Found in Translation

Radio Dei Ulla and Salla

Matthew Univ of Lapland

A really good interviewer gets you to forget everything except the conversation. You get so comfortable you just say how you feel. As a documentary maker I’m usually on the asking side of the microphone, so during my radio interview I was surprised to fall into that forgetfulness.

Salla was my translator. She’s a student I will always be grateful introduced herself to me when I was still bumbling through my first evening in northern Finland. She’s personable, intense and intelligent, and speaks English almost like a native. She volunteered (or was coerced?) to do the simultaneous translation for my interview with Ulla M. Despite their difference in age, as soon as I walked into the studio I could feel the warmth between the two women.

Ulla, the driving force and talent behind Radio Dei, has the perfect FM radio voice: a deep alto, unrushed, with always the hint of a smile. She also has a quiet charisma that may come from her performances of poetry and song with her husband, the music director of the parish (for her singing, think Ute Lemper or even Marlene Dietrich, minus the scandalous German lyrics). She sat me down on the other side of the desk, put a microphone in front of me, looked me straight in the eyes and I was quite lost. If I were a criminal I would have confessed.

Fortunately, the questions – at least at first – were rather easier.

Why are you here in Rovaniemi? Partly by accident. I looked at the farthest point north on the map that seemed to have an airport. Where I might have contacts. Sari Kuirinlahti has been a wonderful host. For people who think of themselves as unfriendly, the Finns have been very welcoming.

Why are you interested in Finns? I wasn’t. But every year more I work with them, I find the country, its people, its emigrants – and its music, more fascinating. And I think the sauna is a great invention.

Just when I thought I was safe, the zinger: So, you asked all these people where was home? You seem to travel quite a bit. What’s YOUR answer to that question?

Finally, when the mic was turned off, I was afraid I’d said too much. Then again, I wish I’d said more: about the soppa, or warm blueberry soup, that Ilari made me, his smock over his clerical shirt. About skiing around the pond looking at the devotional signs that Sari and Matti designed and put up, and how I got cocky thinking about Canadians on cross country skis and almost wound up flat on my back. About meeting Milla in Helsinki, the director of the press unit for the Finnish Lutheran church, and sharing an evening of laughter and conversation over some kind of Russian pancakes with caviar I’ll probably never taste again. About the strangeness of an altar fresco that shows wolves tearing apart a reindeer and the familiarity of wood curved so smooth by handwork you feel you are touching the essence of the tree. About Pekka Simojoki’s music and Levi’s snow and reindeer soup as a staple, about Lestarian faith and not ever getting proper wifi. About being Canadian at the Arctic Circle of a land I have never known.

So much more I could have said. How can one ever sum up even a week’s life in a few short minutes? One thing I made sure to say: even when we think our lives are small and unimportant, we should know that they are grand, and every one full of drama and hope and fear and promise.

“I’m afraid the interview won’t be any good,” Salla blurted out when we said our goodbyes. “You’ll be able to hear us smiling all the way through!” What a wonderful experience this Suomi-conference sponsored trip was. My one and only task was to experience Finnish culture. I feel I barely got started.

Pekka and me suprised

Mari and Matthew selfie Helsinki

Milla and Matthew

waiting at the baggage Helsinki

The Accidental Ambassador

poster at Wiljami theatre Rovaniemi      movie is starting

Even though the Suomi Conference of Canada sent me to Finland to experience Finnish culture, I’m realizing now that I’m here, that I’m representing Canadian Finns to the homeland. Which is ironic. Who needs an ambassador who can’t even speak the language?

But the pleasure – and the privilege – is that I’m meeting relatives of Finns in Canada, who come to see my documentaries just because I’m a living connection to their family. “We are cousins to Heiki and drove 100 km to see you,” says one man, in carefully-practiced English. I hope that he will get something from the (not-Finnish-language) films. There are Finns who spent a winter, or two years, or a few weeks, in Vancouver or Toronto, who have come because I represent that land they left behind. Or Finns who might be coming to Canada for a term or a job, because they want a sense of the place.

