Monday, February 17, 2014

Runeberg, Swedish-speaking Finns, and delicious cakes (with recipe!)

Last Wednesday (February 5) was one of Finland's few national holidays.  It marked the birthday of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Finland's national poet, perhaps best known for composing the poem that became the words to the national anthem (Maamme/Vårt Land), and the tasty pastries that bear his name (though I think his only relationship to those was enjoying them).  More on those in a second.  First, I want to talk about something that I have been meaning to get to for a long time, which is Finland's largest minority, the Swedish-speaking Finns or Finlandssvensk.

Runeberg and the Finland-Swedish
If you look at Johan Ludvig Runeberg's name, you might not guess that he is Finnish (perhaps Kimi Räikkönen or Sauli Niinistö look more like you expect?).  In fact, if you look at any list of Finns you will notice a bunch of names that look Swedish.  Now if you know your Finnish history, then this should make sense to you because of the hundreds of years the place we call Finland today spent as part of Sweden.  But what is truly interesting is the continued existence today of a Swedish-speaking minority, the Swedish-speaking Finns (Finlandssvensk/Suomenruotsalainen).

The Swedish-speaking Finns could be considered a separate ethnic group from the Finnish-speaking Finns; however, everyone I have met from both groups self-identifies as Finnish the same amount.  It kind of reminds me of my Jewish friends in the US who are 100% American, the only difference is that their families have some additional traditions, slightly different cultures, and know a language that is the language of another nation.  (However, the analogy is obviously not perfect.  For example, Swedish-speaking Finns are totally fluent in Swedish and speak it at home, while many American Jews only know a little Hebrew.)

Finlandssvensk and privilege
NOTE: The reason I have hesitated to write about Finlandssvensk for so long is that the discussion can easily become political and therefore unpleasant.  I therefore apologize in advance if I say something that offends someone, and am trying to write this as a totally objective and curious/surprised foreigner, which is an accurate reflection of my feelings on this topic.  Seriously, it is very interesting how such a small minority maintains such privilege.

Finlandssvensk is definitely a minority in Finland, with only around 5% of Finns identifying as Swedish-speaking (the exact percentage varies from town to town - many places on the Finnish coast near Sweden have over 50%, and the Åland Islands - a politically interesting area, are mostly Swedish-speaking).  However, the group maintains a very privileged status, with their language recognized as one of the two national languages (the other, unsurprisingly, is Finnish), meaning that all signs and documents all across the country must be in both Finnish and Swedish, even in towns with very few or zero Swedish-speakers (EDIT to part in italics: Having not been all over Finland yet, I made the incorrect assumption that what I have seen here in Turku applies there too.  Apparently only once there is a certain % Swedish-speakers do the signs have to include Swedish, and then over 50% means Swedish is the first language.  This is a major inconvenience as demographics change because an entire city's signs must be redone if the percent Swedish-speakers changes).  Other examples of privilege include Swedish-speaking schools, official translation during sessions of Parliament, and that all students must spend several years learning the language in school.

This privilege is maintained actively by one of the political parties (Finland has a multiparty system), the Swedish People's Party of Finland, but I am almost certain that the historical roots go back to the Swedish-speakers used to be the dominant group in Finland.  When Finland was part of Sweden hundreds of years ago the Swedes were the ruling class, Finns were the peasant class, and actually German-speakers were a merchant class because of the Hanseatic League.  This meant that the Swedish-speakers were the upper class who had access to education and other benefits.  However, by the time Russia took Finland in the early 1800s, the Swedish-speakers considered themselves as Finnish and used their status and privilege to promote Finnish sovereignty.  Many of the famous Finnish nationalists from that era (e.g., Jean Sibelius, Adolf Ivar Arwidsson) were Swedish-speakers, which to me seems comparable in surprise to (for example) Quebecois independence being led by an English-speaker, but maybe I am missing something.

All signs must be in both Finnish and Swedish, with the majority language of the area written first.  The blue sign at the bottom of the image says that this is the place to get the ferry between two islands, first in Swedish, then in Finnish.  This picture is from a bike trip I took back when it was warmer...

Finlandssvensk and other Finns

The two groups actually stay fairly distinct, even from a young age.  Finlandssvensk are concerned about preserving their language, culture, and status in Finland and so often they send their children to Swedish-speaking basic schools.  These schools are set up to discourage too much interaction with Finnish speakers, to the point where one of the local school buildings with both a Finnish-speaking and a Swedish-speaking school actually has different recess times for the different languages.  Universities are also kept fairly segregated, and here in Turku (Åbo in Swedish) there are two universities (UTUÅA) and two schools of applied science (TUASNovia) - one of each for each language.

The most common complaint I have observed about the Finlandssvensk is the national requirement of learning Swedish.  Many Finnish-speakers resent this, perhaps in the same way that many Americans resent having to learn Spanish in school.  The end result is similar - many Finns are pretty terrible at Swedish, just as are many Americans who study Spanish.  In fact, many people I have met like to joke that my Swedish after a few months of study is better than theirs after several years.  There even was a recent initiative to remove mandatory Swedish from the curriculum, the argument being that much of the country does not ever interact with Swedish-speakers, and that if a non-Finnish language is going to be taught, English (or in some places, especially on the Eastern border, Russian) might be a better option.  Parliament voted this proposal down, but the feelings remain.

It is also interesting to hear the stereotypes of the Finlandssvensk (stereotypes generally are a bad idea, but as a foreigner they are an interesting way to see the opinion of one group about the other).  They are considered to have wealthier families, perhaps in the same way that Americans often consider New Englanders rich - we know that many are not, but then there are definitely some who are (there even is the same rude saying of "Daddy pays" - "Pappa betalar").  Finlandssvensk are usually considered to be more outgoing and friendly, and there is a joke about if you see someone smiling, they must be a either foreigner or a Finlandssvensk (this one I have observed, on average, to be true).

Svenska i Åbo
I currently am in Turku (Åbo in Swedish), which was the capital of Finland when it was part of Sweden.  Today, there still is a large Swedish-speaking population and many services dedicated to them.  As mentioned above, there are separate universities that seem equal to the Finnish-speaking ones.  There is also a Swedish theater, a Swedish adult/continuing education system (which incidentally is where I am taking Swedish classes), and a large Finlandssvensk celebration called Svenska Dagen.

Runeberg's Torts
Okay, now for the really important part - food!  Runeberg was famous for liking a pastry that now bears his name.  It is only available in stores for the month leading up to Runeberg's day (February 5).  I did not know anything about them until several of my friends told me they are "the food of the gods".  I like sweet things, and that was pretty high praise from Finnish people who do not tend to over exaggerate too much, so I had to try some.  Seriously, they are food of the gods - slight almond flavor (like marzipan), covered in jam and icing, and soaked in a sugar-cognac syrup.

The recipe is kind of involved, so I will just point you to this blog post where I got the recipe from.  It's a great recipe for a really tasty food!

My attempt at Runeberg Tarts, one with raspberry jam (traditional) and one with seabuckthorn jam (not traditional, but a Finnish jam), kind of matching the colors of the Finlandssvensk flag.  I did not have cake rings to make a nice tart, so instead I just used muffin wrappers.  The recipe has beautiful examples of how they should look.

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