Finnish Fandango

Got Milk? -- Not this kind, you don't!

Growing up in West Barnstable on the Cape in the late '40's/early '50s, all of the mothers I knew, worked. They either had a full-time job like my mother did, or they even worked several jobs. We didn't know any Harriet Nelsons or June Cleavers in their pouffy dresses and their perfect hairdos, waiting for the man of the house to come home from work so they could serve the meal they had slaved over for several hours in the house that was kept immaculate with dusting and vacuuming at least once daily.

Before I began in 1st grade, I was taken care of during the day while my mother and father worked and my sister was in school. There were a few different women that had me in their care. One kind Finnish woman, Mrs. Liimatainen, cared for me when I was about 3 years old. She had a wonderful dog named 'Sandy' that was about twice as big as I was. When I look at the photo, I think the dog looks like a giant, overweight German Shepherd. That dog seemed to know I was just a tyke because he never jumped on me. And I was apparently not turned off by his size, since I remember going over often to "talk" to him. Heaven only knows what I said, or in what language; maybe he just thought I was nuts.

Another sweet woman, Mrs. Carlson, took care of me for quite a long time, many months, maybe a year, I don't know. She had long, black hair done up in a circular braid around the back of her head, wore black-rimmed glasses and always smiled at me. The unique thing with Mrs. Carlson, though, was not her hair or glasses or smile. Every morning after I had been dropped off early by my mother, I was to sit in a chair in Mrs. Carlson's kitchen and wait while she went outside for just a bit. She would come back in with the glass.

Well... she had a brown and white goat tied to a large tree in the back yard. She'd go out, milk the goat, come back in, and I was to drink a glass of fresh goat's milk every day I was there. WARM goat's milk. Straight from the goat, no processing, no pasteurizing. No nothin'. Just like on a farm. I don't really recall whether or not I liked the taste of goat's milk. I do know, however, that for the rest of my life, I've always wanted a glass of milk to be cold!

Even though my parents had two incomes, extra money was scarce, I'm sure, though it was never talked about in just those words that my sister and I ever heard of. My father had just started his own building business and had a pickup truck. As far as my sister and I felt, we were certainly not lacking in anything. We lived in a house with a yard, ate good food, shared a room, had bicycles, and I had all of my toys in one cardboard box, plus a large doll that couldn't fit in the box. We each got a new dress twice a year, at Christmas and at Easter. Otherwise, we got extra clothes from a church rummage sale, or from people my mother knew, and I got my sister's hand-me-downs.  We were both perfectly satisfied with our meager wardrobes then.

So everyone in the family had their "jobs" to do. 

Besides washing and wiping dishes daily, and mopping floors and dusting weekly, my sister and I went to get milk from an old Finnish couple that lived a hop, skip, and a jump away on the same road out there in the boonies. She and I would walk over the next door neighbor's yard (they were Finns), then the next yard (also Finns), and then we got to the house where we picked up the milk in glass bottles, returning the bottles we had picked up the time before. I assume now, that the bottles got boiled, but that detail was nothing that piqued my curiosity back then.

The old man's name was Mr. Hakkarainen. He and his wife had a grown son named Hakka Hakkarainen -- a beauty of a Finnish name -- but the son wasn't around much. The old man was thin, stooped over a bit, had thick white hair, coke bottle glasses, a crooked nose, and always had suspenders on that held up his trousers. And Mrs. Hakkarainen had the perennial apron on over a long dress, with a shawl around her shoulders, and had sturdy-looking woolen socks peeking out above her shoes. Her long gray hair was braided in the big ring around the back of her head, and she was always found in the kitchen by the large, black, cast-iron, wood-burning stove. They both had wonderful, eye-crinkling smiles that made us want to stay a while and visit. 

My sister and I would be offered a home-baked cookie and some water, pumped from the monstrosity of a creaking hand-pump over the kitchen sink. There was also an inviting old rocking chair in the corner by the stove. And usually some kitchen towels or underwear hanging on a clothesline near the stove. No matter what month of the year, it was always warm and toasty in that kitchen.  

