Potatoes, Hot Dog Sauce, and Socialism
Published: January 26, 2020
At the Salolampi camp in Minnesota, American children are immersed in Finnish life
By Anna-Sofia Berner
Photos by Uwa Iduozee
Bemidji, Minnesota – Maybe this is what it feels like to be a Chinese person seeing a Chinatown abroad for the first time. Though the place is foreign, everything feels familiar.
There are birch trees and a lake with a sauna beside it. Signs written in Finnish direct visitors to the cottages and a dance pavilion.
In the dining hall, guests are served boiled potatoes, “nakkikastike” — hot dogs in gravy — and quick-pickled cucumbers. Marimekko fabrics and traditional “ryijy” rugs hang on the walls.
When the meal is over, coffee cups clink loudly against saucers as everyone searches for something to talk about. Soon you find yourself turning over a plate and saying, “They are Arabia Arctica.” A beautiful Finnish pattern.
But unlike American Chinatowns, no one lives here at Salolampi. Salolampi is a summer camp built on the edge of Turtle River Lake, where every summer about 150 American children and teens are introduced to Finnish language and culture.
Salolampi is supported financially by the independent Salolampi Foundation, but it is also part of the Concordia Language Villages. Here, in the backwoods of Northern Minnesota, 15 different languages and cultures are taught. Salolampi’s neighbors include the Spanish, French, and German villages.
Salolampi is greener than the other villages, of course. Fewer buildings, more nature.
The idea of each village is that the campers are immersed in the language and culture of each country. At Salolampi, the staff try to give their instructions in Finnish, the food is Finnish, and campers go to sauna every day.
That much is easy, but the camp’s philosophy requires that Finnish culture be distilled in a way that Finns rarely experience. We aren’t accustomed to seeing our own food culture at restaurants abroad the way Thai people do, for example, or at bars, like the Irish.
Salolampi shows how to simulate Finland.
At camp, the day begins with raising the flag. Everyone gathers around the flagpole and joins in singing “Finlandia.” In the evening, the flag is lowered to “Maamme,” the Finnish national anthem.
Both are sung more beautifully than you’re likely to hear at any Finnish summer camp. No one mumbles here.
Raising the Finnish flag feels awfully nationalistic. There’s no such custom in Finland, except maybe on Midsummer. But raising the flag is part of a typical day at an American summer camp, even if, in this case, it happens to be the Finnish flag. Routines in general are important at camp. They create a daily rhythm and sense of community.
Nonetheless, a sense of patriotism comes over me for a moment after “Maamme,” until someone says, “Hey, let’s get out of here. It’s really starting to rain.”
Ah, that’s Finland for you.
Each night, one camper receives special recognition for having spoken a lot of Finnish during the day. Today, the award is given to Noora. Her real name is Noelle Aguilera, but at camp, everyone has a Finnish name.
Campers come to Salolampi from all over the United States: California, Florida, Indiana, Connecticut. Aguilera is from nearby Bemidji. It’s the closest small town, with 15,000 inhabitants.
Two weeks from now, Aguilera will leave for Salo, Finland, as an exchange student. She would have preferred to go to France or Sweden, but when the exchange organization decided to send her to Finland, she signed up for Salolampi to learn at least something about Finland before she goes.
Some campers have no connection to Finland: 14-year-old Erin Laedtke, “Sirkka,” heard that Finnish schools are the best in the world. After high school, she wants to study at the University of Helsinki and is getting a head start by coming to Salolampi to study the language.
Should I tell her that it’s the elementary schools that are so good in Finland? Maybe not yet. She still has time before university.
Some campers have come for no reason other than simply to learn Finnish. Rare languages are intriguing. The older students have grammar lessons. Younger campers learn the alphabet, colors, months of the year, and other basic vocabulary through games.
Twins Christel and Ruby Schober-Colbum, “Katja” and “Sanni,” took an unusual route to camp. Their Armenian aunt saw the Finnish lawn game Mölkky in a store and thought it was German. The twins have German heritage, so their aunt bought them the game as a gift.
The sisters googled the game and found out that it was actually from Finland. After some more googling, they eventually decided to come to Salolampi. It was a good decision. The twins have already been to camp three times.
Most of the other campers come from Finnish families. They are generally several generations removed, and few of them have ever been to Finland.
The youngest campers are here because their parents have sent them, but the teens have their own motivation. They’re interested in the language and want to know at least something about their “roots,” as they say in the United States.
