lauantai, 16. elokuu 2008


                            1000 KIITOKSET!!!   MANY, MANY THANKS!!!

Friday, May 30, was officially my last day at work in Jyväskylä. I took photos of my amazing
walk to work and back home. Couldn't be more beautiful!

I hope my photos will speak louder than any words. With them, I'd like to send my warm and heartfelt THANK YOU – 1000 KIITOKSET – TUSEN TACK - !GRACIAS! – GRAZIE! – MERCI! – DANKE SCHÖN, etc . . . to all the wonderful people who made my year such a great and unforgettable experience!
Much Love . . . and hopefully, see you all very soon!   sirpa

 . . . taking a path trough the woods . . .

             . . . and more woods . . .

    . . . by the bench . . .

                   . . . and a war memorial . . .

                                                    . . . up the hill . . .

           . . . to my building . . .

                                       . . . to the front door . . .

                                                 . . . up to the second floor and a changing view . . .

              . . . and the third with Lake Jyväsjärvi in the background . . .

                                        . . . passing a (real) plant on the way . . .

                            . . . to my office door . . .

                             . . . Welcome! Coffee anyone? After all, we're in Finland -
                            the land of the world champion coffee drinkers!!!
                                          Come in & enjoy my view!

                     hei, hei Fennicum - I'll miss you!

perjantai, 4. heinäkuu 2008



- Les petits hommes? - Where are the little people? – I haven't seen any yet.
Jean, a Congolese man asks Maiju in French, in earnest. Maiju looks at me while translating the question. We wonder if he's talking about the Sami or 'the little people' known to live in Lapland. I tell him in Finnish to keep looking. You never know when one appears.

We're hiking on the Paljakka Fell in Finnish Lapland. After a 12-hour bus ride from Jyväskylä to the Eastern part of Lapland, familiar to Rafu and me from our ski trip in the spring, the hiking group changed into proper gear, packed the backpacks and took off. We thought we would hike 9 km to set up camp, but found out a day later that we had actually managed 15. The scenery was very different from anything we had ever experienced. We passed the tree line on the tundra-like terrain and hiked up a slowly ascending hill, called tunturi, a fell. There were areas of slippery snow and long stretches of rocks of various shapes that made walking slow and tedious. Nothing seemed to stop the four Burmese among our group, though. They requested the rest of us to speed up.

–No way - we told them, asking for an explanation for their ease.
– Just like the terrain in Northern Burma, near Chinese border.

From then on, they were nicknamed the Burmese guerrillas.

Looking for Les Petits Hommes

 - finally - a break!

We finally made it to the hut that could accommodate a few of us. The rest of us set up tents on the sloping, rocky hill close to midnight. But the hour of the day hardly matters. The sun doesn't set at all, so night hiking is fine. Matti, our leader, started to prepare dinner.

– Who's got the cheese? Who's got the sausages to be roasted on the campfire?

It turned out the bus refrigerator had got it all. We started laughing . . . too tired to care. When Matti announced that he couldn't find the teabags, we laughed some more and happily drank hot water with sugar and ate bread toasted on the grill. The Burmese had carried the bread . . . all eight loaves of it! - We all knew what would be for breakfast.

We woke up at 6 AM, had our bread and water and hiked back another route, A mere 6-7 kilometers. A hotel sauna and plentiful breakfast awaited us when we marched into the yard, singing. The song was written en route and obviously included a verse on the missing sausage and cheese.

After boarding everyone onto the bus – a major task - we drove another 200 km up the arm of The Maiden of Finland. If you look at the map of Finland, you'll notice she's shaped like a maiden. Her right arm is missing, and her skirt on the right is cut off – due to the peace treaty with the Soviet Union after the Continuation War, September 1944. Finland had to cede all of Petsamo, by the Arctic Ocean, the Karelian Isthmus, between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, and territories to the West and North of Ladoga and lease some other territories. Together with Salla and Petsamo, islands and leased territories, Finland had to cede 43,491 square kilometers to the Soviet Union. That represented nearly 12.5 per cent of the country – an area larger than all Denmark.

