Say what? Finnish idioms and phrases

Found this blog today while searching for today’s Finnidiom. Great fun – enjoy!

Way Up North

Now I’ve been away from Finland for quite a while and sometimes it’s obvious when I speak Finnish. But it’s never more obvious when people start using random new phrases and I have a huge question mark on my face.

Like in every language, Finns are keen on taking references from popular culture and making idioms/phrases/whatnot out of them. And then there are the golden oldies, referring to a time and traditions long gone making it hard to deduce what it meant to begin with.

I asked on facebook for friends to help me to find some of the more confusing ones and it seems like I’m not the only one in the dark when it comes to the deep, dark depths of our language. These are some of the ones that left us clueless:

Ei mennyt ihan niinku Strömsössä – Didn’t go quite like in Strömsö = Turned out…

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Finnish style home cooking: macaroni casserole

Here’s a little throw back to last December – you remember all that great Finnish food. Oh the pulla, oh the memories. I found this great recipe today and was reminded that my mom used to make this Finnish version of macaroni casserole. Its another great example of hearty, tasty eating, although I have to admit that as I kid I used to dream of Kraft Dinner – you always want what you can’t have, right?

Fruit bombs, Lady Gaga and the Humppa

Have you ever done the Humppa to “Poker Face”?

Our first night in Sointula, after a fantastic wine and cheese put on by conference organizers and the village of Sointula, we move on to the Rub Pub. It’s the only pub in Sointula and they advertise live music. Conference attendees and locals mingle and I can hear Finnish being spoken all around me. When we settle into what became standing room only, the Finnish flag is the first thing noticed on the stage. Earlier, I had heard from locals that the Finns from Masala had been rocking the little town since their arrival earlier this week (I heard one woman laugh that it would take days to recover from their young guests). Story has it that locals heard them arriving – they were singing on the car deck as the ferry pulled into the dock. Up until Friday, karaoke had become the norm well into the night. Tonight was something different, though. The Masala Theatre group also perform as a band, and members of the troop take the stage and make introductions in English.

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Ok, so when I arrived, I envisioned an evening of music like the kind my dad would listen to on Saturday afternoons – think “Polka Time” that used to air on CTV back in the day. I expected to hear the deep bartione of Finnish male singers, serious and earnest, and some accordion. The deep voices are definitely here but there is no accordion in sight.  The band warms up with some upbeat (well, they are upbeat for Finns, I think) tunes sung in Finnish, and before long, people are dancing. That’s when the lead announces it’s time for the Humppa. I hear a few young people snicker -“Did he say hump?”- and I remember back to when I started to go to high school dances and my mom asking if everyone “did the Humppa?”. And Humppa we did – it’s a dance similar to the polka, a simple one step per beat dance, unpretentious and easily danced in pairs or alone.

Masala Theatre Band

Yes, they cover Lady Gaga, and a little “You’re the one that I want” from Grease. For me though, the highlight is “Hedelmäpommi”, a cover of a 2003 Finnish single by the artist Frederik (check him out! He looks like David Hasselhoff cross-bred with Kiss!). Apparently quite the summer anthem – the Finnish theatre crew took over the dance floor for this one, complete with synchronized gestures, ala the Village People.

For about two hours, while I lean against a pool table in Sointula’s village pub, Strongbow in hand, I am transported to a summer night in a small Finnish pub, somewhere north of the 60th parallel. The perfect start to this weekend conference on utopian dreams.

(In case your curious, here is my translation of “Hedelmäpommi” while you listen along!)


My mouth is always dry when I remember you
When there are rollerblading classes at the beach again
My mind on your apples, always loved the fruit cart
Hey baby do not be afraid beside me on the beach


Release the beach lions to get summer started, hot girls are waiting
Bikinis stick like a fruit bomb, man gets a pear again
Under a beach umbrella, above dusty fine sand
Taste the forbidden fruit

A summer cat couldn’t find better
My beach ball you can blow
I’ll bite you, just gently
Coconut milk  on my skin
Hey, do not be afraid baby, I have everything for you.


