Brace yourself! Vappu is here!

What is Vappu?

Vappu is a holiday that’s celebrated in Finland on May 1st.

Picnic table decoration
Picnic table decoration


Vappu is a mix of many old festivities. Originally, in pre-Christian times, it was a spring celebration honoring gods of fertility. At a later stage, it transformed to Hela fest, when people living in villages would go outside and make a lot of noise to scare away evil spirits to save their crops.

Later on, in Christian Europe May 1st became the fest for catholic Saint Walpurga. This is how Finnish name “Vappu” originated.

In 19th century students appropriated this holiday. At that time, students wear special white caps from May to September, and May 1st was the first day when they were allowed to put them on.

Student cap

In 1900s a new ritual originated – students wash the statue of Havis Amanda in Helsinki and crown her with a white student cap on Vappu eve, April 30th. This ritual exists in all Finnish cities with some variations.

Students washing Havis Amanda statue

Nowadays, everyone who graduated from high school or university in Finland has this cap, and after Amanda’s coronation, people salute her.


Students also publish and sell a special Vappu magazine or cards featuring mostly inappropriate jokes.

Humor cards issued by Aalto University students
Humor cards issued by Aalto University students

In 1978 May 1st became the official holiday – “Day of Finnish Work”. It was a great opportunity for political activists (mostly, left wing) to make a speech or to promote their party.

So, this is Vappu’s history in a nutshell. Pagan and Christian, slightly political, easy going and joyful, with so many purposes and meanings, this carnival is a unique local festivity.

At the entrance of Kaivopuisto park - picnic center on Vappu Day
At the entrance of Kaivopuisto park – picnic center on Vappu Day

How people celebrate Vappu nowadays?

As I said before, crowning of statute takes place on Vappu’s eve. After this “official” part, student all over Finland party hard all night long. On Vappu day people go outside with family and friends, have picnics in the parks and students continuing partying.

What’s interesting to me is that students wear overalls – it’s like a uniform, and each department or field of study has their own color. Patches on overalls usually can be obtained by performing certain tasks, like fundraising, for example.

Students’ overalls

Decorations that you can spot on the streets include air balloons, paper streamers and other carnival-like pieces.

Air balloons

Traditional food and drinks

What to eat and drink on Vappu day? First of all, tippaleipä – a pastry made of liquid dough fried in oil and sprinkled with sugar powder. It looks like a huge spaghetti roll, and the taste is very hard to describe. It’s sort of neutral: not sweet at all, but not salty. Slightly sour, I’d say. It’s not bad, but I can’t say I’m a big fan.


Now, let’s move to my favorites 😉 Another Vappu pastry is donitsi (or munkki). Donitsi have a whole in the middle and they are covered with sugar. I secretly hope that donitsi are healthier than their American and German relatives, but this is only my theory, and I’m afraid it will not survive any scientific scrutiny…Oh well 😉

There is also a special drink that is served on Vappu Day – “sima”. It’s made from honey and yeast, and there are two versions of this drink, with and without alcohol. Sima is a great drink! It’s refreshing, not super sweet and reminds me the USSR style lemonade that I drank a lot when I was a kid. It also reminds me medovukha – a Russian old-school drink made of honey, but medovukha is more sweet and has way more alcohol in it.

Sima and donitsi
Sima and donitsi

For traditional picnic, in addition to sima, donitsi and tippaleipä, people also take with them potato salad, grilled sausages, herring, and sparkling wine. A lot of sparkling wine 😉

Vappu Day Picnic
Vappu Day Picnic


Hope it was interesting for you! Hyvää Vappua everyone!

Teräsmies, Aku Ankka and Others – Unfamiliar Names of Familiar Characters

It was a late gloomy evening in Helsinki. Winter didn’t want to give up, and the weather outside was depressing. I was at the language course. The lesson seemed to last forever, and all of us were tired. To mobilize our remaining energy, the teacher started showing us pictures from the Finnish Spider Man comic books, explaining that Finnish Spider Man’s name is “Hämähäkkimies” (“hämähäkki” – spider, “mies” – man).

