Saturday, June 16, 2012

Autoton keskusta! (A tour of Turku)

If Irkutsk is the Paris of Siberia, as many Russians claim with a straight face, surely Turku is the Venice of southern Finland.  Granted, I haven't yet been to Helsinki or any other southern Finnish cities, but I have no reason to expect that they're any more like Venice.  And I haven't been to Venice either, or Paris for that matter, but the fact is, Turku is pretty nice - just like I hear Venice is.  Did you follow that?  Good.  But don't just take my word for it.  In this photo collection, you too can explore Turku, in all its Venetian splendor.

Presented below is a day in the life of Turku, Finland.  Our walking tour begins where my own tour began - wandering through the streets during my first week here, looking for signs of life.  And I found them, too - it turns out that my earlier description of Finland

was an oversimplification.

Much to my surprise, that Sunday the city was racked with political unrest - I stumbled upon a crowd of young Finns with a red flag, listening to a girl with a megaphone.

I couldn't make out exactly what she was saying, but she mentioned Turku, cars, and the word 'street' in the allative case, meaning motion towards - they were going to some street to do something for some reason!  I hadn't felt so energized since 3:00 a.m. the previous night, when the sun was rising and my jetlagged body thought it was mid-afternoon.  As it turned out, this ragtag alliance of the Finnish Left Union (formerly the Finnish Communist Party), me, and randos with a free Sunday afternoon was rallying to eliminate all cars from the city center.

Now generally speaking, I'm not inclined towards passing political fads and pet causes, but I weighed the pros and cons on this one and tentatively climbed on board.  I reasoned that if there were no cars in the center, I could walk in a perfectly straight line, staring straight ahead, from my Finnish lessons to the smoked fish stand kitty-corner from the school.  So I clenched a D-battery in each of my fists, flipped my backpack to my front to protect my ribs, put on a bike helmet, wrapped a bandanna around my nose and mouth, and looked for a pig I could punch.  But get this - there were no pigs, aside from a friendly one who came to check the paperwork at the beginning.  No lip-service to the law through a giant megaphone, no endless columns of baton-wielding storm-troopers, not a single extrajudicial ass-kicking for the entire two hours.  And for the protesters' part, when I unclenched my fists and looked behind me, they were all playing cards and chatting it up - almost certainly what the police were doing back at the station.  No Molotov cocktails (originally a Finnish invention!), no self-immolations, not even a catchy chant.  Really, the only difference between this protest and a low-key party with friends is that the protest was explicitly approved by the police, but then they didn't even stick around to crush it.

I was disheartened, but there was a silver lining.  The protest allowed me to make my first Finnish-language political critique.  As you can see above, for all their radical anti-car rhetoric, the group was employing a giant white van to play music from the stereo.  I started constructing a sentence in my head, and after a few minutes I turned to the girl next to me and said, "it's strange that they're playing music from a car."  And I nailed it, too - she understood, laughed, and said, "sisävesiristeilylaivojen."  Or something like that.  And I laughed too, because from the context I could safely assume she said something lighthearted.

Just as the party broke up, I captured a photograph that renders all this text unnecessary.  Here is the parting gesture of one of the leaders - thanking the crowd through a megaphone from the window of a moving car.


So what are Turku's residents doing, in the absence of political strife?  More often than not they're in the sauna, but the sauna will get its own blog post in a few weeks. Between steamings, Finns here enjoy the rich cultural life you would expect from Europe's best-educated, hardest-drinking country.  This is Turku's spectacular public library, seen from the street and from inside:

For my American readers, Finnish libraries differ slightly from our own, and not just because there are patrons.  Finland, if you'll recall, is a hypermodern socialist dystopia, where free thought has been exchanged for free health care and other shiny trinkets.  As such, the library is just a mind-factory where the state assembles loyal cadres.  It's a two-part process, which I photographed as part of my tour, but also as an election-year warning to the readers back home.

First, the Finn submits to a retinal scan at the library robot (pictured below), which then dispenses whichever book Helsinki sees fit:

Then, he or she is legally obligated to read the entire book cover to cover, suspended from the ceiling inside one of these soundproof knowledge pods.

What was I saying?  Oh right, tour of Turku.  When the Finns aren't in the knowledge pods or jogging en masse,

they're reveling in their own cultural heritage.  And sometimes they're doing both at once:

Start paying attention now, I'm actually going to say stuff about Turku.  See that giant church behind the runners?  That's the Turku Cathedral, the most important religious building in Finland.  It was built at the end of the 13th century by Sweden, the Finns' dominating foreign power of choice.  It is worth noting that, though the church is the spiritual and cultural center of the Lutheran Church of Finland, it predates both the Lutheran church and, in a sense, Finland. It is by far the oldest man-made structure I can see from my dorm room.

The building itself has an eventful history as well.  The first cathedral was dedicated in 1300, and then built up throughout the late Middle Ages, attaining its current, towering height of 102 meters by the beginning of the modern era.  A meter is the Finnish term for a yard.  Much of the building (and much of the city) was destroyed in the Great Fire of Turku in 1827, but the church was rebuilt on the surviving stone structure.  Some inner walls of the church are still covered in ash from the blaze.

The fire was caused by an oversight in the church's construction - they had not yet installed this "the use of fire is prohibited" sign.