The milk we picked up was in bottles that had a good inch or so of pure, pale-yellow cream just under the round cardboard cap that kept the milk protected from the elements. That cream was savored by my parents because it was to be added carefully to their many demitasse-size cups of coffee!  We always liked going out to the barn to give the cows a clap on their warm flanks before going back home. I suppose that was our thank-you to the cows for the milk. They were so big with their soft round eyes. There were two of them, I believe. 

That milk was neither pasteurized, nor homogenized, nor had any calcium or Vitamin D3 or any other things added!  It was just plain wonderful milk straight from the cows -- and tasted great. It was not 2% or 1% or skimmed. It was good ole whole milk. We drank it every day for years. My mother also gave my sister and me a daily tablespoon of Cod Liver Oil, which tasted pretty bad, but apparently did the trick for our health. There were none of those fancy, expensive capsules of D3 and Omega-this-and-that; I don't think they existed back then. And the prize was: none of us were hardly ever sick!

Back to basics, they say? ...Hmmm, I think I might just have to go out and buy that bottle of Cod Liver Oil I've seen at the supermarket, and get me a goat for the back yard!

Crossing The Finnish Line

The journey lasted 4 days in all. 

They travelled first by train, then ship, then airplane, and lastly by automobile. The family consisted of the tired yet excited woman who had been born over there where they were going, but who had left that country with her family when she was but a child. There was also her husband, the seemingly stoic, yet inwardly-apprehensive man who had never ever been there and could not speak that language. And two children completed the traveling family. The older girl had just begun in first grade at school the previous year, and the younger girl was learning to speak in full sentences with words in her native tongue.

The train left Helsinki for Turku, a coastal town to the west, in Finland. From Turku, they boarded a ship that crossed the invisible line in the sea separating Finland and Sweden. The family disembarked in Stockholm, Sweden. Up to this point, it had all been just a prelude to the transatlantic flight. But because of refueling needs, there had to be several take-offs and landings in various countries prior to the actual flight over the big pond. So it was not one big flight, but many smaller. Up and down, up and down....No one would be on a gigantic 747 jet. No!.... A propellor plane was all they wrote and all that was flying commercially at the time. And in comparison to today's transatlantic jets, a prop plane was just a baby of a thing up there in the heavens, being tossed about with every single lump and bump of turbulence, probably to the delight of the company that made the ever-popular and forever-necessary upchuck-bags!

From Stockholm, it was on to Copenhagen, Denmark, to get on board the final silver bird, an American Airlines plane. The airline gave each family a navy blue, zippered, two-handled, traveler's bag with the logo as it was then: the big letters "A A" emblazoned on the sides in white and a large eagle with up-stretched wings placed between the two A's. That 'kassi' as it was called in Finnish, would be kept with the family for decades, and used with near-reverence to many a slumber party and on many a road trip. Then it was time for take-off from Copenhagen and landing at Prestwick Airport near Glasgow, Scotland.  From Prestwick, it was on to Rejkjavík, Iceland.  Forever westward!.....Staying to the north, a take-off from Rejkjavík, and landing in Gander, Newfoundland, was next. Then, from Gander to the airport in Boston, Massachusetts....America!...Finally!

From Stockholm to Boston, 27 hours had elapsed!

After being detained for some time by the authorities in Customs and Passport Control in Boston, the family was allowed "out" into the terminal, and was met by their sponsors, Mr. and Mrs. Lyons from Lexington, Massachusetts. This couple had also enlisted the help of an older Finnish lady from Allston, Massachusetts, who could translate for them and for the immigrant family. The Lyons family had sent a CARE package to Finland, as had many other American families during World War II. Mrs. Lyons had been careful to include much-appreciated woolen socks, hats, and scarves among the foodstuffs in this particular package. And they had been considerate enough to put their name and return address inside the package.

