Karelia

The road ahead of us is empty. The foundations of a casino-to-be, Finland’s second I’ve been told, lay abandoned in the forests surrounding the Vaalimaa border crossing. What was planned to become a big tax free zone, including one of these monstrous shopping malls, a hotel, and the indispensable casino, is now a spooky construction sight, stripped of its purpose or need. Increasingly less Russians leisurely travel to Finland for a few days. The rouble doesn’t allow. And therefore less Finnish jobs, for (tourist) trade has nearly fallen still.

The charming province of Etelä-Karjala, once stretching all the way to now-Russian Veyborg, is probably one of the most beautiful areas of Finland. Here vast forests are interrupted by clear-water lakes, the biggest and perhaps most gorgeous one of which is Saimaa järvi, encompassing over 4000 km2. Here su10 o'clock pm in Taipalsaarimmer evenings come with pink skies mirrored in see-through waters, enhanced in their beauty by the complete quiet – apart from forest sounds – and the smell of forest berries and grills. The peace of the place is difficult to marry with its nearly constant history of disputes between Finland’s previous colonizers: Russia and Sweden, and ultimately between Russia and Finland itself.

Now South-Karelia is a popular tourist destination among Finns and Russian alike. The century-old history of trade in pulp and wood has made place for a service economy, where well-to-do Russian guests enjoy the tidiness of the Finnish hotels and spas, the infrastructure and the calm; Finns smirkingly condone the Russian presence, considering it a good source income. Many are still angry about Russia’s annexation of east-Karelia in the course of WWII, which caused lives and deprivation among ethnic-Finns in the area, most of whom were relocated to current-day Finnish territory, leaving farm-life and communities that had lived in now-Russian Karelia for generations behind.

The natural connection and P1050824trade among communities in the Saimaa region was broken by the creation of rigid borders following the wars in the 20th century, which constructed a political Eastern and Western bloc; Russia belonging to the first, and Finland to the latter. Needless to say, the current Russian occupation of Crimea and ongoing European and Russian sanctions have maneuvered Finland in a complex position, being on the one hand dependent on Russia’s trade and military benevolence and on the other appalled by its ongoing human rights abuse and sovereignty violations (including Finland’s own).

From an outsider-perspective, bottom-up Finnish-Russian relations are out rightly odd. Despite the geographical proximity, the shared tough climate and the similar natural resources, as well as a history of strong ties and socio-economical interaction, the two States could not be any more different. The Russian and Finnish languages share almost no similarities, and Finnish youth is neither obliged nor encouraged to learn any Russian, despite the obvious merits that knowledge of this language could imply for future employment and intercultural respect and peace. Whereas corruption and nepotism is omnipresent and intrinsic in the current-day Russian system, Finnish society is overly egalitarian, integer and kept in check; fueled by a structured division of wealth, gender equality, and perhaps the maintenance of obligatory military conscription. What Finns share with Russians is a deep-felt national awareness, more so than in other Western-European States, as well as a love for strong booze, fur and fishing.

Exiting the Schengen area at the Russian Vaalimaa border post, infrastructure deteriorates and so

Saint Pete's this autumn: The beauty of the city's downtown is sharply contrasted by the ramshackle outskirts and poorly maintained high-rises surrounding the historic center.

Saint Pete’s this autumn: The beauty of the city’s downtown is sharply contrasted by the ramshackle outskirts and poorly maintained high-rises surrounding the historic center.

does the quality of social interaction and wealth distribution. The shine, coherence, and organization of the welfare State has ended. On the other side of the border, Veyborg, impressive and glamourous as it must once have been, is crumbling. Inhabitants dump their empty MC Donalds Coca Cola cans out of the window of their shiney cars onto the street to rot and pollute. Savage capitalism has swallowed a once socialist city. Age old ladies sit on broken benches in front of the damaged market hall waiting for nothing. Roads are marked by holes, mud and trash. Once the proud capital of Karelia, Veyborg appears to have fallen in despair. While Russia remains rich in culture, intellect and art, city-scapes and social cohesion erode. Indifference and egoism reigns.

