Table Manners

My expat kids ate a lot of weird stuff.- sometimes as guests in places where it seemed important that we act cultivated. My boys were regularly woodshedded on finding what they could eat, complementing the host, and apply the “if-you-don’t-have-anything-nice-to-say” rule regarding garlic chicken feet, durian or kidney pie. In that vein- in Finland, fish is plentiful, fresh, and relatively inexpensive. Salmon soup is a popular dish and Fulbrighter Erin Dowdling shared a recipe that I hear is really tasty. Breads are hearty, wholesome and reliable. Rye bread is a national staple.

shutterstock_96760834Finns do fine work with smoking meats and fish. Coffee is strong and biting and this is the only place I’ve been where a Louisiana gal can grab a powerhouse cup anytime, anywhere.

Finns have a sweet tooth. They insist that Fazer is  vastly superior to anything Dove or Hershey or Godiva manufactures. They seem to be almost as serious about licorice as they are about ice hockey. It comes in lots of crazy and pretty shapes and colors. There are varieties that are somewhat sweet; others 10019_10193_mare bitter. A mystery to me, many enjoy salted licorice. The aniseed/cardamom flavor also appears in breads, buns and ice cream. If I were to assign countries a distinctive national spice- India would have curry, Mexico would have chili, and Finland would have licorice. Actually, licorice may also be Finland’s only spice.

Anyone moving here would find the markets and grocery stores clean and good. Other than alcohol, there is plenty of choice and the prices are fair. Stores carry imported and specialty items. There are even locally made TexMex items. Cheese lovers will get lost in a section the size of a Gulf coast seafood counter. Familiar junk foods also line the shelves- potato Lays, cans of Coke, Snickers, Cocoa Puffs.

IMG_0526I’ve eaten my share of Finnish school lunches. American students still upset with Michelle for taking away our daily rice and gravy- there are more changes to come. Finnish students all get a free lunch. The meal always features some kind of a salad, a main dish, a vegetable, a drink and bread. Salad bars are simple- often shredded cabbage and shredded carrots with a topping such as raisins or peanuts. Everyone drinks water or milk. Vegetables are usually potatoes and the main course may be a protein or it may be  a pancake. Then there is a glorious bread bar with a saw/knife that diners are trusted to use without supervision and heavenly tubs of butter.

And while lunchrooms lack  mouth-watering smells, the sights and sounds are delicious. IMG_0535Scraping noises to clean plates can be deafening. The sound of metal on ceramic becomes musical; I’ve noticed girls daintily lifting their plates so they can clean every morsel. Then, everyone takes his tray to the kitchen where he puts dish, flatware, cup and tray in the container for washing.

Tourists eager to absorb Finnish culture should consider grabbing a school lunch . Teens here agree that the food offered isn’t their first choice of what to eat. Just like Americans, they prefer pizza and burgers. And more tempting is that Finnish upper school kids have an open campus and most schools are right in the heart of town- chances are that a pizzeria or ice cream parlor is a short walk away. But aside from the cost factor, students are aware that the food offered is healthy. As I made my way through a spinach pancake and boiled potatoes lunch, my table companions explained that these nutritious lunches are one of the reasons that the national health measures have improved. The healthy eating habits forged in schools seem to stick.  I’ve not seen an obese child or teen during my months in Turku.

Finishing lunch by helping with the pre-wash is equally striking. Not only is this the norm in school cafeterias, but in many cafes and restaurants, diners help with the clean up. Just look, there is usually a cart where trays and dishes are stored until the dishwasher can clean them. This reminds me of how tidy students are, even in those “messy” classes like craft or science labs. No one leaves until everything is returned to the proper place. This kind of attitude must spring from a sense of equality- a community feeling that everyone shares the space.

no20tippingOn the subject of food- a word about dining. We are told that it is not customary to tip in Europe. However, most of the tabs that I have signed on include an “extra” space. I generally don’t tip, but always feel weird about it. I have to remind myself that restaurant workers are considered professionals who earn a living wage. One thing that I have not figured out yet is getting the bill. In the US, an efficient waiter, knowing his livelihood depends on it, delivers the bill quickly- sometimes before the customer has finished his meal. And most diners make sure they get out of the way so the waiter can get another customer in. Not so here. It’s perfectly fine to sit at a table with a cup of coffee for hours. I usually have to flag my waiter down to ask for the bill. I asked a favorite waitress about this and she explained that Finns really respect the work/life balance and it is not uncommon for patrons to occupy a table for four hours or so.

Although I have eaten nothing Greg Messina gumbo caliber- fish, bread and coffee are good and plentiful here. However- what I have tasted in Finland is plenty of equality and work/life balance. I’d like to take those recipes back home with me.

This blog is not an official Fulbright Program blog and the views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.










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