Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Kokko! Kokoa kokoon koko kokko! (On Juhannus, the midsummer holiday)

The Finnish countryside is so idyllic, it makes Little House on the Prairie look like Mein Kampf:




Yet many Finns visit their mökki (translation: dacha) only 20-30 times per year, and even then, they often have to share it with other members of their family.  In a country of such natural beauty, with nearly 500,000 mökkiä to go around (according to the last census), trips to the countryside remain a luxury.  A luxury that everybody has.  But that doesn't mean they take it for granted - Finns relish their time outside the city, make ample use of the country's lakes and rivers, work hard on their various cottage-projects, and of course, steam in the sauna like it's the last chance they'll ever have.  In a stark rebuttal to everything our parents ever told us, the Finns are both spoiled and happy.

The mökki is also the centerpiece of Finland's famous midsummer holiday, Juhannus.  Juhannus is the most awesome holiday this side of Cosmonautics Day, and last weekend, a single Finnish Juhannus justified all of my language efforts, my larger graduate study efforts, and possibly all the work I ever did in school.  Rooted in pre-Christian Finnish folk tradition, Juhannus is so great that no Christian had the heart to change it - they simply changed the named (Juhannus comes from John the Baptist) and let the Finns revel in their blasphemy.  And revel they do - a typical Juhannus combines age-old rituals such as the kokko bonfire, fertility spells and widespread nakedness with more modern indulgences, like getting outrageously drunk and tearing around shallow lakes in powerboats.  And remember, it's midsummer in Finland - it never gets dark, so the party never ends.  And just in case this seems lacking in atmosphere, it's also Flag Day, and everywhere you look there are Finnish flags to remind you just how unhappy you are every day except this one.


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My own Juhannus began, as for most Finns, back in the chaotic metropolis.  It was Thursday afternoon - I was slaving away on grammar drills in the dark, dusty stacks of the public library


when I finally buckled under the weight of urban life.  I dozed off, escaping for a few precious moments the madness swirling around me.  But only a few moments - I was soon awakened by a gentle, male Finnish voice.  I was half-dreaming, but I think he said "sisävesiristeilylaivojen."  I apologized politely and then assessed the situation.  Next to the guard who had woken me up, an elderly Finnish woman was watching me with an apologetic look on her face.  Too polite to rouse me herself, it appeared she had called library security to perform the ugly task for her.  The guard smiled vaguely, and then quietly slipped behind the veneer of polite Finnish society.  The woman took a seat across from me to read the newspaper.  I was back in urban hell.


You know how cities are.  People like ants, endless lines of them carting in whatever wealth they can scavenge, carting out the corpses of the weak and the sensitive.  Every smile is plastic, every gift is a loan, you almost wish somebody would punch you in the face because at least it would be honest.  And the foreigners.  Don't get me started.  In these parts, it seems like every 1000th person I see is an Arabic-speaking, Turkish-Italian immigrant from India.


Juhannus couldn't come soon enough.  My first step was to get out of Turku as fast as I could.  I grabbed the bare essentials and hitched a ride to Tampere, where I thought I might find respite, but that city suffers from all the same diseases.  It was hardly different from Turku - whatever direction I looked, I saw the same post-industrial hellscapes:


universities like prisons:


and cultural decay:


Alright, that one was in Turku, I can't hide it.  Anyway, Juhannus couldn't come soon enough.  Except it did - I left for the countryside the next morning, with my only Finnish friends I didn't make via the internet.  Our destination - a beautiful mökki on a bucolic farm near a placid lake.  That is, the same place everybody else in the country was going.  Here's what it looked like from inside:


And from the sauna:


Our first task was to make a delicious lunch, to be eaten outside in the bug-free sunlit yard.  At least that was my first task - the girls' first task was to put on flower-print dresses and gather the family around.  It was so heartwarming, it made Mister Rogers' Neighborhood look like apartheid South Africa.



