log entry ID: ....a.... 2023-11-13 19:20:14 EET

Stay frosty, Oulu.

OK, so Oulu. It frosts. In the same way that it snows or rains elsewhere, in Oulu in late September, it frosts. For the whole first two weeks or so, the temperature stayed below zero, and every surface was gradually turned white with frost. The grass and certain trees were especially frosty. Probably something to do with the Gulf of Bothnia (not a typo, nothing to do with Bosnia). It was pretty spectacular.

The city, generally

I found Oulu to be quite similar to Helsinki, only with nicer weather. But this is only to say that Oulu was more like Helsinki than it was like any city in North America. It was colder, but the air was drier and calmer. It didn’t rain once. I was actually a lot warmer in Oulu than I was in Helsinki.

Oh, and the street signs, i.e. the signs labelling the streets, were much easier to read. The street signs in Helsinki are fucking terrible. I did miss the Helsinki bike share, though. Oulu used to have one, but it shut down. Sad face. I ended up bussing it everywhere instead, except during the last week of my stay, when a mysterious magic loaner bike spontaneously appeared exactly when and where I needed it most. Kiitoksia, Oulu :D! Getting week-long bus tickets was a real pain, though. There was only one place in all of Oulu where they could be bought, and it was downtown.

And, of course, the bike paths were awesome! Just like Helsinki’s, really, but it’s a lot harder to do when it’s snowing all the time, and you have to keep your bike paths plowed.

Finnish living

I was sick for the whole first week, so I didn’t really feel like going to the university, or even outside that much.

The week wasn’t a total waste, though. I was staying at an airBNB instead of in a dormitory in a hostel. So, I got a chance to see what Finnish apartments are like. It was really cool.

The locks are super weird. They are all made by a Finnish monopoly called Abloy, which is weird, because “Abloy” violates Finnish vowel harmony.

There are actually a few different monopolies in Finland, like the toilet monopoly, IDO; the faucet monopoly, Oras; and the elevator monopoly, KONE. Canadians should actually recognise that last one. Some of their elevators are in Canada too. Also, “kone” literally means “machine” in Finnish.

Anyway, they are all much higher security than Canadian locks. Along with variations in cut depth along the top, there are bumps along the side, and variations in the key profile, so that the wrong key won’t even fit into the wrong lock, never mind turn. The locks themselves work quite differently. The outside side has no handle—just the keyhole. The key itself unlocks, unlatches, and pulls the door open, all at the same time. I would unlock and open the door in one poetic motion with one hand, and 8 kilos of grocery in the other. On the other hand, I worry that the extra force being transmitted through the key may cause the keys and locks to wear out faster. Maybe it just doesn’t matter, because of how often the keys get reshuffled.

I’m pretty sure the kitchen was designed for elves, because the counters were way way too low. The coffee cups and water glasses were also quite small, further supporting the theory that this airBNB used to be an elf apartment, maybe in the ‘70s. The kitchen sink was awesome, though. It was welded seamlessly to the stainless steel counter, and the counter itself had a nice lip on it. And, of course, above the sink, there was the first astiankuivauskaappi I had ever seen. It was awesome.

While I was sick, I also had the chance to do some Finnish grocery shopping and some cooking. So, the grocery store… You see, Finland has a very highly developed porridge-based economy. Even in a small grocery store, a rather large share of the store is dedicated to the art of the porridge. There is every variety of oat imaginable, and a few other grains and grain mixes that you never think anybody would make porridge out of, but the Finns do, like the extremely Finnish neljän viljan hiutale. They even sell whole oats. The idea is you soak them overnight. At least, that’s what I did, and it worked pretty well. They’re really chewy!

To add to the porridge, there are frozen blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, buckthorn berries, puolukkaa, and sometimes even lakkaa, but that last one is rare and rather expensive. And berry soup. Yes. Berry, soup. Marjalainen keitto. It is exactly what it sounds like. Mashed berry pulp, cooked into a thick water emulsion, and sweetened. You buy it in these milk cartons by the litre, and use it to flavour porridge, yoghurt, and etc., especially etc.. Also, apparently, some Finns even just drink the stuff, lol.

Another thing one is guaranteed to find in every grocery store is dried whole peas. I have not seen a single bag of dried beans or of dried split peas. To Canadians, this is very unusual.

