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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.

There is a cultural center for my Aku Ankka collection

The Scandinavian Cultural Center in my area is one of the cool things about moving to the lower mainland. Aside from the Finnishness that would enter my life through the friends and social life of my parents, I did not have the benefit of complete Finnish community growing up. My brothers grew up in Ontario in the Finnish communities of Sudbury and Sault St. Marie where they had Finnish friends and were part of a larger Finnish community where it was normal to speak the language. For me, while I had Finnish friends, two other girls from Finnish families whose parents were friends with mine, I did not speak Finnish with those girls. In fact, in every respect, we were Canadian girls whose parents spoke a different language and often forced us to celebrate holidays in ways that were different from our Canadian peers. It was not always a comfortable difference.

Moving to the mainland and taking part in some of the events and language classes offered by the Finland House at the Scandinavian Cultural Center was a first peek at what it would be like to have my own Finnish community. In taking intermediate Finnish classes, I met a group of people, older and younger than me, who had the same memories of holiday’s celebrated with Lanttuulatikko and Jouluapuki instead of turkey stuffing and Santa Claus. I wasn’t really sure what I would encounter joining a language class – aside from speaking Finnish while travelling I had long since lost the naturalness of the language that my mother claims I had as a child. I was also curious about the idea of Finnish culture – how different was this center’s representation of culture, or the experiences of other members for that matter, from my own experiences growing up in the north Okanagan. Or even more acute was the question of whether my experiences could even be counted as big C culturual.  My Finnish childhood, as opposed to my Canadian childhood, was predominantly spent with old people and as I mentioned sad it odd opposition to the normalized life as a girl in small town BC. In fact, we three Finnish girls, who were really more Canadian than Finnish, only had old Finns to tell us or show us what was particularly Finnish about our life and for me, this was not an obvious set of voices from which to take direction and develop a cultural identify from.

Finnishness was the house slippers worn by my mother’s friends, bright orange slip-ons with strange bumps on the soles. I would slip my feet into them when she wasn’t looking and giggle at the strange, uncomfortable feel. I remember looking at the woman who wore them, a large, white-haired, fair-skinned woman who was old then, and continues to be old now. What kind of woman could wear those shoes all day long?

There were the open-faced Finnish rye bread sandwiches, with butter, maybe ham, mild cheese and a slice of cucumber. The rye bread was coarse and baked in the shape of a pizza with a hole in the center. Cakes filled with jam, not creamy butter icing or pudding. And of course the sauna Saturdays spent at the homes of other Finns, my parents stopping at a corner store on the way over to buy a glass bottle of 7Up for after sauna.

We did have some toys and books that were distinctly Finnish – I had copies of Aku Ankka, comics featuring the Finnish Donald Duck, and cassette tapes with Finnish songs that I would sing by myself. I had stickers from Finland in my sticker collection and a doll with Finnish traditional clothes that matched an outfit my mother made for me in grade one for a multi-cultural pageant. But what I remember most about these items was the strangeness of them. They were not toys shared with Canadian friends. The colours were off somehow – too bright, wrong shade of reds or yellows. They did not fit in with the Strawberry Shortcakes and Barbie Dream RV. What I see as the distinct difference between the childhoods of my brothers and my own is that being Finnish was weird in my world. It was something that had to be explained. Why was my name different? What is a sauna and why do you have one in your basement? Not to mention the accents of my parents. My peer group was distinctly “Canadian” which at the time meant English-speaking, white, small town folks. They were families who ate white bread with peanut butter and jelly, whose mom’s bought clothes at K-mart, and the sugary cereals that my mother rarely let me eat.

So, while a long time has passed since I felt that way about my Finnishness, I came to the Finnish classes  curious about whether or not my memories of things Finnish would connect me in someway with others. What I found was a mix of people who were coming to their Finnishness from places that were different from mine and the same. Some were married to Finns and were looking to improve their Finnish to ensure their children would learn the language (and I assume learn to love sauna and pulla – although one takes decidedly less effort than the other). Others were like me having spent some part of childhood in both worlds and now wanting to bring some of those experiences back in adulthood. As we stumbled through language lessons, I recognized in others the moments of excitement when a word is remembered, or an entire phrase repeated that had once been forgotten. Like tasting anew a fruit once enjoyed but forgotten long ago.

