Bittersweet Oulu: City of Civilization and Soul Shattering Sorrow

Now if you are a tech junkie you may know about a place called Oulu, a city which is essentially the capital of northern Finland. Otherwise, if you’re not a Finn or not a tech junkie, you have likely never heard of this city before, and even more likely wouldn’t know how to pronounce it. Think “Oh Lou”. This is a small Finnish city that is known as one of the top technological and innovative cities in the world. We are here to visit Aundrea, who has lived here for the last 3 years as she studies music. She recently moved into an apartment right in downtown Oulu.

Oulu is kind of a bittersweet place for me. You may know that we lived in Finland from 1999-2001 with our family, during which the first year we lived in a small town of Reisjärvi,  and the second year here in Oulu (more specifically Kempele). It was kind of a culture shock, to say the least, to move from a huge American city in the desert southwest (Phoenix) to a small cow town in the middle of nowhere, just a few hours south of the arctic circle (Reisjärvi). After finishing his bachelor’s degree David got a job at Reisjärvi Kristillinen Opisto where he taught conversational English, P.E. and woodworking, and that’s what brought us overseas.

When we lived in Reisjärvi we made trips fairly frequently to Oulu to visit friends, and to shop, and to feel like we were back in civilization. I think Reisjärvi maybe has a population of 3000 for the entire county. For entertainment we would go to the post office or the miniature grocery store in town. I mean, not really, but what else is there to do? The school where we taught and lived at was 7 km to town, and surrounded by farmers fields. If we had been smarter, and known better, we would have spent more time hiking and biking and exploring, but we were just too busy wallowing in our culture shock to make good use of our time. That’s not to say that we didn’t have a good time there, for certainly we have many great memories, however, we truly loved our excursions to Oulu, the booming metropolis of 140,000.

Now, as I already alluded to, the sweet part of living in Oulu was being closer to civilization. Oulu has pretty much everything that you might need, especially now that it has had time to mature. You can buy top notch sporting and camping equipment, there’s a wide range of shopping, you can dine at any number of restaurants offering a wide array of international cuisine (if you can afford it), you can find parts for your old beater car even if it’s an American clunker (clearly I have experience with this), there’s an amazing network of biking trails, there’s many kilometers of lit cross country ski trails, there’s rivers and lakes for fishing and boating, and there’s world class health care available. You name it, they probably have it. The city of Oulu also has a vibrant arts and music culture, and world class educational opportunities, not to mention lots of amazing, down-to-earth, wholesome, friendly and fun loving people.

Aundrea’s apartment, as I mentioned, is right downtown in the midst of everything that this vibrant northern city has to offer.

The apartment is probably pretty large for European standards, but since there is four of us visitors, and 2 more coming in a couple days from now, Annika and I decide to set up camp on the glass enclosed patio. It’s perfect.

On our first morning in Oulu we wander over to the Bisketti coffee shop. They sell these incredibly huge donuts and Finnish pulla, which are almost bigger than my head. Just what I need! A ginormous sugar bolus first thing in the morning!

On the main walking street in Oulu they have this statue of the “tiernapojat”. If you are a true Finn you know what that means.  It’s an old tradition that has roots in the city of Oulu, whereby young boys would team up in groups of four and go around the neighborhood before Christmas and sing to people in order to earn a few pennies…..or maybe even just a small piece of candle. The tradition is well and live today, as just down the walking street from here they have a singing contest for boys every Christmas season.

Since the time when we lived in Oulu the city has done a lot of growing up, and it even has a beautiful new indoor shopping mall.

Now, I did say that living in Oulu was bittersweet, didn’t I? I should tell you about the “bitter” part, and not that the word bitter necessarily describes it accurately.

When we lived that first year in Reisjärvi I began expecting a baby boy, whom we called Stefan. It was a very exciting time for our family, as we all were greatly anticipating his arrival. We had decided to move to Oulu because of Stefan. Initially we had intended to move back to Arizona after the year in Reisjärvi, but because of the pregnancy we had decided to stay a second year in Finland. David got his first engineering job in Oulu, and the rest is history.

The bad part of that history is that about a week after we moved to Oulu I went to my prenatal appointment only to find out that there was no heartbeat from our beloved Stefan baby. His precious life had been snuffed out by a knot in his umbilical cord just days before he was due to be blessed into our family.

So it was that our year in Oulu was spent working our way through soul crushing sorrow and grief. There were many dark, dark days. So, as much as we loved Oulu, it was also a place where we had to come to grips with losing a child, battling against a debilitating grief that threatened my very physical and mental well being. As a mother and wife I had to carry not only my own sorrow, but that of my children and spouse as well.

