Friday, August 7, 2009

Which provides the better answers, blaaaaahging or wine? Let's go with wine . . .

My best friend, Nora, and I try to figure out life in our favorite bar, the Fireside (now within walking distance of both our houses), usually over a couple glasses of wine. We've been doing this for years, and while the Fireside is not fancy or pretty or picturesque, the waitresses there do know our names and preferences, which certainly counts for something. For years now, whether we were teaching at the same school, or different schools, or whether Nora was retired and living in Venice and visiting for a month twice a year, and now that she has forsaken Venice, Italy, for Schenectady, New York (one of life's great imponderables), we have managed to meet and drink and try to answer life's great questions.

Last week's question was why my trip to Finland was important.

Nora: Huth, your blaaaahg was different this time than last year's blaaaahg from Venice.

Me: Yeah, I know. But what did you notice?

Nora: Your No Gondolas blaaaahg was funny, but this one wasn't.

Me: Um, I knew it wasn't going to be funny as soon as Geof advertised it as a "funny travel blog."

Nora: Yeah. Well, this trip had a different purpose, I think, and that came through in your writing.

Me: How so?

Nora: Well, last year's trip to visit me in Venice was about traveling by yourself and having fun, right? You were in a strange, transitional phase, I remember. It was the first time you ever took a vacation by yourself, and you were hesitant and not sure you were worth the cost, right? But you got over that and had a great experience.

Me: Um, yes.

Nora: So this year's trip was more about traveling and creativity, I think. It was more focused on some of the issues you've been struggling with more recently about your creativity, and you had some time to experiment without worrying about sightseeing every day.

Me: True, although Karri took lots of time to show us all over Helsinki, Naantali, Mietoinen and Turku. Because of him, I got to feel as if I were not merely a tourist in Finland. And, actually, that's what you gave me in Venice last year: a perspective that allowed me to feel as if I were living there, not merely being a tourist.

Nora: True, grasshopper. And you did a reading and actually enjoyed it. The Huth I knew way back would never have been comfortable doing that.

Me: True, but that was because of lots of things. Although I wasn't really part of the visual poetry workshop, Karri really went out of his way to make me feel a part of things, not just Geof's wife. The simple fact that he allowed me to read in Turku was a wonderful thing that I appreciate more than he can know. And I got to read with some really amazing people who have been working at this for years and who have made important reputations for themselves. And then there's me, who didn't write anything other than student essay criticism and grant proposals for 20 years . . .

Nora: Huth, I always knew you could do it. And you're working at it now.

Me: I know.

Nora: I know. You've come a long way.

Me: Um huh. I know. Did I tell you that at strange, random moments, Karri reminded me of you?

Nora: No. You'll have to explain this.

Me: I will. Sometime.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Song for Saari

My time at Saaren kartano has apparently inspired me to write music. On the plane from Helsinki to Dublin, I entertained myself by writing musical notation with my colored pencils. This was strangely satisfying on several levels. Although I am not sufficiently proficient in any of the languages I studied in school (French, Latin and, briefly, Russian), I am fluent in the language of music. I have always thought musical notation a beautiful visual language that (of course) becomes wordless sound. So while I often mourn my lack of facility with human languages other than English, I have begun to appreciate (again) my facility for that other language, of music.

This is the third of these "songs" written in the last several days.

Song for Saari
It's more fun to compose "music" when you don't have to worry about how it sounds.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Sitä sun tätä, but apparently mostly about food.

After a long couple of flights home, luggage lost and returned, and two good nights of sleep, I finally feel able to begin to process the significance of this trip to Finland, at least the easier, more superficial parts.

I'll begin with my new nickname: Nahkiainen. While I didn't really have a nickname in my childhood, this is merely the latest of several I've found myself acquiring as an adult. At school, my colleagues and students regularly use several: Huth (very common), Miss Huthie, or Huthie (also very common), Dr. Huth (colleagues only), and The Huthinator (not as common and reserved for circumstances when the children feel impending doom). Even my best friend Nora rarely calls me Nancy, a name she uses only in her best teacher voice when she is explaining to me why I'm being stupid.

