Time and Space

It's that time of year again, dear readers. No, I don't mean the time of year where we drink ourselves into an eggnog-laden stupor before frantically going out and buying a Christmas Tree at the last minute, though it is that time of year. No, it's the time of year where I make a trans-continental journey to the frozen north to spend Christmas in the Land of Fin! This year, my trip is particularly insane, because I'm coming off what was, without a doubt, the most difficult semester in my college career so far. I'll take a just a moment to discourage you from attempting to work part time, take (nearly) a full course-load and attempt to coordinate the logistics required for an international trip simultaneously. With that disclaimer in place, join me while I spend the rest of this post talking about some of the more interesting things I've discovered as a result of being a stranger in a strange land.

Time\ Time during Finnish winter is a strange thing. Briefly, for those unaware, Finland is quite a bit further north than the rest of the world. As a rule, during the wintertime, there's not a lot of sunlight to go around. So while the days are not especially shorter, they are quite a bit dimmer. The sun rises around 8AM, gives off weak dawnlight even at its zenith, and we're back to full dark by about 4PM. To anybody used to a more well-lit rhythm, this plays utter havoc with your body clock. Normally, I can pretty reliably tell you what hour of the day it is, but around here, all bets are off, especially after about 3 in the afternoon. This has had an interesting effect on my mental state of mind: I feel less rushed. When I don't have a good grasp on the time of day, it's more difficult to set those mental deadlines for myself that have me subconsciously worrying about time all the...well, time.

If I'm not mistaken, I've noticed it in the people here too. Despite the fact that it's Christmastime, even in the densest of lines in the crowdedest of shopping centers, there's none of the impatient, almost-violent tension you feel in an American mall during Christmas. I haven't been afraid that somebody will shank me for being in their way while I've been here. Not once! This leads me to my next observation: the "take a number, wait your turn" style of queuing is extremely popular here. I can't say for sure if that's a Finnish thing, or a European thing, but it's an interesting change from the "stand in line and wait your turn" model that's so much more prevalent at home. It seems to have gained popularity as a result of two things: the first being the aforementioned patience (or at the least, lack of belligerent resentment), and a more intense concentration of people in one place at one time. Around here, the two most popular methods of transportation are bicycles or a solid pair of of feet. As a result of that, most of the shopping is done in the city center; a haphazard collection of shops crammed into the first (and sometimes second) floors of any building that will rent out a space in about 2 square city blocks. It's a little bit like an outdoor mall crossed with a strip mall.



The end result is that if you want to get any shopping done, that's where you go. In a city where everybody's on foot and shopping in the same place, you have a lot of people in the same place at the same time. So what's a harried shopkeeper to do? Why, hand everybody a number and tell them to shut up and wait their turn! And so I've seen this system everywhere from department stores to the post office, and it's often implemented with a surprising amount of care. There's an automated ticket dispenser, and up above each clerk or teller, there's a display that shows the number currently called, and somewhere more central, a bigger sign that shows the most recent number called. Every time a new number is "called", there's an audible beep of some kind, and life goes on. There's no need for a clerk to ever shout themselves hoarse.\ Brilliant.

Space\ European countries, and Finland in particular suffer from a crippling lack of a vital natural resource. Can you guess what it is? Not coal, or gold, or gas, or oil, or even culture (though you can probably argue otherwise from places), but free space. Allow me to demonstrate why that's the case here. Below is a picture of a Finnish roadside.


Hidden just off-camera is a nothing but lakes. Build here, we dare you.

See all the trees? That's what it's like everywhere. Where there aren't trees, there are lakes. Where there aren't trees or lakes, you're in luck! Except, oh wait, the entire country is on solid bedrock. Have fun leveling out enough of it to make a solid building foundation. The good news is that there aren't any mountains to speak of!

Anyway, add all that together, and you've got a crippling space shortage. As a result, every square meter is precious here. I admit that this is a bit of a leap of logic to take, but it seems legitimate to me: the result is that every living space is as bare as possible, and is only filled in as necessary by the occupant. Bedroom closets are the exception rather than the rule, and if they exist at all, they tend to be the small, walk-in sort. More like a cozy kitchen pantry than anything else. Bathrooms are especial victims of this particular design philosophy; you won't find any cabinets or counters in the average bathroom here. The only concession to space is often a single medicine cabinet and maybe a small, wall-mounted closet. Anything else is usually installed after-the-fact by the occupant.


A toilet paper holder and shelving in the apartment bathroom.

Another result of this free space shortage is that everything is more compact. Compounding this issue is the fact that heating is  a major concern in winter. It's much, much cheaper to heat a shoebox than a mansion. So spaces here, be they public or private, tend more to the "shoebox" end of the scale. Though I can't say I mind; I'd much rather be warm than have room to frolic in a banquet hall.

Have I mentioned the cold yet? I don't believe I have, at least not directly. It's been -15 degrees the past few days I've gone out. That's about 3 degrees Fahrenheit. To put that in perspective, that's cold enough that when I breathe in through my nose, I can feel my snot freezing in real time. It is a most unusual sensation. I recommend it for anybody looking to experience chills and thrills.\ Only joking. Just chills there.\ Back to the original point, you can feel the design considerations for heating everywhere you go. Everything is built down and up here. For every two story building, it's a safe bet that there's at least a hidden third story underground. Ceilings are low, storefronts front both the street and an interior mall-like atrium. I walked into Jyväskylä's public library the other day, noted the height of the ceilings and found myself musing that the building must cost a fortune to heat in the winter.

All told, it's cold, dark and quiet here. I can't really imagine a better place to spend a month relaxing after a most hectic semester. Everybody's gearing up (or should it be winding down?) for Christmas here. With only three days to go (most celebrations happen on Christmas Eve here), I'll be sure to report back sometime soon.

Until then, Merry Christmas ja Hyvää Joulua!