The scenery might be monotonous, but the bus ride is quite the opposite. Our group includes 14 Sudanese, 24 Congolese, four Burmese and one Kurd. There is a main leader, Kutti with her 11-year-old daughter and four assistant leaders: four Finns, one Moroccan, and myself, a volunteer, and my California-born children, Maiju and Rafael. We make a lively scene. The largest family is Congolese, 11 of them from 11-moth-old Isaac to 75-year-old diabetic grandma, Veronique. There are other toddlers, Isaac's uncle, 16-month-old Jean-Pierre, one-year-old Sarah, and a two year-old Ester. They become communal children, being passed from one set of arms to another, and another . . .  tenderly cared for.

     Performing on the bus

One of my favorite scenes occurred on the ride to Kilpisjärvi, up the arm. We stopped at a war museum, commemorating the Lapland war – which occurred when Finns, who had invited Germany to help, had to ask them to leave based on the 1944 Peace Treaty with the Soviet Union. In retaliation Germany burned down the entire Finnish Lapland. What was truly amusing during this serious visit: our group was standing in the trenches while the guide and the four interpreters stood on a gorgeous hill, all interpreting at the same time. It was a true tower of Babel moment as people tried to distinguish their native language from the mixture of Swahili, French, Arabic or Burmese. The museum was a moving experience as the refugees saw a new side of Finland that had so far shown her well-off, well-designed, well-to-do side. The refugees had many questions about the suffering Finns had gone through – and about their new home country that has been built up from the ashes, to their great surprise.

We arrived at a cabin village by the Lake Kilpisjärvi and the second tallest fell in Finland, SaanaTunturi. We settled in comfortable, beautiful cabins, had dinner and gathered at a Kota, a large Sami tepee for a night of dance, song and laughter.

The third day took us abroad. Many Congolese had asked about crossing the boarder since we were driving up one side of River Tornio, looking at the other side, Sweden. It was hard for them to believe that no one would really care if we crossed to Sweden or Norway. This was proven true on our trip to the Arctic Ocean, in Norway. There didn't seem to be any officials at the boarder station, but then we did see a wave and a smile from both a Finnish and Norwegian border guard. Our refugees, who had gone through incredible suffering and sacrifices crossing other borders in their lives, just shook their heads in disbelief.

                                   Burmese lunch at the Arctic Ocean

After a cool, gray day in lush, green Norway – effects of the Gulf Stream, we returned to Finland for dinner. The sun suddenly brightened the evening sky, and a quick decision was made to climb Saana that night. Young and old, about 40 of us, climbed the Saana Fell for four hours. It was windy, but bright on top. We got to record our names in a book, kept in a metal box at the peak, and admire the scenery all around us. The Norwegian mountains looked majestic, still covered in snow, the Swedish ones resembled more the fells on the Finnish side. The special yellow structure marking the border between Finland, Sweden and Norway, was hidden in between fells, maybe ten kilometers away. We made it back to our cabins by 10:30 PM, in the bright 'daylight', had a sauna – and slept tight!

       A view showing Finland, Sweden and Norway as seen from the mighty Saana

In the evening, in our cottage, Totti, 13, impressed at Maiju's climbing the Saana, looked her  in the eyes and asked a straight question with a glimmer in his eye,
-Well, did you see Jesus?
-Up on the Saana, you were so close to taivas. (taivas = heaven and sky, in Finnish).
When Maiju shook her head, Totti further advised Maiju:
-You should have reached up to catch Jesus' hand. Maybe he would have let down a ladder, and you could have had a sneak preview of heaven.
Then Totti's younger sister Glody chimed in:
-Yeah, but it would have been pretty bad if you had pulled Jesus' foot instead - it's a big place - heaven is; maybe it was better that you didn't even try!
Maiju agreed with a laugh.

                                The Sudanese occupation of Saana

Everyone was excited about the visit to a reindeer farm. We had time to stop by in the local Nature Museum where we learned about the natural wonders of Lapland and the Aurora Borealis. The walk was slow, the pace set by grandma Veronique with her walker. After the museum, a reindeer herder, Juha, told stories of his profession in a large Kota, where we sat on benches covered by reindeer skin. Maiju and I glanced at Jean when Juha's stories turned to Maahiset, little people or les petits hommes. Finally, some 'facts' delivered. Juha ended the Kota time with a yoking performance. Then everyone got to throw suopunki, a lasso, used catching reindeer by the horns at the annual Poroerottelu, Reindeer Separation. We walked back to enjoy a dinner of – guess what? Sautéed reindeer with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce – a Lapland specialty.

