Big Fat Finnish Wedding

I got a phone call tonight from one of Oliver’s oldest friends, Michael. He was calling to wish him a belated happy birthday (just one day late). Oliver left this morning for a business training and, as he wasn’t around to take the call, we chatted briefly. During this chat Michael dropped the reminder that Oliver’s birthday was also his wedding anniversary. Something we should know, because we were there.

Woops, sorry guys.

Really how could I forget? Two years ago Oliver had just gotten out of the hospital after almost a month. A burst appendix gave him a nice infection that had him on his back for weeks and also briefly in intensive care because they couldn’t manage to kill the germs inside of him.

(Incidently the appendicitis began on the Monday following the last Harry Potter release, making me a little superstitious this last week. The last time I read the first few pages of a Potter book was while waiting for him to come go into surgery.)

He finally got out of the hospital just before his birthday and he insisted on flying to Finland for Michael and Johanna’s wedding.

I was shocked to realize that two years have since passed since that extraordinarliy hot summer that killed thousands of people and almost killed Oliver, when we flew to a place where the sun didn’t set and sat in the twilight for hours slapping mosquitoes and stepping on blueberries (they were everywhere). It turned out to be a great wedding as you’ll soon read. Since that time Michael and Johanna have a second baby (read about the first below) but we’re sadly still in the same apartment…

(originally sent: July 28, 2003)

Big Fat Finnish Wedding

One of Oliver’s best friends, Michael, got married the weekend of the 19th in Finland. After some discussion and nag-o-tiation I ended up going too. At first I was trying to be the practical girlfriend who is at the moment sponging off her boyfriend in a country with a 50% tax rate and not go- but that decision was met with opposition and statements like “what kind of an idiot are you” from everyone including blood relatives, so I saw the light and realized that one cannot economize when it comes to weddings and other emotionally charged holidays…it also happened to be the same day as Oliver’s 32nd birthday and I didn’t really want to leave him alone anyway.

With all discussion behind me I found myself on a plane to Helsinki two weeks ago. Now before you can ask me what Helsinki is like I have to inform you that I never saw any part of it. I only know that it’s the major city and business center of Finland. Fins I’ve met told me that if you want to do any kind of job other than farming you really have to move to Helsinki. Swedish is the second language, with Finnish being of course the first, and most people there learn to speak fluent English as well. On top of that many also speak or at least understand Russian.

Why so many languages for a country with such a low population? Well Finland used to be part of Sweden and Helsinki is about an hour and a half drive from St. Petersburg making Russian darn useful, and if you want to be part of the world community you have to speak one of the major languages as well so English was chosen to be taught in the schools…because really how many people, other than Fins, learn Finnish or even Swedish for that matter? Exactly! So when we got off the plane we found signs with three translations. First Finnish, then Swedish and finally English.

At the airport we met up with another couple, both German, who had flown in at the same time, and together we rented a car to drive the two hours to Kuhmoinen- the town where the wedding was set to take place on Saturday. Along the way we checked out the gas station.

Finnish gas stations were quite similar to their German cousin with the notable difference of twenty different varieties of licorice and at least seven different varieties of lottery scratch cards. Beer was three times the ‘normal’ price. Alcohol is enormously expensive here and the tolerance for intoxication is nil. So a six-pack would put you back somewhere between $13-15 dollars, AND you have to read the label because they come in three strengths: 2.5%, 5% and 8% (aprox. I’m no beer expert don’t quote me like a Bible here).

Perhaps it is to make up for alcohol deprivation that these guys eat licorice and gamble like maniacs…but they also have the highest literacy rate in the world.

This could be in part also due to the fact that at this time of year the sun doesn’t set.

We got first hand experience of a “white night” on Friday when we’d settled into our accommodations. We stayed at the summer house of the bride’s parents. It is set at the shore of one of the million lakes that fill this country- making it boating paradise. In fact it seems that everyone owned a boat and a summer cottage on a lake. After dropping our carpool buddies off at a ‘rustic’ hotel in the small town of Kuhmoinen we drove 15 minutes further and then another seven down a dirt/mud road to the lakeside and the summer house.

