This is the third book from my June spree of reading about countries I would not like to live in. The other two were Złote Piachy, about Bulgaria, and North Korea Journal. It’s not that I actively have something against Bulgaria or Finland, it’s more that they are among many other countries I would not like to live in, it turns out I am quite picky. In literal translation, the title of this book would be Cat’s Christening. Summer and Winter in Finland.
Before reading this book the things I knew about Finland could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand: Moomins, drinking, beef with Russia, saunas, long winters. That was about it, and it really is not that far from Poland. So a bit shameful, but in general my knowledge of geography is shameful.
I learned a lot from this book. For example, I didn’t know that Swedish people living in Finland, or Swedish-speaking Finns is such an issue. It’s quite shocking how a nation so tolerant of displays of eccentricity becomes hooked up on the language someone speaks. I know about the resentment towards Russians, but had no idea about Swedes. Another discovery for me was the persecution of Saami people, not only in Finland but across Scandinavia. Banning their culture, forced sterilizations, children were taken away from parents to be raised in boarding schools away from their culture, all this was taking place in the second half of the 20th century. And even now Saami people are far from being treated equally, often dispossessed when their lands are needed for industrial developments.
Work is pretty much a religion to Finns. Everyone has to have one, work hard, and then during weekends drink equally hard. Every family that can afford it (and Finns tend to be stingy with money) has a mökki, small cottage on the lake or in the forest. If however you cannot get to your mökki or don’t have one there’s still kalsarikänni, getting Pantsdrunk at home. This brings us to the title of the book: Cat’s Christening is a party organized for a trivial or unknown reason.
On the cultural front, there were also many surprises. I will admit I have not read the Moomin books since I was a child. So it was interesting for me to read that possibly Tove Jansson was channeling some of her experiences and traumas into the books. making them processable and bearable this way. On the completely opposite end of the culture spectrum, we have Tom of Finland, the man who invented the Village People look. Then there’s also iskelmä, the local melancholic music, dear to many Finnish hearts. And of course the passion for Finnish design from Aalto to Marimekko.
Sidz writes that Finland tends to be a post consumerist society. Things are bought when required, but they are also mended and fixed. They are rarely considered emblems of status, bought rather for their practicality, quality and durability. This is where she also brings up the Law of Jante, you can read more about it in my review of Dwunaste. Nie Myśl, że Uciekniesz devoted solely to investigating this topic. Here the interpretation of the law is less scary, but still, I find it a bit oppressive.
There is a lot more to discover in this book. It’s a great multifaceted portrait of a nation in a specific moment in history. Sidz clearly knows the country intimately and shares many of her own stories and adventures. Sometimes because the narration is driven by those experiences it may feel a bit choppy, jumping from topic to topic, only to come back a few chapters later. On the other hand that’s how life looks like, it is not linear.
What are the best books about other countries you read? How are you dealing without traveling (or limited opportunities for it) during lockdown?