A TOAST TO FINLAND!


(Mårten Beijar photo)

You may have missed it, but the land of my ancestors recently celebrated it’s centennial. On Dec. 6, 1917,   small but mighty Finland officially severed itself from Russia, becoming an independent country for the first time. Russia’s new Bolshevik rulers did not protest. I remember leafing through one of my great aunt’s photo albums and seeing a grainy picture of the raising of the Finnish flag in their small community for the first time. A bit more than two and a half years after independence, my mother was born in the fishing/farming village of Sideby. When I first visited “the relatives” in the winter of 1971, I was given the very room where her birth took place. Under the mountain of blankets my two great aunts supplied, I remember going to sleep that night looking at the same walls that oversaw my mother’s first breath of life and pondering the chains of existence. Because my great-grandfather August Jossfok, a rough-looking, bearded fellow in big boots, and a young woman down the road, Ida Mathilda Karlsdottor, found favour with each other 130 years ago, I am here today. (My grandmother’s family was from the small farming community of Karperö, further north.)

My mother’s family are Swede-Finns, part of the predominantly Swedish-speaking communities that line the Gulf of Bothnia, left over from the several hundred years when Finland was part of imperial Sweden. In the old days, Swede-Finns spoke only Swedish. When the family left for Canada in 1928, my mother didn’t know a word of Finnish. Few outside Finland realize that the country remains officially bilingual, although mixed-marriages and migration to Sweden have reduced those for whom Swedish is their first language to barely 6 percent of the population.

In fact, there is probably much else people don’t know about Finland, besides saunas, Sibelius (a Swede-Finn, incidentally), the prowess of its hockey players and its remarkable education system, which consistently produces student results among the best in the world. Herewith, in honour of Finland’s 100th birthday, are a dozen things you might like to know about a country that has punched above its weight for a long time, and continues to marches to its own drummer. (Even before independence, Finland had been the first jurisdiction in Europe to give women the right to vote, in 1906–10 years before good old Canada.) First, some history.

 

  1. The fierce polarized politics of early Finland were frightful. Immediately after independence, conservative Whites and socialist Reds duked it out for ascendancy, resulting in a short, brutal civil war that claimed 36,000 lives in a country of just three million people. With the critical assistance of several thousand German troops, the Whites were victorious.

 

  1. The bitterness of the civil war had a tangible impact on far-away Canada. Thousands of “Red Finns” left their divided homeland, now in the hands of the vengeful Whites, and emigrated to Canada. Many found work in the logging camps and mines of northern Ontario. The new arrivals did not leave their politics behind. A number became political activists and radical union organizers. In 1929, Janne Voutilainen and Viljo Rosvall “drowned”, while trying to organize some nearby loggers. Most believe they were murdered by anti-union thugs. Their funeral was the largest ever held in Thunder Bay, which retains a Finnish flavor even today, most notably with the venerable, 100-year old Hoito restaurant, still on the bottom floor of the Finnish Labour Temple. My grandfather was also among the “Red Finn” contingent, but thankfully, he brought his family to Vancouver.

 

  1. In World War II, Finland was an ally of Germany. Hitler made a brief visit in 1942 to wish the country’s military leader, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a happy 75th birthday. The previous year Finnish forces had attacked the Soviet Union to regain territory lost to the USSR during the Winter War. After some initial success, the venture ended disastrously. After the war, the Soviets exacted heavy reparations, claimed a chunk of border territory, and took jurisdiction over a strategic peninsula not that far from Helsingfors (as Swede-Finns call the capital) until 1956. Finland was also required to remain “neutral” in world affairs, a position they scrupulously maintained until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

  1. During the post-war years, Finland established one of the most extensive state social services systems in the world, believing, along with other Nordic countries, that governments have a duty to intervene on behalf of their citizens. Shredding the neo-con argument that taxes and government get in the way of economic development, Finland’s per-capita income has more than held its own among other Western industrialized countries. In 2016, the World Economic Forum ranked tiny Finland first in terms of World Human Capital. Other international reports found Finland the most stable country in the world from 2011-2016, and second best in terms of the gender gap. As baseball broadcaster Mel Allen used to say: “How about that?!”

 

  1. Finland has military conscription. All my male cousins, on turning 18, had to interrupt their education to serve at least six months with the Finnish army.