We unpacked, and got to know our fellow house-mates over some expensive beers on the patio. We sat and chatted with everyone for hours. Time stood still. My mental clock was stuck at 7:45pm. I looked at my watch when the sun finally got low, turning into a brilliant orange globe along the horizon, and was shocked to see it was in fact 12:45am. And the sun just stayed orange and slid along the horizon, refusing to go below, leaving us in a dusky low light that never truly grew dark. Some people with hotel rooms finally left for town, and by the time we all turned in the sun had come back up to full strength morning sunlight. My mental clock jumped to 10:30 am. When I took off my watch to get in bed it was in fact 4am.

This is called the “land of the midnight sun” for good reason.

The summer house was not what I had been expecting. Finland, for that matter was a surprise as well. I had known nothing about it really but I had no idea how rural it was. From the airport to Kuhmoinen we drove through more than half the country and never hit a real town or city of any size. Other than gas stations and farm houses we saw nothing but green trees- birch and pine, and tons and tons of wildflowers. The countryside was choked with flowers of all kinds imaginable. I doubt ten minutes went by when we were not passing a lake or pond. Just before the summer house we passed through a teeny tiny town, consisting of three buildings and some houses, set on yet another lake. The docks were full of steamboats- there was to be a race the next day- otherwise there was no sign of any people. Did I mention that they all have boats?

The summer house itself was bright red and made of logs. Heated by a massive fireplace in the center of the structure during cold weather, there was no indoor plumbing. Bathing was done in the lake- you ran down the dock and jumped in after soaping up and washed and brushed your teeth in the water. The house sat at the top of a gentle slope that descended down to the water that you reached by a series of wooden steps. Halfway down there was a second cabin that included a small bunkroom and a family sauna. Opposite the sauna was a double outhouse. At the water’s edge there was a dock with a boat (big surprise there) tied up, a bench nearby had shampoo and soap for washing.

When I saw this I realized they were dead serious about washing in the lake. This was a bit more rustic than I had bargained for…Oliver- who had made the arrangements and obviously not asked enough questions- was looking nervous and rightfully apologetic but there was nothing to be done.

Kuhmoinen is truly a tiny town and all hotel rooms were totally booked. The couple we drove in with had one though and luckily the woman had forgotten her hairdryer and was in the process of freaking out. So we negotiated a trade for the next day. I loaned her my hairdryer and in return they were to pick me up close to noon and take me to town to shower and get ready for the wedding in their room.

The area itself was gorgeous. I had this feeling of déjà vu because it all looked more than a little bit like Oregon, everything was so lush and green. The ground was covered with this vivid green plant that turned out to be wild blueberries, the bride Johanna and her maids of honor gathered hundreds of these and wound them into garlands for the doorways at the reception, they were soaking in the lake when we arrived and hung the next morning. They were also the star of the flower arrangements on the tables that were made of wildflowers and blueberry plants- complete with berries one could eat.

I wonder if you’ve concluded this yourself but the Fins are not exactly environmental freaks. If I were to attempt to soap up and then jump in a lake in Germany or the US I think I’d have twenty people appearing to give me a piece of their mind and a nice park ranger writing me a ticket with a nice big fine. But no one seems to care here. I also would admire but never feel safe to pick wildflowers, certainly not enough to decorate a wedding for two hundred people! That is one of the key things about Finland- they have so few people and so much space no one’s had to make these rules yet. But I still felt like I was going to hell when I went to brush my teeth that night.

Time to talk toilets.

There were none, not really, just three outhouses to choose from. Now they were pretty nice as outhouses go. There was a new Styrofoam seat, with lid, on the bench inside. Also provided was a bucket full of turf and moss to scatter on the contents after one’s own ‘contribution’. After a few beers that evening it was inevitable that I experience the outdoor Finnish potty experience. Here the bright evening light was a plus- at least there was no fumbling in the dark. The turf scattering seemed to be doing the job as there was absolutely no odor. I was feeling quite won over by the time I was scattering moss over the contents below…and then something blinked up at me.

Poised to flee at a moment’s notice, I froze and stared, sure I’d just hallucinated.

Then it blinked again.

