Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Are You Shivering

This is what the sky looked like past 1 AM, two days ago:

And tonight's surreal full moon:

I am sometimes wondering whether I will always come back to the same songs in such circumstances, whether it is merely clinging to their and my past, or if in there ever resonates a distant echo of truth. Are you still shivering? Are you still cold?

And as always, the Red Queen answers...

Thursday, 22 April 2010


...and the clouds cleared up to reveal a sunset sky bright like no other, as it the day had broken in the middle of the night.

I shall not abuse of sunsets in the next posts.

The only subject I managed to fix my mind on today were readings about joik. A few finds, refreshing yet driving me straight back to where I started; that may be a good sign. (Find here a collaboration-remix between RinneRadio, who works with most famous joik singer Wimme, and Mika Vainio of the Finnish minimal masters Pan Sonic.)
There are other connections here and there that I am happy to find. More to follow.
And I cannot decide if Crowleymass Unveiled was a stroke of genius or quite the opposite.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Out there, further away

A sea of antlers

Some say that routine wears off the shine of everything, even of the most meaningful or deepest experiences. I am not sure. There is something driving the Sámi out to the herd, beyond mounts and frozen rivers, that stands up to the waves of industrialization and modernization, even as today they ride snowmobiles rather than reindeer. Engines did not destroy traditional activity, rather, traditions seized bluntly and wittingly on technology, taking to their need and leaving out what could alter them in essence. In the foreseeable future, at least. And it might have not been ever so. Heavy industry is another story.
Something is calling the Sámi out to the herd, and the muted trample of thousands of hooves, the open skies and blinding snow, the silence nearly absolute when the procession stops might have less to do with it than the ancient relationship between man, animal and the Whole, to name one explanation -- or than some other aspect of it, beyond our understanding and barely within reach of our own experience.
Routine may not be in question, and was definitely not, for us, the outsiders.

First sights of the flock

On the move

Family business

On top of it all

We drove from the university in our host's van, dropped by her home to get suitable clothing for extreme conditions, left again to join the herd and the other members of the extended family who were already underway, swapping places on the snowmobile and on the sled, where we squeezed onto very unpractically for the first and very chaotic ride.
Our hosts drove the herd farther away from the town, from where it was already straying, and we climbed up to a mountain top to set up the camp. The ground was covered in bushes still bearing berries from the previous summer, preserved there by the cold; they had a little tart, delicate flavour. A little further, a pile of rocks, and further away, soft valleys and other mountains.
Fire was made in the lavvu as soon as the men brought back wood and we ate a sumptuous lunch inside the tent. I had reindeer meat, the first time I ate mammal meat in ages. I am a vegetarian for ethical and political reasons, and free-range, berry-fed reindeer meat offered by the very people who overlooked the birth of the animal and slaughtered it themselves is ethical enough to my taste, thank you.
Leaving the camp, we rode down the mount to see the capture, with the traditional Sámi lasso, of a female belonging to another herd located on the other side of the Finnish border. One of the men left the group to drive the animal to its own herd, some forty kilometres away. We also stopped by a lake on the way back for some ice fishing, without much success.
I sat on the sled for the last ride back to the village, but we had learned how to sit on it in the meantime. It was more comfortable that way, but a bit scary as well, as we were speeding on thin ice along a free stream of Spring waters, up and down the hills at an impressive pace, in the raking light of the afternoon sun.
Some routines are better than others.

To each its own

However elusive the filiation of the Finns to the Sámi, however disputed the influence, over millenaries, of the ones on the others' language and culture -- and vice versa, direct experience gives little credit to the preconceived notion that Sámi are simply Northern Finns.

The confusion is less likely to occur among Finns, and among Sámi to an even lesser degree, than in foreign eyes, especially when these are focusing on Finland. It is hard for someone who does not belong to either of these groups to discuss the insider's perspective, but from the outside, the Sámi could as well be these countryside Finns with the funny costumes and old traditions. Lapland, after all, is where Santa Claus resides (no matter what sort of mythological beast he used to be in the Yule times) with his flying reindeer; Sámi are herding reindeer, Lapland is Finnish, so Sámi are Finns. Hardly anyone in the West is safe from the misconceptions born of our perception of the world through groups, and through nations in particular; for the well-read mind, it is still hard to think Sápmi as a land across lands.