Fruit Bomb, fruit bomb
Fruit Bomb, fruit bomb

Sointula bound

So its been awhile since my last post. Trust me there continues to be plenty of FinninmyCanadiana and this weekend deserves special attention. For the next three days the tiny north island community of Sointula is hosting people from all over the World at Culture Shock: Utopian dreams, hard realities.

The events take place at the Finnish Hall and in addition to talks ranging from life growing up in a Utopian- inspired community to the utopian aims of the occupy movement, we will be treated to Sointula’s finest Finnish cuisine and, a huge treat, the Masala Theatre company’s performance of Sointula a play exploring the founding Of Sointula in the early 1900’s. The theatre group travelled from Finland to perform this work for the community that inspired it. I will share the highlights with you here in the coming week.

So, for now I sit on BC Ferries with several hundred other people staring into faces that seem to me more familiar than usual. Something about the line up for coffee – longer than normal? Was that a Marimiekko wallet tucked into a canvas book bag?  Just a sign of things to come- the Finns are all around me.

She has her eyes on you

Over a year ago, a friend was fired from one of those jobs with low pay, where intelligent but young people work for bosses whose potential and ability faded with their enthusiasm. As we spoke that night, going over the details, mutually incredulous and increasingly angered, I reminded her that sometimes these things happen and that opportunities will open up. Going forward, I suggested, she now had time to explore her options, spend time taking care of herself and that help was always just a phone call away. We both laughed when I reminded her that her mother would no doubt be ready with all manner of comfort, now and whenever the pocket book could not offer her the certainty of home cooked meal.

It was her mother who put the whole situation into a succinct frame. That any employer would cast out a brilliantly educated, ginger-haired wit, such as her daughter, was a clear sign the company was beyond hope: corporate collapse was imminent. If only we could believe in ourselves so completely.

Our conversation reminded me of the first time I was fired. I was a retail clerk, part-time, at a small Carlton Cards shop. The store was located in a vacant suburban mall, populated by the few chains that either could afford to keep the shop open despite poor business, or those businesses that had not yet seen the downturn in demographics. After receiving the news that I was no longer needed and there would be no more shifts for me, I returned home, head down, certain that this episode was the most dismal to date.

When I told my mother, she probed for answers to the unanswerable: “How could they do this? Don’t they have to tell you a few days before? What kind of people are they?” When I shrugged my shoulders and answered with a sullen, “I don’t know”, she cut a slice of pie and served it to me warm. It wasn’t until years later that I learned what she had done after our conversation and to this day I do not have the full details.

One afternoon, she drove to the empty mall. She walked past the insurance agency, with its empty chairs and lone woman, in her tired business shirt with a name tag; past the Orange Julius kiosk, staffed by the university student trying to eek out part-time hours at minimum wage to supplement meagre student loans. She walked into that small store, with its single aisle of birthday condolences, get well soon balloons, and knick-knack curios that appeal to lonely women and those unable to find the words for what it is they meant to say.

I imagine her there: 5’4″, farm-girl seamstress whose hands and steely look tell a story, her thick Finnish accent. What did she say?

To this day whenever we find ourselves in that suburban mall, only recently turning a corner on the backs of some renovations and the new Safeway, she makes a point of looking into that little store. The episode has long since left my memory, replaced by other bosses and now staff; however, I see in her eyes the memory of wrongdoing. A look of warning; a mother’s warning to all that cross the paths of brilliant, educated children: she has her eyes on you.

Finnish Tango

I couldn’t help but look at the tango during this month of trying to figure out what love is, in a Finnish sense.  My first response when I was told that the tango was the favourite dance of this country, I think I laughed out loud. But then I looked further and discovered that since the 1930s, Finns have been dancing tango in community halls, barns and taverns, and owning it – having carved out their own official variation, the Finnish tango. There is also a tango festival that takes place each year in a town near where my family is from that draws over 100,000 dancers each year.

What is this about? My experience of the Finns is of a reserved, outwardly serious people. It’s the kind of country that offers a collective shake of the head at laugh-tracks used in North American sit-coms and where you might be considered a little “off” for getting on a city bus and smiling at everyone. It’s not that they are unfriendly (quite the opposite!), it’s just that it’s not necessary to force niceties on one another all the time.