I think maybe that’s why I love Oulu so much. I mean, let’s be honest. It really is not the most fantastic city in the world, nor does it have the most desirable location, or the best weather, or many other factors that would make it be super awesome. But one thing that it does have is a sense of security, a sense of community, a sense of peacefulness, a sense of a big city disguised as a small town……and it is the place where I agonized and grieved over my son that I never got to see grow up. We had the good fortune of meeting some incredible friends who helped us through that dark period of our lives.

And that’s how on this day we find ourselves visiting a beautiful church in nearby Revonlahti, a super small town just 50 km to the southwest of Oulu. Our son is buried here. I may never have told you this story, or perhaps I have. When we found out that our baby had died we went directly to the Oulu university hospital to deliver him. The tears I started shedding there haven’t really stopped flowing even to this day 16 years later.

When our lifeless son was delivered we called our dear friends from Reisjärvi, the principal from the school we taught at there. Mikko was also an ordained minister with the Lutheran state church of Finland, and was quite familiar with everything about funerals and burials and related traditions in Finland. Their family was on vacation in southern Finland when I called them, and they immediately suspended their vacation plans and drove straight to Oulu to help us.

In the meantime, the hospital chaplain came to check on us several times, each time suggesting that she could quickly bless the child and have him cremated. Every time she suggested it I would cringe, and my soul would cry out in agony. I could not understand! Why does this woman want to burn my child? I would scream in my heart, “My child will not be burned!” Rather than scream at the chaplain I would politely decline her offer. When she left I would turn to my beloved husband and vehemently vow, “Nobody will burn my child, ever!” Then perched on the top of my hospital gurney we would hold one another close and cry our souls out.

That’s when Mikko called again and began to ask me if we had thought of a place to bury our child. Three places came to mind. Reisjärvi, because that was our home for the last year, but that was a 2 hour drive away. Kempele, because it was our new home, but that was still unfamiliar. And Revonlahti, because that was my mother’s home town, my grandparents are buried there, and it’s just 50 km from our new home. I listed the options to him, and he told me to sit tight, as he was going to make a few phone calls.

When he called me back he had the perfect solution, a solution so perfect that there had to be divine intervention, for there is no other explanation. He had called the parish in Revonlahti and found out that there was an unused plot for a child right on top of my grandparents in the church burial ground! We just needed to get permission from my mother’s family, and that could be our son’s eternal resting place, right there in the bosom of his great grandparents! What could be more perfect? My heart rejoiced at this news.

Unbeknownst to me, however, an unbaptised child is not supposed to be buried in the Lutheran state church cemetary in Finland. It was much later that Mikko told us that’s why the hospital chaplain had kept insisting that we must cremate our child. And much later that he told us he had not informed the parish that our child was unbaptised. Yet here he is, buried in this beautiful cemetary in the bosom of his great grandparents, at this gorgeous wooden church steeped in history. There could be no sweeter resting place for our dear departed son than right here in the bosom of his great grandparents, my lovely Elsa mummu and Matti pappa.

We try the latch on the church door when we arrive, and are delighted to find that the door swings open easily. The very moment that I enter the church brings me back to that day so many years ago.

We are standing upon the ancient hand hewn wooden floorboards that creak and give way slightly under our weight. I hear myself asking the kids, “Shall we sing a song for Stefan?”

And so it is that we have beautiful family services here in this centuries old church as we all join in singing a song we had sung at his funeral…..perhaps Stefan can hear us….I sing my heart out…..”There are treasures for children in heaven above…..who love Jesus and walk in his way…..”

There is no organ accompaniment today, but I can still hear it loud and clear. I can hear the introduction played just as it was so many years ago on the little pipe organ in the corner of the church, the sound blowing out through the pipes in perfect harmony as each key is pressed. Each note of the introduction pierces my heart, so that soon the pain of that day weighs heavily on my chest, nearly crushing my windpipe. It’s a sound I can recognize anywhere, for how could I forget? I can hear each note played out just as it was on that very day.

My voice rings out loud and clear despite the constriction I feel on my windpipe. The little ones are intensely focused on the task at hand, sensing a certain graveness of the moment, a certain nostalgia and a connection to their brother whom they never met, but yet who lives on in their very own hearts. Aundrea’s beautiful soprano voice leads the way. In the middle of the third verse my voice breaks when a lump forms in the back of my throat and my airway closes near completely…….my eyelids are blinking rapidly, trying to brush away the tears that are threatening to pour down my face. I let my own voice fall silent as I listen to the pipe organ blast the notes, rising to a nearly deafening crescendo, and my beautiful children singing from the very depths of their souls to their baby brother who died so many years ago. Bless his soul. Bless his darling little soul, who has captured our hearts forever, and forever changed us in a way none can know lest they have been there before themselves.