 

  1. Coalition governments are the order of the day. For many years (until 2015), the small Swedish People’s Party (Svenksa Folkpartiet), supported by just about all of my relatives, was part of the government.

 

  1. In 2014, Finland became the first, and so far, only country to put homoerotic drawings by a gay artist on its stamps. They were the work of the artist known as Tom of Finland (Touko Lasksonen), subject of a recent bio-pic this year by director Dome Karukoski. (The one below is the mild one.)

 

  1. Of course, Finland isn’t perfect. Alcoholism remains a big problem, no doubt contributing to the country’s relatively high homicide rate, while youth unemployment is stuck at around 20 per cent. And, as in most European countries, anti-immigration sentiment has become an issue, fueling the growth of a worrisome, nationalist party. The good news, however, is that political leaders banded together in June to freeze out the Finns Party, after it elected a hard-line, anti-immigration leader. Twenty elected members of the party left to help the coalition government maintain its majority. “This decision will likely ruin our political careers, but we are determined to do this,” they said in a statement. “Today, we are not politicians, but we are doing this for the fatherland’s sake.” How rare is that in today’s political world?

 

  1. In the final of the world hockey championship in 2011, playing against their loathed, arch-rivals, Finland whacked neighbouring Sweden 6-1. It was the greatest triumph in the history of Finnish hockey.

 

  1. Believe it or not, the national sport of Finland is not hockey, but baseball. However, banish any thought of the North American version of rounders.  The Finns call it Pesäpallo, and the rules seem to come from outer space. Would anyone else other than the fun-loving Finns have three designated players on each team called “Jokers”? You think cricket is complicated? It takes this guy more than five minutes to explain all the ins and outs of Pesäpallo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yom1_q8WRck Unlike any sport you’ve ever seen.

 

  1. Well, maybe not. There’s also the Finns’ fondness for fen football, otherwise known as swamp soccer. The august New York Times had a hard time taking it seriously, headlining their story on the  competitive bog slog: “Finland has a sports screw loose.” This from a country that relishes bowling. But never mind. Read about it here. Try hard not to laugh. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/sports/finland-has-a-sports-screw-loose.html

12. Last, but certainly not least: according to the Guinness World Records, the 19-letter Finnish word saippuakivikauppias (a soapstone vendor), is the world’s longest palindromic word in everyday use. That prompted my friend Lorne Slotnick to ponder: “Why would the word for a soapstone vendor be in “everyday use”?” And the answer is: Because it’s Finland!

Happy 100th birthday, land of my mother’s birth, and a Merry Christmas/God Jul/Hyvää Joulua to you all.

 

Advertisements

FAMILY LORE AND JAZZ AT THE PAT

Image

Eight-five years ago this week, my mother, then a wide-eyed 8-year old, arrived in Vancouver. It was the end of an exhausting journey that brought her, two siblings and their mother all the way from the west coast of Finland – first to Sweden, then by boat across the stormy Atlantic to Pier 21, and finally, five days traversing this vast, wintry country by train. Leaving friends and family behind, they had come to join my grandfather, who had gone on ahead to earn some money in the logging camps. Speaking not a word of English, they were met at the CPR’s grandiose train station by my grandfather’s sister.

Aunt Gerda took them up to the Patricia Hotel on East Hastings, where she was working as a chambermaid. That’s where they spent  their first few nights in Vancouver.  So the century-old hotel holds a special spot in Mickle lore as the starting point for the long, hard slog by my mother’s family to forge a new life in a new land. And, if you wander in off the street today,  you will still find not a bad effort to preserve the trappings of the way the hotel lobby might have looked to my mother that memorable morning in late December, 1928.

All of which serves as a very round-about, personal introduction to Jazz at the Pat, one of the best regular happenings in this sometime dreary city. Every Saturday afternoon, from 3 to 7 p.m., top Vancouver jazz musicians bring the Patricia Hotel’s venerable bar to life with their high-quality, straight-ahead musicianship. Jazz at the Pat is the best bargain in town – no cover, cheap beer, and great jazz. A real treasure.

I try to pop down at least once a month, and have never failed to be enthused. Plus, for me, there’s the added fillip, especially during those long, soulful sax solos, of letting my mind wander back through all that family history. My mom was here in 1928. Now, I’m here in 2013. I like that.