The director of Salolampi is fifth-generation Finnish-American Amy Tervola-Hultberg, known at camp as Iida. Tervola-Hultberg explains that because of the three Indian reservations in the area, a billboard has been erected along the road that reads “Knowing your identity can save your life.”
“When I drive by, I often think about how wise that saying is.”
Now the campers are learning about their identity through singing. Jesse Luoma, a volunteer counselor at the camp who goes by Urho, is on stage teaching the words. Luoma adopted a camp name even though his actual first name is already Finnish. “Urho” sounded fun.
Luoma’s three helpers on stage use gestures to try to explain what happens in the song. Horses and cowboys have already been explained. Next up is “kaupunki,” the Finnish word for city. Luoma lists examples of cities: Helsinki, Chicago, and so on.
“Kaupungista pois,” the lyrics go — “Away from the city.”
“Bye bye kaupunki, bye bye Helsinki, bye bye kaupunki,” Luoma says.
“Say ‘cow-poon-ghee-stah poys,’” he instructs the campers.
“Cow-poon-ghee-stah poys,” they repeat in unison.
Then they sing the first verse of the song, alternating between Luoma and the campers: “Kolme cowboyta ratsastaa hevosillaan kaupungista pois.” Three cowboys on horseback ride away from the city.
Luoma is Finnish-American, and before this week at camp he hadn’t spoken Finnish in 15 years. From the way he talks, you never would have guessed.
Luoma has never been to Finland. He first learned the song about cowboys, by Finnish musician J. Karjalainen, over 20 years ago here at Salolampi. Luoma enjoyed the camp so much that he returned again and again, first as a camper and later as a counselor, until life got in the way. He studied Finnish not only at Salolampi, but also at the University of Minnesota.
Summer camp is an essential part of American culture. When school is out for the summer, parents who have to work are eager to send their children and teenagers to camp for a while.
At Salolampi, some of the campers stay for four weeks; the rest are there for a week or two. The littlest campers come for family week together with their parents.
For many, Salolampi remains a one-time experience, but there are also those for whom it becomes a big part of their identity. Some of the young people attending camp this year are at Salolampi for the tenth or even twelfth time. They’re like the young people in Finland who, after attending church camp, become active in the parish.
As adults, they may end up raising the next generation of the faithful. The Finnish camps have been organized since the 1960s, and some families have been attending Salolampi for generations. Some of the counselors come from Finland, while others are former campers.
The counselors who come from Finland help introduce campers to contemporary Finnish culture. In the evening, current Finnish pop musicians like JVG, Antti Tuisku, and Paula Vesala can be heard playing in the cabins. The ’90s girl band Nylon Beat is a favorite among the youngest campers.
In the afternoon, the dance pavilion serves as a court for floorball, a type of floor hockey popular in Finland. Over the clatter of floorball sticks, it’s apparent that all the players know at least two Finnish words:
And in the end, “Maali!”
Meanwhile, other campers dance a folk dance in front of the camp’s main building. My native knowledge of Finnish culture is inadequate to identify the dance.
“It’s tikkuristi,” Saga Nieminen, a counselor, explains.
Nieminen is from Finland and studying to become a teacher. She also learned the dance for the first time here at Salolampi. In Finland, only folk dance enthusiasts are familiar with tikkuristi. Here, it’s passed down from one generation of campers to the next.
After tikkuristi, the campers dance to “Hula hula,” a recent hit by the Finnish popstar Robin.
While some campers play floorball and others dance, a third group is doing handicrafts. The Schober-Colbum twins and two other girls are learning to weave on looms. The others are knitting or crocheting.
Counselors teach the necessary vocabulary: “sukkula,” shuttle, “isoäidinneliö,” granny square, “silmukka,” stitch.
Imitation Finland also includes learning about “The Kalevala,” Finland’s national epic, and how to play the kantele, a traditional string instrument. The Finland of Salolampi is a combination of 19th-century national romanticism and today’s nation branding, which is to say the welfare state and education.
The previous evening, campers had participated in a role-playing game designed to teach them about Finland’s economic history and social structure. They learned about the depression of the 1990s, Nokia, and Finland’s world-class education system.
“We learned that Finland leans more toward socialism,” Christel Schober-Colbum says.
“That taxes there are higher but the government also gives people more than they do here.”
Campers learned about the Winter War by playing capture the flag: Finland versus the Soviet Union. They have also celebrated both Christmas and Midsummer, the latter for the fourth time this summer.
Amanda Fie Hand, director of the Danish camp next door, says that her village focuses more on the Denmark of today than that of the campers’ grandparents.
