Thinking about Canada in 1988 and Finland in 2017…

I grew up during the 1980s at a ski area in Northern Vermont. One of the surprising ways this influenced who I turned out to be was through television: although there was and is an ABC affiliate in the television market (WVNY, channel 22, in Burlington), the mountain where we lived was so close to the transmitter site on Mount Mansfield that we couldn’t see it. (We also couldn’t get either local PBS station, there was no such thing as cable, and my mother wouldn’t even consider having a three-meter-wide satellite dish in the front yard like many other rural Vermonters at the time.) As a result, that morning in November, 1983, when all of my classmates showed up at school freaked out over The Day After, I had no idea what the big deal was — it had aired (only) on ABC, where I couldn’t see it.

Although we didn’t get ABC, and the only PBS station I could see (through the “snow”) was from Norwood, New York, more than 100 miles away, we did get crystal-clear signals from all of the major Canadian networks’ Montreal transmitters atop Mount Royal. (For the broadcast geeks out there, at the time they were CBFT 2 , Canada’s oldest television station, with Radio-Canada; CBMT 6 with CBC; CFTM 10 with TVA; CFCF 12 with CTV; CIVM 17 with Télé-Québec; and, after it signed on in 1986, CFJP 35 with what was then Télévision Quatre Saisons. Global wasn’t in Quebec yet.) This meant that, for most of my formative years, I spent a good deal of time watching Canadian television, which most of America didn’t have access to and even most of my peers never saw. I have no memories of MTV, for example (remember: no cable out in the sticks), but both CBC and CTV had daily half-hour music-video compilation shows (which of course featured a lot of Canadian bands nobody in my peer group had ever heard of). During the 1980s, ABC held the US broadcast rights to many of the major sporting events, like the Olympics, and many winter sports received little or no US broadcast coverage at any other time (hockey, for example, was only on cable after one year of select games on CBS).

Canada being a country that actually has winter, and cares about winter sports in a way that most of the US doesn’t, the Canadian stations carried lots of sports that I would not have seen otherwise. Curling never appealed to me, but I could watch FIS Alpine World Cup ski racing on “CBC Sportsweekend” through much of the winter (when we weren’t out skiing together as a family — recreationally; I only ever raced once, in a Boy Scout event at Bromley), and the World Figure Skating Championships were a highlight of every year (even though I never learned to skate). I can remember watching several Worlds with the late Toller Cranston providing commentary, I think mostly for the CBC, and there was a Canadian pairs team who later took over that job — whose names I’ve unfortunately forgotten, although I can still hear their voices in my head.

By 1987, things weren’t going so well for me at the parochial high school I was attending, and we started to look for alternatives for my senior year. I could try to make it through, or I could transfer to the public high school (which probably would have been my best option, but the prospect of mandatory phys. ed. terrified me). A third option was to try to do an exchange year in another country, and this was the option my parents and I pursued. I signed up to do a school year abroad with Youth for Understanding, and my parents somehow found the money to pay for it. One drawback of signing up for an exchange program for your senior year of high school is that you might not get in to the country of your choice, and once you graduate, you’re no longer eligible — so you’d better pick a country that has sufficient slots available to ensure you won’t be put on a waiting list. At YFU, you had to submit three choices of countries. It was obvious that my first and second choices would be France and French-speaking Belgium (Wallonia and Flanders were treated as separate countries for this purpose), and it was just as obvious that I wasn’t going to get into either one. I had until the end of February, 1988, to come up with a third-choice country to put on my application.

What else was going on in February, 1988, perchance? The Winter Olympics, of course! They were broadcast in the US on ABC, which we couldn’t get, but Canada being the host nation (they were in Calgary that year), there was full coverage not only on CTV, the host broadcaster, but also on the CBC news programs. (The Winter Olympics didn’t move to the current cycle until 1994; before then, Winter and Summer Games were always in the same year.) I programmed the family VCR to record the Olympics coverage and devoured as much as I had time for. (I still have some of those old videotapes today — but I haven’t had a working VHS deck in ages!) The biggest star of the Calgary games (ignoring the widely hyped figure-skating showdown between American skater Brian Boitano and Canadian Brian Orser) was a Finnish ski jumper named Matti Nykänen. This somehow put it into my head that maybe Finland would be an interesting place to go, and after going to the library and reading encyclopedia articles (on paper!) about the country and the language, I put Finland down as the third-preference country on my application.

