This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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The Nordic version of Carnival

laskiaisbunThe laskiaispulla (FIN), or fastlagsbulle (Swedish dialect in FIN), fastelavnsbolle (NO) or semla (SE) is one hell of a calorie bomb: sweetbread carved out to harbor a clump of juicy, bitter-almond tasting marzipan (or raspberry jam for the heretics), with a cloud of whipped cream on top. But what else do you want on a cold February Shrove Tuesday when the body craves for energy?

This is as close as we get to Carnival in the Nordics: one or several laskiaispulla before 40 days of “fasting” (over here it was mainly cutting out the superfluous) before Easter. Except I don’t know of anyone who actually fasts. It seems to be a nearly dead tradition – and why? In the middle of the carbohydrate frenzy our body seems to prefer during the cold months, take 40 days and really consider every piece of simple, unextravagant food you put in your mouth. Cut down on sugar, leave out the booze. And kick-start it all with a few laskiaispullas in the ancient fashion: served in a bowl of hot milk. This dish is called “hetvägg” in Sweden (hot wall). Try it and you’ll find out why.

(Stockholm, Sweden; February 2018)


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Who are the Finns and where do they come from?

langmap-2Finnish, Estonia, Vepsian, Livonian, Hungarian, Mansi, Sami, Udmurt, Mari, Moksha. How many of these languages have you ever heard of? How about Nenets, Karelian, and Khanty? This is the language tree of the Uralic languages, including Fenno-Ugric languages where Finnish and Estonian belong (the top yellow-and-orange languages in the photo above).

In school I was taught that Finnish is an old language that stems from somewhere deep in Russian territory. It is not Indo-European, meaning Finnish is less related to Swedish than Sanskrit to German. I was also taught that the languages can be trailed backwards in tribes, along migration routes across the Siberian taiga, all the way back to the Ural mountains. Basically, people linguistically related to Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are a smattering of fur-trapping and reindeer-hearding tribes between Finland and Mongolia. Sami, or the language of the reindeer-hearding Lapps in the Nordic countries, is on a separate branch even if it is geographically close to Finnish. It has heavy influences from its geographic neighbors but is according to linquists also close to Mongolian. langmap-1Today this model is challenged. Those who combine ancestry genetics with linguistics say that Finns have a mixed genetic heritage, Finnish came to Finland from Estonia, and as a language it is not really old at all: if you remove all influences of Baltic, Swedish, ancient Germanic, and ancient Russian languages, you are left with just a few words. Surely this is plausible because people adopt each others words when they spend time together.

Which ever way is the truth, it is a curious and often forgotten fact that we EU citizens who feel we belong with Western Europe, Ikea, beer-lovers, and a Christian cultural heritage, actually have close family links with tribes living in very cold climes, either in wooden huts or in yurts, trapping fur animals or herding reindeer for a living. We share the same words and partially the same culture of singing our stories through poetic verse (check out the Finnish national epos, the Kalevala. It was a huge inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien in his youth). The soul of our ancestry lies in a mythical connection with nature, where everything from bears to trees to rocks have souls, too. We forget this, even when we pick seven kinds of flowers to put under our pillow at midsummer night so we dream of our husband-to-be; or when we retreat to our summer cottages, choosing to enjoy our holidays without power or running water, living and breathing Nature.

When you look at our past as well as the lifestyle of our linguistic relatives, is striking how much the Sami, Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian “Europeans” have much in common with Native American heritage: hunter-gatherer living, respect for big prey, living in connection with Nature, animism, and shamanism. Sure, this is the backdrop of the stone age human, but we Fenno-Ugric people lived like this still as near as 1000 years ago. And what happened to these two cultures? Today the Sami have their own council, their own languages, their own schools, and a growing respect for their culture, while the Native Americans seem to be downtrodden, century after century. And the Finns and the Estonian keep their heritage alive only through subconscious, not-realized connections to their past, such as big feasts when eating big prey animals, and the summer cottage culture.

Interested to learn more about the mysterious folks of the North-Eastern taigas and steppes? There is an excellent, permanent exhibition on the Uralic peoples at the Estonian National museum in Tartu.
rahvamuuseum(Eesti Rahva Muuseum, Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)


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Stone of sacrifice

tartudec-14There, unassumingly in the park, next to a currently acknowledged house of God stands a much older site of God. A million sacrifice ceremonies have worn out round indentations in the rock, like bowls carrying gifts to the Divine.

The days of worship are not over. The students of Tartu university use it to burn their lecture notes after exams. Perhaps it is not so much a sacrifice to knowledge and life but a purification of methods after numerous books have been converted to understanding and insight?

Times change. Our need to connect with the Universe will not.
tartudec-13(Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)


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Ruins

tartudec-15

Days of misfortune arrived—blows fell broadly—
death seized all those sword-stout men—their idol-fanes were laid waste —
the city-steads perished. Their maintaining multitudes fell to the earth.
For that the houses of red vaulting have drearied and shed their tiles,
these roofs of ringed wood. This place has sunk into ruin, been broken
into heaps…

(Anonymous, 800 AD)

tartudec-16(Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)


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Capped

tartudec-2It turns out Estonian student life is not that different from Finnish student life. And probably both cultures have their origin in Sweden. Velvet caps and all. Estonian caps seem to be much more colorful than the Finnish ones. The contemporary Finnish cap is pretty much similar to the one on bottom right, except for that it bears a golden lyre emblem of one’s university.

In olden times, a student would proudly wear his/her cap from May Day to end September. Today, in Finland, the student’s cap is mainly worn on May Day, by both young and old. At least in Estonia the rule is that when one is relieving oneself in the lavatory, one removes the cap and either gives it to a friend or sticks it somewhere where it stays clean. Just not on one’s head.

(Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)


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Temple of knowledge

tartudec-3Once it was a chapel. Then it was a university library. Now it is the university museum. Tartu used to be one of the grand university towns in Europe. It was founded 400 years ago under the Swedish rule in a country called Livonia. Neither Livonia nor its language Livonian exist anymore. Then it was opened under Russian rule by the Baltic Germans (Yes. There were Germans living in the Baltic countries. European history is confusing). And finally, some 100 years ago, it was again re-opened as an Estonian university. Obviously under Soviet rule for quite a while.

It is befitting that the university museum is an old church. Because despite of wars and politics, critical thinking prevails. Ideas remain the sacred driving forces of not just humanity but of nations.

(Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)


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Finland grows up

suomisataLook at that: little Finland is all grown up. For countries that happens when you can add three digits to your age. It all started in 1917 when the country tore itself off the flank of Russia and the shadow of Sweden and declared its independence. Borders were drawn and redrawn. To keep its sovereignty during WWII, Finland had to even play a dirty game, letting in the Germans to attack Russia from Finnish soil. As a loser in that game, we paid war reparations for nearly 10 years, delivering hundreds of ships, engines, and ready-to-install houses to Russia. Finland was the only country that managed to pay its WWII war reparation debts.

Since then one could write a sweeping anthology of free university education for the masses, the rise of the middle class, membership in the EU, adoption of the euro, female presidents and prime ministers, and the status of a neutral diplomat between East and West.

And I completely forgot dear Finland’s 100th birthday when I accepted the invite to go give a talk in Tartu, Estonia. While others dined, danced, and watched fireworks, I celebrated with a little piece of cake in the lounge at Helsinki Airport. How very inconsiderate of me.

(Helsinki, Finland; December 2017)