First there are local singers who perform. Then my documentaries. After seeing the movie, the people shake their heads: “it’s not easy being an emigrant,” they say, “being caught between here and there.” Then, through translation, some of them talk about being caught between Helsinki and Lapland, or about their grown children traveling to the United States or to South America – and how they’re afraid that they will meet someone and settle down there, away from parents and home. A few in the audience know someone in the film. One woman cries, quietly.

When they hear that the Suomi choir in the film is coming back to Finland, I hear murmurs: “they’re coming here to the north I hope!” I answer “We’d love to!”, even though I then have to add that I know nothing about the choir’s schedule and have zero power to change it.

Then, the lights lift, and people move to their coats and after a few more “kiitos’s” they are gone. I collect my things. Sari – who has been such a wonderful host throughout – will drop me back to my apartment. She knows I haven’t eaten since breakfast. “Are you hungry?” she asks. I still haven’t figured out the eating patterns here, which seem to include lots of food in the late evening after sauna, and sausages outside following every snow activity. But neither of those is the situation today. I think perhaps this will be the occasion for more Lappish cuisine. “Sure,” I answer. “Great,” she says, leading the way out the door: “I was thinking Chinese”.

singers at presentation

Reindeer and Skiing on Sidewalks

Matti was here graffiti

It was when she started talking about how properly to hang and cure reindeer meat that I knew for sure I was in Lapland. It was also right around then that we realized there were no taxis to take me back to my church apartment.

The day had begun when I set out walking to Arktikum, the official museum of Lapland and of Rovaniemi. It’s a long, elegantly beautiful building on the edge of the Ounasjoki (Ounas river), about two kilometres from where I’m staying. Inside the museum were displays of Sami sleds, Sami traditional dress and the all-important drums. In fact of all of Sami history is represented, including beautiful 7th century jewelry that reminded me of similar Anglo-Saxon and Irish finds.

I walked back through town, just in time to meet the vicar of the parish, Kari Y, who promised to end my internet troubles by handing me a 3-G stick. I asked him about the church that he heads. Some parish: there are 22 or 23 pastors on staff and about 120 employees! I keep bumping into clergy types who tell me they’re pastors in the parish. Apparently, they all are.

Just as I left the office building a smiling woman in a white parka walked into the parking lot. You must be Matthew, Riita K-K said. Do you like ice cream? Sure! Then come taste our newest local product…. From the Arctic Ice Cream Factory. I tried the “spruce tree” flavour – it was delicious. Riita interviewed me for her own paper, the Lappilainen, a weekly, and also showed me an article about my documentaries in another paper, the UusiRovaniemi. I’m glad to know the word is getting out. On my way back from the interview a woman passed me on the sidewalk, on skiis. Most Rovaniemi people, however, if not driving, seem to prefer walking or bicycles, even on the ice and snow.

It was soon time to meet Sari again, this time for a concert and my first look inside Rovaniemi kirkko, or church. The fresco behind the altar is magnificent. By Antti Salmenlinna, it dates from the early 1950s, when the church was built. I asked Sari about all the new architecture. Oh, there are almost no old buildings in Rovaniemi, she said. The Germans burnt the city down when they left in 1944. It’s a bit awkward to say that to German tourists these days, but – she looked at me with that typically inscrutable Finnish expression – it’s all right. As we explored I noticed paintings along the side arches, one of them of a man with a reindeer, to illustrate Jesus’ sayings in Matthew.

The organ concert was wonderful, with two international artists spelling each other off like spoken-word performers, getting more and more physical with the classics of popular organ music. Of course there was also Sibelius’ Finlandia. Sari, who is supposed to be on holidays, doesn’t act much like it, speaking with parishioners and handling details constantly, and I worry that part of that is due to my visit. She gave me an updated agenda for my visit. More meetings!