Of course France and Belgium (French-speaking) were full up, because lots of other high-school kids had studied French, and everyone naturally wanted a leg up on the native language of their host country. Finland, on the other hand, had plenty of slots available, and I got in. There certainly was some concern about whether I could learn the language by immersion — it’s not an Indo-European langauge, but rather Uralic, and so has few cognates with English or French — but I convinced the YFU interviewer that I was interested enough in languages that I might have a chance. So off to Finland I went, in July, 1988. My first host family didn’t work out — the mother had somehow taken a dislike to me, and the family as a whole was too fluent in English for me to effectively learn Finnish — and after a month of school there, I got shipped off to stay with a childless couple (probably a mistake that they were even in the program) in a rural area about an hour from the north-central Finnish city of Kuopio. That worked out for seven months, but in April, 1989, I was unceremoniously shipped back home, and had to complete my senior year in my old high school anyway. (In hindsight, given what was going on in central Europe at the time, I clearly should have picked West Germany or Austria — the language would have been easier to learn and more feasible to prepare for, and I would have been a witness to the most important historical events of my lifetime. I even knew about this to some extent, and had had a letter published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about Poland getting connected to FidoNet!)

While I was in Finland, my parents had moved, so when I returned home, it wasn’t really “home” as I knew it, but we now had cable and could watch ABC and MTV if we wanted. Luckily, the cable system at that time still carried some of the Montreal channels — at least the CBC and CTV — and I continued to watch a lot of Canadian television, including The National/The Journal nearly every weeknight. (Skipping over a bit here that isn’t relevant to the story…) I watched (and recorded, on that very same VCR) the CBC’s coverage of the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France — the first Olympics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so soon thereafter, in fact, that the ex-Soviet athletes all competed as the “Unified Team” because their countries had not yet had a chance to set up national teams. Then my parents moved away, and I found myself living alone in a cheap student apartment in downtown Burlington for the rest of my university education; I started to watch hockey more, and in 1993 I got to see the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup — they were as close as anything to being my “hometown team”, having grown up watching Montreal television and on occasion making the 90-minute drive (or two-hour train trip) to visit in person.

I moved to Boston in 1994 and gradually stopped paying attention to televised winter sports, especially being stuck as I was with what I saw as poor-quality coverage of the sports I cared about on NBC (when those sports even aired at all — I have no idea who would have carried ski racing in the nineties and aughts). The fact that I wasn’t really in any position to participate even in those sports I had previously enjoyed, like cycling and skiing, didn’t help matters either. Eventually I did begin to tune in again, as more of the sports became available on cable, and especially once I got a TiVo and could record the horribly-scheduled broadcasts to play them back during my evening stationary-bike workouts. Even the Olympics regained some attraction, with new streaming video options making it practical to see the unedited feeds with international commentary rather than the “homer” NBC broadcasters.

As this is getting long, let’s skip forward to 2016. In late February, as I was driving home from work on the Massachusetts Turnpike, I saw billboards for the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships. It took me a week or so to finally decide that I would start paying attention to the sport again, after a break of nearly 25 years. I was able to get a great seat for the men’s short program, which took place last Wednesday, and only had to take half a day off work to see it; I got a good seat for the men’s free skate, last Friday (up in the balcony rather than down in the lower sections, called “loges” at TD Garden). I had terrible seats for the pairs final on Saturday afternoon, in the very highest row, with the lighting truss blocking my view of the screen where the competitors’ scores were being displayed — but even bad seats have a decent view of the ice itself, unlike the old Boston Garden. At Saturday’s competition, I bought a copy of the program ($15 seems a bit excessive), and in the back, they had a full-page insert for the 2017 Worlds — in Helsinki.

This set a train of thought in motion. In recent years, whenever I’ve gone to visit my parents, they’ve asked me when I was going to go back to Finland. I’ve been pretty cool on this, since I still have some pretty bad feelings about my time there and how I ended up leaving. But 2017 is Finland’s centennial as an independent state, and it has been nearly three decades since the unhappy events of April, 1989, and I found that I actually liked watching the skating in person a lot more than on television, so I started to seriously look into it. The tickets are already on sale! Worldcon 75 memberships, also being held in Helsinki in 2017, are also on sale — that was the event I was originally thinking might draw me back to Finland, if anything did; it’s later in the year, when the weather is nicer, but it has the drawback that I’d be going alone, because there’s no one I know who I might even plausibly ask to go to a Worldcon with me, and I hate traveling alone.

Figure skating, on the other hand, was always family viewing, so I might actually persuade my parents to travel to Finland with me. Now that they are both retired, it’s much easier for them to schedule travel, but on the negative side, any kind of travel to Europe is challenging for senior citizens on a fixed income. I make a decent salary, so I’ll probably end up picking up a good chunk of the bill (including the tickets to the competition, at EUR 800 or so per person). I wish, though that there was someone in my life who wasn’t a senior citizen, but enjoyed travel and would go to a foreign country with me. But not all the things we want are necessarily available to us, so I’ll have to content myself with the opportunity that I have.

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