letter from helsinki
Arvamus 29 Oct 2012 Justin PetroneEWR
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I'm getting fleeced, maybe by my own idiocy, maybe by the metric system, maybe by the Finns, and, just maybe, by all of these things. Macadamia nuts and dried strawberries at €2.99 for 100 grams at the Kamppi shopping center in downtown Helsinki. It sounds reasonable, though I have a hard time conceptualizing 100 grams of anything. And yet when it's time to pay up, the cheeky Vietnamese Finn at the booth charges me €24.99 ($32) like it's no big deal. And, after a brief "you must be joking" look, I pay it anyway, handing her a €50 bill, only to be handed back half of the amount in currency, and the other half in two, half-filled bags of nuts and strawberries.

The higher price tag must have been linked to the products' innate superiority. It was one of the few reasonable explanations. But how were they superior? I am not going to speculate that each nut was fashioned with laser-like precision by some local titan of design, named Timo perhaps, to exude the correct art nouveau properties, though in Finland, I might believe it. Or could it be that these nuts and strawberries were superior because they were in Finland, and in Finland, things are superior and cost more, by nature?

It's no wonder that so many Estonian workers flock to this northern land of perfection. The salaries are many times higher. A babysitter in Viljandi will work for €2 an hour. In Helsinki, our Estonian friend pays her babysitter €14 an hour, to do pretty much the same job. The Finn earns seven times more than the Estonian! Little did I know, but all of my neighbors and acquaintances who do the weekly trek to Helsinki are rolling in it. Maybe that's why they all drive such nice cars.

And I would wager that it is easier for an Estonian to integrate into Finnish society than most other nationalities. Even I felt disarmingly at home there, despite the parallel universe prices. The faces were familiar, the names were familiar, as was the language. After getting lost, I was able to get directions from some grocery store sellers and understand what they were telling me. I realize that just hearing all of this Estonian all the time has opened my mind to Finnish, Karelian, Vepsian, a whole new linguistic world.

And yet the Finnish-Estonian relationship is complex. Consider the English text on the Viking Line ferry screens. These are large monitors found in the corridors of the ship that provide information about various destinations. Tallinn's includes the lines, "Since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991" and "hotels are up to Western European standards." Either they haven't changed those informative blurbs since 1996, or somebody is living in a timewarp. My experience is actually that hotels in old Western Europe are not up to Estonian standards. At my hotel in Hamburg, I was given a large, old-fashioned key, to be left at the reception desk. In Rome, wifi was free, but only in the lobby, and it didn't work half the time. And in Helsinki, I had to actually pay for parking across the street from our hotel with coins from the "lippuautomaatti." Can you imagine? Estonian radio stations may be stuck in the 1980s, but when it comes to "Western European standards," the world's only post-communist nordic country has left them all behind.

A bit more on the dreaded "N" word is warranted. I sometimes get the feeling that "Nordic" is a code word for Finnish, as if one means the other and vice versa. Few nationalities are so keen on the term, other than the marketing savvy Estonians, who see it as a self-promoting "in." But what exactly is "Finnish" and what exactly is "Nordic?" Where is the line between the two? It seems as if "Finnish" is some kind of premodern concept, of saunas and national folk costumes and accordions, 19th century prints of flaxen maidens working in the fields. But "Nordic?" "Nordic" is ocularly appealing coffee mugs and aerodynamic chairs, Marimekko prints, a pair of smart, dark-framed glasses on every face. "Nordic" is some kind of 1968-minted version of "the future" that has been tweaked by time and technology. Because of this, a person in Finland can feel as if he is both simultaneously stuck in the past and living in a science fiction film.

The Estonians, for all of their tech agility, still seem to have a complex in regards to the Finns. I won't call it an inferiority complex, but as a friend informed me, anytime she confesses that she is Estonian, she is looked upon with disapproving glances, as if a plumber had barged into a meeting of bankers, his ass crack hanging loose for all to see. When my wife had trouble returning a sweater at Kamppi, thanks to a particularly difficult seller, she was heard to ponder aloud, "I wonder if she treated me like that because I am Estonian." And when I asked her why she didn't try to speak Finnish with the locals, she answered, "Why should every Estonian speak Finnish to the Finns? They should try speaking Estonian to me." I was pleased to see how Finland got under her skin, after being mocked during our visit to Russia for my "illogical" fear of being trailed by the FSB, "as if I was so important."

In the midst of this, I started to better understand the Estonians' desire to take the Finns down a notch. Sure they may be wealthier, and more "Nordic," but the Finns and Estonians spring from the same rough country roots, as do most Europeans. Let's go back a few generations before the Finns got their Marimekko sweaters and Urho Kekkonen glasses and progressive politics and take a look at all the peasants sawing timber and sullying their hands in the fields. So when Estonians begroan Finnish haughtiness in the media, they are actually just trying to keep their old friend's ego in check. And that is a mark of true friendship.

I have to end here by saying that in spite of its high prices and obsession with perfection, and occassional haughtiness, I really do love Helsinki. It is the place where I fell in love. And there was a moment when I was looking out the apartment window before the snow fell, and the golden and brown leaves were swirling around an adjacent playground, that I felt that the place actually might be perfect, in its own rugged, rocky, Finnish way. So I recommend a visit to all. But first practice by standing in front of a toilet and flushing €50 bills down, one after the other. And when at last it doesn't hurt anymore, then you are ready to experience Finland.

(Itching for Eestimaa, pühapäev 28. oktoober, http://palun.blogspot.ca/ )
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