Last night I finally understood something that my mind and heart had never really grasped.
Perhaps ‘the ground had been laid’ as the English saying goes, by the events leading up to the evening. Then again, perhaps the ground had been laid by our whole time in Finland.
We arrived by train in Seinajoki and walked to our little Hotel Alma, a charming wooden jugend building that had been built as a workers union hall. More and more I see how this jugend (young) style was about a bright new future vision for that early part of the 20th century.
Sweet little Hotel Alma
Ambassador gave a small talk to the business community of Seinäjoki and was given a beautiful belted double knife (that I quickly claimed) with tooled red leather and razor sharp blades, a symbol, smilingly explained, for the regional affinity for hunting, a little mischief and a quick settling of differences.
Cody Oreck with Maire Rinta-Kanto and Ylermi Försti
We were treated to some pretty complex country line dancing by a trio in full-on Western wear with Ostrobothnian touches, and we sampled a pine bark health drink that I found really invigorating with ice.
Kari Herttua and the excellent pine extract drink
Then we were led—as no gps could have found it—curving through the darkening woods to Reinon Tupa.
El Reino himself greeted us but his handsome son, Marko, told the story.
In this flat, fertile farmland, Reino found a high place on the edge of what was once a lake and is now a marsh rich with life. He created what, at one level, might be described as the ultimate ‘man cave.’
At another level, it was a shrine to nature.
We had a dark fragrant smoke sauna then dipped in swamp water, black as ink as you lowered yourself into it but the color of gold tea on your skin, clear and cold.
We dined, yes sumptuously, on elk and local taste treats prepared by Marko and his lovely wife, Merja.
And we got to hear some passionately rendered songs, including the rousing Kaksipa Poikaa Kurikasta, ‘Two Boys from Kurikka’ which seemed somehow in the theme of that double knife at my hip.
It was hard to leave—at midnight—but we were up early for our trip to Big Mama’s Ranch.
Leena Kurikka specializes in a peculiarly American style of horse-whispering (or handling) that is the opposite of ‘dominion over animals’. She was the first to teach Western riding—which is now spreading–in Finland.
The ‘Koskenkorva factory’ turned out to be the fascinatingly high-tech distillery that produces the pure ethanol (from 100% Finnish barley) that is the base for both Kossu, a grain spirit, and Finlandia Vodka (among other products, including feed stock and windshield washing fluid!).
Our young hosts, Antti and Arttu, are looking for maximum efficiencies that could soon make drinking these essences quite environmentally friendly!
Because of the American partnership, we were presented with—a Jereboam (I looked it up!) of Finlandia!
Ms. Pirilä-Porvaly greeted us (in a traditional S. Ostrobothnian ensemble made by her mom) at the intriguing Yli-Laurosela Museum where we walked into a time machine back to life in the 1700’s. Our guides made the stories live.
Ambassador checks out the 18th century roof.
The community has recently taken over this treasure of a museum. We had a wonderful lunch of Ilmajoki makkara (super yum) and fruits and vegetables from the kitchen garden behind the tupa. Ms. Pirilä-Porvaly, surely a rising young leader, spoke to us of the history and future of the place and we were charmed and inspired.
We met Jarmo Huhtanen and his wife, Päivi, in fairy-tale woods where light dappled over six of his 100 beehives, each scattered (with permission) in secret glades all over. He gave us a gift of this woodland honey. It is delectable.
And we stopped by the tidy and bucolic organic dairy farm of Henry Teini where his organic methods certainly seem to agree with his contented cows and happy family.
The crowning experience of the trip began to unfold as Honey B and T Bones walked onstage at the Rytmiraide (Rhythm on the Tracks) Festival last night in the old jugend train depot in Kurikka.
Anticipation and a certain amount of anxiety had been building over the last several months since we’d heard these accomplished musicians perform as back-up for the Finnish rap singer, Paleface, at ‘Stompin at the Savoy’. Young Paleface had some biting (if deserved) reflections on the big ole US of A that had been a tad uncomfortable.
So we didn’t know what we were in for at the premier of ‘Sauna, Tar and Booze’ with the lyrics of Perttu Hemminki and Ilkka Helander about the experiences of South Ostrobothnian immigrants to the States.
The first piece, ‘Ameriikan Kontinentti’, had the straightforward rhythm of some of the most innocent Finnish root music and, although we couldn’t understand the words, we could begin to recognize the broad optimistic, almost jaunty style of the local vernacular.
The next song began to evolve toward Finnglish and the rhythm and key darkened.
I’m no music connoisseur but Aija Puurtinen’s take on Perttu’s lyrics and her music began to open up a deep well of feelings as we listened to the words of a Finn so far from everything known.
The multi-talented Aija Puurtinen
When Ilkka Helander joined the band to pound out ‘Hundred Dollar Bills’ which he wrote with Esa Kuloniemi, something broke open inside of me as I saw how American culture can be perceived from the outside—AND from the inside. The inside of the heart of an immigrant who has deserted this land and the people he loves to pursue the American dream… the outside of what that dream of ‘success’ looks like to the world.
Esa Kuloneimi on cigar box guitar
‘When I Left my Lowland Country’ and then Aija’s pure sweet voice singing ‘Nothing Happens Out of Blue’—the combination was a one-two punch.
By the time they sang ‘Kaksipa Poikaa Ohiosta’ which I knew enough Finnish to realize was ‘Two Boys from Ohio’—a whole different take on the song we’d heard the night before, I realized I had been set up—not deliberately—no, I don’t think so—but I got such another view of my universe that I almost reeled.
With ‘Brooklynin Satu’ or fairy tale, a word I know so well now, I was finally a goner. It wasn’t just the words. It was the music. This was why the Blues were invented in America—and somehow perfected right there, right then in Kurikka.
My heart just broke open—lovesick for this country and homesick for my own—giant messy melting pot that it is.
I’ll never be the same.
Cody Douglas Oreck
U.S. Embassy Helsinki