In short, I've never been "Princess," or "Kitten," (thankfully), so in aural terms, "Nahkiainen" sounds girlier and more romantic than what I'm used to. I like it. I feel cute and cuddly, in a foreign kinda way . . . until I remember that it's the only Finnish delicacy I tried and didn't like. And that it's the Finnish word for this. And this.

There I am, the worm-like thing on the right . . .

Why, I ask Geof, can't I be something cute for once? How about calling me "muikku," a little salty silver fish, and a word the Finns say (like "cheese" for us) to make people smile before a picture is taken?

It's okay, little Nahkiainen. Don't worry, he assures me.

Unfortunately for me, nahkiainen tastes like leather, and I did not enjoy the small bit I tried. Karri assures me that it tastes better when it is fresher and still warm. Somehow, that doesn't make it sound tastier to me . . .

I've enjoyed every other Finnish food I've tried on this trip, including reindeer, elk, herring prepared a variety of ways, dark, flat, round rye bread with a hole in center of it, perch, kalakukko (which is vaguely reminiscent of mozarella in carrozza ,and even salty licorice ice-cream. Eating boiled potatoes at virtually every dinner made me step hesitantly onto the scale yesterday, but I had actually lost some weight.

When I went grocery shopping yesterday, I spent a futile time trying to recreate our meals in Finland. I could not find a nice, big package of Finlandia cheese and so settled for a smaller packet of swiss. I could not find the dark, flat, round rye bread with the hole in the center, so I settled for a pathetically white rye that was round, not flat, and sans hole. Because Geof loves herring in all its forms, I bought a package of smoked herring, but it was horribly salty. About the only thing I could recreate was the muesli and yogurt we've been eating for breakfast. All in all, a very unsatisfying shopping experience. Where are the S Market and the K Market when you need them?

Another after-effect of the trip is despite my resolution at the beginning of summer vacation to stop drinking coffee, I'm drinking even more. In front of me right now is the sticky residue of the second pot I've had this morning.

Since I'm only beginning to digest* this experience, I'll need a few more days and some time to properly finish documenting this wonderful trip. Right now, the rain continues, and laundry and other realities beckon.

*Believe me, I'm suitably ashamed of myself.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sleep more need. Words. Not enough. Sleep now.

Final night at Saari and sunset over the Baltic Sea, 11:15 p.m.

Today I realized that I haven't posted anything since Tuesday. I'm at a loss to explain why this happened, but my best explanation is that I am going to bed much later than normal because of the increased daylight, and once I realize how late it is, I haven't had the energy to write anything. Since tonight is our last night here at Saari and I have to pack for tomorrow, I probably will not write anything substantial tonight. The problem is that returning to Helsinki until Tuesday means no internet. Sigh. And right now, I don't have access to important parts of my brain that store words or can spell Finnish names. Sigh again.

To fill in the gaps of Wednesday through Friday, I will refer you to Geof. I will, however, definitely finish writing my own account of this week's events.

Here's a brief run down, details to be filled in later:

Wednesday through Friday, we heard presentations from most of the workshop's participants, but we also heard from several guests including Tony Trehy, whom we met in Manchester, UK, this spring for the Text Festival. It was a pleasure to see him again, and I enjoyed meeting the other guests as well.

Yesterday, the whole "core" group made and had dinner together, enjoying our last real night together with Christian leaving today for his home in Calgary. We enjoyed several bottles of wine and other beverages, some good conversation about poetry, families, teaching, significant others, and other random but interesting topics.

In between, we splintered off into smaller groups to go to sauna, with the majority of the group always remaining to continue the conversation and the drinking of the wine. Once Christian and Geof returned, Henriikka and I left for sauna only to find a pre-wedding ritual in full swing. Now, we had heard about this but didn't think it would still be going strong. What we found was the sauna packed with those celebrating the groom's impending marriage today. Keeping in mind the old Finnish adage our Virgil, Karri, taught us, I cannot divulge all the secrets of Friday night's sauna.* Suffice to say that Henriikka and I enjoyed some interesting conversation with some members of the wedding party, had a couple swigs of wine from a box, and eventually had the sauna to ourselves. When we returned, far longer than we had imagined, the next group of us went, and the rest of us sat around the kitchen table trading more stories until 3:00 a.m.

