Scary US Elections: Americans in Lappeenranta Speak Out

Ariel Massengale (left) and Samarie Walker play for the Lappeenranta Katz basketball team. Photo courtesy of Kai Skyttä and Etelä-Saimaa
Ariel Massengale (left) and Samarie Walker play for the Lappeenranta Catz basketball team. Photo courtesy of Kai Skyttä and Etelä-Saimaa

Scary Elections
Kaisa Juntunen
November 4, 2016

Scary. Really scary. Teacher Elena Barrett, who hails from Connecticut, describes the US presidential election in these terms. Ohio basketball player Samarie Walker and her Illinois teammate Ariel Massengale use the exact same expression.

“I’ll move from the country if Donald Trump wins. I don’t want a sexist, racist president,” Walker blurts out.

Walker has already inquired about whether she can get a visa to Canada or England.

“I’ve lived in many countries, and moving doesn’t seem impossible at all.”

Walker and Massengale say many of their friends are having the same thoughts.

“But they are hardly serious. If a person hasn’t been outside her own state, she is not likely to move abroad,” says Walker.

Talk of moving speaks to the fact people are really scared.

“I’m afraid racism would increase and the position of blacks would become harder if Trump were in power,” says Walker.

Walker believes the circumstances of many other groups, such as gays, would become more difficult.

Trump’s belligerence also appalls Walker.

“It sounds bad that Trump would have decision-making power over nuclear weapons.”

Walker and Massengale think Hillary Clinton has the right priorities, such as equal rights and education.

Massengale says she has exercised her right to vote. Despite her tough opinions, Walker neglected to vote.

Elena Barrett teaches at the Lappeenrannan Lyseo Upper Secondary School. Photo courtesy of Elena Barrett

Elena Barrett, who teaches at the Lappeenrannan Lyseo Upper Secondary School, closely follows the electoral battle in her homeland.

She earnestly hopes Donald Trump will not win. Barrett fears democracy in America will crumble if Trump comes to power.

“For a while it seemed Trump had no chance of winning, but the situation has changed now the FBI has begun to investigate Clinton’s emails again.”

Barrett believes the situation has tipped in an alarming direction and Trump may well win.

Even if Clinton won, the duel would not be over, in Barrett’s estimate.

“If Trump loses, he will hardly be satisfied with the outcome. For one, he would be in the media a lot, raising grievances and seeking to complicate Clinton’s job as president.”

Barrett has not voted herself.

“I’m resident of a state where the votes always go to the Democrats, i.e., Clinton, for whom I would have voted.”

Barrett supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries.

Barrett has noticed that Finnish high schoolers are very interested in the US elections and especially in Trump.

Translated by Living in FIN. The article was published in the print version of the newspaper (“Pelottavat vaalit,” Etelä-Saimaa, November 4, 2016, p. 6). The link, above, is to a slightly different version of the article published in the online edition.

Soft Pretzel Baking in the Lappeenranta Countryside

Making Viipuri soft pretzels is tough, demanding manual labor. Photo courtesy of Pyry Sarkiola/Yle

The Recipe Won’t Be Uttered Even on the Deathbed
Is a Favorite Delicacy Threatened with Remaining a Prisoner of the Past?

Petri Kivimäki
October 4, 2016

Viipuri soft pretzels [viipurinrinkeleitä] have been made in small home bakeries in the Lappeenranta region for centuries. Back in the day, they were taken to the Viipuri (Vyborg) market to be sold, among other places. The pretzels are still produced, but the customer base is thinning and the number of bakeries dwindling.

It is up and early in the Lappeenranta village of Hanhijärvi on Monday morning. At half past two, Risto Helkala arrives in the back room of a single-family house that doubles as a bakery.

“I make two batches of dough so they can get right down to baking at five-thirty.”

Helkala first pours sugar into the bottom of a large dough mixing bowl. Then a couple of buckets of water, cardamom, and other spices. The yeast is the size of a brick. There is a tubful of butter.

