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August 3rd, 2010

Kalevala Adventure

An adventure, in our family parlance, is a trip you're genuinely not sure is going to work out.  By the strictest of standards, our Karelian journey was not an adventure, because any journey planned by Kati Clements is well-planned in the article of accommodation and regular meals.  None of us, however, was at all sure that the Kalevala Village in Kuhmo would be worth a 4-hour drive in an un-airconditioned car on the hottest day of an unusually hot summer.  So it was in a spirit of adventure that we ("we" being Kati and her husband, English author Jonathan Clements, who is interested in (among many other things) the Kalevala and Finnish history and folklore and art) set out for points north and west of Jyvaskyla.

The car was sauna-like--and now I've been in an actual sauna, and know whereof I speak.  We fiddled with the windows so we could 1) breathe; 2) actually hear each other talk, if we shouted.  We drank lots of water and discussed Japan (Jonathan speaks and reads Japanese and has spent a lot of time there) and travel and strange historical nooks and crannies, and Miyazake and comparative sociology.  We also have many friends in common.  So the drive went a lot faster than it might have. 

Part of the plan was to break our journey at Otto's mother's house.  We got there at about 8pm, hot, sweaty, and cramped.  She welcomed us in the yard, then asked which of the 5 doors into the house we wanted to enter by.  It was a schoolhouse, mid 19th century, yellow clapboard, big windows trimmed in white, foursquare and prim, with very high ceilings inside.  We washed our hands and faces in icy well-water, and then followed her into the very classroom where her mother taught farm children for 40 years, which she has been restoring to its original state.  There was a beautiful wooden desk with an abacus on it, a wooden pointer, a slate-board, a harmonium, maybe 20 double desks of slightly different eras, four large bookcases stuffed with old ABC's and primers and math and history books, and a cast-iron stove--a big, huge canister of a thing that looked like an industrial boiler, a good 10 feet tall and maybe 4 feet across.  It must have roasted the students sitting nearest to it.

Otto's mother is a precise and scholarly woman, small and wiry, dressed in the cobalt blue that she said was her favorite color.  She is retired from teaching English and American literature at Jyvaskyla University, and is currently working on a book of Emily Dickinson's poetry.  What she had to say about the schoolhouse was interesting, but she was incandescent on the subject of Dickinson, who she's been translating for 30 years.  We had a lovely talk about poetry and witches and the mixed joy of restoring an old house, sitting at her dining table, drinking tea and eating Karelian rice pies and cardamon buns.  And then we had to leave, since it was another hour's drive to Kajaani, where we spent the night at Kati's mother's house, where Kati grew up and where her brother and mother still live--although not last week, thankfully.  It would have been a bit of a squeeze for 6--by 21st century standards, anyway.  By 19th century standards, it would have been princely accommodation for 12.

Friday morning was thankfully somewhat cooler.  We ate yogurt and honey out on the deck where Kati used to do her homework, looking out onto a small garden, and then we piled in the car again and drove another 1 1/2 hours to Kuhmo where the Kalevala Village is.

The full Kalevala Experience is a guided tour of the village and the park around it, where they've set up a forge, a tar-maker's hut, hunters' hides, a series of animal traps, a sauna, and exhibit areas.  The Village itself is a reproduction of a medieval family compound, built on top of a hill within a stockade fence as protection against wolves, bears, and wandering marauders. 

The first thing we saw as we walked in through the narrow gate was a wood fire with two salmon filets pegged to wooden planks beside it.  Also a large and muscular man with long grey hair, deepset light eyes, a deep tan, a leather apron, and a knotted wristlet with loose twists and bobbles of berry-dyed wool hanging from it.  He handed us glasses of champagne flavored with lingonberry juice, then demonstrated the proper old Finnish way of greeting (clasping wrists in a square, so you don't have a free hand to draw a knife with), and explained that the wristlet was a tribal token, a kind of calling card to identify members of the family (and presumably enemies) from a distance.  While we sipped, he showed us hand-hewn skies and ski-poles, swabbed the salmon with a juniper branch dipped in oil and ground juniper berries, then took us on to see the kitchen, the smoke sauna, the animal shed (where Ellen petted and fed fireweed to two very amiable black, floppy-eared sheep), and the great hall, where we would have lunch.  After we'd been down into the forest with a new guide.

The second guide was as dark and wiry as the first guide (who turned out to be the proprietor) was blond and large.  He led us down some very dark steps and through a dank and sweating tunnel I suspect was supposed to represent a birth experience into the kind of open birch and pine forest we'd been driving through for hours.