Finns undoubtedly acknowledge their Northern roots through their folklore, and their close genetic linkage was proven; but from a broader perspective of civilization, in their everyday being and practices, Sámi and Finns are definitely not the same people.

I have mentioned from day one how obvious the difference in the idea of organization was, from Helsinki to Kautokeino; these first impressions were confirmed and explained in the following days. There is no word for stable in Sámi language, but sayings such as a year is not another year's brother, our lecturers explained. The very idea of stability is foreign to the nomadic Sámi people, used to the most instable conditions, varying weather from a year to the next, complex layers of snow and thinning ice in the spring season.
This is an everyday reality at the Sámi College: while students accepted to the Foreign Reporting module received months in advance a detailed day-by-day schedule, our programme here seems fairly improvised. An outing to the reindeer herd might happen today, tomorrow, or later. We ended up a couple times left all on our own in the middle of the day, for we were unable to find our lecturer gone for lunch or somewhere else. Nothing bad, just different.

One thing in particular embodies for me the essential difference between Sámi and Finns: sauna. I did not know what to expect sauna-wise when leaving Helsinki, where most houses and almost all student accommodation have access to one. From what I have been told over the years, or so it is presented by today's Finns, Finnish civilization appears to have developed around the sauna. It was the first part to be built in a new house; the place where women gave birth and where corpses were washed before the funeral; a temple, where a ritual of purification takes place, beyond a mere physical cleaning. The surprising resistance of Finnish soldiers against the Soviet army during the Winter War is partly attributed to their use of sauna, which they still build today wherever they go. The prominence of sauna echoes down to our days (or, again, is given more emphasis today than it used to attract in the past, which does not undermine its relevance for Finnish identity, quite the opposite) and as far as Washington, DC.

But sauna does not belong to Sámi culture.

Upon arrival, I hoped for a sauna in the house we live in. We were in the North, after all.
There was none at home, but one at the university. Disappointingly, it turned out to be a mere gym sauna, built for a radically different purpose than a Finnish sauna, and much in line with the use of sauna in countries without sauna tradition (that is, all but Finland).

A gym sauna designed any-old-how is better than nothing, and I have already abused of its slightly too dry, too steady but nonetheless comforting heat. It is a shame that its bizarre architecture distracts me from complete relaxation: What is the stove doing right behind the door? How much better would it be if the upper bench was closer to the ceiling? Shouldn't they have hired a competent Finnish sauna designer?...

As a matter of fact, in Kautokeino, saunas are not in individual houses (as it is common in Finnish cities), neither do they exist as a separate but adjacent building (which is the custom in the old mökki). It may be different on the other side of the Finnish border, but my knowledge on the subject is limited. Sámi people are nomadic, albeit certain categories within their group settled long ago as fishermen and farmers and were forced in that way into Norwegianization, and it is even less so now, in a strict sense, as all have a house to live in. Still, Sámi-ness is not Finnishness: Sámi identity was not built around the sauna and the particular understanding of home it carries, and the social structures as well as the very sustainability of their culture, their survival, did not depend on this shelter against the bitter cold. Their houses are no more of a home than the whole land surrounding them.

However trivial sauna may seem, its near-absence in Norwegian Sápmi (it must be noted that there is no sauna tradition in Sweden or Norway either) underlines that the Sámi, in spite of their probable common roots with Finns sometime in history, in spite of the often common fate of individuals from the two groups, which may make them appear as one in the eyes of outsiders, are not Finns, or at least not only. Their cultural specificity, nearly essential in the way it relates to the old understanding of the world, is not only expressed as the symbols they used to make up a particular identity on the Norwegian and international stage, but also experienced actively in the very way they are.

Comment is free and input is welcome. Please correct my wrongs regarding Finnishness and sauna and Sámi culture, if any...


In other news, I refuse to start working on the essay due next Friday and strive to find inventive ways to push it away (such as providing evidence on these pages that my brain is constantly processing whatever comes its way into social sciences exploitable material, aye); days fly by, though, as the light's stretch outpaces actual time. I have been lately stuck home reading the unbelievably thrilling course related to the aforementioned essay ("Part 2: The analytical schemes of the invention of the "-ism" lexicon," I kid you not) and trying to keep up the pace with all the Sámi music I have pillaged from the library of the university.