“I don’t know many liters of dough will come out, but 60 kilos of flour go in,” says Helkala.

A big mixer begins mixing the dough in the metallic dough bowl.

Risto Halkala puts 60 kg of flour into the dough. Photo courtesy of Petri Kivimäki/Yle

Centuries-Old Roots

Juho Pulli Bakery is in an ordinary looking single-family house in Hanhijärvi, in the Lappeenranta countryside. 86-year-old Ritva Helkala lives in the house. As a little girl, she would go to the markets with her father, Juho Pulli.

“I was selling pretzels on the market on Red Square in Viipuri (Vybog) when I was six. Father and mother would go somewhere and leave me to sell the pretzels.”

In the 1930s, the trips from ranged from Lappeenranta to as far away as Joensuu, Hiitola, Lahdenpoja, Värtsilä, and Suistamo. They traveled by horse or train.

“A ledger book from 1880 has been preserved which shows that 19 trays of pretzels were produced. Pretzels have been made here for a long time,” says Ritva Helkala.

Secret Recipe

Nowadays, there are a dozen pretzel bakeries in Lappeenranta and the neighboring municipality of Lemi. Each bakery’s pretzels taste different, and the recipes are secret.

“I make grandfather’s recipe, and he said he was making his grandmother’s recipe,” says Risto Helkala at the bakery.

The dough has been rising for just over an hour. It is time for the dough to be kneaded.

“Here we batten the dough down to get the air out of it.”

According to new laws, the dough’s ingredients must be listed, but how much of what is used is a carefully guarded secret.

“A Viipuri pretzel baker would not reveal the recipe even on his death bed,” says Ritva Helkala.

Dozens of pretzels awaiting buttering and bank. Photo courtesy of Pyry Sarkiola/Yle

Ingredient Shortages during the War Years

Although the Viipuri pretzel has been made for centuries, the war years of 1939-1945 and their aftermath led to a serious disruption in production.

“There were ten years when pretzels could not be baked. There were no ingredients, and there were no markets.”

Then, when the war ended, pretzels were a bit peculiar. Not all the ingredients could be obtained.

“They were made with the spices that could be spared. Then, after the wars, cardamom became available. When restrictions on the sale of sugar were removed, production took off again,” recalls Ritva Helkala.

Her son Risto has rolled out the dough. He is making a stick a meter long and thick as an arm.

“It’s like a snake. It’s called an anaconda,” Risto says with a laugh.

There are five women in the bakery besides Risto.

“Get ready. The pretzel-making is beginning,” Risto exclaims.

The pretzels are moistened with egg mixture. Photo courtesy of Pyry Sarkiola/Yle

Pure Craftsmanship

In an adjoining room, Risto’s mother Ritva sits in an armchair. She still drops by to check the pretzels from time to time.

“In the 1930s, fifty kilos of pretzel dough would be made totally by hand.”

Helkala’s memory is sharp as steel, and her voice is firm.

“The dough was kneaded by hand. Two women would stand next to each other and knead the dough to finger thickness first.”

After this, the surface of the dough would be rubbed with butter. Then the stick would be put in a pile, and they would began again to knead the dough into a long bar.

“I remember when my arms would be swollen below here,” recalls Ritva.

Doughs were tougher in the 1930s and 1940s than now. According to Ritva Helkala, the pretzels had to withstand long journeys. They stood quite upright in the basket.

Three Different Sizes

At the Juho Pulli Bakery, everything is ready for making pretzels. Risto Helkala is cutting the dough stick into small pieces about a hundred grams in size.

“We’re making small pretzels now. There are also large and medium-sized pretzels. The biggest ones are the most popular,” Risto explains.

Two bakers grab the familiar pieces. Hanna-Riikka Nykänen snatches a bun-sized piece of dough and kneads it into a long, thin rod.

“I have been pretzel baking for a year. I learned it fairly quickly, since I have a baker’s education.”

Nykänen takes the rod at both ends and, in three seconds, spins it into something that looks like a pretzel. She already has a new piece of dough in her hand.