Incidentally, the yoghurt is also sold in milk cartons. It is kind of a bad idea, lol. Also, I did manage to find some dried chickpeas and other beans at the asian market, aptly named Asian Market. I was eating chickpea curry for like a week lol.

Also during the first week, I ran out of fountain pen ink. As luck would have it, during my sickly wanderings, I came upon a dedicated printer ink store—an idea that apparently makes sense in Finland. It was called “Prink”, and is part of a large chain of such stores. The guy there at the store, named Timi, was really nice. He taught me the word “kotoisin”, and he gave me cyan, magenta, and yellow manual refill bottles for free! Apparently, nobody manually refills their ink cartridges any more anyway, so he just had these bottles just lying around for years. Timi very much sympathised with my mission. Previously, he had gone to Sweden to learn Swedish. He started working in sales at a Swedish department store without any knowledge of Swedish whatsoever. In about three months, he knew Swedish. It was from him that I learned my favourite Finnish word so far: “liikkeessään”. It means “in his department store”.

Printer ink does work in fountain pens, but only if watered down a lot. Otherwise, it bleeds like crazy. Also, it has the curious property of being easily water soluble, until the moment it is absorbed into paper or fabric, at which point it becomes permanent. I will not say how I know the ink is permanent in fabric. I will only say that my grey pants are no longer 100% grey.

The University.

Several servings of homemade non-split pea soup later, I got better, and set out to the university.

Oulun yliopisto is a pretty unusual place. The entire university is one gigantic building. It’s so big that the hallways are treated like streets, with their own names, like Mathematics Street, and Physics Street. The staff even ride these scooter things indoors just as a practical matter.

Their chosen colour scheme is hilarious: black sans-serif text with a bright yellow background. All of the signs in the entire university follow this scheme.

To the non-Canadians out there, this is the same colour scheme used fanatically by a brand of generic store-bought food called No Name. So, I was basically visiting Pirkan yliopisto.

For the whole first week, the university was almost completely empty. Little did I know that every year in October, there is a week-long holiday called Syysloma (fall break), and all of the schools are out. And that was the week I had decided to visit the university.

This week wasn’t a total waste of time either, though. While wandering through the university looking for humans, I came upon a heavy metal door in the basement. The door sealed along all four of its edges, its corners were rounded, and the bottom threshold was about 200mm higher than the floor. The door was open, and there was a human inside! Named Ville. From him I learned that as luck would have it, this room just so happened to be Sigma-Kilti, Oulu’s math and physics guild.

For the Canadians out there, a “guild” in this context is a student-run organisation associated with the university. They specialise in a certain field of study, and look after students in this field, organising events, etc.. Depending on the university in Canada, “guild” would translate to a club or a society. Needless to say, “guild” is far more bad-ass.

So I was able to learn about math and physics at Oulu from Ville, along with student life in general. I also learned that this room was also an honest-to-God bomb shelter, and that in Finland, every building above a certain size is required to have a bomb shelter in its basement—something to do with a certain empire to the east.

Later that week, I revisited Sigma-Kilti. There were a lot more people that time, including Seliina. It was from them that I learned my favourite Finnish expression so far: “Asiasta kukkaruukkuun…”. Literally, it means “from this matter, to a flower pot…”, and is used to abruptly change the topic of conversation.

They also taught me the word for bucket: “ämpäri”. You see, Finns have a bit of an irrational fixation on the idea of the bucket. They are used frequently for promotional giveaways. When a store opens, it is absolutely typical for Finns to line up around the block just to get a free bucket. What Finns do with all of their free buckets is a bit of a mystery to me, still.

They were also playing Fallout: New Vegas. In a bomb shelter. It was the metallest.


Also during Syysloma, a newly-made friend named Timo led me to a pub called Jumpru. Now, that is a cool place. Near the coat check, there is an arched passageway with way too low of a ceiling—also clearly of Elvish origin. Through this passageway, there is a music room, with a piano, guitars, and bongos. They are all free to play, but you had better play iskelmä, or else a drunk Finn might yell at you a little.

What is iskelmä, Eric?

