“Imma Let You Finnish”
Canterbury (Google Maps location)
February 16, 2013
While there is always a danger in using pop culture references in my titles, as they are fleeting things, I just couldn’t resist this one. Don’t like it? How about this…
You have to use the restroom really badly, so you’re Russian. When you’re done, you’re Finnish. What are you in between?
Which brings me to the first picture from the Finnish-American Heritage Society Museum:
This picture, from the FAHS bathroom, conjures up so many questions, I don’t even know where to begin. Why have I never seen this sign before in my life? Is it because this is only a real problem in Finland? What’s a “turvalaite?” Do all Finnish men wear caps while urinating? Are Finnish toilets all that giant or are Finnish men all that tiny? And lastly, how do I keep your interest after starting off this report with the best part?
Oh, perhaps because there’s a Finnish Heritage museum in Canterbury and that’s interesting enough?
Once you clear your head of Kanye and urinating, your first question should be, “Why is there a Finnish heritage museum in Canterbury, Connecticut?” For that, I’ll back up several years to an old visit to the UCONN Dairy Bar. Here it is. Go read it.
Why? Because you’ll find that during my visit that day, I purchased some Juustoleipa cheese – aka, Finland Bread Cheese. That’s weird. I remember I asked someone there that day why in the world they make Juustoleipa and I was told that there was a small but active Finnish community in that part of the state (read: The cold, dark, unpopulated most-like-Finland part of the state) and this was a nod to their existence.
I believe it was from that information that I found out about this little museum and cultural center. I reached out to them over the years, but they were always sort of hesitant about their “museum.” It was always “not ready for visitors.”
But in 2013 I said screw it, I’m going to go out to Canterbury to hang out with Finnish people. And not only that, I’m going to go with my two sons… without my wife. (She was sick.) Mere mortals would never attempt such a thing.
And it had to be on the day we went because it was Laskiainen Paiva and if you know Laskiainen Paiva, you know never to miss Laskiainen Paiva. Heck, I wanted our Laskiainen Paiva to be so perfect that I even emailed them to ask what happens if all the snow melted before Laskiainen Paiva.
Keep in mind, this was my driveway 8 days before Laskiainen Paiva:
And this was the scene out of my windshield while cruising down route 2:
Upon arrival I was a bit disturbed by the – what? What’s a Laskiainen Paiva? Sigh. You all are so provincial. Suomen sanan ”laskiainen” alkuperä on ollut epävarma. Ehdokkaita sanan alkuperäksi ovat olleet ”laskeutua” (laskeudutaan paastoon) ja ”laskea” (lasketaan päiviä pääsiäiseen).
Laskiainen Paiva is the traditional Finnish sledding day which I don’t really know much about, but in Canterbury it means the hall is open and a bunch of Finnish people hang out and eat pea soup and bread with caraway in it (pulla bread). This was going to be awesome.
Anyway, this non-Finn and his two half Vietnamese boys entered the joint and immediately went downstairs. There, we were warmly greeted by some old Finnish people and sort of stared at. (For which they are forgiven.) When I asked for some pea soup and a loaf of pulla bread, the kindly woman seemed a bit confused.
Did I want HER traditional Finnish pea soup or did I want the other far-less delicious homemade pea soup? Why, hers of course. (Seriously, her face lit up.) My boys and I sat down and … okay, stop. Was this weird? You bet.
There we were… this doofy non-Finn with two decidedly non-Finn little boys, in the basement/kitchen of a Finnish social hall in Canterbury… eating pea soup and caraway bread. That’s how CTMQ rolls.
The pea soup was, well, it was pea soup. I like it well enough, but Damian? How about you kiddo?
More for me I guess. The boys absolutely devoured the bread though, eating almost the entire loaf. You’d have thought I don’t feed them or something. We finished our food and then – then we sort of sat there. Where was the sledding festival? And the museum?
We wondered upstairs to large empty room. The boys loved it as they had to run around and chase each other while eating their pulla bread.
Okay, the room wasn’t empty per se. There were sleds on tables here and there. Was this the museum? I treated it as such and walked around learning about… sleds. Lots of old sleds. There were nice write ups of sledding history on the tables and individual histories of the particular old sleds on display.
The sleds were all part of one guy’s collection. A guy who apparently really loves old sleds.
There were maybe 15 sleds about the room and a couple sleigh-like sleds. I have all the information about the sleds and stuff, but I really don’t think you want to know too much about old sleds.
I guess the Flexible Flyers are the most iconic sled. Samuel Leeds Allen patented the flexible flyer in 1889. Allen’s company flourished by selling these speedy and yet controllable sleds at a time when others were still producing toboggans and “gooseneck” sleds. (That’s the whole thing; back in the day sleds and runners and the like were just uncontrollable slabs to slide down ice on. Allen invented the steering mechanisms of the Flexible Flyers.)
