Finnish Lessons  
    Danielle Lavaque-Manty

#1. Beware the Candy

It is three days before Easter, and the Fazer Eggs have arrived. Every year my husband and I confront the same candy dilemma. Do we tell his parents that we hate the chocolate eggs that they send all the way from Finland? Or, since this would hurt their feelings, do we just thank them and put these eggs in the refrigerator next to all of the others?

They're nifty, in a way-real eggshells that have been filled with solid milk chocolate and then plugged with sugar disks. The sugar is yummy, but the chocolate is mushy and tastes like greasy almonds.

We put these two in the refrigerator with the rest.

Last year, desperate to get his parents to stop sending these things but reluctant to tell them that they've been wasting time and money shipping them for so many years, my husband tried a small lie. He told them that they should stop sending the eggs, much as we'll miss them, because they always break in the mail.

But his parents are innovators. This year, they packed the eggs to withstand a nuclear war. Each egg has been swathed in bubble wrap and inserted into a section cut from a cardboard tube, the cardboard tubes then layered with more bubble wrap, and the whole bundle snuggled into a bed of styrofoam peanuts.

"Oh, yes," my husband tells his parents when they call, "the eggs made it here without a scratch. You guys are great!"

The other thing they always send in the Easter package is salmiakki--salted licorice. It comes in hard, soft, chewy, sugarcoated, and animal-shaped varieties, but the basic idea is always the same: licorice + ammonium chloride. My husband and I like to give it to our dinner guests (only the ones we know pretty well) to see how long they can stand to keep it in their mouths.

I think this is the nastiest candy in the world, until we actually go to Finland, where I encounter Lakrisal--salmiakki ratched up to a horrifying extreme. Lakrisal is a salt tablet lightly dusted with licorice. I'm not exaggerating. It's beige. My husband finds a roll in the grocery store and rejoices. This stuff is inedible, I tell him, but he proves me wrong by downing six pieces in a row.

He has another happy moment at the gas station, where he finds a wide selection of menthol candies in little red, green, and yellow boxes. These look and taste like cough drops, but one Finn after another assures me that they are treats and not medicine.

My husband's brother comes over for dinner bearing the most amazing candy of all, called tervapastilli: tar candy. Imagine going out to the highway on a very hot day, scraping up a gob of melted blacktop, mixing it with sugar, and popping it into your mouth. There you have it. The only difference between tar candy and the road stuff is that one is golden in color and costs money.

There is one Finnish item-not actually candy, but a close relative-that I learn to love: salmiakki vodka. It tastes like black jellybeans. Finnish children have died from drinking too much of it.

I guess drinking black jellybeans doesn't appeal to everyone, though. I bring bottles of salmiakki vodka back to the states for my friends and relatives, but none of them like it. My father gives his away to my great-aunt, and she gives it to somebody else. My friends Rodger and Dulcey keep theirs, unopened, in their refrigerator.

It's been there for five years now. I know they're not going to drink it. They should either throw it out (or give it to me).

#2. How to Ride the Ferry to Stockholm

Get a ride to the ferry station from your in-laws. Arrive very, very early because they don't want you to miss the boat.

Sit in the ferry station, alone with your husband and luggage, reading a book.

Be the first customer at the café when it opens. Eat a Karelian pasty with egg butter.

Watch other passengers muddle into the station. Feel grateful that you were here early enough to get a seat. Also sick from eating too much egg butter.

Wish that you could speak either Finnish or Swedish well enough to eavesdrop on the conversations going on around you. Feel annoyed and envious because your husband can understand both, and he is laughing at what the gray-haired Finn behind him (the one with the countrified hat) just said to his portly wife (the one who is almost falling off the bench, who has tears streaming down her face from laughing so hard.)

Get in line to board the ferry. Try to show your passport to the passport checker guy because there is a sign over his head that says that anyone who is neither a Swede nor a Finn must show him a passport. Receive a dirty look for wasting his time when he is trying to chat up the lovely young ticket checker next to him. Everyone knows that illegal immigrants don't ride the ferry to Sweden.