 Men from four nations: a Sami, a Burmese, a Congolese, and a California Finn

                     Totti practicing lassoing a reindeer


                                            National costumes are colorful everywhere

Since this was the last night before a 7 AM departure, we spent it in our 'own' Kota, singing, dancing and making crepes over the open fire. Pastor Raimo, one of the leaders, shared his happiness of the African drumming and singing. Having spent 10 years in Senegal with his family he appreciated the 'back at home' feeling of joy and community. The Burmese guys joined in with a guitar and song, and we also poems, recited in Kurdish. In the end, we all joined in a song in Finnish and Arabic and closed the night in prayer.

                             Everybody loves Isaac


                   Isaac's uncle, Jean-Pierre, has gotten drumbeat in his blood

Trying to get all 53 of us in the bus is a miracle. This time, at 7 AM, it involved stuffing the bottom of the bus with baby strollers, hiking gear and suitcases. When the doors close, there's always the electric moment of counting heads. Did anyone manage to hide behind the Kota, in one of the saunas, at the rushing river nearby, etc. All were counted in, and we took off, waving good bye to our hostesses. We had been driving about 15 km. when, to everyone's horror, a reindeer leaped onto the road on a whim and was hit by the bus, dying immediately. We all felt sad; it might well have been one of Juha's reindeer. A call to the local authorities took care of what we learned was a fairly common occurrence, and we continued in silence.

But Kutti, our able boss, had a more pleasant surprise waiting – a visit to the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi where the real Santa Claus, Joulupukki, keeps his official tourist quarters. He actually lives in Korvatunturi, the Ear Fell, an ear-shaped fell in Eastern Lapland - but that is off limits to everyon but the elves. Joulupukki has chosen the fell for its ear-shape, so that he can listen to all the children in the world when they whisper their Christmas wishes to him. A very exotic-looking group photo with Joulupukki was taken, souvenirs bought, and snacks eaten before we piled back on the bus.

         Our sweet leader,Kutti, with final goodies: Brunberg's kisses for all!

After seventeen hours on the road with many stops, quizzes, multilingual singing, and dancing to our theme song, Habibi, in Arabic, we pulled into our first stop in Jyväskylä. The same scene of hugs and kisses, sleeping babies placed in strollers, bags pulled and happy but tired smiles was repeated four times before reaching our final destination, the main parish building in the center. It was one in the morning when I tiptoed into my friend's apartment to fall into a deep sleep. But it took me several days to be back on terra firma . . . the experience was so joyful and amazing that I felt lifted off firm ground for days.

      . . . next year - in Kilpisjärvi  . . .             


perjantai, 27. kesäkuu 2008


They're All Turning 50!

When I chose this particular year to spend in Finland, one reason was the many major birthdays, special people in my life have in 2008. First my mom turned 80 in January, my sister-in-law, Leena, celebrated her 50th in March, my dear friend, Sirpa, hers on our shared birthday, May 4th, and my little brother, Antti-Jussi his on June 1st. Turning fifty has always been a reason for a major celebration in Finland. There used to be an almost formulaic way to celebrate this important event, but this is, after all 2008 – and people are becoming more and more individualistic. Thus, the ways to celebrate are many. All three of the 50th birthday celebrations this spring have been quite different.



Leena turned 50 on March 11. We received a beautiful, handmade invitation in late February. The party took place in an old, intimate restaurant, Wellamo, ( in the Katajanokka district of Helsinki, right behind the Finnish Orthodox Uspensk Cathedral. Forty-four lucky invitees, family and friends, filled every chair in the small space. There were toasts and a delicious menu with drinks to match as well as a touching speech by Risto, Leena's husband, my brother.  

    Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut Champagne
    Pilsner Urquell / Bon Aqua                                                                         
    Marques De Riscal Rueda 2006    
    Prince Hubert de Polignac XO Cognac / Campari Cordial

    Kylmäsavuporonpaistia ja  sienisalaattia
    aistettua siikaa, parsaa ja pinaattiperunaduchesse
    Kahvi / Tee

                       Lauantaina 15. maaliskuuta 2008
                       Galleria-Ravintola Wellamo, Helsinki

             Speech by husband, Risto

           Having a good time, getting to know new people

                   Wellamo has wonderful, intimate atmosphere
After dinner, a bus took us to Puistola, Risto and Leena's home to continue the celebration with a cake, drinks, more food, and a guitar-playing musician who led us in singing. Naturally, Leena received lots of flowers, cards and presents. It was a beautiful party – perfectly suited for the wonderful birthday girl!  Congratulations, Leena, my wonderful sister-in-law !