Last Saturday featured some terrific, Christmas-themed jazz, led by trumpeter Chris Davis, with the nimble Jodi Proznick on stand-up bass, Steve Kaldestad on good old sax, drums (didn’t get the name), and the splendid, Santa-capped Miles Black on piano. All superb musicians,  they got the last few days before Christmas off to a swinging, Yuletide start.

IMG_1287

This is a satisfying gig for the musicians, too. With the Cellar Jazz Club soon to close its doors, the city’s many fine jazz artists are having an increasingly difficult time finding paying places to play. I’ve already heard such well-known musicians as saxophonist Campbell Ryga and trombonist Hugh Fraser strut their stuff at the Pat.

Do yourself a favour. Get down to the Pat any Saturday afternoon. Guaranteed to be a good time, and you can’t beat the price. Besides, it’s not as if jazz is new at the hotel’s bar. None other than the legendary Jelly Roll Morton, touted by some as the inventor of jazz, was resident pianist there from 1919 to 1921. You can look it up.

THE ROCKET’S RED GLARE

Image

I was missing from Vancouver during those pelvis-percolating daze when the Russian Rocket soared into the city’s hockey pantheon. The manner of his  arrival likened by one scribe to “an Aeroflot ghost flight from Irkutsk”, Pavel Vladimorovich Bure was by far the most exciting player to don the blades of the mighty Canucks in the team’s up and down, 43-year history. He remains its only member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

But I do remember watching from afar, on my cheap TV set, the first time Bure carried the puck in the NHL. I gasped out loud. It was if there were rocket boosters on his skates, firing at warp speed. The other players seemed to be standing still.  Nike’s Swoosh had come to life.

Sixty-goal seasons followed, topped by the 7th game, never-to-be-forgotten, breakaway goal in second overtime that eliminated the favoured Calgary Flames in the first round of the Canucks’ 1994 run to the Stanley Cup final.

Over time, however, for all sorts of reasons, the love affair between the city and its spectacular speedster slowly soured. Beset by injuries, Bure appeared to tire of the adulation and the pressure. Local sportswriters despaired of ever getting a decent quote from the stand-offish superstar.

Image(Some things don’t change. “Everybody’s happy. That’s the main thing” was about all Bure could muster, after the huge ovations and even a few, uncharacteristic Rocket tears that accompanied the ceremony retiring his No. 10 jersey at Rogers Arena on Saturday night.)

During my one brief encounter with Pavel Bure, I saw a different side of the astonishing Russian. It was the fall of 1997. Improbably, the NHL opened its season that year with two games in Tokyo, between the Canucks and the Anaheim Ducks. As the Globe’s Asian correspondent, I got the plum assignment. The Canucks came to me!

One morning, to give the Canuckleheads a dose of life in teeming Tokyo, the players rode to the rink on a packed commuter train. Most were no fans of the cramped quarters, swaying to and fro, cheek to jowl with other strap-hanging passengers. “It’s the team bus from here on in, guys,” groused Mark Messier.

But later, when I asked Bure about the ride, his face lit up. It reminded him of all the times he rode the Moscow subway, as a kid, he said. “When I was 10 years old, I used to get up early every day and take the subway, with all my equipment and a hockey stick,” Bure told me. “The old ladies would say, ‘Look out for that little boy.’ Sometimes, they would give me their seat.”

I then asked him about the coming Winter Olympics in Nagano, where NHL-ers would be playing for the first time. Once more, Bure beamed. Growing up in the then-Soviet Union, the Olympics were everything, he explained, and he still felt the same way. “The whole world is there. The Stanley Cup is just hockey. If you can win a medal at the Olympics, it’s really a big deal. It’s got nothing to do with money.”

After practice, I saw him in his gangster-like, pinstripe suit, hanging out beside the team bus with unlikely best buddy and team enforcer Gino Odjick, whose own cheer from the pumped crowd Saturday night almost matched the roar for the Russian Rocket. With his distinctive red lips and boyish good looks, he looked barely 21. His face was bursting with boredom.

Four months later, at Nagano, Bure scored five goals for Russia in the team’s semi-final match against the Finns, one of the best individual performances in Olympic hockey history. Three came on breakaways. Once he deked left. Once he shot. The third time, he deked right.

Love him or loathe him, we will never see his like again.