Thursday, 9 June 2011

Viisi adjektiivit Suomi-tyyliin

Howdy, chums of Nordia and the Hyperborean sector!

Been a long time, been a long time - as Led Zep might screech.

I've not done any Insidious Junkboxes since the Autumn, largely as a result of a reorganisation of the front room at The Shed Above. Not a reorganisation of my making, I might add. It may have to wait until after the wedding and the new homestead in Firswood.

Neither have I had many stimulating thoughts of late; nothing of any great cultural import or insight. Well, what's new there, one might ask? Assuming that anyone would read that to ask about it. The thing is I haven't even had the illusion of cultural incision to tease my fingers to the keyboard. Nothing that can't be safely contained within a tweet or two.

But now I sit at a wee table in Room 211 of the Hotelli Milton in Jyväskylä in central Finland and I've a few observations to share with you "all".

It's based on a game that Lw and I (and its co-inventor, Bwrti Eryri) like to play when we go somewhere new - and Finand/Jyväskylä is very new for both of us. It's called the Five Adjectives - and it's quite straightforward. The only proviso is that you can't go for the obvious ones, ie Finland = expensive, Nordic or whatever you could up with without even having to visit the place. You need to show some insight, some creativity.

So, here goes - for Jyväskylä (and Finland, to a lesser extent):

This is the overarching theme for me that best covers several different aspects of Finnish life. From the moment we didn't have to queue for the FinnAir flight to Helsinki, we knew we were dealing with a culture that knew how to get things done with minimum fuss. But we hadn't imagined quite how functional everything would be - in both senses of the word.

In Jyväskylä at least, there is very little room for frivolity or antiquity. Everything has the sense of being shaped by a clean idea of purpose. The architect Alvar Aalto, a native of the city, seems to have had a very profound impact here - everywhere people live in boxes. This gives the town a curious, slightly anonymous feeling and makes it a little hard to navigate in terms of the usual landmarks.

But it's not just the architecture. The Finnish language seems remarkably sleek - no gender for nouns (in fact, no "he" or "she" at all), no "a" or "the", phonetic spelling. OK, there are a large band of word-endings and enough noun cases to choke a reindeer - but even that gives the grammar a machine-tooled sheen. There isn't even a word for "have", which suggests some egalitarian, non-capitalist haven, which would be too much to really hope for - even this close to the arctic circle.

Turns out that even this is built on a bit of a well-meaning lie. No-one actually speaks the offical, written language that was developed between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries from parts of the eastern and western Finnish dialects. No-one except newsreaders anyway. The process of language-building gathered in intensity as the Suomi wriggled their way out from under Swedish and Russian rule and the language was required for courts, business and technology as well as discussing crops and cracking jokes. But it was more important that there was one working language to express this solidifying Finnish nationality than it was to honour these regional differences. Function over continuity, see? Bam!

I'm not too happy with this word, as it might project the image of tanned, hunky and/or svelte Titans padding their way about on rippling lawns. This doesn't quite capture what I've seen. Some of the Finns are rather too varied in build to fit this model, but they all seem to want to make the most of the sunlight hours while they have them. It's just that instead of British concept of outdoor summers (pub gardens, garden centres and music festivals), they want to pull on the vest and lycra shorts and go for a run in the woods.

I thought about "health-conscious", as the town is full of apteekit (ie chemist shops) and the only person I've seen smoking on the entire Uni campus has been Lw. I don't think you could say the same of any UK campus. I doubt even Loughborough could boast that. But the "healthy" tag doesn't quite cut the mustard either - this isn't California. There's no prune juice and no hint of New Age quackery. Just an awful lot of lycra.

I even thought about "wheeled", as the number of people on bikes, rollerblades, rollerblades with ski-sticks, skateboards and every other foot-powered contraption known to Finn is really quite impressive. You have to keep a keen eye all around you to try and make sure that you aren't wandering into the path of some speeding cyclist. I seem to be the only person under the age of 50 that huffs about at a snail's pace - on the campus particularly. "Jyväskylä: the City that Never Walks." But then, "wheeled" would cut out the joggers, so that can't be used either.

So I'll settle for "athletic" rather than "sporty" - purely because it all seems so non-competitve. No football in the park, just frisbee. They seem a bit of an individualist bunch (if you'll pardon the oxymoron), the Finnish - more about challenging themselves. Functionality again, perhaps?

This is maybe more dependent on the fact that it's been hot, sunny weather all week - and unusually so for this time of year, we're told. The rest of Europe seems to be getting soaked in rain and Jyväskylä has been warmer than Rome for days.

But the fact is Jyväskylä sparkles. The lake in the middle of the city, Jyväsjärvi, sparkles. The white University buildings sparkle. The glass-covered balconies sparkle. And because the sun doesn't even set until after 9pm, they sparkle for a long, long time.

I'm going to miss the sunny sparkle and the views across the lake when I get back to the red-brick and neglected waterways of Manchester on Friday night.

There are trees everywhere. Flying over Finland, all you could see were trees and lakes of different colours (not all of them very healthy). The airport was surrounded by trees. The lake is surrounded by trees. The white University buildings peak out through a forest. The trees are in charge here. And not just evergreens either, there's a healthy cluster of young oak trees throwing down in the park in front of the town hall - and sexy, slinky silver birches all over the place. It makes Germany look like the Bull Ring car park.

We'll be taking the train to Helsinki tomorrow before we fly back to Manchester. I expect to see a great deal more forest before then. Dendrophilia overload: Ultrasylvania. If Dracula ever decided to get away from it all, he could summer out here quite pleasantly, stalking about in the woods, ripping out joggers' throats as they go through the fourth circuit of the evening. (Although I suppose the permanent sunshine might cause him some difficulties.)

5. ?????
I'm still an adjective short at the moment. We thought "shy" or "quiet" might be a possibility - especially as almost no-one on the whole 'plane spoke a word on the flight to Helsinki. But people have been quite chatty on the whole - not exactly bursting with questions, but happy to talk. And in English, of course, which sets my cheeks burning with a little shame. The phrasebook has remained wedged in my pocket.

Obviously, there's "expensive" - and it IS expensive here. £3 for a 70cl bottle of Pepsi. £20 or so for CDs. Between £5 and £7 for around a pint of beer. And this has meant our activities (especially the drinking and eating) are not quite at the usual holiday levels. But it would be wrong to say it's curtailed our fun in a big way. And reindeer liver would probably be even more expensive at home. I just hope I can manage to locate some bear sausage before the end of the week.

So I'm on the look out for another impression to word up. If I come up with one, I'll let youse know.


Your pal, Coc x

PS One slightly bizarre sight (which could be considered a little frivolous) was a floating sauna on the lake last night. Not ship-shaped at all - just a wooden hut idly wandering along the water. No birch twigs in sight, but plenty of topless men - one of them wearing a captain's hat. There were beer bellies and there was beer being poured into them - so maybe that knocks adjective 2 out of the water as well? Or maybe they were Swedes.