Well, I’m so glad you asked, esteemed reader. Imagine the kind of rock and folk in North America and the UK in the ‘60s and '70s, only you haven’t heard of any of the bands, and everything is in Finnish. That is pretty much what iskelmä is. Here is an example. The regulars at the music room in Jumpru are really into iskelmä. If you do play it, they sing. All of them. All night. One time, I was playing a piano rendition of Subdivisions by Rush. When I arrived at about 0:37, the whole room spontaneously started singing along, in Finnish, only whatever they were singing was very much not Subdivisions by Rush. It turns out, there is a part in some iskelmä song with identical chords and tempo to this one section of Subdivisions.

If any Finns out there recognise this iskelmä song, I would like to know what it is, so that I can do some sick segues. You should be able to guess my email address.

The mansion out in the suburbs

Due to the Syysloma debacle, I had to book another week of accommodation somewhere in Oulu, so that I could visit the university again, but with humans inside this time. For a decent price, I found a room in a basement of a house out in the suburbs somewhere. From where I was standing on the street outside of the place, I could see this was no ordinary house. It was huge. I don’t know if it would qualify as a mansion technically, but it certainly felt like one. My hosts, Jukka and Riitta, who owned the house, were very nice. They were a little older, so their English wasn’t as good. They gave me coffee and some delicious rye flour porridge with puolukka.

yeah, the Finns make porridge out of every damned thing.

Meanwhile, they showed me what I thought were twelve pictures of their children, of which there were perhaps three or four. After a confusing couple of sentences, it was eventually communicated that these were actually all different children! They had twelve kids! I had never before met the parents of such a large family. I guess that’s why the house was so big. It was mostly empty, though. The youngest child had just moved out. This was the whole reason why my hosts had started renting out their basement on airBNB.

I learned some nice words from them, too. While we were talking and coffeeing, the first snow of the year was falling outside. It was very beautiful. In order to properly describe it later, I learned the sentence “Tänään satoi ensilumen!”. “Ensilumi” is Finnish for “the first snow fall of the year”. The whole thing means “The first snow flew today!” Oh, and Jukka taught me how to say Thunder Bay in Finnish: Pärinälahti! He also taught me the word pärinätupa, which I will not translate.

And that puolukka porridge I mentioned: that puolukka didn’t come from a store. Every year, Jukka and Riitta go out into the Finnish forest and forage for puolukkaa. This is an absolutely typical thing for Finns to do. This year, they had picked five buckets of 10 litres each!

Oh, hey, maybe that’s what Finns are doing with all of their free buckets…

The openhouse

The next day, I revisited the university. Now, instead of being empty, it was much busier than I had expected it to be on a regular school day. And the students all looked a lot younger than I had expected… It turns out, this time around, I had arrived on the day of the highschool openhouse!

All of the different departments had set up little booths, manned by student representatives. The English department had set up a quiz. The objective was to match English words with the correct IPA pronunciation keys. The quiz was quite hard for non-native English speakers, due to the … insane nature of English orthography, but easy for natives. I decided to play a bit of a joke on them. I stepped up to their table without saying a word. I look passably Finnish, so they all just assumed I was Finnish.

It’s actually a bit of a problem. People just come up to me speaking their native turbocharged fully-automatic Finnish, and all I can do is reply with something like “Anteeksi, lausesi oli liian pitkä.”, or “I’m sorry, your sentence was too long.”. Especially in Helsinki, Finns have two settings: impossible and English.

I started the quiz very slowly, taking way more time on each word than I really needed. Then, partway through, I suddenly sped up, getting through the remaining words in just a few seconds.

Next door, there was the Swedish department’s booth. They had also set up a quiz, about Swedish history and culture. I failed it miserably.

It did prompt an interesting question, though. You see, the objective was to associate a list of about 15 Swedish inventions, buildings, historical events, etc. with 15 locations on a map of Sweden, which had all been given numbers. The question is, if one associates the inventions etc. with the locations totally at random, how well on average would one expect to do on the test? The naïve answer would be to multiply the probability of getting a single answer right (1/15) by the number of questions, giving you an average score of 1 out of 15. That is too low, though, because it doesn’t take into account the effect of the process of elimination. The real answer is much more difficult to find. I have no idea what it is. Maybe I’ll write a log entry about it.