Sirpa Helkala packing the pretzels. Photo courtesy of Pyry Sarkiola/Yle

Several Bakeries

There are currently a dozen Viipuri pretzel bakeries in the Lappeenranta region. The bakeries usually operate out of single-famiy houses. Pretzel production is rarely their main livelihood. The Helkala family also owns an electrical installation company.

Twenty years ago, there were twice as many Viipuri pretzel bakeries in the Lappeenranta vicinity as there are now.

“The customer base is thinning, and marketing is pretty nonexistent,” says Sanna Lento-Kemppi of Southern Finland Farm Women and Homemakers.

Lento-Kemppi has been tracking rural entrepreneurship for years, particularly in the Lappeenranta region.

“The problem is that people don’t know where and when to get Viipuri pretzels.”

Lento-Kemppi’s surmise is easily confirmed by a quick search on the Internet. None of the Viipuri pretzel bakeries have their own Internet or Facebook pages.

“People really count on the fact that pretzels have always been sold at markets and they get them at markets.”

A new generation that doesn’t go to markets has grown up in Finland. At the same time, Viipuri pretzel buyers have also become less numerous. In Lento-Kemppi’s view, Viipuri pretzels missed out on modernization in terms of both marketing and product development.

In Lappeenranta, yet another Viipuri pretzel bakery closed last year, nor do all the existing bakeries necessarily have a successor on the horizon.

One reason for the decrease in pretzel-making is that manufacturing and selling pretzels requires persistence. One must be in good physical shape to do manual labor, and selling pretzels in the winter frost or sleet is not something everyone finds enticing.

Hot Conditions

It is +36 degrees Celsius on the thermometer in the Juho Pulli Bakery. The large wood burning stove in the corner radiates heat.

Arja Laukas lifts the large baking trays onto a perch.

“When the unbaked Viipuri pretzels have raised to the right point, they are buttered or brushed with beaten egg mixture.”

Kirsi Kostiainen, standing nearby, peeks into the oven.

“The color appears when they are done.”

One more tray goes into the oven. A motor rotates the trays in the oven’s heat. When the door opens, the soft, glowing warmth pours over Kirsi’s face. In spite of the heat and bustle, the work in the bakery flows with army-like precision.

“I’ve been doing this almost three years,” says Kirsi.

Over the years, a light spot, a spot not darkened by the ovens, has been left on the old baking trays. The spot is pretzel-shaped.

Ritva Helkala watches as her son Risto makes the dough. Photo courtesy of Pyry Sarkiola/Yle

The Craft of Baking Still Exists

Traditionally, Viipuri soft pretzel recipes and the craft of making them have been handed down from one generation to the next. In the 1930s, there were several bakeries in the village of Hanhijärvi. Their employees could go into business themselves.

“There were women at work in them who noticed that you could earn well this way,” Ritva Helkala laughs.

Her daughter-in-law, her son Risto’s wife Sirpa Helkala knows all the steps of making pretzels. She and Risto went into business in the early 2000s when the bakery changed hands generationally. Sirpa takes care of pretzel-making, as well as the company’s accounting and payroll.

“Viipuri pretzels have a good future. The business is doing well, and both young and old still like soft pretzels,” says Sirpa Helkala.

The finished pretzels are packed into bags. These are going to the market in Kuopio.

In the living room, Ritva Helkala rises from her chair and walks to the bakery side of the house. Everything seems to be alright. The new generation has taken over pretzel-making nicely.

Translated by Living in FIN. Thanks to TP for the heads-up

Easy Finnish, Lesson 1: Don’t Smoke

I scooped up the material for the first lesson in my new series, “Easy Finnish,” from the lawn as I was walking my trilingual dog Cholmondeley amid the famous tower blocks of Linnala, in ancient Imatra’s stuck-in-the-seventies Mansikkala neighorhood.

Apparently, the local smokers not only want to kill themselves. They also want to kill us with their trash, at least in the formerly picturesque Linnala.

