(2/7) Finland’s Big Boxes

PRISMAOne thing I really dislike about contemporary American society is the big-box store. Wal-Mart, Best Buy, you know the drill. Every suburban megaplex is the same: warehouse-sized stores that probably take as much energy to heat or air-condition them for every half-hour as I need for every 3 weeks, a mind-numbing selection of generic (fill in the blank) items made by underpaid workers in an overpopulated country with shabby wage standards…again, you know the drill. My confession? I love Prisma.

Prisma is Finland’s answer to Target, and in some cases, its answer to Super Wal-Mart (the ones with grocery stores in them). If all the signs said “Bargain!” instead of “Tarjous!” and the appliances for sale didn’t fit Europlug Type C electrical outlets, you’d think we were in the middle of Tennessee…or Ohio…or Colorado…or any other state hosting big-box stores…which is any and all of them…

On one hand, this type of store seems very out of place in such a (seemingly) progressive-thinking Nordic country. For that reason, it almost seems funny, and harmless. But I can’t pretend…on both train trips I’ve taken outside Helsinki (to Turku and Kilpisjärvi) and on my bus ride to the airport last week, what did I see in large mall-like buildings reappearing along the highway? Prisma. Tarjoustalo. S-Market. Etc. Etc. Etc. The Finns have a reputation for being reserved and modest people. I read an article in the Christian Science Monitor about how, from these traits, the Finns can set an example for Americans during this time of economic crisis. But take a second to read the subsequent letters to the editor…you’ll see one by an American living in Tampere, Finland, bemoaning the Americanization of Finnish consumption patterns in the younger generation.

I don’t know if I’ve been here long enough to assess this trend myself. But like I said, I’ve seen these places along the highway more than I expected to. Clearly, the “Prisma phenomenon” is bigger than the average foreigner may realize. I feel that I should hate Prisma on principle. Yet, when I walk through its automatic glass doors, I feel–and how embarrassing to say this–at home.

So what is this? A sign of only lukewarm and/ or nominal opposition to a retail and consumption system? Do I want to have my cake and eat it to, that is, say I hate the big boxes but simultaneously reap their benefits? How American would that be? Or is oddly normal for foreigners to feel strangely comforted by traces of the good, the bad, and the ugly from their home country? Readers (all one of you a day–yeah, WordPress gives me statistics): have any thoughts, similar experiences?



Day one of my 7-day blog post challenge. I’m not feeling very creative today, so I’m going to make a stream-of conscious list of random thoughts.

  • It’s raining. It’s been raining for 2 weeks. Welcome to Finland.
  • It’s dark. I post this at 8:07pm local time and it’s been dark for 3.5 hours. Welcome to Finland.
  • Or should I say it is 20:07 local time?
  • I miss apple cider.
  • I miss pumpkin.

Last week I temporarily fled Finland to prepare for and attend my friend Leah’s wedding in Ohio.  After the reception, my other friends Maeve and Carolyn and I read advice columns and horoscopes in our hotel room, as is our tradition.

We consulted that great literary publication Elle magazine astrology for our weekend forecasts and advice. Unfortunately the online link has since changed, so I can’t show it to you, but I can tell you that Elle suggested that Virgos like myself begin a new outlet for sharing and expressing ideas. Specifically, it told me to start a blog, and to update it every day for a week.

I already have a blog. I can’t remember why Elle thinks I should update it every day for a week. But, Elle astrologers, I hereby accept your challenge. Reader, I can’t say I’ll write something long, insightful, or profound every day, but maybe you’re the better for it. See you tomorrow for post #1 of 7!


My first collection of valokuvat [photographs] is up! Click on the “Images” tab above, or, go straight to it.

Words about Kilpisjärvi soon, I promise!

12 Hours Even



Today is the autumnal equinox. Today, it’s an even mix between dark and light, but from here on out, the darkness only grows. Daylight hours go shorten from here until December, when we’ll have somewhere between 5-6 hours of light per day.

Bring it on, Finland.

Meet Paavo



We met at the Kierrätyskeskus (recycling center), and I fell in love. I’ve been half-heartedly searching for a bike, but in anticipation of Finnish and European travel expenses, I put it off.