Slowly I could make out the outline of a large tree frog, sitting quietly down below, obviously stunned by what it just experienced, most likely the strangest shower it had ever had. I had just peed on a totally innocent creature of the forest…and then I had dumped dirt on its head just to add insult to injury. Now it was blinking up at me as if trying to make sense of it all and answer the question: “What the hell just happened to me?”

Now I could figure how it had gotten in as the top of the liner to the hole in the ground did not meet the toilet seat, there was a decent ten inch gap between (for airflow perhaps?). My next thought was that I was so grateful it had not chosen during my visit to try and jump for freedom in my general direction (either while sitting on it or standing above it). Then I felt guilty just putting back on the lid and walking away….but…what to do?

So we stared and blinked at each other another moments- both of us a bit confused as how to proceed.

One thing was for sure there was no way I was going in after it. Uh uh, no way. I love animals but I love me more. If it could not figure out how to escape then that, I concluded, was evolution at work. I told my weekend housemates about the poor fellow’s situation and after they died laughing they from then on referred to going to the toilet as “visiting the frog”.

But I think he’d had enough after I’d finished with him as he was not spotted again…I hope that was because he’d escaped. It’s not easy being green.

My friend Elizabeth is living in South Korea right now teaching English and sometimes she’ll regale me with tales of English grammar and spelling errors on products over there. With this in mind I always read the instructions on food packages, curious to see if errors surface. This is largely futile in Europe, there seem to be enough translators around who do a decent job. As we were sitting on the patio at three am drinking beers with the groom the morning of his wedding someone brought out a bag of chips. Printed in huge letters on a banner across the front of the package was something I could not ignore:


What could this mean in Finnish? Spicy? Tasty? Salty? Sweet? I posed the question to the groom and got no answer. Everyone proposed their own theory of the true meaning, each more rude and unsavory than the next…at the wedding I questioned the natives and received this answer:

“Megapussi” means literally “Big Bag”…well then…there are some similarities to English after all.

The wedding was good, although only partly understood by all as it was in half in Finnish and half in German. The bride and groom had been legally married the previous year out of necessity. They welcomed a baby girl into the world about six months ago. This may have seemed a bit out of order for a religious family, but it was all set right in the end, so byegones. In Finland the only requirement for a marriage to be legal is to have it in a church, there is no need to go to a government building and sign any extra papers. Johanna and Michael had done the legal paperwork without the wedding in Germany last year when they realized she was pregnant.

But as far as the family was concerned they weren’t really married until they were married in the eyes of the church too. Oliver and I speculated the family was happy to finally have the wedding. At the reception the bride’s father stood to give a speech in Finish and German.

He basically said: Our family has lived in Kuhmoinen a very long time. In 1685 one of our women married a man from far away, a town about 30 kilometers from here (about a 20 minute drive these days). This man went to fight in the 30 years war for the Swedish king and was sent to Germany. He returned from war with a holy chalice taken from a church in the south. This was the first time we’d had any contact or received anything from the Germans. (At this time he made a very pointed look at Michael and then everyone looked at the baby…point made) and then he went on to talk about how happy he was they were married…truly there was no bad feeling at the wedding, we took this as the joke that it was intended to be…but if they had tried to live without having the wedding I’m thinking there would have been hell to pay and the Finns would be kicking some serious butt. (The bride’s brother was seen the next day wearing a t-shirt made to look like a Coca Cola ad that said, “Jesus, the real King”.)

I have to say that Finns know how to party and the people could not have been nicer. The reception went from 4pm until about three am at the town hall, with three meals served: dinner- first and second course buffet style, followed by cake and coffee an hour later and then a midnight snack. Early on we all did a Congo line outside- this was a ploy to get everyone out to take a group picture. Afterwards one of the maids of honor came up to me to explain where the “Booze car” was.