Last christmas the cultural center held craft fairs to highlight Scandinavian products and baked goods. What I saw when I attended was an entire complex of people who were like me and my family and all those finnish friends of my parents. Pulla, joulutortu, karelinen pirrakka and fazer chocolates filled tables next to second-hand marimekko designs and iitala glassware and jewelry that reflected the sleek modern designs so common in Scandinavian. I found a translation of the Kalevala and other books in Finnish and English.

So in all that what I found at the Scandinavian cultural center was a little microcosm where my Finnishness was normal. And I guess I can say that I was able to quantify what it means to have a place, a school or a community where one can go to be connected to that part of one’s self that is not a part of the wider social context. It’s a strange realization to make in such diverse society as ours but there is an invisibility to my Finnishness that I want to uncover.

The Finns are everywhere

Growing up, I knew my home-life was different from those of my peers. It was sometimes embarrassing to have parents who spoke with an accent  and who believed a can of coffee and a loaf of pulla was a perfect gift to a neighbour. Canadians never gave coffee as a gift; coffee is a simple food staple, giving it as a gift is like offering a cup flour as a hostess gift. Strange. And I never explained the sauna to Canadian friends who asked about the building in the yard.


Birch-lined drive of my mother’s childhood home.

It wasn’t until later that I started see the Finnishness of my upbringing as something unique. I collected Iittala glasswear, and searched for Finnish food stuffs tucked in the back of European delis; pear pop, Fazer candies, salmiakki, Turun sinappia and cardamom were always on the list. I learned to make cardamom spiced pulla and finally started to eat my mother’s Finnish rye bread. I longed to have my own sauna built in the basement of my home, just like the one everyone else in my family had: cedar benches and an authentic stone stove with a bucket and ladle to throw water, a birch vihta.

In grad school, I looked for evidence of Finns in Canadian literature and was always thrilled to find them, lurking in the shadows, revealing a spot for me within a cannon of English canadian-ness that “fit” the Canada I grew up in.   I began to re-create in my mind a beautiful landscape based on memories of a trip to the family homesteads taken when I was nine years old.  The stories told by my family of growing up on a farm in Metsakyla started to fill my imagination with the green of young birch trees, dairy cows emerging from the barn after a long winter, and gypsies lurking beyond a frost rimmed window. For years, I planned a trip to Finland that I would take to revisit these places. In 2005, I finally took this trip and spent 6 weeks touring Finland on my own. The first thing that became apparent as I walked the streets of Helsinki, is how much I looked like everyone else there. Until that trip, I did not realize how rarely I have looked into the faces of my Canadian neighbours and seen my own nose, forehead, cheekbones and eyes mirrored back to me. I was at home there, marveling at the grocery stores and restaurants that served the food I had grown up with and often complained was so dull, so un-Canadian.

Upon my return, I came to realize the Finns are everywhere. Recognizing them had become easier; the blonde or dark hair, distinctive eyes and cheekbones. Shopping, I overhear Finnish being spoken in secret in the same way my mother and I speak while shopping, so that others in the store would not hear our critic of someone’s hair or outfit. I hear these secret conversations and immediately want to chime in in Finnish, to let them know I, too, was in on it, and I had seen that ill-fitting pair of pants and also wondered why the wearer would ever consider buying them.

When I reveal the origin of my name to people I meet, invariably there is a discussion of the other Finns they know, or the books or films they had read/seen with Finns or Finland featured. Finnophiles were everywhere; some, like me, are the children of Finnish immigrants, others are simply admirers of the art, food and customs of this small nordic nation.  Some of the most fervent Finnofiles I know are Finns themselves, who while loving their Canadian home, have already figured out what I took so long to determine;  Finns got it going on. This blog is dedicated to revealing those bits of Finnishness that show up over the course of my travels through literature, film and the people and places I discover.