I say “formerly,” because Linnala/Mansikkala will soon have more commercial retail space in terms of square meters per capita than any other similar neighborhood in Finland, for sure. More about that, below and later. Now we have to try and learn some Finnish.

Finnish: "Smoking is life-threatening." Swedish: "Smoking can kill."
Finnish: “Smoking is life-threatening.” Swedish: “Smoking can kill.”

Here we are reminded that Finland has two official languages: Finnish and Swedish.

The Finnish speakers are told that smoking (tupakointi) is life-threatening (hengenvaarallinenthe word is in the partitive case here). It sounds all very official and thus not to be taken too seriously.

Swedish speakers, on the contrary, are starkly told, “Smoking can kill.”

The language pulls no punches. Even a foreigner like me, whose grandfather’s native tongue was Swedish, but who has never had a single Swedish lesson in his life, gets the message.

All Finlanders, Fennophones and Swedophones alike, study both languages at school. In reality, the eastern part of the country, where Cholmondeley and I dwell part of the year, is utterly devoid of actual Swedophones.

A friend of mine once told me he tried to read a few Swedish-language novels a year to keep his school Swedish up. A couple of years ago, however, some of his neighbors launched a so-called people’s initiative to make the teaching of Swedish non-obligatory in Eastern Finnish schools. Fortunately, in March 2015, the Eduskunta, the country’s parliamentary, had the wisdom to smack down that stab at destroying the country’s identity.

Unfortunately, at the same time, they voted up an initiative that would permit kids living in the east of the country to study Russian instead of Swedish at school.

This nice-sounding but ultimately empty gesture was part and parcel of the same consumerist-driven Russophilia that, fueled by the relative prosperity of Petersburgers and Muscovites a few years ago (before Putin’s desire to become Master of the Universe and a big drop in the oil price tanked the Russian economy), caused the big towns of South Karelia, Lappeenranta and Imatra, to start reshaping themselves, often in stupid and destructive ways, to accommodate the Russian tourist-shopping boom. Now, just a few years later, the boom has almost completely dried up.

In any case, judging by what I have read in the press, none of this commercial frenzy has had any effect whatsoever on what foreign languages Finnish kids want to study, whether they live in the allegedly Russophilic east or the Russo-indifferent west. They still want to study languages that will have some utility for them as citizens of a European Union country and a globalizing world—German, French, and, above all, English.

Finnish legislators, on the contrary, apparently think the brightest dream the young people of South and North Karelia harbor for their lives is working in the tax-free checkout line at K Market, S Market or Lidl, where they can employ their high-school Russian to best effect.

Until recently, at least, you would see lots of empty Russian cigarette packs littering the yards, byways, beaches, and woods of Imatra, which is situated smack on the Russian-Finnish frontier, and is home to one of the country’s busiest border crossings.

These packs were probably not tossed on the ground by environmentally unfriendly Russian tourists and shoppers (although they would think nothing of doing just that in their own heavily polluted homeland), but by Imatrans themselves, unbelievably, especially since ten or so years ago you would have look hard to find any litter on the ground in this now-tarnished little gem of a town.

For the past several years, however, the locals have been taking advantage of the relative cheapness, in neighboring Russia, of certain vital goods like petrol, fags, and booze to dash across the border to Svetogorsk (the former Finnish town of Enso) to fill up their tanks and load up on cigarettes and hard alcohol.

But a new rule has come into effect (I forget which side instituted it) that obliges Finns to spend at least 24 hours on the Russian side of the frontier to be able to bring back three cartons of cigarettes.

That might put the kibosh on the once-routine petrol-and-cigarettes runs to Svetogorsk, but it might also ramp up the clandestine cross-border trade in some of those goods, which has been booming in parallel with legal commerce these past ten years.

In any case, the Swedophones have it right: smoking can kill.

Photo by Living in FIN

The Death of Einonkatu 6

The merciless of human beings towards the natural environment, the built environment, and each other is going to catch up with them soon, I’m afraid.