The Russian annexation of the Cremea strirs new, ambiguous concerns. Where on the one side most Finns I know dislike Russian politics and cultural peculiarities, others are, rightfully, concerned. What does this mean for trade? And what does this mean for security? The harbor-city of Kotka is plagued by unemployment and lay-off streams, with serious social implications as a consequence.

The Saimaa area has beautiful hiking, skiing and canoing trails.

The Saimaa area has beautiful hiking, skiing and canoing trails.

Yet as we drive along the border on the empty road separating east from west, among summer flowers, blue berry forests, and bird chant – the sun shining – our thoughts are not with the past or the future. For a moment we do not dwell in the loss of Karelia, the damage that will continue to be done to it in the future. We admire the present.

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Marraskuussa

It is November. Marraskuu. The trees are bald. The nights are long. An endless, wet cloud has kept Turku in its grip for nearly a month now. We start taking vitamin D; we get our winter shoes from the closet; we embark on muddy wetlands and watery roads. I quit my no-wine-during-weekdays diet. My housemate bought a first pack of glögi. And the municipality makes efforts to decorate the city with Christmas lights. Marraskuu, we are ready for you. Let the winter come.

Living in a cloud.

Living in a cloud.

Riisipiirakka

Riisipiirakka

Last weekend Emil and I were “down south”. In Stockholm. Visiting Sverige. After a delightful journey on the Viking Grace, which featured a performance by a Bon Jovi-wannabe and plenty of tipsy older folks whom were, to my amazement, dancing like stars – we were welcomed in a design hotel with a rain shower and an ergonomically correct bed nearby Stockholm’s Södermalm district. After all the crappy hostels in the Middle East and South East Asia, this was mycket bra!

On Sunday afternoon, the impossible happened: after hiding for weeks on end, the sun showed her face. For five whole minutes. Solen skiner!, aurinko paistaa!, and like over-enthusiastic Japanese tourists we pointed our digital camera lenses to the spectacular rays of light that shone upon us (see image). She is back! The sun! Queen of our universe! Best friend! Stay with us! Don’t leave us! Warm us and nurture us! I am your slave.

Glorious moment of sunshine

P1040561 Glorious moment of sunshine

But she left. Of course. That is what happens in marraskuu. And with nostalgia I thought back of the days in our Beirut flat when I was cursing her. Praying for rain. Missing the fog. Defying her power with face creams, sun glasses, and 24-hour deodorants. – Longing for marraskuu.

So what do you do when there is no light in the day? You sleep. You read a boring textbook on Russian civil law. You watch The Fault in our Stars and cry. You think about how great it would be to buy an apartment in Italy and turn it into a hotel. You realize that you have no money to do that. You almost cry. You eat some Finnish Fazer Chocolate. You feel better. You have a glass of on the Viking-Grace bought Sangre del Torro. You feel great. You try to call your sister in Holland. She doesn’t pick up. You think about the universe, the Human Rights Council, the invention of the rise-boiling-machine and about Boudewijn Buch. You drink liters of cappuccino (forget about Italian coffee, forget about ahwe arabia, forget about het Hollandse bakkie pleur, this is the best cappuccino ever, see photo) and listen to Lana del Ray. You eat a riisipiiraka. You wish you could marry it. You bitch on the neighbor who plays loud music in the middle of the night, and on the people who say you are a bitch because you are bitching about this. You state that all people are stupid. And then you sleep. Marraskuussa.

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Now, for everyone who is starting to feel sorry for me and all other Finns who miss the sun (“other” presumes that I am Finnish. I am not. But whatever). You can transfer an x amount to IBAN number XXXXXXXXX for a national holiday in Costa Rica. Kiitos paljon.