Paavo was marked at €50. Not bad for a bike, but anticipating the Fulbrighters’ upcoming trek to Lapland, I was reluctant. Nevertheless, I took him for a spin in the parking lot. He was a bit rusty around the handlebars, but his ruby red frame was still a shocker and the crystal clear chime of his little aluminum bell still had me swooning. After a long internal debate, I decided I needed him.



One of the workers there gave Paavo a quick checkup before I brought him to the kassa [cash register], only to discover that two of his three speeds were broken. “Kaksikymmentä,” the worker said.

I have been doing my Finnish homework. Kaksikymmentä=€20! Done deal.

I doubt that Finns name their inanimate objects, but nevertheless I felt that it would be only appropriate to give him a Finnish name, so Paavo it was.

I think we’ll be very happy together.



Anteeksi (excuse me)

8 days before departure, I receive in my mailbox a large and official-looking envelope containing my dearly missed passport, newly christened with a sparkly pink and blue sticker on visa page 11. 8 days, one 2-hour delay, a missed connection in Dusseldorf, two missing pieces of luggage, a €40 taxi, and 7 time zones later, I am in Helsinki. Things are looking up.

The first Finnish word I recognize in the Helsinki-Vantaa airport is “anteeksi,” which I learned over the summer in Teach Yourself Finnish by Terttu Leney. It means “excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, or “I beg your pardon.” As I stand by the queue for a taxi and deliberate the pros and cons of a cab, a Finnish mother with a large baby carriage enters the line with a clear and strong anteeksi” as she steps in front of me. My vocabulary words in action! I feel great.

Over the next few days, I use anteeksi several times myself. That is, I use Finnish to explain that I don’t speak Finnish. When browsing Sokos department store, a saleslady approaches me. “Anteeksi,” I say, “en ymmärrä suomea” [I don’t understand Finnish]. I say it again when a college student flags me down to sign a petition. And again, when a monk tries to give (sell) me granola. Later, I go to a Karl Fazer chocolate boutique. A Finnish girl, about my age, stands next to me while we sample different delicacies. She says something to me, and I ask, “Anteeksi, puhutko englantia?” [Sorry, do you speak English?]

Actually, that incident makes me kind of sad. She was telling me that the blueberry-filled chocolates were the best, that she had tried them all. I kind of want to have small talk with people in Finnish. It’s awkward when someone is trying to be friendly with you and you have to ask for translation. I’m getting tired of saying “excuse me” every time I communicate.

After chocolate, I need toothpaste, so I visit the apteeki [pharmacy]. I don’t recognize any brands, but I’m determined to figure out which bottle is toothpaste. It takes me about 15 minutes, I’m not 100% positive that my final choice is toothpaste, and the cost seems pretty extremely outrageous. Nevertheless, I purchase the Dentosal and leave.

The next day, I consult Google Translator to clarify the label on my Dentosal. The result is “includes polish of course salt.” Is this some sort of special treatment for people with dull teeth? Is it actually safe to scrub salt on your teeth? My next-door-neighbor, a dentist from Iran, looks at the ingredients and says that she thinks the Dentosal is for smokers.

Armed with my receipt and the new knowledge that I can get Colgate at the K-Market grocery for cheaper, I bring my Dentosal back to the apteeki. “Anteeksi, I begin to the pharmacist. I’m so tired of spitting out “puhutko englantia?” (and I know almost EVERYONE in Finland speaks English anyway) that I just sort of say, “englantia?” I explain that I think I bought the wrong product and I would like to return it. The pharmacist tells me that won’t be possible; they do not issue returns after the product has been brought home.

I did not use the Dentosal. Proof: it has an unbroken seal over the cap. Apparently that does not matter. The pharmacist tells me that Dentosal is normal toothpaste after all, but that does not give me back my €6. I’m too exhausted to fight it. I kind of want to cry. I miss CVS, where I understand all the labels on the bottles, wouldn’t pay the equivalent of $8.50 for toothpaste, and could probably argue down a cashier to take my return. I miss being able to read posters in the subway. I miss understanding the bus driver when he yells about the broken fare reader. It might be sort of convenient not to speak the language when salespeople, college activists, and monks try to communicate with me, but frankly, I’d rather know exactly what they were saying and say no to them in a language I actually spoke, then enjoy mutually-understood conversations about chocolate.

My Finnish classes begin next week, so hopefully these incidents won’t continue to be as troublesome. But in fleeting thoughts, I just want to be excused from them all…instead of say anteeksi.