The highlight of the experience (except for lunch) was definitely the blacksmith's forge, where each of us was encouraged to take a little iron birch leaf with tongs, hold it in the hottest part of the fire until it glowed red (pumping the bellows ourselves), then have at it with a genuine smith's hammer on a genuine anvil.  It's quite an experience, and not one I can imagine ever having in America, what with the opportunities for injuries and lawsuits.  That fire is HOT, man, and that hammer is HEAVY.  I had the upper-arm strength (thank you, yoga) to heft and swing it pretty well, but not the wrist strength to control the swings.  Mostly, I missed the leaf altogether.  But it's got a nice little bend in it it didn't have before, that I put there my very own self.  And it made a most satisfying hiss when I thrust it into the bucket of cold water.  Kati, who does martial arts, beat hers to a uniform thinness, and looked most professional while she was doing it.

Once he'd torn us away from the enchanting fire and anvil, the guide showed us a boat like Vainimoinen's from all the Gallen-Kalela paintings we've seen, and a tar-works where they extracted the pitch from pine-bark, a wolf-trap and a bear-garroting device and several kinds of bird-trap.  There are more modern exhibits, too, including a reproduction of the cabin Lonnrot worked on the Kalevala in, and a strange and wonderful stone altar from what Jonathan pronounced the worst movie about the Kalevala ever, and a lodge dedicated to sport through the ages, which we backed out of hastily--much to the guide's relief, since we were taking an unconscionable time looking at everything, and he didn't want our lunch to be spoiled..

Frankly, I don't think it could have been.  When the salmon's been cooking for 3 hours, what's another 20 minutes?

Lunch was the Apotheosis of Fish.  The plank-roasted salmon was moist and tender and pink and flavored with juniper.  The smoked salmon was delicate and tasted of pine.  There were little silver fresh-water fish that looked (and tasted) kind of like sardines, only more delicate and fresher and smokier.  The bread was entirely rye, dense and sour in all the right ways.  The beer (for beer--I don't much like beer) was excellent.  All of it had been made on the premises, including the ice-cream for dessert, and all of it (excluding, I suppose, the ice-cream and the green salad) was based on recipes found in the Kalevala.  I bought some cloudberry jam, considered and dismissed the idea of buying a stuffed bear or a tribal wristlet (even after champagne, tar liquor, and beer, I did retain some common sense).  Over dessert, we learned that the proprietor had been an advertising man who got tired of living in airports and discovered the Kalevala and decided he wanted to live the simple life, spreading (and selling, I couldn't help but notice) the Kalevala's heritage of legendary heroes and the natural life. 

 There are worse things to do with your god-given skills.  And the salmon is very, very good.

You'd think that would be enough for one day, wouldn't you?  But Ellen had been reading the guide book, and wanted to see the house museum in Kuhmo  and the newish Kalevala museum with rotating exhibits of Kalevala-inspired art.  And we'd come a very long way and were much refreshed by lunch.  So we piled into the car again and drove off to see them.

The house museum was the dwelling of a prosperous farmer on a prosperous farm, with exuberant wallpaper in the parlor and little still-life arrangements of gloves and fans and cups and dishes of genuine fresh buns on appropriate tables. The parlor sofa had a tall round table in front, where we'd have a low coffee table, surrounded with three chairs that matched the sofa--a much more efficient use of space, I thought, than the arrangement we're used to. Maybe I can start a new style of New York apartment furniture arrangement.  Or not.

At the Kalevala museum, two guides/docents--both female, both very young, one of them Russian, the other Italian--were very happy to see customers who actually knew what the Kalevala was and were interested in it.  They showed us an exhibition of contemporary photographs inspired by the intersection of the human body and the landscape (interesting, in a truly surreal way), and then mentioned that there were some films about Lonnrot in English, and would we like to see them?

By this time, everyone was pretty burned out, so it was an absolute pleasure to sit in the dark and watch two 15-minute films on Lonnrot and his journeys into Karelia and on the history of Kuhmo and Kajaani--where they have two streets, Lonnrot (who was the town doctor when he wasn't collecting folklore) said:  one for pigs in the rain, and one for rich people in the sun.  We were just getting nicely settled when some Finns came in and wanted a turn, so we popped back into town to visit a souvenir shop, and came back for another dose (Karelianism and the rise of the National Romantic movement).  That closed the place down, so we were forced (!) to go back to Kati's mother's house and recruit nature with bread and cheese and herring in mustard sauce and Karelian pies and wine, and fall into bed.

Next morning, the weather had broken, much to everybody's delight.  We put on sweaters and went to Kajaani, where a couple of craft shops have sprung up  (felt and mittens and carved wood, Oh, my!  Anne H., if you're reading this, prepare for very warm hands and wrists next winter!).  And then it rained, inspiring a spate of pigs in the rain jokes and a mad dash to the car so Ellen and I could catch our train to Tampere.  Which we did.

The upshot?  We've seen more of Finland than most tourists have the time or transport for (Kajaani is not easy to get to on public transportation), and found it very beautiful (if you ignore the modern and industrial bits, which I have a lot of practice in doing).  We had an Experience that, with all its oddity, was genuinely useful and inspiring.  And we have two new friends.   So totally worth it.


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