When the singing is over and the imaginary pipe organ music fades away from my subconscious, we all stand silently for a moment, our souls deeply moved. I take the first step towards the door. I find myself wondering how many generations before me have passed through that door. How many people have crossed this threshold with heavy hearts after losing a loved one, wiping tears away and comforting one another? How many happy couples have ducked through this doorway after exchanging vows at the altar, making promises to love and cherish one another until death do them part? How many newly baptized babies have been carried through this doorway by proud and loving parents, committed to raising their child in the fear and admonition of the Lord? How many service guests young and old have passed through here with their hearts feeling full after the service, or perhaps even troubled by the things they have heard, perhaps pangs of guilt heaped upon their weary souls? I push the ancient door open. The hinges emit a loud creaking sound as though showing resistance to our intended departure from herein.

We step outside and breathe deeply of the thick heavily pine scented air. My lungs expand spontaneously, as though that deep breath would wipe away sorrow that threatens to overcome me, and we make our way down the path to our baby’s resting place.

The gravel on the path crunches under my feet with each step just as it did on the day of the funeral….those heavy footsteps weighing upon my mind. Stefan’s father had carried him in a tiny casket along this very path, a tiny casket that was perhaps the heaviest burden he has ever carried, one that crushed our spirits and broke our hearts.

In beautiful Finnish tradition we light a candle that we place at the grave site. I know in my heart that one cannot find a more beautiful place of rest.

When we prepare to leave the sun bursts through the trees. My heart rejoices when I look upon my children as we walk towards the car, the great blessings of my life. How fortunate I am to have received such gifts in my life, such sweet and beautiful angels. I know that so many years ago I lost a son, but I believe I gained something valuable from that tremendous pain….an appreciation and deep love for the greatest gifts a mother could ever receive…..her children. I gained a deep seated connection with my creator. I obtained an anchor for my faith in the tumultuous seas of life, a lighthouse with a bright guiding beacon, gained from an innocent life lost before a single breath was taken. For all that I am eternally grateful.

When we get back to our car we all realize that we are famished. Aundrea had packed a lunch and we take off in pursuit of a picnic spot. The church yard would be perfect and beautiful, but the mosquitoes are relentless. We find a nearby school yard that is perfect for a picnic. The heaviness on my chest has eased.

It isn’t long before we are rained out of our picnic, and we head back towards Oulu. We make a stop at a couple of our favorite stores. Kärkkäinen’s was far and away our favorite when we lived in Finland. They sell a whole bunch of different stuff and junk. But, if you want to buy some Iittala dishes, for instance, they are far cheaper than the regular department stores. You may laugh at me, but we bought ski socks from here years ago that we still use to this day! They are the best! We also bought child sized summer sleeping bags from here that we used probably hundreds of times.

Then there’s the Zeppelin mall. I don’t know if it was named after Led or not. But I do know that our kids used to walk past this mall on their way to school each morning. There was always a bunch of drunks who hung out on the sidewalk waiting for the Alko store to open, as would be a common scene in most Finnish towns and cities – in my opinion the blemish on an otherwise nearly perfect society. The alcoholics would often harass the kids as they walked by. One time this dude threatened to kill my kids, so they came running home. When I contacted the school about what to do about the drunks who harass the kids in the way to school, and most specifically expressed concern about the death threats, the school was shocked that I was concerned. They assured me that they are “just drunks” and that drunks will never hurt anyone. I assured them that if someone threatened to kill my kids on their way to school in the states they would be arrested. Oh well. The kids never did get murdered even though they continued their daily walk by the Alko store.

For the evening we go to visit our dear friends. They are very special friends, indeed. They spent a year living in California where the man of the household worked on research as a professor, and that’s where we met. I know this sounds weird, but when we were in California we basically just called them and asked if we could visit, and they said sure. We had a great visit, and the two brainiac men especially seemed to hit it off really well right away. In turn they came to Arizona to visit us, and when they were at our house I hosted a baptism for their new baby. Since they didn’t know anyone in Arizona, I arranged for our pastor to hold the service, and then just invited some random people over for the ceremony. The baptism ceremony was so beautiful, with each of their children decked out in breathtakingly stunning matching dresses and dress clothes that the mother of the family had sewn herself! The atmosphere was thick with love and joy and contentment that each of the guests could feel in their hearts. And the ultimate kicker? They asked us to be godparents to their lovely little baby, which was of course the greatest honor! Mind you, I don’t feel like I am the best godparent in the world, but that is a whole other story. After they returned to Finland they hosted Aundrea for a year as a high school exchange student, giving our young daughter a beautiful and safe home and family. They have also hosted our youngest kids for long periods of time when they have been in Finland.