By then, I already knew that Donald Duck comic books, for some reason, were wildly popular among Finnish kids, and that’s Donald’s Finnish name is Aku Ankka. Again, it’s a direct translation trick: “ankka” is “duck” and “Aku” stands for “Donald”. In Russia, for example, most superheroes and folk tales characters also have their names translated, but Disney crew and characters from children novels keep their English names transliterated to Cyrillic. So, Pocahontas, for example, is still Pocahontas, it’s just spelled differently – Покахонтас.

I got interested in the topic, and researched it a bit further. Turned out that in Finland almost all characters of kids cartoons and books have Finnish names. I was thinking that maybe this is done so that kids could actually pronounce names and could understand peculiar features of particular heroes. I found the book on how modern authors revise and revive folktales – “Folktales Retold: A Critical Overview of Stories Updated for Children” by Amie A. Doughty.

Apparently, I was right in my guesses. Fairy tales don’t usually mention specific countries or cultures and character names are often quite basic. This is why authors try to make these stories more country specific. Translation of names or giving names to supporting characters is one of the methods to achieve this goal. There is one more thing about Finland though that I need to mention. Not all names are translated in Finnish adaptations, and even within the same story there might be a mix of original and translated names. For example, in “Peter Pan”, Wendy turns to “Leena”, Captain Hook to “Kapteeni Koukku”, Tinkerbell is “Tiikerililja”, but Peter Pan is still good old Peter Pan.

Overall, it seems that the approach to translation of names is not unified. I guess it also depends on who works on a particular performance/play/cartoon/movie/book.

Anyway, I hope by now you are ready to meet some locals 😉 You can play a game – read the Finnish version first, and try to guess who it is without looking at the answer 🙂

Kissanainen – Cat Woman

Teräsmies – Superman

Salama – Flash

Lepakkomies – Batman

Ihmenainen – Wonder Woman

Vihrea Lyhty – Green Lantern

Hämähäkkimies – Spider Man

Herra Fantastinen – Mister Fantastic

Kapteeni Amerikka – Captain America

Musta Leski – Black Widow

Rautamies – Iron Man

Hessu Hopo – Goofy

Ankka – Daisy Duck

Aku Ankka – Donald Duck

Roope Ankka – Scrooge McDuck

Tupu, Hupu, Lupu – Dewey, Huey and Louie

Tuhkimo – Cinderella

Paavo Pesusieni – SpongeBob SquarePants

Puss in Boots – Saapasjalkakissa

Teini-Ikäiset Mutanttininjakilpikonnat – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Tiku ja Taku – Chip ’n’ Dale

Mikki Hiiri – Mickey Mouse

Risto Reipas – Christopher Robin

Nalle Puh – Winnie-the-Pooh

Ruusunen – Sleeping Beauty


Spring in Helsinki!

Hi all,

I know I’ve been silent for a while, and I’m sorry. I was mostly being busy with getting over flu. Take vitamins and drink lots of tea, everyone, as you want to be ready to enjoy spring when it finally settles in!

The weather outside is just marvelous! It’s still quite chilly, but so sunny that it reminds me of California.

I’m already feeling way better, and took a photo stroll today to share with you what’s going on in this beautiful city right now. Enjoy the photos of Helsinki drowning in sunshine 🙂 Hyvää päivänjätkoa!

Local school
St. John’s Church – the largest stone church in Finland by seating capacity
Doesn’t it remind you of Jardin des Tuileries?
Karvopuisto park







The “Week of Misunderstandings”

I have complicated relationships with Finnish language. One week we are best friends: I speak Finnish at the store, at the coffee shop, at the bakery, at the R-Kioski, and I understand what people reply to me. I read short articles in newspapers, and with some help from, I understand it. I message Markku or our Finnish friends in Finnish. I feel great, and I make plans to buy a fiction book in Finnish or watch the Finnish movie without subtitles.

But another week comes and we are fighting. I’m so angry at it, I won’t even speak. Progress I thought I was making is suddenly just an illusion. The words I was using last week, words that I thought are completely “mine”, escape my memory. I’m feeling lost and tired.

