Meanwhile in Finland

After a fantastic fall in DC, on December 23 it was time to start the long journey from one home to another. Against all odds, my flight from Newark to Stockholm was on time, and also my sister made her way there from San Francisco via Chicago. Happily reunited, we hopped on the short flight to Helsinki together early in the morning of the Christmas Eve and made it to our childhood home by noon, in other words just in time for the Declaration of Christmas Peace. It is a tradition that has continued almost uninterrupted in the city of Turku since the 1320s. Since 1983, it has been broadcast on national television so that Finns around the country can join this event which in a way marks the official start of Christmas celebrations, also in our family.

In Finland, Christmas Eve is the main event of the holidays. Once the Christmas Peace is declared, the day continues with eating ‘riisipuuro’ (rice porridge), the Finnish version of rice pudding topped with cinnamon and sugar. Each Christmas, my mom hides a whole almond in the rice porridge, and a popular belief has it that the one who eats the almond will be in luck the following year. (A less popular belief is that the finder of the almond has to sing a song…) Guess who got the almond this time? 2014 will be a great year!

Other important Christmas Eve activities were bathing in a Christmas sauna (of course!), and having a sumptuous Christmas dinner. As Santa Claus lives so near us, he brings the presents to Finns already on the Christmas Eve, often stopping by in person although this year he was so busy that had just left the presents by the door. The Christmas Day was devoted to visiting the cemetery to leave candles on the graves, and to catching up with childhood friends as for once everyone was back in the old hoods. On Boxing Day I lured my sister and a friend of mine for a small “ham run”, followed by having sauna (of course!). You can consider this a low-key version of a turkey trot! In the end, the only thing that was missing from a perfect Finnish Christmas was snow.

I was hoping the weather to be similar to the year before…

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…but instead it looked like this:

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Besides Christmas, the other main reason for my trip to Finland was the public examination of my sister‘s doctoral dissertation in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. Assistant Professor Lorraine Kisselburgh from Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, served as the Opponent, and Professor Anna-Maija Pirttilä-Backman as the Custos (the supervising professor). The beautiful old lecture hall at the University of Helsinki Main Building from 1832 was full of audience. The youngest eye-witness was 4 years old and the oldest 90! My sister did a great job defending her work, so I could just happily sit in the audience feeling proud – instead of stepping to the stage as a dobbelgänger which was our backup plan…

In the Finnish academic world, academic traditions dating from the 17th century are taken seriously and cherished. The public examination is much more ceremonial than in many other countries. Successful defense is followed by ‘karonkka‘, a fun post-doctoral party with food, drinks, and lots of light-hearted speeches. I have probably never been surrounded by such an army of PhDs and researchers! The actual ‘karonkka’ is mainly targeted for the academic community, although nowadays the closest family members get to join. Hence, the celebrations continued on the following evening with an even bigger party for friends and extended family with more food, more drinks, and great conversations. The conversation topics ranged from old teapots to start-up opportunities in the forest industry and from poverty experiences to documentary filmmaking in Northern Namibia.

 Always good to have a doppelgänger on the day of public examination…

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Doctoral hats of ‘karonkka’ guests and the woolly hat that my sister got from us to stay warm until her black hat arrives

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Between Christmas and the academic celebrations, we did a roadtrip to Kesälahti (my mom’s old hoods in Eastern Finland about four hours away from Porvoo) in the search of snow. There was no snow either, but it was great to get to visit my 89 and 88 year old smile wrinkle idols. There is a lot to be learnt from these two inspiring, humorous North Karelian super grandmas about how life should be lived.

Other than that, I had great time with my friends visiting some of my favorite establishments in Helsinki, like Sandro, KuuKuu, Talo, Pacifico and Siltanen. I also consumed a fair amount of fine sushi, had a ‘lonkero‘ (a Finnish drink invented for the Olympics in 1952), ate ‘rahka‘ (quark) with blueberries for breakfast, and drank lots of tasty tap water. I was monkeying with my four funny godchildren and their siblings, and I met two babies that had been born after I moved to DC. I went running and swimming with my dear training buddies. And during my 13-day trip, I managed to have sauna eight times in total, each time at a different place. What makes this even better, five of these saunas were wood-heated. That is pure luxury.

So what did I miss from DC? At least biking, and my own bed. And sunshine! Not only is the daylight in general limited to five hours or so in Southern Finland around the winter solstice, but even during those five hours sunshine is a rarity. During my trip, there was about five minutes of sunshine on December 25, and another seven minutes on January 5. Despite with the frigid air brought to the US by the polar vortex, three sunny days in a row after getting back made DC feel like San Andrés.

Sunshine in Kerkkoo on December 25, 2013

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Blue skies in DC on January 8, 2014

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