This turned out to be quite the tradition in Finland because of alcohol prices. They are so high that although it is somewhat affordable to serve wine and beer at a catered wedding it was extremely expensive to do hard liquor. But when they want to party, the Finns want to party hard so they do the “booze car”. In this case it was the getaway car parked behind a stand of trees just out of plain view at the reception. The trunk was popped open and inside was a mini bar. This way they avoid the high costs of catered liquor and everyone can still get smashed. Most young people could be found here throughout the wedding downing Aquavit (tasted like wheat, like eating whole grain bread) and vodka, etc. All of it was straight, there were no mixers. The hero of the night was the groom’s father who impressed all the kids by showing up and drinking heavily with them for a couple of hours. I too took my turn mixing with the locals and swigging out of the bottle, slapping at mosquitoes and stumbling in the dark.

I did catch the bouquet, sort of. I got a bit paranoid about the attention you get after catching the thing and did not want to even stand with the other single women. It feels a bit desperate somehow. But I had to go and so stood off on the side in the far back. Turns out the bride had a strong throwing arm and chucked it straight at my head (perhaps my head is large enough to have it’s own orbital gravitational pull, could be possible). As it zoomed towards my face and the other women in front of me failed to intercept I reached out, cupped it in my hand and threw it away! I have no idea what I was thinking…just ‘get it away from me!’. It landed on the floor and some Finnish woman (in a four year relationship she would like to ‘move forward’ I later learned) went forward and picked it up. But everyone saw what I had done and thought it was pretty funny.

Around three o’clock a few of us jumped in a cab with the newlyweds and went back to the summer house for an ‘after party’…instead of drinking (we brought so much beer!) the party evolved into a sauna skinny dipping affair…with me being the last to stay prudish and fully clothed. That wall eventually crumbled and I finally did my first sauna.

The sauna seats about five people at a time. I hung back and hemmed and hawed over it but it looked fun and the lake was so inviting that I finally went in. I avoided going in when this one guy was in there, who I had determined, was a first degree creep. I went in after he was done, along with Oliver, the groom Michael and a towel. Michael is a pretty cool guy, was fun to hang out with in the sauna and was really laid back. He even waited a second for me to get in the lake first before coming down himself…perhaps I kept my towel on more than most. The rest were parading around naked quite happily but as I was not raised in a cave I was unable to do so. But I really enjoyed the sauna and jumping into a nice cool lake while lobster red and burning hot felt really great.

There was this one creepy guy there. He and his girlfriend were sharing the house with us that weekend. He had a staring problem and I caught him really checking out the bride, for a good thirty seconds he just looked her up and down and back up again. I watched him as he watched all the women- these are the people I worry about encountering in these situations…his body I at least managed to avoid looking at…I just got the impression of strange hairy patches everywhere there shouldn’t be any and a big big belly. ugh. But he was the only negative part of the weekend and I feel i have the right to dislike him intensely as he was watching me climb out of the lake after my first bath the previous day and even told his girlfriend he’d watched me and then she told me…weird couple, weirder guy…but there is always an odd one in every gathering and he was it. Anyone who can talk for three hours about selling broken things on eBay has got to be a bit weird so I wasn’t too surprised he turned out to be a perv.

All-in-all it was a great wedding. I didn’t see that much of Finland and perhaps saw a wee bit too much of some people during the sauna experience but for the most part managed to maintain eye contact.

Burning Man and the US will be my next big trip and that’s in a little over three weeks from now. I’m looking forward to being home for a while, playing with the pets, mooching off my parents and eating good Mexican food. I arrive on the 19th and somehow make my way to Sacto, Oliver and his friend come a day later. We have the house to ourselves as my parents, upon learning of my impending arrival, both quickly made plans to leave town. We return from Burning Man on the 1st and Oliver lingers until the 7nth. So for those curious to meet him, that is your window of opportunity. I stay a bit longer until the 15th and then head off to Germany.

This means I get my first Oktoberfest experience and I’m prepared. We bought a used dirndle last week with two different aprons for variety. I am officially ‘Heidi-fied’. I will be searching for the super duper push-up bra to fill it out and look the proper wench for the festival. So while I will be sad to leave the US I have something to look forward to that I have waited four years for.

I hope to see some of you when I get back over there, give me a call if you plan to be in town…sorry this is so long but it will likely be one of the last until I get back from the US in September as we have nothing else really interesting planned.

Whew! That’s it! Hope to see you in California!



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