Allen began producing sleds in his farm equipment factory to keep his workers busy even when it was not the farm season. The sleds didn’t sell well until he began marketing them to the toy departments of department stores. In 1915, around 120,000 flexible fliers were sold, and almost 2,000 flexible flyers were sold in one day.
Today, the name has been sold and resold and most Flexible Flyers you see in the store now are made in China. Weak.
Another cool bit of history, that brings us back to the whole Finnish thing, took place in the late 19th century up in South Paris, Maine. Some Finns would up there and upon finding no such things in America hand-crafted their own skis. The Paris Manufacturing Company up there which made wooden farm implements, including sleds for work, took note of these wacky Finns on their wacky ski things.
Within short order, the Paris Company became the first commercial manufacturer of skis in the US. They supplied skis to our military in both World Wars. All thanks to a few crafty Finns. It turns out that there were 400 Finns, all from Kuhmo, Finland up in South Paris, Maine. Even today, they have their own cemetery (after locals complained of too many dead Finns in their old one back in the early 1900’s.)
The gentleman who collects sleds and wrote up all this stuff for me to read has no idea why he and others ended up in Canterbury instead of Maine. It probably had simply to do with woodworking jobs that were available, as that’s what they did best.
While trying to control my boys and learn about sleds, I kept calling them by the names we call them at home: Joopy and Callie. Apparently, I think, “Joopy” is, or could be, a Finnish sounding name. Because a woman who had joined me to learn about sleds was very excited to have a new Finnish family around town.
“So… ‘Joopy?’ Oletko suomalainen?”
“Are you Finnish?”
Whatever in the world…? I told her none of us had a drop of Finnish blood in us but, oh by the way, we ARE interested in the Finnish Heritage Museum that exists somewhere in this building. Do you know where it is?
Thoroughly confused, at these non-Finns with apparently Finnish names, she went to go fetch another Finnish guy downstairs to show us the museum. At last.
I could tell there was some concern that my kids would break some Finnish artifact, so I assured him (sorry, I didn’t get his name… I never get the names) they wouldn’t and we walked down a wholly unremarkable hallway to a locked door.
Beyond that door… Behold! Finlandia!
We were guided through a bunch of Finnish-American history, but the focus of this tiny little museum seems to be on the folk heritage of Finland. I learned all about Finnish folk music and the instruments they play.
One is called the Kantele. I won’t tell you how to pronounce it, because this is a family website, but let’s just say when the guy told me about the kantele, I immediately pretended one of my sons did something to make me snicker. Here’s a video of a Finnish later talking about the instrument and playing it a bit. (She says “kantele” in the beginning, but not quite as vulgarly as the guy in Canterbury.)
There is a relatively large display of fine woodcraft from Finland. Continuing the theme outside in the sled room, I’ve learned that the Finns are good with wood. The artsy woodcarved scenes on display were beautiful. I really dug them.
My kids didn’t break them, but they were quickly getting antsy in the confined space. It’s funny, Damian with his special needs and propensity for self-inflicted violence, has never ever ever even come close to messing with a museum artifact. I think he touched a painting once somewhere. But Calvin… man, he’s a menace. I have to watch him continuously, but so far, so good.
There was a back room to the little museum that contained a ton of books and archives. Apparently the largest Finn cultural organization is down in Brooklyn and they’ve hooked up with the Canterbury FAHS and have begun working on a definitive Finns-in-norhteastern US history.
There are two world famous Finns who really aren’t all that world famous: Paavo Nurmi and Jean Sibelius. I’d heard of Nurmi and knew he was a great distance runner back in the day. Sibelius? I had no idea and Mr. Super Finn seemed a bit upset by this. He’s the most famous Finnish composer, like, ever!
Nurmi was nicknamed as the “Flying Finn” and he dominated distance running in the early 20th century. He set 22 official world records at distances between 1,500 metres and 20 kilometres, and won a total of nine gold and three silver medals in his twelve events in the Olympic Games. At his peak, Nurmi was undefeated at distances from 800 meters upwards for 121 races. Throughout his 14-year career, he remained unbeaten in cross country events and the 10,000 meters.
Sibelius composed a bunch of stuff. Here you are. Enjoy his work, Finlandia:
After I dropped my (very limited) Nurmi knowledge, my guide moved us over to the loom display. Finns love weaving and looms. I have nothing to add to this except that the Finns need better hobbies.
At this point, the boys were all done and needed to run. So run they did… Just like Paavo Nurmi! I thanked the man and gathered our scattered belongings before heading outside again into the crisp February air.
We went over to the sledding hill to get our sled on. I noted that there is indeed a sauna at the Finnish American Historical Society. (Saunas are a big Finnish thing.) Neither child wanted to sled – and quite frankly, I hadn’t dressed them properly for it so I was fine with it.
We got in the car, bid näkemiin to our new Finnish friends and hit the road over to Willimantic Brewing Company.