Put your luggage in the luggage room. There isn't any other luggage in there. Wonder if yours will be gone when you get back.

Go upstairs to the food and drink and shopping decks. Pull up a chair. Take out your novel. Eleven hours to go.

Notice that people are drinking in the bar, even though it is only 9:30 a.m.

Notice that it is very smoky here, even though you are in the non-smoking area.

Go up one more floor and stand on the outer deck. Love the fresh air! Love the beautiful islands of the archipelago! Love the Baltic breeze, even though it is a bit brisk. Really brisk. Wish you had a warmer jacket.

Go back in and look at the menu for the famous Scandinavian buffet. Lotsa meat. Lotsa fish. Lotsa dill. Decide to check out the other restaurants on board, even though they are expensive and not famous.

Eat at the expensive, unfamous "Texan Grill." Fail to see what is so Texan about your salmon platter.

Go up and out for more fresh air. Stay out there for as long as you can stand the cold. Then go into the bar and read until your eyes bug out. Three hours to go.

Decide to look for more food. Notice a sign for the cafeteria. A cafeteria?

The cafeteria is right by the casino and the children's playroom. No wonder you didn't see it before. The food in here is cheap and tasty. Take it out into the dining area, where there is a live band playing lounge music with a singer doing "I've Got to Be Me" in English. All of the oldest, roundest people on the boat are in this room.

When the band switches to a polka, and all of the old, round people start to dance, look down at your fried fish and beer.

Now it comes to you.

This is just like Wisconsin.

#3 How Not to Sing Along

We are visiting my husband's parents, describing our trip to Stockholm, when his mother interrupts.

"Oho!" She has looked at her watch, rushes to turn on the television. I turn to my husband.

"Absolutely Fabulous?" I ask, hopefully. But no. His parents have nearly missed the beginning of one of their favorite shows, the local city sing-along. It is Wednesday evening now, but this was filmed on Saturday afternoon, so we sit in our dark living room watching thousands of people belting out traditional Finnish folksongs together in a sunny stadium. They do not dance. They do not perform. They just.sing. I am shocked.

"This is a regularly scheduled program?" I ask my husband. "People watch this often, on purpose?" He assures me that this is a popular local show. We sit with his parents for a few more minutes, until we can't take it anymore, and then we go to bed.

His parents tape the show on their VCR, in case they want to watch it again.

#4. How to Know a Good Song When You Hear One

My husband I trot along behind my in-laws and their dog on the path to their neighbor Tauno's house. It is his eightieth birthday. He uses a cane now, and can't get around in the woods to pick his own wild berries or mushrooms anymore, so we are bringing him two liters of lingonberries.

I can tell from the tone of his voice and from the fluttering gestures my mother-in-law makes with her hands that Tauno is surprised and happy about the gift. He and his white-haired sweetheart, Helga, laugh and chat with us, telling a long story about someone else in the village. My Finnish skills are rudimentary-my vocabulary limited almost entirely to food words-but I always try to understand as much as I can. I probably have a strained look on my face this morning, because Tauno suddenly turns to me and rattles off a question.

"Anteeksi," I say, with a contrite look on my face. "En ymmärrä!" ("I'm sorry, I don't understand.")

Everyone laughs. My husband tells me later that this is because Tauno had said, "Gosh, Finnish is difficult for you to follow, huh?" The dog begs Helga for a treat, which she gives him, and then we go home.

I'm in the bathroom when the doorbell rings, and seconds later I'm summoned outside. Tauno is standing on the porch. He is so pleased with the lingonberries that he wants to give us all something in return. He starts to sing in a soft but confident tenor voice, swaying, leaning against his cane, looking each of us in the eye. The song lasts for five minutes. It's beautiful. I can't understand a word, but Tauno looks at me as if he is sure that I know what it means.

And I do.

Danielle LaVaque-Manty has a Ph.D. in political science and has taught university courses in the past, but is currently unemployed, living in Seattle and writing full time. Her first published story appears online in the current (October, 2000) issue of Zoetrope's All-Story Extra.


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