“We talk about how Danes aren’t all white Scandinavians anymore.”
Though at Salolampi there’s more emphasis on ancient heroes like Väinämöinen, the weaving and the old epics don’t seem to have hurt Schober-Colbum’s image of Finland.
“My idea of Finland is that it’s a happy place.”
As the evening winds down, it’s time for another role play. Tonight’s theme is “The Journey to America.” It recreates the migration experience of many of the campers’ ancestors at the beginning of the 20th century.
Participants are divided into families, each with their own backstory and with varying resources for the trip.
The Punamäki family. The father of the family is Ahti. The mother is Noora. You are communists. Finland doesn’t like you. You are sad to leave home. Your hometown is Teuva.
The Aalto family has been living on the streets of Helsinki and moves to the United States for work. The Kiertola family has also been homeless in Finland. The mother and three sons of the Säpinä family are criminals who leave Finland to escape the police.
Other families are Lestadians — members of a Lutheran sect — who are seeking religious freedom, or Ostrobothnians who were left landless when the oldest son inherited the family farm. One migrant is avoiding conscription into the Russian tsar’s army.
First, each migrant needs to board the ship, represented by the sauna in the main building. First-class passengers travel in the comfortably cool dressing room, while the others cram into the crowded sauna.
After the sea journey, the migrants land at Ellis Island, through which hundreds of thousands of Finns arrived in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century.
The counselors are playing the role of Americans but speak Finnish. This gives the American campers a chance to experience what it’s like to arrive in a place where you don’t understand the language.
The immigration officials give the immigrants new names. Some are held in medical quarantine and separated from their families. One person’s passport was stolen back on the ship.
Once they’ve reached their destinations, the immigrants receive points for integrating. Education is rewarded with one point, which is given out in a room where the immigrants pledge allegiance to the American flag. In Finnish.
The immigrants can’t get work before their papers are in order, but the bureaucracy is difficult to understand. The Finns end up doing hard physical work in mines, on farms, or in logging. They’re often harassed by the police. There isn’t enough money for food, and political activism can cost workers their jobs. Some end up stealing.
The only source of help is their fellow Finns, who gather at the local Finn Hall.
After the game, the campers gather at the dance pavilion to discuss their experience, this time in English.
Counselor Ingrid Goetz, “Inkeri,” asks the participants to share their characters’ backstories before explaining that there are always push and pull factors at play in migration. Migrants may be attracted to a new country by religious freedom and the possibility of finding work, or pushed out of their home country by poverty or political persecution.
“What did you think was difficult?” Goetz asks.
The campers provide a long list, ranging from being separated from their families to the mosquitos that plagued them on the farm.
“And what was easy?”
A rare silence falls upon the group. Then someone shouts, “Nothing!”
“Who thinks that nothing was easy?”
Many hands go up.
“It was easy to get sick and end up in jail.”
Goetz asks the campers how their experiences from the game are relevant in today’s world. For a moment, they talk about how many present-day immigrants experience similar things.
With that, the day is over. The campers and counselors disappear quickly into their cabins, named for Finnish provinces: Häme, Pohjanmaa, Lappi, Savo.
Quiet time begins at 10 p.m. By then, it’s already dark. Finland’s midnight sun is one thing a simulation can’t recreate.
Page A6: The youngest campers are generally at Salolampi because their parents have sent them, but the teenagers come because they want to.
Page A7, clockwise from upper left:
Salolampi’s main building was constructed in the early ’90s.
Isaac Ylitalo, “Isto,” wears a Finland cap.
The campgrounds also feature a “kota,” where campers learn about the indigenous Sámi people.
Campers listen to the music of Finnish bands Eppu Normaali and Nylon Beat.
Brooklyn Rondeau (left) and Kaisa Hogan, “Sarra” and “Kaisa,” shop in the Finland-themed camp store.
Page A8, clockwise from upper left:
Noelle Aguilera will soon be going on exchange to Salo, Finland.
Camp counselor Anniina Raunio teaches the Pledge to the Flag in Finnish.
Layla Barquero-Ravio, Siena Rousseau, and Olivia Laske — “Leila,” “Lea,” and “Eerika” — pledge allegiance.
Mitchell McMahon and Chris Durdin play the roles of Joukahainen and Väinämöinen, characters from “The Kalevala.”
Anna Goodrich (left) and Ephie Cozad Schlicter, “Emma” and “Katariina,” eat ice cream from the camp store.
Page A9: Campers line up to speak with immigration authorities at Ellis Island during a role-playing game.