           . . . with her favorite flowers, lilies-of the-valley

On May 4th, Sirpa Y. – a dear friend since the early 80's in Berkeley – had her turn in turning 50. A regular globetrotter, she decided to travel with her daughters to Switzerland for her birthday. I caught her on a brunch cruise on the Lake Ägeri when calling to sing Happy Birthday.  Later, the daughters, Laura and Kirsti, and godson, our Rafael, prepared a fancy, five-course dinner for Sirpa's large immediate family. Unfortunately, it was scheduled for the same day as the next party, my brother's. So, Rafu and I cooked a sushi lunch for Sirpa, Laura and Kirsti to celebrate on May 18, a day before Rafael's 16th birthday. It was a joyous, comfortable occasion with good food and nice wine to match, with a special dessert of glög-sorbet prepared by Kirsti, the designated dessert chef. Happy, happy birthday, Sirpa, my dear friend!

             . . . sushi . . . and . .  .

      . . . the sushi sirpas

       Yrjönmäki family dinner party



On May 31, I emptied and cleaned the new apartment as we were to become 'homeless' the next day, June first, which was also my brother's 50th.  After leaving the place spotless Finnish style = literally spotless, with the help of three women friends and two 1-year-old girls, I drove five hours to Paltamo. On Sunday, June 1, the first relatives arrived around noon. The main celebration was unusual: seurat (= a Christian worship meeting) at church at 5:30 PM, followed by a reception at the Parish Building. It was a wonderful celebration. My brother, Antti-Jussi, opened the meeting with a humorous but very meaningful speech, explaining his choice of    hymns. They were all selected because of some special significance, from a seafarer history of our mother's father's family to my parents' favorite hymns. There were four inspiring speeches by four ministers. There was also a collection in lieu of presents. Antti wanted to participate in the 'Give a Different Gift' –program. Various domestic animals worth 700 euros will be provided for African families for food and income.

             The parish employees serenading Antti w/a song written by Pastor Turunen
                                    Family congratulating Antti-Jussi

Around 7, we moved to the Parish house for coffee and goodies, including a birthday cake. A musician friend, Juha, performed Christian protest rock songs from the 70's before we all went home.

                             Juha performing, with Hilla's help

Then Antti and I rode our bikes to Risto & Leena's golf house a few kilometers away to continue the celebration with Risto, Leena, Tiina, and cousin Outi and her husband, Simo. Antti was toasted with fine wine until midnight when the birthday boy and I rode our bikes back to my mom's house in the summer night lightness. 

                             Happy birthday one more time!

                                    A midnight ride back home

What a great day!  Onnea Antti-Jussi, my little brother – now you have reached 'a man's age'!

Such wonderful birthday celebrations! Who's next? I'm ready to keep on partying!


torstai, 12. kesäkuu 2008



The cottage is red. The side paneling looks like well-painted wood until I discover it’s metal, imitating wood – and actually covering old wood, painted the same warm red. In this sea washed and windswept coastal area, wood probably wouldn’t last long with the damp air and wind blowing from Saaristomeri, the sea between Finland and Sweden. The little red cottage is located in the Åland Archipelago, the island of Kökar, the Southernmost community of Finland, two hours South East of the Åland Islands. My friend, Eija, paints here every summer, and finally, I have made it to her secret hideout.


I drove from Jyväskylä to Helsinki on Thursday night with a new UC Berkeley friend, David I had met in a conference. We had a nice four-hour drive, refreshed by a plunge into the Hartola River about half way down. In Helsinki, Eija and I packed her painting canvases, brushes, etc. in the car, took a sauna and left at 1:30 AM. To get to Kökar, we had to drive about 150 km and take three ferries between islands. Our third ferry left at 6:30 AM, and by 9 AM, we arrived at the cottage. The keys were hanging in the door, and Eija had decorated the house with white lilacs and apple blossoms before her departure to Helsinki two days prior. The sun lit the simple cottage brilliantly. Eija showed me around: the large main room, her bedroom, my bedroom, the outhouse behind the lush purple lilac bushes in full bloom, the piped faucet to get fresh water, and the sauna by the sea, about half a kilometer down the dirt road. Gorgeous! Absolutely! – And Eija has rented this charmingly run-down paradise for 400 euros for the entire month of June.


