The Little Things

"Fully-decorated Christmas tree!"

Hyvää joulua! That is, Merry Christmas! I've been enjoying the hospitality of the Hirvonens for the past day and a half and right now I am so stuffed, I'm having a hard time budging from the couch. In fact, I've just been informed that dessert is being served soon. I doubt I'll be able to stuff more than a token amount of food into my already-overfed self.

...yep. Managed a bite of cake and a single cookie. I doubt I'll be able to move for the rest of the night. Tomorrow's Christmas day, and it promises to be a slow one. Because, interestingly, Christmas in Finland works a little bit differently than back home. In fact, a lot of things are a little different, and so, in the interest of sticking to my appropriately kitschy title, I'll be going through a few things that are just a little different on this side of this ol' globe of ours.

Christmas

"Nearby the tree store"

Let's start with the thematically appropriate topic. Joulu, aka Christmas! (It helps if you realize that in the Scandinavian languages, a "j" makes the "y" sound. Joulu = yule. More or less.) It's very subtly different, and is basically about timing. Most of the festivities take place on Christmas Eve! Most people actually get their trees on or just before Christmas Eve. If they live in the countryside, and own a lot with trees on it, or have a friend who does, they'll go out and cut down their own. Apparently tree theft is a big deal, because when we were walking through the Hirvonen forest, Tiina, Kaisa's sister, told me to keep an eye out for footprints, because that'd probably mean that somebody had been stealing their trees. Tiina, Kaisa and I walked, Rauno, their younger brother, drove their tractor. We went as far as we could, but then the tractor was blocked by a tree that had partially fallen into the road. From there on, we walked, and went a-tree huntin'. We wandered around for a while, pointing out and dismissing the occasional tree. I finally spotted a good one a bit away from the road, and we sawed it down, tied it to the tractor and drove it home. Rauno and I dragged it into the sauna to dry for a while, and a few hours later, it was decorated in the living room, as you can see above.

"Christmas dinner in progress"

After decorating the tree, we distributed and opened presents. As the guest, I was given the task of handing out presents to people. I think I did an admirable job of successfully pronouncing the battery of Finnish names--Kaisa, Rauno, Tiina, Reima, Airi, Marjatta--with all their funny double letters and rolled r's.

Then, we all ate far, far too much food. The ham was good, the moose was better. Finally, most families will hold onto the tree for the next several weeks, well into January.

Most, most families make it a tradition to go out to the cemetery on Christmas Eve and light candles at the base of the family plot. You can see a picture of that to the right. A little blurry, but you get the idea.

Driving

Let's get the obvious thing out of the way. Metric system. Meters. Kilometers. Okay. Are we good? Good. Moving on.

European signage is, due to the wide variety of languages spoken on the continent, both pictorial and fairly universal. I saw the same signs in Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands. Speed limits are just numbers in a circle, yield signs are (oddly) identical to those in the U.S., minus the "Yield" text, and so forth.

The other major difference is largely one of style. Europeans, apparently, don't like stopping. They also like curves. Let me put it this way: the whole time I've been here, I've seen exactly two stop signs. And I've been in major cities, countrysides, parking lots, you name it. Two. Intersections are largely governed by yield signs, parking lots are mostly unsigned, roundabouts take the place of four-way intersections, etc. As a result, none of the turns are the nice, gridlike straight lines I'm accustomed to. Everything curves, like an on-ramp or a merging lane on a freeway, because that's what most things are: extended merging lanes.  I drove most of the way from Jyväskylä to Varkaus, and it was an exercise in subtle, but significant differences. Also, apparently, fuel efficiency is measured in Fuel/Distance, rather than Distance/Fuel. So, Liters per 100km, rather than Miles per Gallon.

Oh, one last thing! This one is probably unique to Finland, or at least northern countries with lots of large wildlife. There's a very well-defined etiquette when it comes to using your headlight's brights. During the night time you ALWAYS have them on unless: there's an oncoming car within a certain range, you're too close to another in front of you, or you're in a well-lit area. Not having your brights on at night otherwise is actually enough to be worth a ticket. The reason is that moose have a nasty habit of darting into the road and turning unwary drivers into road pizza. So, driving was an exercise in constantly flipping my brights on and off and on and off and on and...you get the idea.

Miscellaneous Stuff

Gambling machines. Everywhere! Convenience stores, train stations, gas stations, airports, inside grocery stores, you name it. Video poker appears to be a mainstay, but I'm willing to bet there are other sorts as well. I haven't taken a close look.

Bathrooms! They're very very similar, but different in some really subtle ways. The first: no bathtub! Just a shower stall. The second: the whole bathroom is tiled, and fair game for water! Every slopes into a central (or not) drain. Detachable nozzles are very common, and probably way too much fun to use for someone my age. Toilets mostly flush with buttons or a funny lever you have to lift and then drop. Finally, all the piping is exposed, rather than neatly hidden a way like it is back home. Which makes sense, given that all the freezing that goes on in the winter is very liable to make a pipe burst, and a burst pipe inside a wall is baaad news.

That's all the big things I've noticed. There are a whole bunch of other little details I can't remember right now, but I'll see if I can't make a list and just post that up some time later. Will need to keep something to write with on me...

Finally, an image, very, very few of you will understand. If you don't get the joke, that's okay. You weren't meant to.

"You know who you are."