I come back to Helsinki to find that the Winter still disappoints with a measly one degree above zero. As I step off the plane onto the tarmac, my foot finds slippery sleet-water on top of ice, and I fall on my new case, painfully pulling a neck muscle which still hurts.
I’m back just in time for the start of my new Finnish course (“Once more unto the breach dear friends!“). It turns out to be a toughie. The seemingly most able teacher gives us an assessment test and the comprehension text – which seems to be something about the financial condition of the postal service – is otherwise incomprehensible to me. And I can’t quite bring myself to just randomly tick the multiple choice questions in order to gamble on getting at least 25 per cent. Having taken courses provided by Helsinki Summer University which are almost exclusively about pumping you full of Finnish grammar, I think I do OK on that part of the test, but less well on finding the “dictionary forms” of declined and conjugated nouns and verbs. Time will tell if I’ve been too ambitious in choosing this higher-level course.
After a remarkably long and deep sleep I awake to the darkness of the kaamos, on a day with temperatures happily a couple of degrees below. And with Mrs Kaamos, still on GMT, sleeping late, I sip green tea and look across the rear courtyards to the lights of the office building opposite, wondering what it must be like to go out to work in the dark, and come home when the sun has long set.
[Haven’t found a better pic for this post yet. Do pop back later and I’ll find you one.]
As my stay in Helsinki comes to its bittersweet end, a friend asks me about two aspects of the Finnish Winter which are often assumed to deter aliens from remaining here, leaving the territory to the hardy natives. The first (of which more in the next day or two) was the darkness. The second was the cold.
Well yes it is cold in Helsinki, although the minus 7 of earlier this week seemed positively balmy after the minus 25 in Lapland. But it being a dry cold it is somehow less unpleasant than the damp cold of a British winter. What’s more you are rarely cold inside, the Finnish flats and housed being well insulated and properly heated. However, the strange paradox is that often, in Helsinki, what you want is it to get colder and stay that way. The snow covered streets not only look lovely but they reflect the light giving you more of this scarce resource.
Sweeping snow off the rooves
The worst thing that can happen is when like yesterday the temperature suddlenly rises above zero and the piles of snow, lovingly piled high by the privatised snow-ploughs begins to melt and the luxurious carpet (should that be “wood floor”?) of snow on the pavements disintergrates into dirty slush or loska.
Keli basically refers to road conditions but it can also take on a wider meaning to include the conditions for skiiing. On my way into our building, an elderly lady commented on this saying, “kurja keli” – miserable keli. And she was right. Not only was there the peril below as even the most sprightly youth risked fractures on the slimey surfaces but danger from above too. The melting ice and snow on the roof tops creates an additional hazard and many building have safety barriers blocking the pavement, forcing pedestrians to chose between being knocked unconcious by falling ice or flattened by a truck.
Gradually workman get around the city on high cherry-pickers, and sweep the snow from the edges of the roofs making the pavements below safe again for a grateful citizenry. And by chance today the temperature drops again to minus 4 and a fresh fall of snow turns Helsinki white and bright again, reinforcing my intuition that when it comes to keli, cold is better than warm.
Having the pleasure of showing a friend from North Wales the joys of Helsinki, I knew that I had to take him to a sauna. I also wanted to try out the wood sauna on the second floor at Yrjönkatu Swimming Baths which I had heard was a particularly pleasant place to hang out. We were not disappointed. The place itself is a a delight, well cared for with a lovely twenties classicism interior. The impressive stove (or kiuas) in the sauna gave off a subtle aroma
René Descartes would almost certainly have reappraised his philosophy had he experienced löyly.
of wood-smoke and also, when someone threw water through a letter-box slot near the top, good löyly .
OK, so what does löyly mean? Well some people say that it’s just the word for the steam that comes off the stones. But my Finnish Language teacher explained that löyly is something that happens not in the physical world at all but in your head. There is a moment a few seconds after the steam rises (so long as it doesn’t drive you to dive for a lower shelf or out of the door) when you experience a sublime sensation of heat so overpowering that every worry or thought in your mind is banished by it. For me, it is a hit that surpasses anything else – a moment of shock and overpowering of the senses that, so long as you surrender to it, turns to state of complete relaxation, calm and contentment.
So perhaps löyly is a phenomena that confounds the both the dualist and the physicalist. It is something which is neither mental nor physical but both — a transitory place, an event where the distinction between mind and body dissolves.