P.s. Dit is een geintje natuurlijk. Om nog meer Finse maanden te leren, verwijs ik je graag naar het Finse maandenlied:

Hollantilainen tyttö Suomessa

Behind the windows, the deserted streets of Helsinki are passing by. It is mid-October, or “lokakuu” as the Finns say, and temperatures are dancing around zero degrees celsius. While the rest of Europe is still enjoying a warm after-summer; here winter is clearly coming. I wear suede leather gloves, a winter coat, a scarf, and, lacking a more appropriate alternative, the summer sneakers that I bought last month in Jerusalem with tiger-print H&M socks.

But no reason to complain, because life is good at the moment. The first weeks of transition, -“acclimatisation” if you want-, have passed. They were tough. After 7 intensive months in hot, bustling, crazy Lebanon, the northern quaintness of Scandinavia became far from what I was used to. I hated the bus (which only stops at busstops, and not where ever you want it to stop), the climate (it is cold), the university (too organized), the food (where is the hommos?!) and the bars (beer 6,5 euros?!). It is difficult to find common ground with other students and the study-party life after months of fulltime working in the always politically engaged context of Beirut.

Nuuksio national parc Helsinki

Nuuksio national parc Helsinki

Yet as the fogs of the first long-term rendez-vous with Finland are withering, I start to enjoy the beauties of daily life here: the colorful houses; the occasional yet rare appearances of aurora in the south, the Karelien pies-for-25cent-in-Lidl, and the general politeness and humbling working spirit of the Finnish population.

The Finns call Finland Suomi. Their language is strange but beautiful. A girl is a tyttö, the weather is sää, and if you love someone you say minä rakastan sinua. The male part of the population does not seem very keen on sharing their thoughts, unless some booze and a sauna is involved. Women on the other hand are inspiringly open-minded and verbal. Finland is the land of the kalevala mythology (which worships the holy Rowan-tree – now you know where your name comes from, Ro!), Jean Sibelius, Angry Birds, Nokia, iitala, plenty of snow, light summers, cottages, 300.000 lakes, sauna, the biggest archipelago in Europe and, last but not least Joulupukki – elsewhere known as Santa Claus.

My grand amour and I see each other every two weeks or so. This is better than flying from Finland to Holland on the frequency that we used to, but still strikingly less than during the “living together”- life that we had in Lebanon. We just said goodbye and hopped on separate buses; one headed for Turku, the other for Kotka. 300 kilometers and 5 hours of traveling in between.

It is quite nice to live alone again. I can finally watch all the Dutch soap operas that I would never watch with Emil because he wouldn’t understand. Spoorloos, Verborgen Verleden, Het mooiste meisje van de klas – een genot om te kijken na drie jaar van de Nederlandse buis verwijderd te zijn geweest. I can finally eat as many chips as I like without anyone telling me to stop. And I can finally sleep until 11 without anyone telling me to get up. But I mostly miss my honeyboneybubsieface and his beautiful eyes and nice smelling hair and hyvä perse.

In three months I will go back to the Netherlands. In half a year I will graduate. What to do then – and, more importantly, where to do it – remains a question. I gaze outside from behind the  window of my bright red-colored Onnibus headed for Turku. The streets of Helsinki are deserted. It seems like we will always be onderweg.

P.S. For those of you who would like to know more about Finland; below you find Jean Sibelius’ “Luonnatar”, an opera in Finnish describing the creation myth of the Kalavala. The English translation of the lyrics can be found in the subscript.

Or something a bit more up-tod-date:

Het harde leven in het hoge noorden

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Het is retekoud buiten. In mijn tweedehandswinterjas stap ik op mijn verrotte studentenbike om me naar de enige les in de week te verplaatsen: FINS VOOR BEGINNERS. Lord. Waar ben ik aan begonnen. Al mijn andere vakken zijn zelfstudievakken, wat betekent dat ik het overgrote deel van mijn tijd doorbreng in mijn kamer van 10 vierkante meter, waar de kachel het om de haverklap begeeft, de wanden zo dun zijn dat ik mijn buren een scheet kan horen laten, en de ruimte ruikt naar de dagelijkse kooksels van mijn Chinese huisgenoot. Ik verveel me vaak het apekots, wat betekent dat ik de tijd doorbreng met het kijken van rare series, het lezen van vreemde boeken, onzin lullen met random mensen, en het continu passen van de enige 10 kledingstukken die ik mee heb genomen uit Nederland: twee spijkerbroeken, een rok, drie truien en 4 shirts. Ik ben zonder twijfel de skirste en saaiste uitwisselingsstudent in heel Finland. En dit kan mij geen hol schelen.

