Noe Valley Voice June 2008

Florence's Family Album: A Midsummer to Remember

Editor's Note: In this essay, first published in the July 1995 Voice, Florence Holub describes a trip to Finland that got warmer with each passing day.

In early 1970, my aunt Marie, who lived in Finland, died at 80 years of age. My father, the only surviving child from a brood of seven, was summoned to Vora, the village where he had been born 83 years earlier. When he went back to Vora to settle his sister's estate, I accompanied him.

We left sunny Noe Valley in mid-May and were transported to a cold, gloomy landscape. Luckily, we were able to live in the comfortable new apartment Marie had purchased for her august years, one built expressly for Finland's senior citizens.

We intended to get down to business and settle her affairs well before our scheduled departure on July 1, but little did we know how slow and complicated Finnish law was, nor that there would be only one judge for the entire area.

To further complicate matters, the probate papers were written in a Swedish legal jargon that was incomprehensible to us both, even though my father knew Swedish.

(In Vora, as in much of western Finland, the Swedish language is spoken, because the people there are descendants of Swedish immigrants. For 600 years, Finland was considered a part of the Swedish realm -- until the Napoleonic Wars during the early 1800s, when it was swallowed up by the Russian Empire. Only since 1917 has Finland been a free and independent democracy.)

Fortunately, Aunt Marie had anticipated the language problem and arranged for two friends, Rego and Linnea, to assist us. Not only did they escort us through the mounds of red tape, they also became our constant companions as we settled into the simple life of Vora's rural farming community.

Finland is on the same latitude as Alaska and has the same extreme seasons. On June 22, which is the summer solstice and therefore the longest day of the year, the sun doesn't set until almost midnight and it rises again after only two hours of dusk. Summer comes after many months of long, dark winter nights -- nights that last for most of the day.

Not until I realized this did I fully understand why Scandinavians celebrate the coming of the solstice with such joyful enthusiasm: they are ecstatic because the sunlight has finally returned.

Throughout our stay we heard the sound of tractors plowing day and night, since the sun shines nearly round the clock in the weeks before and after the solstice. Farmers in Finland, beginning in late May and continuing through summer, cultivate their fields almost continuously, planting and harvesting one crop after another in rapid succession.

They can do this because the crops -- potatoes, beets, and rye -- grow at an amazingly accelerated rate until the fall. (I saw dandelions three times as large as any I'd ever seen in California!)

Compared to San Francisco, life moves slowly in Vora, but even so, the weeks flew by. Each Sunday, we awoke to the sound of church bells ringing. Soon after the bells, Rego would arrive to drive us to the Lutheran Church, built in 1624 and enlarged in 1777.

Originally a Catholic church, the building had a cross-shaped floor plan, hand-hewn rafters, and murals on the ceiling. Ancient and beautiful religious artifacts graced the walls. The tall, dark, shingled spire that rose above the facade reminded me of the Noe Valley Ministry on Sanchez Street. And I found the happy atmosphere and music -- even though I didn't understand many of the words -- heartwarming.

I soon learned that much of the social life in Vora revolved around the church, as it had done for centuries. The good folk congregated after church to discuss the goings-on in town. My father and I were the latest topic, for it seemed that we were related to most of the people in the area.

Invitations to dine came from every direction, and we were inundated with photographs and family trees that showed our remote familial connections. We attended the high school graduations of several newfound relatives, and were impressed to see how they had all mastered the languages vital to international diplomacy or trade careers: Swedish, Finnish, German, French, Russian, and English.

We were also invited to join many families for a sauna, since almost every Finnish home had a steam bath and every villa had a special sauna close to one of Finland's many lakes (of which there are 60,000).

At first, I was reluctant to subject myself to the sauna's torturous heat, and so declined the invitations. This distressed Linnea greatly, however, and she tried to persuade me to change my mind by offering to prepare what she said was a "cold" sauna, set at 70 degrees centigrade -- or 158 degrees Fahrenheit. (A hot sauna is between 100 and 120 degrees centigrade, or 212 to 248 degrees Fahrenheit!)

I couldn't understand her insistence, but I gave in, and found that I could withstand the heat if I set my mind to it. Nevertheless, I was happy to be able to jump in the cold lake afterward.

Only later did a much-relieved Linnea explain to me that in Finland it is believed that those who cannot stand the heat of the sauna will never amount to anything. I accepted all offers thereafter, and actually learned to appreciate the experience.

Before I knew it, the summer solstice was upon us. Since June 23 was my father's 84th birthday, I planned a solstice birthday party in his honor, inviting as many relatives as would fit into the parlor.

I went to the village bakery to order a cake, but the lady couldn't understand me, so she called her son, who had studied English in school. He could only speak a few simple phrases, so I had to resort to my pidgin Swedish.

I clearly pronounced "stor" (big), "kaku" (cake), and "Lucklig Fodelse-dag, Johannes" (Happy Birthday, John). But before I could finish, the young man had doubled over with laughter at my apparently hilarious inflection. I had to write the words down on the order form to make sure he got it right.

When I told my father about it, he was compelled to tell me that I did speak rather "broken" Swedish. Imagine that! Could it be that my English accent was just as amusing to the Finns as my father's Swedish accent -- which he retained even after living in America for 65 years -- had always been to me?

There are sounds that Swedish-speaking people cannot make (th, j, and w). When my brother and I were young, we often begged our father to tell us the bear story that he did so well.

He would begin solemnly. "Yust before I vas born, my moder vent valking in de voods, vere she met a bahr. De bahr yumped up and, vit his paws, he yerked my moder out of his vay, den vent off into de voods. My moder vasn't inured, yust scared (pause), but ven I vas born, I vas born vit bahr feet!" (Yust a yoke, of course.)

On the day of the party, the guests arrived with blommer (flowers), gifts, and cards. I had prepared a smorgasbord of potato and bean salad, coleslaw, and an array of tiny finger sandwiches made with flat rye bread and spread with butter, tuna, salmon, and other cold cuts. The sandwiches were mostly open-faced, which is the way they preferred them in Vora. When I gave a "closed-faced" sandwich to Rego's little boy Kaj, he took the top off and politely handed it back to me!

It was a happy occasion filled with laughter, song, and endless sunshine. The high point of the day came when all the men rushed to my father, picked him up by his arms and legs, and began tossing him into the air, yelling "Hey!" with each toss.

My father added a little motion by thrashing and turning in mid-air. He looked as though he had done this before, and he had, for it is an old Vora custom that he had enjoyed in his youth.

After everyone left, I got out my camera to snap a photograph of my father holding an alarm clock that showed the time as 12 midnight. I planned to show this to my photographer husband Leo, to prove that there had been enough light in the middle of the night to get a picture, without using flashbulbs!

One week later -- although we had not finished our business and I would have to return two more times (but that's another story!) -- we bid a fond farewell to our relatives and friends. Then we boarded a Finnair jet bound for home and some cool summer fog.