Covering of snow
lies effortlessly silent
on the frozen sea.
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.]
I can’t say they didn’t warn me. But this is a Winter that is breaking records like nobody’s business and to the disgust of taxi drivers, Helsinki City Council is having trouble coping. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s always so warm in our flat but every time I go out I still feel outraged by a cold wind that bites so hard you want to have it humanely destroyed. My fault for being too mean to buy a proper winter coat I suppose — the cheap anorak I bought in Oxford Street just ain’t doing it.
It’s not the length of the nights that gets to you but the darkness of the days. Every now and again, you catch a glimpse of a low, steamy sun but mostly the best you get is little more than a dim twilight. At least the discovery that a local bar offers a very good pint of Fullers ESB provides some welcome relief.
Last night I looked out onto the courtyard at about 2am to find the buildings eerily shrouded in mist. This morning the fog had frozen onto the trees. We caught the no. 10 tram to Eira and walked through the park to the sea and watched the Suomenlinna ferry glide along a channel through the frozen water. I wish sometimes that I could freeze time.
Preparing myself for returning to England, I tune into the Today Programme on Radio 4, only to catch the normally sensible James Naughtie start an item with “unless you’ve been living on Mars, you will know that…” And what was this event of momentous import of which filled the conversations in every pub, fish and chip shop and tearoom in England, nay, on Earth? Well for those of us on Mars, we have for the last [insert period of time here – after 5 minutes I’ve given up trying to find out when this happened], for some not inconsiderable length of time, we have been blissfully unaware that, wait for it…Jonathan Ross has left the BBC!!!!!
“Who?” or rather “Kuka?” I hear you shout. Well Mr. Ross was the highest paid employee of the BBC being paid enough annually to build at five hospitals and a couple of schools — all from the £142.50 licence fee which is paid by every British household that uses a TV set (except if they hide behind the curtains when the inspector comes round). Ross is a man of a number of talents (remember, zero is technically a number) who had a chat show on BBC1 on Friday nights and hosted a radio programme on BBC Radio 2. He made headlines last year after he left an offensive message on Fawlty Tower’s star Andrew Sax’s answerphone as part of a witty and hilarious jape on his radio show.
Well I am not going to comment on whether it is a good or a bad thing that the BBC will now have several millions (£16.9 or €18.8 to be exact) extra to spend on say Doctor Who special effects rather than maintain the lifestyle of one “personality” who is about as entertaining as watching a puppy urinate on your living room carpet (makes you smile involutarily for a moment before feeling really pissed off). But I do at least now realise why I’ve not felt worried about missing the news from England.
When I came to Helsinki, I started out listening to Radio Four daily but gradually wearied of the diet of politicians’ minor misdemeanours combined with wacky policy announcements, which everyone knows will never be enacted but are rather being market-tested as potential manifesto fillers for a party that has little hope of being re-elected. OK, so the YLE news programme is perhaps over-serious, but at least it mainly covers items of, well news.
All the same, for any Finn who wants to feel self-satisfied there’s plenty of stories on the BBC website on how Great Britain is falling to pieces after a little light snow.
And for my British readers, this is what a snow plough looks like.
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.
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.
I see that in the north of Finland, kaamos or polar night has long begun. Philosophers please note, in Utsjoki the sun will not come up tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that. In fact, no sun until mid-January.
Meanwhile, here in Helsinki, about 6 degrees below the Arctic Circle, a miserable spell of mild, grey, drizzly weather has given way to exhillerating crisp, clear days. All the same, it is strange to get up in what feels like the middle of the night and look out onto the street to see people scurrying to their offices like disturbed house-mice. I do my best to get out during some of the precious hours of lightness.
But I have to admit I do have a predisposition for warm dark places. And with the innovative ways that Finns find to heat their homes, you can enjoy your overheated flat with a certain level of ecological impunity.