Op de fiets praat ik over koetjes en kalfjes met mijn bikebuddies. Over de malle jochies van gister. In de bar. Met hun grote monden en stoere blikken. ‘Hallo! Ik ben 19! Dix-neuf. From Franceee’ Wat oud voel ik me op zo’n moment. Net een cougar. Maar lachen is het wel. Want hoe erg ik ook van de coole praat van de tienerkereltjes onder de indruk zou zijn geweest een jaar of zes geleden, nu doe ik het bijna in mijn broek als de slapperdieslapste versiertrucs uit de kast komen. Trapt iemand daar ooit in? Vraag ik me dan af. En jahoor, als hij het met mij heeft opgegeven staat hij binnen een mum van tijd met een of ander delletje te bekken. Hoe is het toch mogelijk?

Ik ben natuurlijk hartstikke boring en burgertruttig. Ik heb een vriend die vijf uur verderop woont in een klein gehucht nabij de Russische grens, waar de gemiddelde urbane Hollander nog niet dood gevonden wil worden. Hij houdt zich nu druk bezig met het nadenken over nadenken over zijn carriere (ja, die tweede nadenken staat erin met opzet), onder het regelmatig genot van een pul öl. Zelf weet ik overigens ook niet helemaal wat ik hier eigenlijk aan het doen ben. Want Finland lijkt me op langere termijn toch niet zo’n puik idee. Vet donker. Mekka koud. En mensen kunnen hier voor geen meter fietsen. Om nog maar niet te beginnen over de taal, de moistamakkara en andere malle eetgewoonten. Maarja. Misschien zeur ik gewoon teveel.

Mijn toekomstplan ziet er momenteel als volgt uit. Ik heb een stil verlangen om een kat te kopen en daarmee de hele avond televisie te kijken op mijn nog aan te schaffen Arabische sofa, onder het genot van een nargileh en een grote bel rosé. Dit natuurlijk in een warm land. Portugal ofzo. In een villa met hoge plafonds. Ik wil een wijngaard waar ik Vin Chateaux Zelda produceer en een groot zwart paard waarmee ik door de velden galoppeer onder een strakblauwe lucht. Mijn man kan in het tuinhuis wonen en is bergbeklimmer cq rescue worker van beroep, wat betekent dat hij alleen thuis is in het weekend – hetgeen hij besteedt aan het bijhouden van de tuin. Hij is totaal niet filosofisch ingesteld en vooral heel erg grappig. Scheten laten is verboden. En ik verdien de kost met het schrijven van boeken over wijn en het bourgondische leven in Portugal.

Maargoed. Vooralsnog ben ik in Finland. Waar het al retekoud is en ik skirder dan skir de dagen doorbreng. Holadijee en hyvää iltaa.

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The Arrival

You remember Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City? This is how I sit behind my desk now. Watching out over the street in front of my flat. Unlike Carry my street is located in the tiny Finnish town of Turku and not in New York City, and unlike Carry my life is everything but glamorous and I don’t have a well-paid job for a newspaper.

Anyway.

I arrived in Turku about two weeks ago, knowing little more than the town’s name. Really the only reason that I moved here was the nearer proximity to my grand amour and the fact that the EU gives me some pocket money for taking part in a “mobility program” called Erasmus (lord – “mobility program” – who came up with this nonsense?). Of course Helsinki would have been a more logical location for this small expedition to my family “in law”’s country, but there were no exchange places left (I of course came up with the idea of coming here last February, while the deadline was in October) so I had to settle with unknown Turku.

My house is situated in the middle of f-in’ nowhere, but since I purchased a bike from a New Zealander who goes by the name James, I am getting around quite well. The harbor is lovely. The university campus is very Pipi Langkous. And the bars and student diners are plenty and cute.