So, I am pretty sure the Finnish Tango has something to do with love, Finnish-style. The songs focus on love, longing, nature and nostalgia – typical folk stuff. But you can get that from just about any folk dance. Why the tango?

The Finnish Music Information Center (FIMIC) describes the Finnish tango as expressing “the longing for love and the beloved …without any trace of the sentimentality or escapism typical of other European tangos. Whereas the Argentinean tango is clearly an element of urban culture and the setting for the events is a shady waterside drinking house, the Finnish tango is often set in the countryside, in the bosom of nature.” The subject of the tango, usually a man, “has lost his beloved, is suffering from loneliness and is overcome by melancholy. He is desolate and longs to be back in the time when all was well.”

While travelling in Finland, I took an overnight ferry to Tallin; this ferry was a mini-cruise ship complete with buffet dinner, floor show, casino and at one end of the ship, the tango bar. I spent the better part of an evening sitting off to the side watching the Finnish passengers dance. The dance floor was always full; the accordion music reminded me of episodes of Polka Time that I would sometimes find one of my parents watching when I was kid; only this music had that serious tango vibe. I remember thinking about the stories my mom would tell about the dances she and her friends would go to when she was young. Riding their bikes to the community hall in the summer, the sun never setting while they danced and danced.  On the ship the dancers were older; dance postures were precise and pressed close, and faces were serious.  I did not catch a lot of coy looks, eyelash batting, or cheeky smiles but let me tell you, those bodies moved around the dance floor and around each other in perfect rhythm. They laid that tango down and it stayed there.

To me, all this tango points to a passion deep under the skin. The kind of passion that doesn’t need to be teased out; it will show itself when the time is right, and the accordion plays that song calling out to young love, green fields and pine forests in the light of a midnight sun. Trust me.



From the Sonata Pathetique

there is love
beyond all the biblical and the social
beyond all restricting conventionality
love that bursts into the veins giving muscles new blood
love that feeds and nourishes without asking what form it should take
realizing its own primordial, haunted, eternal will
love that crushes ruthlessly like a strong current
obstacles in its way, even a weaker love,
that lacks the strength to defend its position or to thrive
love that experiences divinity in its own being
love that tolerates no tyranny,
that is its own omnipotent ruler, its strength and honour
all-powerful, the ten commandments
each of which reads: live, experience love, experience death
love that speaks with the lips of eternity and whose jurisdiction
is infinity; the one it captures feels freedom without dimensions
love that has only one expression and manifestation: the beloved
love that has only one word, melody, and phrase: the beloved
love that has only one path and possibility: the beloved
love that only one who dares may receive: the beloved.

– Lasse Heikkila (translated by Borje Vahamaki)

Love Is Not Cleansed

Love is not cleansed by fire
nor by needless sacrifices
Love is tried on gray ordinary days,
moments of weariness, in deadening work.

The imaginary bride in poetry
twists her gold ring
in her infinite, idle loneliness —
but true love is near
where a man praises his wife’s worn, wrinkled
hands in the dim light of a night lamp
as sleep approaches.

Viljo Kajava (translated by Aili Jarvenpa)

Song of Love

And one day
we bend forward and reach around each other
and with a click get linked together, never again to come loose,
your ailing limbs interlocked with my gout,
my stomach ulcer beside your hear condition
and my arthritis against your sciatica,
we will never, ever part.

And, my dear, you forget your arhythmia, your shortness of breath
and the gangrene
which already resides in your heart
and I forget my catarrh, my restless legs
and the nagging pain in my left side
and may frost and troubles and sorrow come too.

Take my breasts, empty and flat
into your hands, my dear
for one day as you look at them they will hang low,
will you love me then
My bumble bee, my humble-bumble boy?

Lord, teach us to accept the love of the aged,
the love of the young, the love of the middle-aged,
the love of the ugly, the love of the poor,
the love of the ragged
and the love of the lonely.
Teach us to accept love,
for we fear it so.

-Eeva Kilpi-