18 October 2006

Intelligent Design, part two

According to international studies, Finnish industry today is among the front rank for competitiveness: state-of-the-art information technology and high levels of innovation, combined with excellent research and education, create a strong competitive edge and a basis for industrial success now and in the future. In the 21st century, an increasingly important part of this overall competitiveness has been played by industrial design and the added value it confers: it is frequently what makes a product the first choice.
--Anne Stenros. Click on the title of this post to go to the source, Virtual Finland.

Last week, in a post called “Intelligent Design,” I celebrated the virtues of putting hooks on bath towels and drying racks in kitchen cupboards. Today we’re talking floors and doors.

I’ve had people here tell me that there was a time when wall-to-wall shag carpets were all the rage in Finland. It’s hard to know why. And it’s hard to imagine where they all went. Today it seems that every floor in Finland is covered with beautiful blond wood. These floors are lovingly maintained and protected in the heavy-use areas by either oriental carpets or less expensive woven wool rugs that have a modern look, a nappy texture, and a tweedy design. Think IKEA (EE-kay-yah, here).

In my kerrostalo, these rugs materialize on the weekends. In our courtyard, adjacent to the clotheslines and the little swing where the seniors perch on sunny days, is a metal contraption that looks like a jungle gym on steroids; it’s kind of bulky, and it‘s been twisted into an odd shape. I couldn’t imagine what it was until I saw people draping their rugs over the cross bars and wielding a big whisk to beat them to a fibrous pulp. Wall-to wall, shag carpets covered a multitude of sins, but the down side was that they were impossible to clean. The thing about wood floors is that they look great whether you’ve got them covered or not, and the throw rugs can be beaten clean.

(I write these words on a grey, blustery Sunday afternoon to the accompaniment of a man beating the snot out of a woolen runner. He must be, like me, a man without a rug whisk. He is using one of the long-handled brushes set out for us—in mid-September—to clean the snow off our shoes before coming indoors. It hasn’t snowed yet, though it has tried to once or twice. The point is that we are prepared.)

The other great thing about wood floors is that they give rise to and reinforce a very civilized domestic etiquette. I’m referring to the practice of removing your shoes when you enter a home—your own, or someone else’s. I found it hard to remember to do that at first, but now I am up to speed. It is a courtesy that acknowledges the special status of domestic space and contributes to the protection of a valuable floor. (It’s also one of many strange little ways in which Finnish civilization is ever so vaguely reminiscent of those of the Far East. It is said, for example, that the syntax of the Finnish language is very similar to that of Korean Hangul. On more than one occasion back in the States, when I reported that I would be a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Oulu, people asked whether I had ever been to Hawaii. No, I haven’t. Is there a Fulbright center there, I wonder?)

Then there are the doors. Finland has a lot of modernist buildings. For an American, “modernist” might conjure up visions of the Seagram Building, or maybe Pruitt-Igoe. For me, modernist architecture means any building with a “front door” that is not centrally located, and which consists of side-by-side glass doors, one of which is permanently out of commission, and you get to guess which one. And while a numbers cruncher might say that you have a 50-50 chance, you know better. (I have often thought that this principle leads to its logical conclusion at the post office at the Ariel Rios Building, 12th Street and Pennsylvania, N.W., Washington, D.C., though it is not a modernist building. Both of its side-by-side glass doors have been malfunctioning for approximately 21 of the 21 years that I have worked across the street, in another post office that failed. This, in case you couldn’t tell, is a major pet peeve of mine.)

But I digress. In Finland, the architecture is modernist, but the doors are completely un-American. One seldom encounters doors in tandem, so there is no need for the guessing game. You either push (työnnä), or you pull (vedä), and there is usually a sign with an unambiguous instruction. I can’t tell you why, because I am mechanically challenged, but these doors work. Every time. Unlike rickety American doors, these doors, and also the frames, are heavy. And yet, they’re easier to handle. I am inclined to think they use counter-weights or some other means of redistributing weight that would otherwise be passed on to the user. Finally, Finnish doors, or possibly European doors generally, seem to have more complex locking mechanisms that allow for elaborate security. Here at the University of Oulu our doors are locked every day at 4:00 in the afternoon. We have to flip a little lever to let ourselves out. Those of us with keys have access to our offices 24/7, but after 4:00 if you don’t have a key, you don’t get in.

Are we there yet? No, indeed, madam. We have not yet discussed the high-tech, color-coded “doorbell” that is affixed to many of the formidable doors—though not mine, perkele!—of faculty offices on this campus (see photo, above). Here is the code, parsed about as well as can be expected by a person who is struggling with Survival Finnish:

Sisälla (white) Within, I am in
Varattu (red) Engaged, Occupied
Odota (yellow) Wait
Sisään (green) Enter

People find these devices useful because they help them negotiate the boundary between public and private space. And I would submit that they allow the culture of the university (I am here, come and see me, let’s be friends) to seep through the contradictory vocabulary of industrial design (this is a fortress, the drawbridge is up, go away).

When I get home, I’m going to have one of these gizmos installed at the office—just as soon as I get a door.


We have just enjoyed a season that the Finns call ruska, which sounds like it might be related to the word for brown, ruskea. And that might make sense, except that at the height of ruska the foliage is all bright orange and red. By rights, this season should be called oranssinvärinen

But by the time you got it all out—oh-rahns-seen-va-ree-nehn—it’d be over. Ruska lasted about a week, about as long as it takes the Japanese cherry blossoms to do their thing down by the Jefferson Memorial. Last Saturday was gorgeous; we saw the sun for the first time in a month. And so I did some laundry and hung it out to dry, which cued the rain, naturally, and that brought down all the leaves. As I look out the window of my flat today, I see that the birch trees, which were full of orange leaves 48 hours ago, are now completely bare. Meanwhile, the leaves, one by one, are making their way into my asunto.

There is an article about ruska in the current issue of the student newspaper, Oulun Ylioppilaslehti. The writer, Samantha Eidenbach, reports that Finns enjoy going out into the forest during this season to pick berries and mushrooms, and they tend to head north, as far as Lapland, because the autumnal colors are more vibrant the farther north one goes. Ms. Eidenbach interviewed scientists about why that is so, and the answer is that “there is a greater quantity of colour chemicals in the plants of the Far North,” which sounds like a tautology to me, which is why I’m not a scientist. However, the same scientist is quoted to the effect that there is a new theory that red pigments “might be a signal to animals,” which is to say that “the colour might be so strong in the north to attract birds to berries before the long winter arrives.” I’ll confess that I’m skeptical about all this, having seen a few Blue Ridge autumns in my time. But I am a guest here, so I will suspend disbelief.

One thing is clear, when the Finns go in search of berries, they bring them back in quantity. The kauppatori, or main market area in the center of town, has little else on offer these days (see photo, above). I couldn’t resist buying some little cranberries; they are very tart. Cranberry in Finnish is karpalo, but since I haven’t learned how to form the plural yet, we’ll just leave it at that, even though I have many more than one. I have no idea what to do with them, aside from throwing them on my Cheerios.

Then there are the mushrooms, chanterelles. These are lovely, delicate things. I bought some at Stockmann’s and have used them to enhance omelettes and a spaghetti sauce that I have learned how to construct on a base of Ragu. Once again, Stockmann’s, the Center of the Ouluniverse, has saved the day. It has provided me with a way of celebrating the season that doesn’t involve tromping through the forest. (Written on Monday, 16 October.)