The Finnish woman who had received this package, could speak and write some English still, and she had written a thank-you letter to Mrs. Lyons, and that is how a correspondence and lifelong friendship between the two families was born. In time, a decision was made by the Finnish family to immigrate to America. And the Lyons family offered the Finnish family a place to live for as long as necessary; the Finns would live in a small cabin adjacent to the Lyons's summer house, by the sea marshes on the north side of the village of Barnstable, on Cape Cod. The last leg of the immigrants' journey was then the automobile trip from Boston airport to Barnstable.

It has to be said here, that the Finnish man had been a soldier, a ski patrol leader, in the Winter War (1939-1940) against Russia. Then in 1941, in the Continuation War also against Russia, he was a Finnish platoon leader, then a lieutenant. He was at the Eastern Front in Finland, attempting to protect and retain a sizable area that eventually would be taken by the Russians. He was seriously wounded, shot in the face, more precisely the mouth and lower jaw, and also in the torso, and in an upper arm.  After the war, he became a special examiner with the Helsinki Police Force.  As he explained for the remainder of his life in America, "I had a pretty good Russian dentist...he took out all my teeth at the same time!" And then he would grin his scarred and crooked-mouth grin. Shrapnel remained forever in his tongue, his back, and in his arm.  

His lip, jaw, and chin had to be reconstructed surgically, in an albeit hastily-constructed field hospital, using skin grafts from his upper chest for the chin, and from the inside of his mouth to create the lip. The temporary result resembled a connecting tube of skin from his chest to his lip.  His main food after that was months worth of thin gruel sipped through a straw. The Finn was in the hospital for over 2 years while undergoing 18 operations. He always claimed that the hospital had to be built so fast that the anesthesia used was "some old stuff they found somewhere because it really didn't take when they were operating!" Luckily for him and his Finnish soldier buddies in the hospital, he was mobile enough to take part in some fairly innocent tomfoolery, and the wounded soldiers also broke the boredom and their pain by playing jokes on the nurses.  This Finn was fortunate to be cared for by a Finnish nurse who quickly became the love of his life.  And it was she, who was there sitting next to him on that grueling 27-hour flight from Stockholm to here, there, everywhere, and finally to Boston.  However, she and the children, especially the youngest child, were air-sick for much of every flight-time, all the while making those bosses richer ... the bosses of the paper upchuck-bag company!

This Finn, journeying to an unknown land, embodied Finnish 'sisu' (sih' - soo) in many ways. 'Sisu' is guts, determination, perserverance, courage, and resilience, among other qualities. The Finn had fought Russians in his white ski patrol uniform and later while leading other soldiers. He had 5 brothers who died in those wars. He was shot and wounded himself, and ended with a facial disfigurement that he, for the rest of his life, laughed and joked about. He learned the new country's language, read everything he could get his hands on, and continued to make errors in English grammar and pronunciation with his thick Finnish accent until his dying day. But none of this hindered him in creating a successful construction company. The cost, though, was working 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, many years without a vacation, bidding on jobs, some of which he got and some he didn't. He smoked heavily and had his musculo-skeletal system wrecked by physical labor. Yet he never complained.

So when he was to eat one of his first meals prepared by the Lyons family in this new country, he was inwardly aghast, but outwardly serene as a meditating yogi. Because what was being served by the proud hosts as a "Welcome-to-America" meal was none other than good American beef!.... In other words, steak. But not just any ole steak...RARE steak!.... Blood-a-dripping steak! To a Finn, at that time, this was about equivalent to eating raw, uncooked meat. It was just not done in Finland at all!  Meats were cooked to well-done, the war-time scarcity of meat of any kind lending itself to the ability to get cheaper, tougher cuts, which were only made more tender by hours of cooking, in stews, for example. There had always been an abundance of fish, so plenty of fish was also eaten. Steaks of beef were little known. And rare, bloody steaks were something from a different and disgusting planet altogether!

