as the cells in our body form a whole, and our every action, harmonious with and beneficial to others or its opposite, has its role to play in that pan-being (or God's) existence and destiny.
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