17 August 2006


Ever since the day last April that I received my offer letter from the Fulbright Center in Helsinki <http://www.fulbright.fi/>, people have been saying to me, “You will have a wonderful experience. You are going to learn so much.” Future tense.

I never doubted it, and yet the fact is that I already have had a wonderful experience and already have learned a lot. And, as this is being written (August 17), I haven’t even left home yet. Now it’s time to share.

I’ve been attending an introductory language course at the Finnish Language School Association <http://www.finnschool.org/>. We meet on Saturday mornings at a Lutheran church in Arlington. My classmates are mainly young people, most of them from Finnish-American families, and many possess that foreign-language-acquisition gene that somehow passed me by. We have a great teacher, but Finnish is a very difficult language for an under-endowed sixty-year-old man to learn, and so the experience has been both rewarding and humbling. In May, I went to a language camp in northern Minnesota run by Concordia College. Salolampi was an intense week of fun and games, music and movies, energetic line dancing, good Finnish eats, and, not least, an introduction to the mysterious rites of sauna. Unfortunately, my Finnish language skills remain rudimentary. I can say Kuinka sanotaan suomeksi. . . ? (the Finnish version of “How you say . . . ?”) and Puhutteko englantia? (“Do you speak English?”). I know the days of the week and the months. I know a little about the geography of the country, and I’ve learned the numbers so I can count my change. Hey, it’s a start.

Here are a few interesting factoids about the Finnish language—suomea. One of the reasons Finnish is so hard is that it’s not an Indo-European language, and there are no cognates. It’s a Finno-Ugric language, a subdivision of the Uralic languages. It’s closely related to Estonian. I’ve been told that if you know Hungarian, you can pick up Finnish fairly easily. It is more distantly related to Turkish. All of these languages originated somewhere in central Asia and migrated west with one marauding horde or another.

There is no future tense in Finnish. So, for example, there is no difference between “You will have a wonderful experience” and “You are having a wonderful experience.” And that, as I have already said, has been literally true in my case. The Finns seem to function perfectly well without a future tense.

Also, there is no grammatical gender. There is a third-person singular pronoun, hän (rhymes with “man”), that means he or she, so there is no need to worry about modifiers and nouns matching up with each other and with their accompanying masculine or feminine articles—as in la casa blanca, los tios gordos, etc.

There are in fact no definite or indefinite articles in Finnish, and only a handful of prepositions. Instead, there are noun cases—some fifteen or so of them—that require you to tack a suffix onto a word, or set of words, to convey meaning. Consider the language-related words I used above—suomea and suomeksi. The first is the word for the language itself. The second means “in Finnish.” Suomi is the name of the country, and a Finn is a suomalainen. From Finland is suomesta. Once I have arrived in Helsinki, I will be Helsingissa. Finnish is very orderly (e.g., every word is stressed on the first syllable), but the “agglutinating” process can produce eight-syllable words in a hurry. For example, a high-tech company is a tietokonefirmassa, and a receptionist is a vastaanottoapulainen. Even a simple concept like “interesting” comes out as mielenkiintoinen. There are a number of good instructional websites, including Tavataan Tass <http://donnerwetter.kielikeskus.helsinki.fi/FinnishForForeigners/> and Chiugate’s Guide to Finnish <http://www.chiugate.be/>.

The Finnish culture is rich and distinctive. I’ve started dipping into the Kalevala, which is usually referred to as the “national folk epic,” but which is probably better understood as “a conflation and concatenation of a considerable number and variety of traditional songs, narrative, lyric, and magic, sung by unlettered singers, male and female, living to a great extent in northern Karelia in the general vicinity of Archangel” [Magoun edition, p. xiii]. And I’ve learned how intimately related the country’s history and culture are to those of its two big, strong, and occasionally bumptious neighbors, Russia and Sweden. The Kalevala was compiled by Elias Lönnrot, a nineteenth-century physician/ethnographer. I’m reading a translation, of course, and since the editor has turned the poetry into prose, I suppose much has been lost in the process. Still, it is a way into a culture that most Finns regard as Nordic, rather than Scandinavian. Far and away the most lively and charming chronicler of daily life in Finland is an Australian woman named Therese Catanzariti, who goes by “treezycat” <http://del.icio.us/treezycat/finland> (Thanks for the referral, Niina).

Finns seem to be lovers of modernism and efficiency. I say that on the basis of my experience at the Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, where I went to apply for my residence permit. It took about thirty minutes to complete the application; they actually did it for me. It had to be processed in Helsinki, and yet I had my permit in about a week. The Embassy building itself is very mielenkiintoinen, though not exactly to my taste. It is an eloquent steel-and-glass—and wood—tribute to modern architecture and Finland that sits unpretentiously on Embassy Row in a forest of stately Beaux Arts and Italianate mansions. It has a strictly functional interior, with exposed ductwork and George Jetson furniture. The building inspired me to do some reading about the great Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, and as a consequence I have added the Aalto Center in Jyväskylä (don’t try this at home) to my list of things to do, along with the city of Rovaniemi. After its destruction in World War II, Aalto redesigned Rovaniemi in the form of reindeer’s antlers!

I’ve succeeded, to a certain extent, at least, in harnessing the instructional potential of the internet. I’ll be offering two courses—consecutively, not concurrently—starting with a lecture course on North American urban history. Googling for enduring issues and classic texts turned up an enormous number of pertinent internet resources (e.g., Dickens, Olmsted, Riis, Engels). During the second half of the semester I’ll be teaching a seminar that uses Pittsburgh as a case study in the history of urban form. Here I was able to build on a remarkable digital archive consisting of over 500 books—again, many of them classics, such as Andrew Carnegie’s autobiography, Ida Tarbell’s history of the Standard Oil Company, and Margaret Byington’s Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town, part of the historic Pittsburgh Survey conducted in the first decade of the twentieth century. Check it out: http://digital.library.pitt.edu/.

Being able to find and exploit digital resources was vital to my course planning because Finnish university students are not expected to buy books, and the University of Oulu library has very little in the way of English-language materials in my field. For me the internet was an alternative to schlepping books (though I did ship a box of books a few weeks ago). As for my students, they will be spared the nuisance and expense associated with reserve desks and photocopy machines. (Why, you ask, do Finnish university students not buy textbooks? The answer is to be found in several distinctive features of Finnish higher education. That will be the subject of a later post.)

Another thing I’ve learned during the anticipation phase is that the internet is a treasure trove of materials bearing specifically on urbanism in Finland. I hope to find ways of working some of these materials into my teaching, and also onto my blog.

And that reminds me that learning how to manage a blog has been extremely rewarding in itself, though it is rather more tedious and time-consuming than I had expected, and I've been told that blogs can become unruly. One of the purposes of this project is to share the fun and exchange ideas, and so I’ve set things up so posting a comment is easy. Before you can publish your comment there is a simple Word Word Verification test designed to keep out spam. Just type the letters as you see them on the screen (machines can’t do that). You may wish to bookmark fulbrighterinfinland. As soon as you come aboard you should hit your Refresh or Reload button to ensure that the latest post is displayed. You can always find old posts in the Archives.

I am indebted to Ginny Hammell for suggesting that I document my experience this way, and I couldn’t have done it without the technical expertise of Michael Hall. Thanks, too, to my keepers at CIES, the Fulbright Center in Helsinki, and the University of Oulu, for giving me permission to enter the blogosphere. Finally, please keep in mind that this is an experiment. If we all mind our manners, we won’t need a censor. Kiitoksia paljon!