This week is like that. I call it the “week of misunderstandings”.

My first struggle was at the police station. I was looking for information on which room I needed to go. I decided to go to the line formed under a poster in English describing exactly what I needed to get. Spent one hour in that line only to learn that it was a wrong one and I had to go to another section of the station.

I went there. There was a machine issuing queuing number, but the description next to buttons was in Finnish and Swedish. I had no idea which button to press as there were three of them. There was also a huge poster in Finnish with a Swedish translation on top of the machine, but I could only understand “if you need”. Finnish is hard, but official Finnish language is even harder. Whatever – I pressed one of the buttons, got the number and started waiting. My number showed up on the screen in 20 minutes, and I was pleasantly surprised that the waiting was so short. I explained to the officer what I needed, and he said that, unfortunately, I chose the wrong line, and I need to go back to the machine and press another button. He also notified me that average waiting time is approximately 2 hours.

Fine. I got another ticket and waited again. My number came up in 2,5 hours. So, by that time, I spent in the police office 4 hours total due to wrong queuing. Finally, my number showed up! I went to the desk, and explained again what I needed, and the woman looked confused. I started thinking: “O Gee, please, please, please, don’t tell me it’s a wrong line again!” The woman told me in Finnish: “Hetkinen” (i.e. “wait a minute”). Then she left and these 10 minutes felt like eternity. She returned with a young guy with both ears pierced. He spoke English. I explained what I needed yet once again. He said he was happy to help and it took him 5 min to process my request.

I know I could deal with it in a more efficient way. I could ask someone before getting in any of those lines, but there was no info desk and all officers were sitting behind their counters while dealing with customers. I could use Google translate to figure out what the poster says. But I was very stressed, tired and not thinking clearly. My fault.

To add to that, this week we were also going through a new portion of grammar rules at the language course I attend. My Ukrainian classmate recently told me: “I start thinking it’s easier to persuade my wife to move out of Finland than to learn this language”. We are studying now a genitive case. The problem is that it’s very similar to partitive case that we have already covered before, but yet you use them in different situations.

So, the teacher was explaining to us that if you say “kutsuin Pedron meille” (using a genitive case), it means that you invited Pedro to your place and that you expect that Pedro will come. But if you say “kutsuin Pedroa meille” (using a partitive case), it means exactly the same, except you think that Pedro will not show up. Someone cried: “Noooo, it can’t be true.” Someone said: “Fffff”. I was mostly thinking that if I invite someone and then I use genitive case to say this, this someone is better to show up because I don’t waste my genitive for nothing and I don’t like to be mistaken 🙂

Every time we ask the teacher to clarify something especially difficult, he says either to wait until we start book No. 5/6/7, etc., where we’ll focus on it more closely. Or he simply says that most of the Finnish speakers don’t know what the right approach to this issue is and which form is correct, so we shouldn’t worry too much. Which makes us question our decision to learn this language even more.

There is that, but there is also an ongoing repair work in our house (a.k.a. remontti). It means that at least once a week someone calls our doorbell. Electricians to fix the socket that doesn’t work. Painters to put a protection tape around the door. Guys fixing air circulation and heating system. Internet company workers renovating the fiber-optic cords and connections. You got the picture. And here I am – with a vocabulary of a 4 year old.

Last week I was staying home the whole time because I got some awful flu. The guy showed up one day with a metallic ladder explaining me in Finnish what exactly he came to fix. I really didn’t care at the time. I had fever and cough, and my intellectual abilities at the time were close to zero. I was thinking – ok, he is wearing a workman overalls, he has a box with instruments and a ladder. He probably is going to fix something in the celling. I didn’t understand a word, said ok, and simply let him in. Turned out he wanted to check if the fiber optic cables work properly after he fixed them two weeks ago. Language might fail you, but logic is always there for you.