The latest victim is a handsome apartment block in Imatrankoski, Imatra, built before the war (if I’m not mistaken) by Jalmari Lankinen, the then-head architect of Finland’s thriving second city, Viipuri (Vyborg).

Einonkatu 6
Einonkatu 6 in Imatra bites the dust. April 26, 2016. Photo courtesy of Inka Nordlund and Uutisvuoksi.

I still haven’t figured out why this building had to go, even though I’ve read several incoherent explanations by city planners and developers in the local daily rag over the past year.

Most everywhere in the world, city planning and the construction business are rackets and mafias, and the real reason they knock things down is just to build something else in their place, almost always uglier, taller, needlessly expensive, and much less functional.

Lankinen is one of the most victimized architects from the glorious heyday of funkis (Finnish functionalism). Out in a gorgeous spot on the Lake Saimaa shore called Tiuruniemi, which is technically part of Greater Lappeenranta but is geographically part of Greater Imatra, Lankinen built an absolutely lovely tuberculosis hospital right before the Winter War, which then served as field hospital once the war started.

Tiuru Hospital. Photo by Living in FIN

Not so long ago, Tiuru Hospital served as the asylum seeker and refugee reception center for this part of Finland, but when developers decided to turn the nearby Rauha psychiatric asylum (another place with lots of good architecture, including some fine exemplars of funkis) into Holiday Club Saimaa, a retreat for bourgeois Russians flush with cash from the “prosperity” of the era of Putin 2.0, the asylum seekers were moved to a recently closed prison south of Joutseno, out of sight and mostly out of mind.

Holiday Club Saimaa and the Lappeenranta authorities had some vague plans to do something with Tiuru Hospital, but when the Russian and Finnish economies tanked, those plans came to naught, and the hospital has been sitting unoccupied in the woods for many years now. Recently, the Lappeenranta authorities made the Solomonic decision to stop heating the building, allegedly, because it was costing them too much. So now its degradation will proceed apace, although it is a listed building, supposedly protected by the Museovirasto or some such government agency.

When the refugee crisis struck, it occurred to me it would be a perfect opportunity to fix up Tiuru Hospital and fill it with life again, but inexplicably the Finnish Red Cross and the immigration authorities chose a hotel in Imatra that had fallen on hard times to accommodate its tiny quota of refugees.

Actually, there are so many empty spaces in Imatra and other parts of South Karelia, you could probably easily house all the inhabitants of a small Syrian city here without anyone noticing.

But instead we get absolutely meaningless “renovation” and “urban renewal,” as pictured above, instead of an exciting experiment in learning to live together with perfect strangers and redefining Finnishness (and Europeanness).

Who needs it?

Living Suitcase


“In the manner of Arkady Rylov, Difficult Journey. Oil on Canvas. Pargas Local History Museum. [Vladimir Lenin] was one of the ‘living suitcases’ of Finnish smugglers. Lenin fled to Finland just before Christmas 1907 after an unsuccessful attempt to begin a revolution in Saint Petersburg. Before continuing to Sweden, he spent a couple of nights hiding in Parainen, in the Kirjala manor. He introduced himself as ‘Doktor Müller,’ a German geologist. The Pargas Local History Museum received this work for its Lenin memorial room in 1969 from the Finland-Soviet Peace and Friendship Society.” The painting is currently on view at the South Karelia Art Museum in Lappeenranta, Finland, as part of the exhibition Barefoot: 10 Lives in the Karelian Isthmus, which runs until January 2016. Photo by Comrade VZ. Quoted text, above, reproduced from the exhibition signage


“V.I. Lenin spoke at a conference of Russian social democrats in this building in August 1907.” Kotka Concert Hall, August 2015. Photo by Comrade VZ
“This building, designed by Eliel Saarinen, was completed in 1907. It was destroyed in a bombing raid on July 6, 1941, and rebuilt in 1954.” Kotka Concert Hall, August 2015. Photo by Comrade VZ
Kotka Concert Hall. Image courtesy of Wikipedia