Recently, while teaching my pet polar bear and two Insane Russian Dogs how to sculpt ice with a chainsaw, I spotted a young woman dragging a baby carriage through a foot of hateful, sludgy snow. She appeared flummoxed and frustrated, snow pouring over the tops of her Ugg (ugh!) boots, icicle towers crashing to the ground all around her. The baby carriage’s wheels soon clogged to the point of complete immobility, and when the woman stopped to dig through her purse for a spare ice axe, she let out an audible whimper.

Being a typical American afflicted with some innate savior-samaritan complex, I rushed over to help. But – perhaps because Finns are markedly tough and resourceful, or perhaps because my Insane Russian Dogs were snuffling at the little human covered in its own frozen drool – the woman presented me with an uncommonly horrified expression. Despite my offer in three different languages to assist, the woman simply said “no,” took out her cell phone, and presumably bided her time until the spring thaw. There was no: “Thank you, but I’m ok,” or “Be gone, creepy Yank.” Just a well-rehearsed turn of the shoulder and a brutally disdainful sideways glance. I was offended. And in the typical reaction of someone who judges that which he doesn’t understand, I stormed back inside and updated my Facebook status.

Not two days later the scene repeated itself. This time I was busy filling the neighbor’s mailbox with snow (we’re at war, it’s a long story) when another woman, mistaking me for a smart person, ventured into our yard to ask for directions. She also had a baby carriage in tow. Before she could hand over her map of Finland (a monstrous white sheet with a tiny “You Are Here” in the middle), her two-inch heels gave out and she and the baby carriage splashed into the snow. The dogs howled. The reindeer scattered. The polar bear strained at the end of his chain. The baby wailed with joy.

After we pried her carriage loose, the woman asked me how to get to a particular church. I’ve heard of these things called churches. I believe they’re the pointy white things on the horizon. I directed her toward the nearest one (which actually ended up being an electric tower) and made the sign of the cross. The woman thanked me, stepped out of the yard, and promptly vanished into a crevasse.

This, my first uncut Finnish winter, has hosted many such events. While it hasn’t been particularly cold, the snow has been unholy and merciless. There’s so much that there’s really nowhere else to pile it. Neighbors can be seen tossing it back and forth over their fences in an infinite loop of futility. If you throw the snow into the street, the plow shoves it back into your yard. If you pile it against the house, the white stuff seeps into your basement and creeps up the stairs. Often you’ll be trudging to the store and will stumble over a shopping cart, an airplane wing, or the mail man.

Fortunately, the Finnish landscape is flat enough that we don’t get many avalanches. Unfortunately, the land is so flat that snow can’t be bothered to melt. Last year in Helsinki, the country’s southernmost city, the Municipal Snow Dump didn’t fall below the one-meter line until September 15th. All of Finland celebrated by peeling their snowsuits down to the waist, then got back to shoveling.

While the country may be big on snow, that’s about all that’s big here. Kitchens, roads, stores, sodas, stomachs, etc. are much more humble in volume. Even in the thick of winter, Finns drive around in cars not much bigger than a bicycle. (Often you’ll see forty or fifty clowns climbing out of them outside Alko, the state-run booze store.) SUVs are used as school buses and tow trucks. Houses that are large by Finnish standards would be considered foyers in the U.S.

Yes, Americans could learn a lot from Finland. Especially humility. But that’s not to say that Finland couldn’t learn a lot from the U.S.: the last time I was visiting my homeland, I stood in line queue behind a woman who wanted to know where she could throw out a coffee cup. Because she was above average in aesthetic pleasantness, an assortment of male courtesans appeared from the sky to assist her. None quite had a plan for the trash though, and the man who “won” it ended up shoving it in his coat pocket (perhaps to be used in future Voodoo rituals). Conversely, upon returning to Finland I saw a man try to help an old woman out of the path of an oncoming train. The woman spat, swung her handbag at him, and called him a “smelly c***.” And that was her being polite.

I guess in Finland being helped is ultimately a sign of weakness. It’s just not in their nature. Which is why I’m piling snow in the trunk of the neighbor’s car. I just can’t help myself.





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CHRISTOPHER RYAN writes and lives in Helsinki, Finland. He received his MFA from Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and is the author of "The Bible of Animal Feet" (Farfalla Press, 2005). His debut novel HELIOPHOBIA is forthcoming, eventually, with a bit of luck, perchance, sigh, mumbles to self, etc. More info on this and that can be found at his website.

15 responses to “Go With the Floe: White Knights & Frozen Babies”

  1. “Often you’ll be trudging to the store and will stumble over a shopping cart, an airplane wing, or the mail man.” This is a funny line from this funny piece of yours.

    I don’t know why we Americans are afflicted with this innate savior-samaritan complex, but it’s very real and I’ve had it throw many a European into utter confusion here where I am, several kilometers to your south. We must be a real nuisance.

    • Chris Ryan says:

      I think there are worse traits to have that AS-SC, but you have to keep it in check lest it get you killed (such as when chasing someone through city traffic with their broken tailpipe in your hand; don’t do this, it makes you look wobbly and violent).

      A few kilometers south of here… are you on an ice floe? Now THAT sounds cold. I hope you have a good ice axe.

  2. zoe zolbrod says:

    I’ve been biting my lip to keep from complaining about this snowy Chicago winter on Facebook, but it turns out 1) I should count myself lucky to live in Chicago in winter and 2) all I need an ice ax in my purse. That would be just the thing.

    • Chris Ryan says:

      Don’t bite. I’d love to hear how bad it is in Chicago, especially since I’m sure it’s much colder. And if you need, I can recommend a few models of ice axe. They also good for fending off muggers.

  3. Adam Wilson says:

    Really cool entry!!! I can’t wait to come to Helsinki and find stuff that appears in the Fall when the snow melts. Maybe that key I lost will turn up…

    • Chris Ryan says:

      Thanks! Last year I only found a shopping cart in the snow, and two Estonia marks (worth about nine cents). You really need a good ice axe to be effective. And a backhoe. And a flamethrower. And global warming. Then you have a chance of getting through the slop to find the pennies at the bottom.

  4. Amanda says:

    Ahhh too many good things here to pick and point out just one…modestly sized sodas…mailboxes crammed with snow…above-average aesthetic pleasantness…the municipal snow dump…by no means does my neighbourhood come close to those heights of wintry-ness, but we are not that far from it this year…

  5. Wife says:

    “All of Finland celebrated by peeling their snowsuits down to the waist, then got back to shoveling.”

    I ♥ it! It’s like a scene in Katamari!

  6. mirri says:

    I just love it! Your storytelling is so rich and tasty and hykerryttävää! I dont think my car is bigger than a bicycle. And we do have municipal snowdumps! Ofcourse! Where else would we put all the snow?

    • Chris Ryan says:

      Kiitos, Mirri!

      It’s probably better to have a slightly larger car. While harder to park in the city, it’s less likely to get scraped off the street by the plow.

  7. […] first it was difficult to suppress my American Hero Complex, but in truth not that hard. I’ve realized, after two years in this wonderfully strange Nordic […]

  8. Dana says:

    Just laughed so much through this piece that I had to give it a facebook shout out. You’re a hoot and a half, Chris!

    • Thanks, Dana! I just went back and reread it myself. I can’t believe I wrote that. I was much funnier when I was terrified of everything this country had to offer. Now I’m thinking about running for Prime President or whatever they call it.

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