The church also houses Finland's most prized possession, which I hinted at in an earlier post - the economic perpetual motion machine.  This is my first attempt to upload a video to blog, so hope for the best.  About halfway through, I zoom in on a large gear ticking away in the back.  Every time it clicks, one job is added and one welfare check gets sent out in the mail.


Turku is actually home to two significant medieval buildings, the other being the Turku Castle, which I haven't visited and thus can say nothing about.

But I can say much about the cathedral.  This is thanks to the generosity of my Finnish blog-readers and the good people at /r/finland, one of whom invited me on an exclusive, apparently rare tour of the church and the bell tower.  Thank Asko for making the following photographs possible.  Asko is the Finnish term for Bobby.

View from the belltower - Turku center and the Aura River

The church is actually the centerpiece of Turku's "old city," the medieval market square that makes Turku a uniquely historic place.  But all the roads are torn up and under construction there, so that it can look its best once I leave.  These are a few pictures I was able to frame such that the construction isn't visible.

I wanted to round out my city tour with some views of the Finnish night life, but I encountered two problems - there's no night, and Turku's student population cleared out before I got here.  A few weeks ago though, when there still kinda was night, the Finns celebrated their mass-graduation day, after which all students of all ages celebrate in the city center.  The program director at my school called it "a disgusting and stupid tradition," wherein teenagers get drunk for the first time, lose control, vomit everywhere, and then get cleared out by police if they're lucky, by ambulance if not.  He said to stay out of the center if at all possible and to hope for rain.  So I went home and charged my camera, but when I got to the center, it was rainy and thus relatively tame.  Here are some graduate-Finns, wearing their ylioppilaslakit, or traditionalfinnishgraduationhats.

It wasn't all for naught.  I did snap this picture of two drunks fighting, just as the dude in the red punched the other dude in the face.  He swung so hard that he lost his balance.

But for the most part it was calm, peaceful and pretty.  What a let-down.

The blog is set to take us in exciting new directions soon, as I move about Finland and then settle up north.  First I visit Tampere and see my first Finnish mökki (translation: dacha), to mark the Midsummer holiday with our dear Finnish TA from Berkeley.  Then I study some, visit the Turku archipelago, and hitchhike my way to Oulu for more studying.  Expect pictures.  Expect a tour of Oulu.  Expect to learn about the sauna, the Finnish highways, and the wilds of the Arctic.  Most of all, expect the expected. This is Finland - all of my plans will go as planned, and then I'll go home.  


  1. That is not a teekkarilakki. Teekkarilakki has a tassel.

    What you have instead is an ylioppilaslakki.

    1. You managed to comment while I was still editing the final draft - a new record! I would not have caught the hat thing, though - kiitos. It's an ylioppilaslakki now.

    2. Well, the article showed up in Google Reader, so I don't know if they have some mind-reading powers or something :)

      Also, to pick a few more nits, the plural of "lakki" is "lakit", whereras the normal form of mökki is... well, mökki.

      Enjoy Tampere; it's a really nice town if you like lakes. And who doesn't?

    3. This is great, my Russia blog never had native-speaking proofreaders. Corrections are made. I can't wait to see the lakeland, and get some proper sauna. And later in July, our program takes us to Kuusamo, which sounds like Finnish heaven.

    4. "Kuusamo, which sounds like Finnish heaven."

      ...soon to be turned into something like Mordor by an uranium mine of a Canadian company. (They've only done surveys so far and I guess the decision to fund the project hasn't been made.)

  2. "hypermodern socialist dystopia"

    Haha, yep. My aunt asks me how much I pay in taxes, and whether or not my freedom is being infringed upon, just about every chance she gets. :P

  3. Thanks for the great post! I recommend you visit Dynamo club, which is seen in one of your pictures behind the van and the megaphone in it.

    Remember to buy lots of "Off" spray to your trip to Kuusamo. And to mökki as well. (Off is the Finnish national summer fragrance.)

    1. Been to Dynamo, and it's great. I was going to write something about the clubs, and had some good pictures... they may come later.

  4. Hei!

    Toivottavasti olet paikalla kahden viikon päästä kun Turussa järjestetään keskiaikaiset markkinat tuon kuvaamasi vanhan suurtorin alueella. Lisätietoja tapahtumasta löytyy osoitteesta

    1. Olen Turussa, ja tietysti aion mennä. Sen jälkeen kuin kirjoitin tämän (post), ajatelin, ehkä keskiaikaiset markkinat ovat syy, miksi vanhaa suurtorin kadut ovat rakenteilla. Oh god grammar.

  5. I wish I could have babies with your sense of humour.

  6. We don't actually have welfare checks, or paychecks for that matter. Most of that stuff is done as direct bank transfers. Kela lets you file welfare applications and statements via the web. Very efficient and advanced, no?

  7. Sait multa tällaisen:

    1. Kiitos! I tried to read your blog with extremely little success, but judging from the pictures in this post:

      it's much like mine. So everybody, check it out, whatever it says!

  8. So, the great exodus from Finnish cities for juhannus that I'm sure everyone has warned you about, has begun. In the estimation of the police, "it looks like everyone left Helsinki at the same time". The highways are clogged at the moment. See

    1. But for the hitchhiking foreigner, it's easy picking. Everybody is driving out of Turku and in a generous mood.

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