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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, 2010-2011 and 2013-.
Last week I was out for a run through a snow-filled forest and realized a very funny thing. It was spring and I was thrilled about it. Last year at the same time and in the same conditions I'd felt nothing other than being in the middle of a long winter. But something was different now. Partly it was the light, partly it was the warmth, which although close to freezing was at least above it instead of far below as had been the case for most of the actual winter. Partly it was just the fact that it was March.
But most of all, of course, the reason was within myself. I'd now experienced a full Finnish year and had some of my expectations "reset". Everything is relative. Not that I saw this as full-blown spring, of course. In fact the Finns have a special word for this time of year -- they call it "Kevättalvi". "Kevät" is actually the word for spring, and "talvi" for winter, so "spring-winter". And in fact the Sami people of Lapland, the Finns' closest living relatives aside from the Karelians and the Estonians, distinguish seven seasons, the regular four plus three "in-between" seasons like spring-winter. Here in Finland, and even in upstate New York where I'm from, it's easy to buy into this idea.
This brings me to a related subject though, which is wondering how the earlier Finns, the Sami, and for that matter the Iroquois Indians of New York managed to live in the cold climates they were situated in. Nowadays it's very hard to conceive of, spending winter mostly indoors as we do, bundling up in fancy synthetic clothing for the short times we spend outside. After some brisk time outdoors, we're always happy to return back in. Shelters these ancestors surely had, but at best these were drafty, deriving some feeble heat from a smoky fire that had to be constantly fed. Half of the year in these northern climes is more or less cold, and for these ancients -- our forebears -- there was precious little relief. You can't say we're naturally suited to it either -- our biological species came from the warm midsection of Africa. So how did they do it? Why didn't they hightail it south and jostle their way for whatever space they could find down there?
At least part of it is surely mental. Like my perception of spring in the snowy forest: it's all relative. If one of us had to go back and live year-round in a yurt or other primitive structure, the first year would probably be pretty tough. But I suspect it would start to get easier after that.
But there are physical adaptations too. Circulation and metabolism come to be managed differently with experience in the cold. More blood is sent to extremities to keep them warm, for example. Studies of the physiology of regular "polar bear" swimmers show that they ramp up their metabolism more slowly when immersed in freezing water than occasional swimmers.
Although I do do a bit of "polar bear" swimming every now and then (the Finns call it "avantouinti", or "hole swimming", where the "hole" refers to one in the ice), I don't know if I'll ever reach the levels of adaptation that any of our northern European forebears must have had. So I'll continue being grateful to experience the variety and beauty of our planet's northern regions without having to pay the penalty of a hard life.
Finnish cuisine is less known than many other European cuisines, but I can't imagine why. It's certainly not the food, so maybe it's the marketing.
There are no Finnish restaurants in the U.S. (that I know about), no grocery stores devoted to their ingredients, no Sunday articles praising the cuisine as the secret to health and long life. But I well think they should. Take a look at this layout of Finnish breads for example.
I think of Finnish cuisine is being from and about the earth. One of its staples is rye bread. Dark, crusty, sharply flavored rye bread. The flavor can be pungent, and earthy. The stomach has to work on it for a while before it breaks down. Hunger is staved off for far longer than from wheat bread, and the blood is not suddenly flooded with sugar molecules. Wheat, a grass from the middle east, doesn't grow as far north as even southern Finland, and in Lapland even rye has trouble. There, the Lapps also make a flat bread from barley -- they call it "rieska" -- shown in the top-level of the photo.
These breads are also very practical -- they are dry and crusty, and will last a long while before spoiling. Good provisions for hunting trips and long journeys.
Another prominent part of Finnish cuisine is berries. They are farmed in Finland as in other countries, but a large part of the consumption even today actually comes from wild berries growing in the forests. Many ordinary Finns pick at least some berries every summer, whether from walks in the forests or from their own gardens. There is even a special verb, "marjastaa", that means to go berry-picking. It's also a national pastime to freeze at least some portion of these berries for consumption during the winter months. Another means of preservation is to dry the berries and make them into powders, as seen on the right. These are well-regarded for their health-enhancing qualities and concentrated nutrients. There are even berry soups usually made from blueberries or raspberries.
Mushrooms form another important part of Finnish gastric culture and continue the "earthy" theme. A great portion of even city-dwelling Finns are quite capable of identifying edible mushrooms and go gathering them from the forest in late summertime. Again there is a special word, "sienestää", meaning to go off into the forest and gather wild mushrooms. A great many mushrooms even sold in markets and stores are obtained this way.
Finally we cannot forget fish. Bordered on the south and west by the Baltic Sea, Finland is halfway an island. And those inland have plentiful access to lakes, given that nearly 10% of the country's area is water. Salmon is the most eaten and enjoyed fish...
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