Since it is after midnight now and I still have to finish packing, I will have to save today's adventures, which included an abbreviated drive around the archipelago, and a wedding reception in a yurt, for later.

Karri Kokko, Marko Niemi, Mikael Brygger, Kristian Blomberg,
Christian Bök, me, Henriikka Tavi

*but apparently Geof does not accept this adage.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

If Finland is the only place I can think, I'm in trouble.

Although I am but an auxiliary member of the vispo workshop here at Saari, this experience has inspired me and made me better realize my place in the artistic universe.

Being here has allowed me the luxury of time, for one thing. Many people envy the life of a teacher in the U.S., since we pretty much enjoy two months of vacation each summer. What people don't realize, however, is that much of that time is eaten up by other things. It is vacation time, but not vacation, if that makes sense. When I am home, I am still responsible for all that I am normally responsible for while I am working, and perhaps more since I am the one not working. So yes, I have more free time. Nevertheless, for me it is hard to use that time to focus on projects that interest me personally and artistically; rather, I end up focusing on projects that need to be done. If I could dip in and out of my artistic life easily, turning it on and turning it off as necessary, then I might be able to be highly productive. I am, however, a person who (while forced into multi-tasking in my work day, and able to succeed at it), does not enjoy it and is really incapable of sustaining a mind open to new personal projects while doing it.

And if I were better at this, I would have been able to sustain my poetic self during the years I was trying to raise my children at home and succeed at my job. This is not a complaint; I have two great, strong, smart, kind, successful kids, and I have enjoyed professional success and personal satisfaction by teaching my students the best I can. So. But my time here at Saari has allowed me the freedom to experience and think and consider and process for probably the first time ever.

For some reason, one morning last week, everything coalesced, all the little (seemingly disjointed) pieces of my artistic life into the realization that for the last year and a half (since I've found it essential again to regain my poetic voice), I've focused on the aural.

I realized that lately, I keep trying to record and document interesting sounds, whether they are the bells of Venice, the swifts and cows of Mietoinen, or the slang of my students and their funny slant on life. I love the grunts and groans of Anglo-Saxon vocabularies and naturally incorporate them into my writing. As I realized this, my musical background suddenly jumped up and said, Hey! How could you forget all the years you spent playing piano, cello, bassoon, guitar, percussion? And I totally forgot about my participation in the Red Hook Collective for Deep Noise or Raucous Sounds or Sketchy Noises in the Dark or Bleeding Ears . . . whatever we've decided to call it that week.

It seems so obvious now, but it was not to me.

A small epiphany, perhaps, but one I would not have had if I had been home thinking about whether I should paint the fence, weed the garden, take the dogs to the vet, go to the grocery store, etc. etc. etc. Certainly attending the presentations has helped move my brain from the literal to the figurative and provided me with many possibilities for my own work.

I now have a list of four projects I'm desperately interested in and can't wait to start. My first task is to buy a nice Olympus digital recorder I think will serve my purposes well. In the meantime, I will relish my time here at Saari and hope that all who have contributed to this experience understand my appreciation and gratitude.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Whäät häppens in saunä, stääys in saunä.

I'm not sure if Geof and I just had a sauna, took a sauna, or simply sauna-ed, but whatever it was, it was pretty amazing.

Karri has explained to us its significance in some detail, that it's an integral part of Finnish life, essential to one's well-being, but not about the mind. At one point tonight, Henriikka said he was making it sound too mystical, but Karri said that it is, that a good sauna experience takes you to another place in time.

Since Geof and I had been wanting to try it, we were also interested in the practical reality: How do you build the wood fire without burning the sauna down? How do you know if someone is already in there? When do you actually get naked? (You do get naked, right?) and so on. After telling us that there are no rules about sauna, only unwritten ones, Karri kindly told us the rules about sauna.

He built the fire for us in the stove, then had Geof add wood periodically. He showed us how to check to see if the fire was hot enough by dribbling water on the stones. He told us where to leave our clothes. He showed us where the key was. He told us how to occasionally leave and go outside to cool off. Olli-Pekka made us a vihta, or birch whisk, and Karri explained how it stimulates circulation when you soften it in hot water and then use it to swat yourself. He said to shower before and after (and in between, perhaps), and to sit on towels. He told us to add a couple logs to the fire when we were ready to leave to keep the fire going for the next group.

