I arrived in Alajärvi for a three-month art residency at the Nelimarkka Museum. The air was crisp, the ground still covered with snow.
I explored the town. When I smiled and said hello to people, they all had the same reaction. They would look away. Something I had not experienced in Helsinki, Tampere, or Jyväskylä. The supermarket had modern food items with fillers and sweeteners like in the U.S., but no hearty artisan breads.
Everything felt cold: the weather, the food, the people.
A teenage boy yelled “China!” and “Chinese!” at me from a far enough distance that he could easily run away.
People’s reactions to me sparked an idea. I had a hankering for rustic bread since I could only find soft, enriched loaves in town. I would make a traditional Finnish sourdough rye bread (ruisleipää) that you could sink your teeth into and sell it at the outdoor market in town. This would give the locals a platform to talk with me, where it would feel “safe” for them to interact. Jenni, the museum intern, found a regional cultural dress for me to wear. She told me Alajärvi was actually the most chauvinistic and xenophobic region of Finland.
Rye (ruis) has been a staple in Finnish culture since the Stone Age. According to folklore, ruis gives power to the wrists. I was hoping to harness some of this enchantment in the dense, chewy, tangy loaves I would make to connect with the locals.
As with many things in life, nothing went as planned. Imagine a Holly Hobbie play oven. I was dealing with one not much bigger, and it took all night to bake 12 loaves. The tiny oven forced me to change the shape of the traditionally round loaves to oblong. Then it turned out to be an off-week with many fewer booths at market, and few customers came by. We sold several loaves and those folks were curious, but no deep discussions emerged. The rest of the loaves sold back at the museum. On the upside, people really liked the aromatic bread I had made.
But I could not get people talking.