Sunset in Turku

Sunset in Turku

I don’t have any friends yet, so I spend most of my time reading books behind my Carry Bradshaw desk. It seems I’m aging pre-maturely, losing my appetite for smokey nightclubs and binge drinking. What the beep has happened to me?

Yesterday I went to the nearest forest, where I picked berries for hours on end, enjoying the total loneliness and the bird sounds in the Finnish jungle. Like a hermit I hid behind trees every time a doggywalker passed by. I giggled about myself whenever I instinctively jumped up following a sound of something moving in the bush bush, thinking it was a bear. (My fantasy runs overtime in such lonely moments, and I have enough blue berries to make pies for the rest of my life.)

 

Beautiful day at the Cottage

Beautiful day at the Cottage

 The great thing about Finns is that they are overtly polite (local bus drivers excluded) and foreigner-loving (provided they are from the West, but this is a topic for another blog). My favorite thing is that they don’t talk as much nonsense as the Dutch tend to do (although koetjes en kalfjes can be nice).

When my bank card didn’t work in the super market and I created a long jammed queue in front of the counter, the sweet grocery girl offered that I’d take my shoppings for free and come back to pay later. I felt like kissing her, but I didn’t do that because that would be weird. The library guy made a library card for me on the spot obliterating the entire administrative application procedure that is usually required, a huge thing for Finns who are usually quite procedure-loving (my instrumental flirting might have had something to do with that *sorry Edu). And the bus driver didn’t drive off when I was desperately trying to retrieve my booking code on my malfunctioning nokia-with-snake-from-the-late-90s.

Koski Cottage

Koski Cottage

A lot of Finns seem fond of punkshizzle. I have never seen so many skull tattoos, funky hair colors, painful piercings, and crazy outfits in one town. I guess it has something to do with Finland’s excellent rock-metal-crazy-grunting-whatever-this-music-is-called scene. *Note to my mom (who suffers from dreadlock phobia and undoubtedly any other type of divergent hair dress): these are really nice people who won’t attack you. So come visit.

And Carry-style I am sitting behind my desk. Closing the night with a non-alcolic wannabe cosmopolitain, staring at my defigured Albert Kuyp cowboy heals, and I can’t help but wonder:  Am I going to find my way in this faraway place?

The Long Way Home

Tipsy of four Goldstars and a severe lack of sleep, I sit on a bench at Ben Gurion airport. I am wearing high heals. My hair is messy. My back aches of the kilos of luggage that we have been carrying around the airport for hours.

I am bad shit nervous about the flight home that we are about to take.

Ben Gurion Airport shelter signs

Ben Gurion Airport shelter signs

There is a ceasefire, so I am not afraid of rockets. The “shelter – this way” signs look funny rather than intimidating (the beer might have something to do with that) and we giggle while we take pictures of them. Since a year or so, I am afraid to fly, a fear that reached its max when we came back to Beirut from Istanbul a few months before, and the Lebanese pilot flew much like Lebanese drivers do on the highway: aggressive, unpredictable, fast and bumpy. Like the other passengers I made loads of crosses, and prayed to God that if he existed, he would please allow me to live in heaven with him despite my lack of religion and pious behavior. Of course the disappearance of the Malaysian plane and the shooting of MH17 didn’t better my sense of security up in the air, and while I wait for our Pegasus plane from Tel Aviv, I make loads of small prayers and consider buying myself another beer, wishing I still had that Thai valium somewhere.

Emil says that it will be okay. He is never afraid. Not of guns, not of cars, not of cows. When we went wild camping a few days before in the Occupied Golan, I nearly peed my pants every time we walked into a horde of wild cows, but Emil was just like: “Yallah guys” and the cows left. Wow. You should have seen my face. Like Tarzan and Jane we survived in the ‘jungle’ (it is not a jungle, but a dry, hilly landscape that offers gorgeous views of the Sea of Gallilee – yes, that place where Jesus walked on water) on tuna, eggs and bread. Walking around butt naked if we wanted because there was no one around anyway. Emil made a campfire, I spent my time scaring the wild piggs and hyenas while clapping my hands. All very romantic.