After I had wasted a sufficient amount of time with the openhouse, I finally went to talk to Matti Silveri at the NANOMO research group. They were doing some interesting stuff. My main research interest is the randomness generated when two quantum systems interact and exchange information. They model mesoscopic quantum systems, which is where a lot of this magic happens. But I learned pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to study quantum field theory there, since nobody there knows it or teaches it.

I really really want to learn quantum field theory. It is the most accurate model of reality physicists have at the moment. It is a massive, unwieldy and insanely difficult subject, though. In Helsingin yliopisto, it is divided into seven courses: Introductory particle physics, QFT I, QFT II, QFT III, QFT IV, Lattice QFT, and Thermal QFT.

So, there goes Oulun yliopisto from my list, at least for now. Maybe I’ll learn quantum field theory from Helsingin yliopisto first, then do my Ph.D. with NANOMO.

Koivurannan saunalautta.

So, I came across this video by Not Just Bikes, about what urban planners call the Third Place.

People who prefer paying for content by watching ads instead of with money are welcome to watch it here. Cheap skates and tight wads who want it for free can watch it here. That third link is also there just in case the video suddenly disappears from both of the other two places.

I decided to look for possible Third Place candidates close to “my” mansion in the suburbs. I used google maps to find the closest café. It was closed, but nearby, I saw lights on in another café-shaped object on the shore with birch trees closeby. I went over to investigate, and found a small café on a raft, parked at a dock. It was open! When, much to my surprise, the girl at the counter told me there was a sauna in the back, I knew I had found my Third Place! Though I should have guessed there would be a sauna inside judging by the huge stacks of firewood by its entrance. The place was aptly named Koivurannan saunalautta, which means “the sauna on a raft on the shore with birch trees closeby”.

That was mostly a joke. No language could possibly communicate so much information in so few syllables. More strictly, it means “sauna raft of birch shore”.

The sauna must be reserved a day beforehand, for obvious reasons, and so that the sauna master knows how much wood to burn in the sauna. When there are fewer people, the door gets opened and shut less often, so less heat escapes, so less heat is needed to maintain the sauna’s temperature of around 80 degrees celsius.

Why can’t the sauna master just put more wood in as soon as more people arrive, Eric?

Good question, esteemed reader. There is a delay between when the wood goes in and when the sauna gets hotter.

So, anyway, I reserved time for the next day using their website. The sauna was pretty much the same as those in Canada, except that the sauna master would regularly pour water onto the rocks, resulting in waves of humidity and heat, which were extreme and confusing in equal measure. Extreme, because you feel like you are getting severe steam burns all over your upper body, and confusing because you are not actually getting severe steam burns all over your upper body. (The lower half of the sauna never gets that hot, just like any other sauna.)

Sauna goers take a “break” from this madness by going for a quick swim in the freezing cold river outside. Yes, I tried it. Unsurpringly, it was cold. Quite surprisingly, when I got out again, the cold air didn’t bother me at all. The air actually felt warm. Eventually, though, the cold air felt cold again, so I took a “break” in the sauna.

It was from these sauna goers that I learned my second favourite word of Finnish, so far: löyly. It means “the steam rising from a sauna after water is poured on the rocks”.

That one is not a joke.

Well, that’s just about it.

That was my trip to Oulu. I’m back in Helsinki now, in an airBNB in Takatöölö.

But what about the mysterious magic loaner bike, Eric?!

Oh, yeah. On one particularly boisterous night at Jumpru, by the time I realised I had to go home, it was already about 4:00 AM and the buses had stopped running

At this time, my airBNB was in Riitta and Jukka’s mansion way out in the suburbs, so I had about an hour-and-a-half walk ahead of me, through a light blizzard. About half an hour into the walk, just when the novelty of walking through a snow storm in a foreign country was starting to wear off, I came upon one of Oulu’s excellent bike paths. And there, on the side of the bike path, perched on its kickstand, was the bike. The seat was way too low (elves again, surely), the tires were a little squishy, there was only one speed, and the brakes were coaster brakes, but by God, it was exactly the right amount of bicycle I needed to get me home.

I didn’t take it all the way home, though. I considered that a dick move. Instead, I got as close to home as the bike path could get me, then I parked the bike on its kickstand at the side of the bike path, just as I had found it, though admittedly not just where I had found it.

I sure hope that bicycle is doing all right.