With fresh coffee in our mugs, we sat outside in the sunshine. Later, I heard a cuckoo bird and counted . . . it kept cuckooing . . . thirty three times. According to the Finnish tradition, that equals the years one has left. I’d be quite happy with thirty-three more! Later, we feasted on local smoked flounder.


The island belongs to Ahvenanmaa or Åland, an island province consisting of 6500 islands and - what some call – the most gorgeous archipelago in the world. Ahvenanmaa is an autonomous, demilitarized, administrative Province, both Finland and Sweden historically tried to make part of their respective countries. The decision by the League of Nations in 1921 joined Ahvenanmaa to Finland. (


The whole island is monolingually Swedish speaking, so you greet every passer-by with a smile, wave of you hand, and a cheery Hej! with a melodic Swedish intonation. The storekeeper can manage accented Finnish if a customer can’t do Swedish, but the natural first choice is always Swedish - so I am trying my best. Our jovial landlord and his friendly wife got our rusty tongues moving ‘på svenska’. We have rented bikes and every day, we leave on an adventure. Yesterday, we rode our bikes to the island church, built in 1784, decorated with miniature votive sailboats, typical in a coastal village, hanging from the ceiling. Sailors in danger would make a promise to God and later fulfill it by building a replica of their ship and donating it to the church. Next to the church, there’s a museum dedicated to the Franciscan friars who arrived on the island in the 15th century. Long before that, about 1000 BC seal hunters had settled on the island. There’s also a cemetery with old – and some new gravestones. Maybe some of the new ones belong to the last two fishermen who died last year. Now, there are no commercial fishermen on the island as young people are not interested in the harsh island life but leave for the mainland for study and work. We also visited the campground and stopped by at the beautiful new, refreshingly styled hotel and restaurant bar for a glass of cold cider.


Our evening adventure, after a sauna and swim in the very refreshing sea, included an adventure to the volunteer fire department hall where a dance took place. Two villagers were performing. We rode our bikes in our nice shoes and skirts to find just about a handful of older people sitting around. We decided not to get the 15-euro-tickets, but rode our bikes back, stopping to greet the three white cows Eija is trying to befriend. Hoping to paint them she believes daily friendly words can calm the suspicious animals down to lie still as future models.  – We later found out that the dance had been a huge success with over 100 people partying by midnight. -

Sunday, we arrived at the hotel at 2 PM to splurge on lunch – and to use the wireless Internet. Sitting by the water, outside, we ate fish and chips. The fish was sea-perch, caught by the still-living fishermen, residing on the next island west, Foglö. The young chef, taking a break, entertained us with tales of the archipelago. He had moved here with his wife permanently a year ago. Enjoying the island paradise rest of the year, they escape to Southern France to taste wine or to Northern Finland to ski in the cold, damp winters. Sounds like a life!

Eija painted an island watercolor scene of sea grass, framed by boathouses and cottages while I answered email. Later, we took a walk to smell and photograph lilacs, wild roses, mountain ashes, and many nameless wild flowers in the small grassy meadows and around rocks and cliffs. First time, the wind swept the yard with such force that we had dinner inside the cottage. Then  - music and a cup of cardamom tea in candlelight . . . sent us to Höyhensaari (the island of feathers = land of the sleepy) after even the sun had finally decided to go to bed.


On Monday night, our colleague, Heidi, arrived and we set to work on our web-based Finnish literature course. The weather had turned cloudy and damp, enabling us to stay in the cottage to work. On our lunch break we drove to the island museum to explore how Kökar people used to live. We also found a farm where the young off-spring was selling farm products in a barn, turned store: apple-gooseberry cider, hot apple salsa, hand-knit gloves and jelled apple, juniper, and mountain ash preserve. With big bags full of goodies we returned to our modern project.  