What followed was an endless sequence of Finnish delights.  A first swim in the lake for the season, which I enjoyed for about ten seconds before sprinting to the first sauna of the evening.  The second swim was considerably longer, warmer and more relaxing, but notably, not much darker.  The four of us drank wine, drifted between the sauna and the lake, and between Finnish and English.  I was partial to English and the sauna, but all combinations were nice.  Soon it was midnight, and all around the lake we saw the bonfires light up, grow, and eventually fade.  Smoke settled over the entire landscape, and the shouts of drunken Finns echoed across the water from all directions.

After midnight we went to gather wildflowers, obviously.  Note the smoke in the background, and the light.



It was so wholesome, it made fresh-baked apple pie look like John Wayne Gacey Jr.'s basement.  Legend has it that if you jump over 7 ditches to pick 7 different kinds of wildflower, and then you sleep with the whole collection under your pillow, you'll marry whoever appears to you in your dreams.


The girls struck out, but I was blessed - looks like I'm marrying my friend Joanna, who is also kinda my sister Annie at the same time, and lives in the house I grew up in in Illinois, except the house is in a big city, and everybody is eagerly anticipating some new space launch for some reason.  But in the morning I just told everybody it was Joanna.

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At the holiday's end, every Finn is healthy, happy and ready for the coming trip around the sun.  Everybody, that is, except for those Finns who died over the holiday in house fires, bonfires, traffic or boating accidents, or most commonly, by drowning.  In one last Juhannus tradition, those unlucky few are listed on the front page of Helsingin Sanomat (scroll down a bit), the country's largest newspaper.  This serves as a reminder to the survivors - every other day in Finland, in every sense, is darker than Juhannus.


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This entry is paired with the next one - the Finnish sauna.  I will post before leaving for Oulu next week if I don't squander my free time in the sauna... which I almost certainly will.  Stay tuned.

16 comments:

  1. Good luck with Oulu (my hometown). Also, you may want to double-check your title... The version I always got was this, but there are variants. The first Kokko is the name of the poor lad being commanded.
    "Kokko! Kokoa kokoon koko kokko!"
    "Koko kokkoko?"
    "Koko kokko."

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    1. Oh yeah, that title was pure copy-and-paste... The whole tongue-twister is beyond my Finnish abilities, in grammar and speech. I'll copy and paste yours, thanks!

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    2. Also, sorry if that came across a bit short, the dangers of typing while at work. I love your blog, and I'm envious of your juhannus! In Florida we just had a tropical storm and alligators in the streets.

      Oulu is amazing for biking, there are nearby outdoor opportunities, and the university is pretty neat, though it doesn't have the history of Turku or Helsinki. Also, Air Guitar World Championships and active outdoor summer culture.

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  3. Your plate of food looks AMAZING. (And so much better than the foodstuff you posted in Russia.) Can we have a New Scandinavian Cooking - Joey Style post, please?

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    1. And the Finns sure don't mess around with their salad tongs! Those things are INTENSE!

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    2. Nah, I don't know anything about Finnish cuisine. I live alone in a dorm room with no money for outrageously expensive Finnish groceries.

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  4. I so wish I could've been in Finland for Juhannus, it's my favorite holiday of the year. Love this post and your sense of humor!

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  5. It's not "500,000 mökit", but "500,000 mökkiä".

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  6. Just read a book about Finnish cultural history with beer and I have to correct you that getting outrageously drunk is in no shape or form a modern indulgence. It's as traditional as it gets. :)

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  7. You might want to check on the ring you sent earlier...I still haven't received it. But I'm sure nothing can go wrong with such a romantic beginning to our marriage!

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    1. I told you - I didn't buy a ring, because I didn't win the Finnish lottery like I expected. There's another drawing next sunday.

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  8. Hey! It's been almost two weeks! What happened to the sauna entry?

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    1. Traveling, plus a crisis of inspiration. Soon, maybe!

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  9. Beautiful place to travel and spend holidays with the family and friends..........
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