22 September 2006


My course in Survival Finnish course is finally underway. There are about 15 of us, and we come from all over the world. Only two of us are Mercans, as Lyndon Johnson used to say. We have had two sessions thus far, with two different teachers, Milla and Maija, both of them twenty-something blondes. It isn’t clear which will turn up for the next class, but either one is okay by me.

Both teachers try hard to mix it up. They talk, we listen. They ask questions. We answer. They write almost everything on the blackboard. We read. We role-play. No singing—so far, anyway. We play Bingo, which helps us learn our numbers. Sometimes we break up in pairs and play a game where we have to interrogate our partners to ferret out vital information. For example, I was assigned the case of Karin Andersen. From the dossier I learned that Andersen lives in Vaasa and that her phone number is 040-212-543, but I wasn’t told her nationality, how old she is, or where she is enrolled as a student. Okay, it’s not exactly Mission Impossible, but it does have some Cold War overtones, doesn’t it? From my partner, a Russian woman who moved to Oulu when she married a Finn (or so she says), I found out that Andersen is a Swede (ruotsalainen), 26 years old (kaksikymmentäkuusi vuotias), and a student in Stockholm (Tukholmassa). I’m persuaded that this multi-media approach to language learning is the real deal, and it has inspired me to invent my own game.

You need three things to play: a map, a bike, and a dictionary. Here’s how it works. You find a place name on the map, you try to figure out its derivation, first using the dictionary, if need be, and then by finding a physical trace of that which inspired the name in the first place. Here’s an example. My street address is Koskitie 35. Koski is rapids, and tie is road. So what you’d do is head for the river, look for the power plant, and that’s where you’d find the rapids, which are within spitting distance of my kerrostalo.

To test it out, I pedaled down to the town center and played the game with street names. Katu, by the way, is the word for street. One of the main north-south streets is Kirkkokatu (church street); sure enough, there was the Lutheran cathedral, right where it belonged. Kauppa is shop, so I wasn’t surprised to find that there was plenty of opportunity for “retail therapy” on Kauppakatu. Tori is Finnish for square, or piazza. I was a little surprised that Torikatu doesn’t lead directly into the market square, though it comes close. Puistokatu is, basically, park avenue. I expected to find a statue or some other trace of the tsar on Aleksanterinkatu, but I didn’t. The biggest no-brainer was the intersection of Rautatienkatu (railroad street) and Asemakatu (station street), where there is in fact. . . a rautatieasema. Duh! Just on the other side of the station is Ratakatu, or track street.

Those were some of the easy ones. I biked up and down Linnankatu (castle street) looking for crenellated towers, to no avail. It turns out that the castle used to be down at the end of the street, on what is called Linnansaari (castle island). Speaking of saari, one of the main east-west streets is Saaristonkatu, and sure enough it leads to a couple of islands in the harbor. I suspect you are starting to get the idea that the Finns are a pretty literal-minded people. That’s all right, so am I.

Hallituskatu is government street, or maybe state street. Yes, there are government buildings on Hallituskatu, most notably the kaupungintalo, or town hall. I hadn’t known the word hallitus before, and I am ashamed to say that the anarchist that dwells within my breast is using “Halitosis Street” as a mnemonic device.

Rantakatu proved to be right where it belonged, hugging the shoreline. The Finns are allergic to certain consonant combinations, especially at the beginnings of words. “St” is one of those combinations; look back at how Stockholm morphs into Tukholma. Ranta is Finnish for strand, or shore.

Pakkahuoneenkatu has been a tough nut to crack. My sanakirja (literally, wordbook, i.e., dictionary) tells me that pakata means to pack up, to pack. I’m guessing that the street name is a reference to packing houses, which would make sense since the street leads directly to the docks. Then again, pakara means buttock, and I suppose you could make a plausible case for that on the waterfront, too. Anyway, I didn’t find any packing houses, though there are some buildings that might have served that purpose at one time. Or, it could be that the packing houses burned in one of the fires.

I think it’s only a matter of time until I can declare victory in the case of Sepänkatu. Seppä means blacksmith, so all I need to do is find evidence of a forge or maybe even just a stable, since the smithy wouldn’t have been very far from the horses. Same thing with Tulliväylä, which is the name of one of the main roads leading into Oulu. Tulli is a reference to customs, or customs house, and I’m guessing that if I look hard enough I’ll find the vestiges of an old toll gate there.

Want to know where the old part of the town center ended and the extension began? Look no farther than Uusikatu. That’s right, new street. On the other hand, I haven’t made much progress with Isokatu, which means big street. I’ve stepped it off; it’s the same size as all the others.

My greatest triumph thus far has been Kasarmintie, which means barracks road. It took a little time, but eventually I found the garrison, which proved to be a ensemble of fine old wooden structures. I’m also proud of my work with Heinäntorikatu. Knowing that Heinäkuu is the word for July, harvest season, told me that I was cycling down haymarket street.

See how much fun we’re having. Think how much you could be learning—about urban history, as well as language—while firming up your thighs, with Ling-O-Matic. Be the first one in your kerrostalo to have one. Ling-O-Matic comes complete with handlebars-mounted sanakirja and GPS software installed. Not available in stores. Order now, while supplies last!