We will leave on Thursday for a road trip to Karasjok, Inari, probably Alta, and perhaps other places during the weekend. Keep posted.

Update, April 27: Road trip postponed sine die, or at least until after we meet the Sámi ambassadors, which should happen on the 17th of May, or 18th, or 19th, or else. We concluded today's course with a visit to the local newspaper, Ávvir, and we might go out to the herd again, soon, someday between today and Monday. Or else. Who knows...

Sunday, 18 April 2010


The night gets hardly dark here -- already. During the day, the Sun is merciless, shining equally bright from dawn to dusk.

A wider view of the sunset from my bedroom's window:

Going now to sleep with Torgeir Vassvik's Sáivu:

Torgeir Vassvik - Blue membrane/Alit cuozza, from Sáivu (2006)

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Road 93 to nowhere

The road 93 goes through the town of Kautokeino (population 2,000), where the Sámi University College is located, and that is literally all the little we knew about our destination. In our modern times of street-level world mapping, little is left to the imagination; Northern Norway, though, is still part of the barely charted world.
We got on the train in the evening in Helsinki, only to step off on the next day, in the late morning, at the northernmost station of the Finnish rail network. Coffee kept me awake for the better part of the night; the proximity of the North too, to some extent, sweeping away the exhaustion like pure energy running in my veins. My childhood was filled with tales from the winter lands, from the Snow Queen which I could retell years after I read it to Lyra's journey to the North in Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. I yearned for snow. The first days I spent in Finland were graced by the most enormous and ubiquitous Sun, though, and the following winter made its prominence in the Northern civilizations even more obvious. The opportunity turned up to travel to Sápmi, land of the Sons of the Sun who bear the dual Sun-Moon symbol on their flag, a chance not to miss; so I signed up, and ended up in the night train to Kolari, staring with eyes wide open at the ceiling of the cabin.

We rode past Oulu in the early morning. That was the most North I had ever been.

The light more intense, first glimpses of a different landscape.

In Kolari, Odd Henrik was waiting for us with the rented minibus. A three-hour drive through the tundra and the soft valleys, spotting some reindeer herds on the way. We drove up to the Diehtosiida (literally knowledge community or house in Sámi language), a brand new building hosting the Sámi Allaskuvla and the local division of the Sámi parliament, also the largest in this part of the world, and tried to locate our coordinator, who was somewhere in but no one knew where.
It seems that Sámi people are considerably more relaxed regarding administration than the very efficient Finland, planning little in advance, but in both cases it also seems to turn out for the better.

Further up the street is our home for the next six weeks. Half of the top floor is ours; the ground floor is home to a kindergarten, from where small feet awake us in the morning.

Norway is considered as the most expensive of the Scandinavian countries; on top of that, Lapland is about the farthest you can get from fresh goods. The prices and the desolate condition of the greens in the nearest of the two grocery shops of the town turned us away immediately; the other store was a little better stocked. Knowing some Scandinavian helped to deduce the meaning of Norwegian words from their Swedish and Finnish counterparts; how much the alien currency was worth I had no clue of.
The place could literally be ravitaillée par les corbeaux, which are everywhere in their grey coats, even bigger than the ones you see in Helsinki. People do smile and act kindly, though; drivers slow down as they pass by our group of unusual-looking foreigners, and youngsters sometimes greet us on the way, shouting Hejdå! from a distance and trying to engage conversations with the little English they know.

Downhill side, our view.

The sunset from my bedroom's window.

Funeral rites

The oldest of the intricate metal crosses stand at the entrance of the graveyard, half-buried in thick snow, right next to the red wooden church. They carry the names of Sámi who lived and died there over a century ago. The cemetary expanded down the slope as the town grew, headstones replaced the crosses, a bit further away from the church. There, one can find more recent graves, some covered with flowers withered and faded ribbons -- still, someone had the care to light a flame in the midst of the funeral wreaths.

Friday, 16 April 2010


Matka jatkaa.