When he decided the fire was hot enough, he left us with these words, which he said were passed from the Finnish forefathers to their sons about sauna culture (loosely translated): "What happens in sauna, stays in sauna."

First, let me tell you that a real, wood-fire sauna experience is NOTHING like those electric hotel saunas where you set the timer and the thermostat. This heat was like being in Death Valley in July. Like stepping out of your air-conditioned car into the 127 degree heat of Needles, California. In July. Trust me. I know. This heat took my breath away.

And then we got a little used to it. We could relax against the back of the bench, occasionally and languidly rising to toss a little cold water onto the heated stones.

We probably spent no more than five or six minutes inside at a time before we had to go sit outside in the cool night air. Before sauna, I needed to wear my fleece jacket. During sauna, I could sit outside in a towel. We made several trips back in, and then outside again with cold showers in between. Finally, we decided to let others have a turn and headed back to our room.

In the kitchen, we ran into two members of Quo Vadis (and sauna experts, indeed), Otso and Marku, who wanted to know how our experience was. We were both still pink, I think, and I felt rather floaty in my limbs. Marku apparently has built many saunas, including one for Madonna. He allowed us to touch the hand that built the bench that Madonna saunas on, and we did.

It's been just over an hour that we ended our first real sauna experience, and I still feel floaty and relaxed. We will need to speak to Marku again before we leave Finland to find out when he's available to build our own sauna in Schenectady.

The giant ant hills of Finland and other tales of nature and laundry

I should have written twice yesterday, once about Saturday night's reading, and once about Sunday's events. I even had time last evening, but too little energy after all the weekend's busy-ness. Instead of writing, I researched digital recorders for a project I want to begin.

Fortunately, yesterday was fairly uneventful and included doing the laundry and having dinner with the group. We'd put off doing the laundry for as long as possible, and I'd even washed some underwear by hand. But when Geof reached the point where his only shirt was the quick-dry spandex surf shirt he'd gotten for swimming, we knew the time had come.

The washing machine is the typical washer/dryer all-in-one, which is a great idea. We assumed we'd be able to figure it out fairly easily, but we hit two problems: too many options (with icons that were not quite clear enough--"Does that swirly thing mean water or wool?" ), and the fact that the manual we consulted and then verified with the Finnish dictionary turned out to be in Swedish. We realized this soon enough, and once we found the Finnish part of the manual, things went a bit more smoothly. One kind member of Quo Vadis helped us figure out the fastest wash cycle on the machine and showed us that we had to turn on the water. Then, finally, we were set. My only fear (and not much of one) was that the detergent was really bleach, especially since we could not find some of the words in the dictionary.

After we ate the delicious dinner that Karri had kindly prepared for about 10 of us, we checked on the wash. To speed things up, we hung our clothes on the line to dry. Geof hung the last load after I had gone back to the manor house, and this morning, he retrieved them for us.

Before laundry yesterday, Geof and I took a walk to a nearby bird-viewing platform very close to the residence. Along the way, we walked through a beautiful open field hip-high with plants where I gathered my now traditional examples of flora to press in a book and then display in a picture frame.
My Finnish flora (photo by Geof Huth)
Once we reached the woods, we noticed a pile of pine needles, strangely large. Looking closer, it seemed to be moving, and then we saw it was swarming with ants. Karri later confirmed that these are common in Finland. Geof took several pictures, but the setting was too dark, so we'll have to be sure to get good pictures later. For now, let me just assure you that these giant pine needle ant hills as big as a pitcher's mound are pretty incredible.

Not far from this spot, we found the wooden, three-storey bird-watching platform. From the top, we had a great view of the archipelago we have been living on.
Pine trees at mid-level view
View from the top
View from the top of cows lying down
I took this picture with my father in mind. One of his sayings is that when cows lie down, it means it will rain. While it didn't rain yesterday, it certainly does look as if it could today. But since I can hear the cows mooing and walking restlessly somewhere in the field just out of view, no longer lying down, I wonder how he can explain that one . . .