Jordan Valley

Jordan Valley

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View over the Sea of Galilee

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Intimidating cows

But back to the airport. Ben Gurion is big. It was crazy crowded despite it being the middle of the night, and we tried hard to stay awake. When the plane was finally boarding 8 hours later, I squeezed myself in the middle chair, and tried not to panic. 10 minutes after the “close your seat belt”- sign went off, I however passed out in a deep sleep, and didn’t wake up until we landed in Istanbul where our transfer flight awaited us.

A few hours later, clear skies turned into thick clouds. Every now and then we got a glimpse of the neat squares of land that stretched out below. Tiny cars on straight roads moved slowly forward. We were back. Back in Holland. And all of a sudden I felt more afraid than when I just entered the plane. Is this still home?

Rooftop in Jerusalem

We are staying on a rooftop in Jerusalem.

It is fucking cold at night. It is fucking hot in the day. There are people who think they are Jesus. There are political activists, archeologists, holiday makers, kibbutz-hippy travelers. There is a crazy religious guy who is sure Islam is a lie and all Arabs are terrorists. There is a German who speaks too much and too loud, and claims he knows an Egyptian with a pork addiction. There are Asian folks who occupy the shared kitchen the entire night, and make me horribly hungry and jealous with the smells they produce there.  And there are people who are too bad ass broke to afford a room, or even an in-doors dorm bed. People like us. Sillies who thought it was a good idea to visit the holy land land this summer. Zellie and Edu who got stuck on a roof in Jerusalem with rockets flying around, heavily armed IDF soldiers everywhere, and sirens. Holy moly shitty titty.

Yesterday when we arrived in Disneyland through the border crossing between Jordanian Aqaba and Israel’s Eilat, things turned problematic rather quickly. I was anticipating intensive interrogation because of my time in Beirut and my “Palestinian sympathies”, but to my own surprise I got waved through relatively quickly, receiving a five-star border treatment (probably the service pass stamp from the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs had something to do with that). Emilio however, my sweet, ever-kind, least-likely-to-commit-any-kind-of-terrorism boyfriend, was singled out for a top-notch security scrutiny. Horror! After 5 hours of question we were finally let in – me having spent most time at the public toilets that featured air conditioning and music (outside it was over 40 degrees), Edu sweaty and ready to slap someone.

Nothing too strange (2 Palestinians were killed and 200 wounded in clashes between protestants and the IDF just a mile away in east Jerusalem – unfortunately, such violence seems to have become common) happened until 4 am, when the beautiful singing of muezzin, the incredible noise of the helicopter that was guarding the town all night, and the humming from Synagogues was brutally interrupted by a huge explosion.

And another one.

And another one.

The noise came from a few kilometers away. We all kept still. All 35 of us. The loud German, the Kibbutz hippy, wannabe-Jesus, the broke ones, and the political activists. Rockets? Was this the notorious “Iron Dome” at work? I still have no idea, but it provided a tiny insight in what people in Gaza must hear when another bomb downs a building.

I am not religious. But the Holy Land is captivating for even the least spiritual among us. There are Jews, there are Muslims, there are Christians from all colors and walks of life. Things seem to get on in a magical sort of co-existence that, if you dig below the surface, turns out to be just not as beautiful and harmonious as it seems. There is conflict, suppression and stinging unfairness and disbalance between the two people who struggle to live together on this tiny piece of land. And as an outsider, a European, someone who is perhaps indirectly to blame for “the mess in the Middle East”, finding my roots in a colonist society that drew up the contemporary map of the region, I can’t help but feel helpless and endlessly sorry for what is happening just a few miles away from our funky rooftop. So I went to the Church of the Holy Sculpture and I made a little prayer. Yes me. The most down-to-earth, non-religious person in the northern hemisphere. A prayer for Gaza, for Palestine and yes, also for the young Israeli lives that were lost in this senseless war.