Then she drove me back to Riita’s place for my second sauna of the trip. I hope you don’t mind, Riita said with unnecessary apology, that here in town we have only the electric type. She fed me bread and cheese and sent me in, after which she and her son took turns. Then we talked for a bit after, over fruit, about global Russian muscle-flexing. Sweden and Finland just signed a pact to share armed forces, she informed me. The Russians have just reactivated a military base that had been abandoned, on the other side of the border. She talked about the old days, about communist youth, and about trips to Murmansk, and Leningrad, and Moscow. Then she told me about her work in helping build community right in Rovaniemi, and the “pop-up restaurant” concept, where Finns get a chance to open a restaurant in their own home or with a neighbour, two or three times a year.

Soon it was late, and I was ready to go. No taxis were to be found. Oh, you’ll be all right, said my host. Just look for the spire of the Kirkko, it’s the tallest building you’ll see. And follow the cross all the way home.

So I did.

through the photographer lens

Rovaniemi church fresco

fresco of reindeer herder

A Warm – too hot! – a welcome to Rovaniemi


Sauna One

My Ash Wednesday in Finland began with a flight north. I left behind the beautiful old 19th and early 20th century buildings, the gritty sidewalks and the cold sea wind of Helsinki and landed in the sunny, white and still world that marks the beginning of Finnish Lapland. It was so strange to be surrounded by banks of snow, yet feel warmer than I had in Helsinki. “It’s a dry cold,” someone said. Rovaniemi feels like Saskatoon or Edmonton on a nice winter day. Even looks a bit like it.

Right now the Arctic Circle, ironically, is warmer than Montreal. Pastor Sari Kuirinlahti met me at the airport. “I have hugs for you,” I said, “from Riita and Olavi Hepomaki and from Jari and Liisa Lahtinen. Is that okay?” “Oh!” she answered, “I miss those people!” And she let me give her the hugs, even though she blushed. Then she handed me a chart with all the things I’m doing in the next few days, based on what I had emailed her. Two documentary showings in a theatre and a chapel, a couple of interviews, a trip, meetings, some concerts…..

But first, she said, sauna! Have you had sauna yet? I admitted I had been two days in Finland already without sauna. You will be picked up this evening, she informed me. Get ready (I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant). The afternoon gave me time to settle in to the “Piispankameri” or the so-called Bishop’s room, which when a Bishop isn’t visiting is used for other guests like visiting musicians, or in this case, me. Cross-country skiers were passing by in front of my window. Having no skis, I walked to a local store and bought some food for the apartment, with the very kind clerk taking me around by the arm and helping me find what I needed, then warmed up some Karjalan Pirakkat with tea. Sari returned and took me to meet church volunteers. They asked, with Sari interpreting, what I thought the challenges facing my congregation (and the church overall) in Canada are. It turns out there are many similarities, despite the differences. Then another pastor (they seem to be everywhere here), Tuomo K, whisked me away to the church camp at Norvajärvi.

There were men there in the woods by the frozen lake. Many men, of different ages, in the saunas, towelling off, out standing in the snow, or cooking Finnish sausages over a fireplace in a hall. I sat in the sauna listening to the quiet hiss of steam. My host made it hotter and hotter until unable to bear the steam any more we had to run, naked, out to the snow. “A warm – sorry, a hot! – welcome to Rovaniemi” he laughed. We had arrived late so most of the men were already dressed and setting up for their discussion. I waited until the others were gone and then did what I had promised myself I would do. I fell back into the snow and looked, oh so briefly, at the stars, ten kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

The men sang a hymn, said a prayer, and I introduced myself to them in my very few words of Finnish. Then they fell into their planned discussion: how to be a Christian and involved in political life. It was all in Suomi, so I could only pick up a few words – socialism, communism, capitalism, faith, God. In this area the communist party was very strong for many years, and tensions sometimes ran high. Still, after the heat and steam and flight, it was hard not to nod off. The man beside me did, but then revived every now and then to add a few words to the discussion.

Then it was back down the highway, past the “watch for elk” and “Arctic Circle” signs, and boots crunching in the hard-packed snow, back to my room. “Kiitoksia!” I called out. “Good sleep!” my host answered. After that sauna, it won’t be hard to have a good sleep. Welcome to Rovaniemi.