Today I went outside and the exit door was locked. There was a note in Finnish next to it. I understood only one word – ovi (“door”), and figured it meant what it meant. That the door was out of operation. So, I continued to keller – a basement floor, where there are storage closets for each apartment in our block. There were approximately 12 to 15 doors there. Some of them with signs in Finnish I didn’t understand. Internet didn’t work there, so I couldn’t google. I tried opening each of them, and finally found the right one. On my way back, I got lost and didn’t remember what was the door that leads to the stairs. Tried elevator and it wasn’t working. Spotted one of the workers and asked in English where I need to go. She showed me where to go. I was so happy! When I reached our floor, I noticed that there is a different name on our door. I found myself in a different block of our apartment complex. I was close to tears, but went back and finally found the right way.

I know that this is temporary. I know that it takes time. I know I have guts to go on. But I want to tell you it’s a difficult and upsetting experience. And this is exactly what makes me so happy when I get something right.

Soon, we’ll write a test on Module 2, and start Module 3. We will move to the book No. 2, which is thicker and longer than the first one. I can’t wait for it, because it means I’ll make one more step to being more independent in my everyday life and to having less weeks of misunderstandings like this one.

Have a good weekend everyone!


Bakery Ekberg and Alexander’s Cake

Today I want to share with you a story of the oldest bakery in Helsinki and its founder.

Fredrik Ekberg was an orphan boy learning an art of watchmaking. He didn’t really like it, and was looking for other options. He ended up being an apprentice to Master Baker Shulin in Helsinki. He learned the baking craft and travelled to St. Petersburg, Viborg, Hamina and Riga to hone his culinary skills. In 1852 after he was done with the trainings and the culinary exam, he founded bakery “Ekberg” in Helsinki.

Couple of years later, Ekberg applied for a license to open a coffee shop. At the time, one could buy a cup of coffee in Helsinki only at the market tents in summer, and the idea to open a “designated” place where one would go just to get coffee was surprising. The authorities denied his request saying that no one would go there except for “poor widows”. Ekberg appealed the decision and finally opened his first cafe “Gropen.” It was a huge success as students and government officials working nearby became a permanent customers.

But Ekberg didn’t stop there. Later he built a three-store building in the center of the city – bakery, bread shop and cafe, all in one place. He also founded a spirits factory and invested in tobacco business. Interestingly enough, these investments actually saved the bakery and cafe during the time of financial troubles in 1869.


Edvard Munch – “The Art of Life” Exhibition

Today Markku and I went to the Didrichsen Art Museum to see the work of famous Edvard Munch. The exhibition includes the paintings from several museums, but most of them are borrowed from Oslo.

I wish I learned about this event earlier. It started in September, and tomorrow is the last day when it’s open, so a lot of other people rushed there with us. I saw a report on the Finnish news that 60,000 people have attended it so far. I decided we are not worse than this 60K cultural guys, and despite the shitty weather we traveled to the museum.

The museum itself is a piece of art. Famous architect Viljo Revell designed this villa. It’s surrounded by gorgeous pine trees and it faces the Baltic Sea. I want to come back there in spring or summer, because it’s supposed to be really nice to hang out outside. I bet they have open terrace where you can have a cup of coffee while looking at the sea and thinking about life. Anyway, need to wait for the sun to show up first.



The paintings were arranged from the merriest to the saddest or so it seemed to me. It started with a huge picture of naked dudes hanging out in the forest. Bright colors and hints of smile on their faces. Then started the part that reminded me Henri de Toulouse Lautrec – both the style (graphic sketches on paper posters) and the scenes (cabaret, mostly). Then the absolute horror began – themes of jealousy, sick kids, loneliness, and death, with the famous “Scream” toping it all.




I was wondering why Munch was so preoccupied with the scenes of death and suffer. Apparently, it came from his childhood. According to Wikipedia: “The oppressive religious milieu, plus Edvard’s poor health and the vivid ghost stories, helped inspire macabre visions and nightmares in Edvard, who felt death constantly advancing on him. One of Munch’s younger sisters was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Of the five siblings, only Andreas married, but he died a few months after the wedding. Munch would later write, “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity.” Gee, I didn’t see that coming…

The photos we took turned out to be grey and gloomy. Inspired by Munk and today’s weather. I liked the museum and the Munk’s art, but was even more happier to return to the warm house and watch the Ice Skating Competition’s finals 🙂