The rare steak was, however, the offering of the host and hostess in the new United States of America home. It wouldn't do to insult these kind, accommodating people by refusing to eat this large hunk of done-to-rare meat, would it? No!...So he put it in his mouth, piece by piece, and ate it -- all the while smiling and nodding thanks to his hosts. As he always retold the story throughout his life, he lolled each piece round and round in his mouth until he finally decided he had to swallow it.  But he did ask the Finnish interpreter lady to tell the Lyons family that it took so long for him to chew because of his Russian dentist and his mouth surgery!

This steak was accompanied by, among other things, some white bread. Also a new experience for Finns who were brought up on rye, barley, molasses, and many other kinds of tan or  brown bread. The paper-white bread they were served is a well-known kind in America: white sandwich bread slices in a loaf with colored circles on the bag and with a name akin to Fantastic Bread. Fingers can be placed on either side of a slice, pressed together, and Bingo!... it all flattens to the thickness of a piece of plastic wrap! It was tantamount to committing a sin against a Finn to present him with this white stuff, and expect him to regard it as "bread". Good bread in Finland was either unleavened and hung to dry as "hard-tack" or 'näkkileipä' (now called "crispbread" here), or it was a yeast bread, home-made or made in a neighborhood bakery...nutritious and delicious, in chunks ripped off the loaf.

The last of the triumvirate of eating and taste experiences took place for the Finnish immigrant while going clamming with an older Finnish man who had been on the Cape for decades, and who had hired the newcomer Finn in his building and carpentry business. Down at the seashore, the older Finn showed the newcomer how to dig for clams, collect them in clam pails, and shuck them with the special clam-shucking knife. Hold the clam firmly in the left hand, run the knife evenly around the crevice that holds the 2 half-shells clamped shut. Pry it open and loosen the clam body on the shell. To the newcomer Finn's utter and awe-ful amazement, after the clam was loosened on the shell, the older Finn just tipped his head back, held the shell containing the clam body to his mouth with one hand, and.... SLURP ... sucked it into his mouth and swallowed it. That was really crossing the line for a Finn! 

However, he did as the older Finn showed him, and he swallowed raw clams!

This Finnish man's quality of life was defined, among other things, by belonging. He had to belong somewhere, somehow. There was no other alternative in this new country.

Be-longing is a longing to be. To be a part of something with other like-minded people, with friends, whether it be in a club, a clan, a tribe, a neighborhood. To share customs and traditions. In this case, and in many other instances later on in time, the shared customs for him revolved around what the Finn was served and what he ate, or at least what he ordered at a restaurant or had at friends' homes when other people were present and watching!  

The newcomer Finn, my father, never tired of telling these stories to his wife, my mother. And to the older girl, my sister. And to me, the younger girl. ...And to anyone else who would listen, or who had no choice but to listen, when they were practically held as captives in the dry heat of the sauna with my father! ....From then on, for the rest of his life, my father's steaks were ordered "rare!...Rare!", and he relished in ordering "little necks" or "clams on the half-shell" and slurping them noisily down with bravado!


This first article is for my very good friend in thanks for "egging" me on, in true mental-food fashion, to cross the Finnish line!


Finnish Fandango

Anneli Karniala 

Born in Helsinki, Anneli is a Finn who immigrated to the US with her family when she was a toddler. She grew up in a small, tight-knit Finnish community in the then boonies of West Barnstable on Cape Cod. High school was on the Cape, nursing school was in Boston.
For 20 years, she lived in Denmark, raising her three children and working as a nurse clinician, administrator, and educator. She was granted a Master of Science in Nursing degree from Aarhus University in Århus, Denmark.

      From an early age, Anneli was brought up in the all-important Finnish custom of going to ‘sauna’. She was also well-instilled with characteristic Finnish ‘sisu’, which remains a fundamental part of her being.