My godchild is beautiful. I will tell you that her name translates to “flower of the sea”. Indeed she is as pretty as a flower, and her eyes are as blue as the sea.

The man of the household is an avid gardener and their home is surrounded by beautiful flowering plants.

The next morning we set off on a walking tour of downtown Oulu. Aundrea lives across the street from the historic fish market.

It may be a fish market, but they sell other stuff here, too……like reindeer tongue…..that sounds weird.

Fresh salmon…..with lots of salt…..the Finnish way….

And more reindeer cuts…..I love reindeer meat! The only problem is that it’s frightfully expensive!

Yes, you can buy fish heads, too…..

What’s this place? Oh my…..they sell Finnish donuts!

There’s no place like sitting on the pier to enjoy some Finnish donuts. 

The old red buildings look inviting. Kristoff has to duck to get inside the shops. 
Next to the darling red buildings is an outdoor market.

If you are ever in Finland you have to try the little fried fish. They fry the whole fish, and although the texture is a little weird, they are delicious!

I told you before that Finnish strawberries are the best!

And Finnish new potatoes…..dug out of the ground when they are still little…..sorry Idaho, you can’t beat them!!!!

Okay, so don’t even get me going on the sweetness of the carrots, and the crispness of the onions…..

Downtown Oulu has a bunch of really cool old wooden buildings that have somehow survived over the years. 

And then there is the impressive Oulu Cathedral. When we lived in Finland we were invited here to the wedding of the mayor of Oulunsalo’s daughter, who is a dear friend of ours. Needless to say, like bumbling fools we accidentally sat in the section designated for the family. All the guests were wondering who these new family members were….perhaps they were wondering if there was a scandal somewhere in the family that no one had heard of before this? Or maybe they just realized we were culture naive Americans. 

Like most churches in Nordic countries there is a model of a sailing ship hanging from the ceiling, which is symbolic of prayers offered for the safety and well being of seamen. 

We had another memorable visit to the Oulu Cathedral when we lived here. We went here for a Christmas concert held by the Alakärppä family. They are an extremely musically talented family, and they had made a Christmas CD. The musical performance that evening was incredible and heart warming, with many beautiful Finnish carols ringing out in perfect harmony, their children singing alongside their father. It was magical. When we left from the cathedral we walked along this little stream, with large fluffy snowflakes silently cascading down upon us. It was perhaps one of the most romantic family moments I can remember. We have never forgotten that day, or that moment in time. The trees that line that pathway have now grown so large I can scarcely recognize the walkway. 

This is a new development in Finland….graffiti….

The kids are a lot more interested in Ainola Park than they are in cathedrals and old wooden buildings. Look at this dangerous piece of equipment that they have here! Shocking!

Look at this nice picture of Bjorn….I mean of the bikes…..I mean of the gypsy woman…shame on me! Taking a picture of a gypsy! I know better than that! I do have to say that I think it is amazing that the gypsy culture has survived for so many years in Finland, despite the fact that Finland is a country of true conformists. In general Finnish people are very much conformists and want to all be just like everyone else, yet this society has been able to maintain their culture separate and distinct despite external pressures to conform and integrate. 

Nowadays Oulu has a lot of great coffee shops.

…..and interesting bikes…..I don’t really like this one….reminds me of a hearst or something….

It’s already mid afternoon. I have a good friend coming to pick me and the three munchkins up, and we are heading off with her to someone’s cabin. Don’t ask me. We were going to head over to my friend’s cabin, but it’s a 100 km drive. That is not the problem. The problem is that my son Emerson and his girlfriend are flying into the Oulu airport tonight, so we don’t want to go too far away. It is his 29th birthday today and we really want to spend some time with him today as well. That’s why we will be going to someone’s cabin in Oulunsalo, which is right near the airport and only about 15 km away from Oulu. Emerson can come there straight from the airport with his girlfriend. Aundrea will be coming a bit later, once Jere gets off work. Tonight will be a little more cramped at Aundrea’s apartment with Emerson and his girlfriend joining  us. Before I leave from the apartment I plan in my mind where everyone will sleep tonight.

I text my friend to ask her if we can stop somewhere along the way to get Emerson a birthday cake, and she assures me that won’t be a problem…..she already has a birthday cake since tomorrow is her daughter’s 16th birthday. Perfect! Everything is settled. My friend picks us up. We make a stop or two along the way…..the Finnish way….you know….there’s no hurry around here…..