On Tuesday night, we had an excellent dinner in the hotel/restaurant, Brudhäll ( We ate sea perch, new potatoes and wild strawberry Brule with champagne mousse. The view was ethereal with low clouds and the sun peeking through. On the terrace, while shooting photos, an elderly gentleman in pink pants approached me. He struck a conversation with me. Turned out he was a Virginian, sailing the area for the third summer with his pals. He was surprised at the young wait staff’s interest in the US politics. He proudly announced he would be voting for McCain, naturally, pointing to his grey head. I quickly announced my Berkeley roots and Obama affection, and we bid polite farewell.


Wednesday night, Eija, the lucky temporary islander, saw us off, and we took the 6:30 PM ferry away from the paradise found. It’s a far away hiding place. We arrived in Jyväskylä at 3 AM. tired but happy.

maanantai, 26. toukokuu 2008


The fragrance of the tuomi or bird cherry trees with their nodding white clusters of flowers is highly intoxicating. I'm taking a walk with my friend, Tuija, and her poodle, Touho, on the almost white banks of Tourujoki, the Touru River. No – no snow any more, but so many bird cherry trees, so full of blooms that the whole area is blanketed snow white. This is the neighborhood where Robert and I would ride our bikes on Sundays to admire the old, wooden houses, built for working class families in the beginning of the century. There are none left, but Tourula is a popular family neighborhood, very close to downtown Jyväskylä. Nicely designed apartment buildings are set far enough apart to allow room for big yards and a lot of open space for the new Tourula dwellers.  Of course, the romantic feel of the run-down wooden houses is gone (No, I'll never learn – as you can see, my addiction to wooden fixer-uppers dates back many, many years!)

                                      Happy campers, Tuija & Touho


               Sirpa inhaling the frangrance of tuomi - bird cherry trees

Rafu sighed the other night, why can't it always be like this in Jyväskylä! It is pretty awesome and breathtaking. The campus boasts of bird cherries, daffodils, tulips and many other kinds of blooming bushes and little and big, short and tall flowers whose names escape me in any language. Yesterday, Tuija and I marveled our 'break room', as we stretched on a grassy area with tulips, right outside our offices. On my way home at lunch time, a group of music students and professors had set up their chairs in front of the Music Building on campus. They were playing eclectic tunes in the sunshine. A definite sign of spring!

                                                                  Campus musicians

                                           Sirpa & Tuija in their 'break room'

The light doesn't stop surprising us even though we should be used to it by now. We are now downtown dwellers for a month and taking full advantage of it. Last night we had a Tapas dinner in a Mediterranean restaurant, less than five minutes from our new home, and then walked another five minutes to catch the opening night of the new Indiana Jones film. - Oh, that Harrison Ford . . . I'm so glad he's aging along with me. He's perfect! What a man! And my husband does look like him, doesn't he!  

Now, back to the light! It's a long movie, and it was 10:45 PM when Rafu and I were walking home. It was still dusk as the sun had officially set at 10:30 PM. I finally caught Rafu on film in front of his high school, the oldest Finnish-speaking high school in Finland, Jyväskylän Lyseo, turning 150 this year. Lyseo has graduated many a famous Finn, such as the internationally acclaimed, functionalistically artistic architect and designer, Alvar Aalto, whose following quote is one of my favorites, Yes, of course you can and must fly, but it should be with one foot on the ground - or at least a big toe.

Also the inventor of our national sport, pesäpallo (Finnish style baseball), Lauri "Tahko" Pihkala. is a graduate of  Jyväskylän Lyseo. (
The beautiful building is described as Maurian-Tudor style, and it is said to have a "Genius Lycei" – The Spirit of the Lyceo, still strongly at present.


                        Rafu at night (no fash used!) in front of his high school,
                                            the famed Jyväskylän Lyseo

I shot photos without a flash at 10:45, and a group of young people was sitting on the green slopes of Harju, the ridge, in the middle of Jyväskylä that our apartment building faces. This is the late spring in the north, which is along with the early summer something magical I wish you all could experience at least once!

                                                   Pine trees at night on Harju, the Ridge

An official note: The sun rose today, May 26, at 3:53 AM. It will set at 10:37 PM. The dawn lasted 2 hours and 4 minutes and the dusk 31 minutes. That gives us 22 hours and 27 minutes of lightness. Talk about A loooong Incredible Lightness of Being!!!