Business As Usual in Ukraine

We have left Ukraine.  I did not want to write this while living in Ukraine because, frankly, I did not know what implications might attach to such an article.  So I waited unitl we left.

There is much good to be said about Ukraine.  The people that we met are friendly and genuinely interested in foreigners.  They think well of the United States and the European Union.  Having lived in Ukraine for almost three months, I can also say that there is a sort of sad side to the Ukraine.  They are trapped in a society where corruption abounds.

Now, from what our friends tell us, it is much better than in the past. We were told that in the past the police would pull anyone over at will with or without cause.  One could either accept the ticket and go through the regular system or “we can just take care of it right here and now and it will be cheaper.”  Essentially, the police used to run an extortion racket of petty payments from innocent people. But that, we are told, is no more; the police are properly paid and it would be a bad idea to offer a policeman a bribe.

At the same time, we were told many stories of how governmental officials leveraged their posts for personal benefit; pay them, and you will get your permit.  Or the university system that is rife with bribery.  Don’t want to study?  Then just pay a bribe to the professor.  Professor has integrity and won’t take the bribe?  Then pay the Dean, and the Dean will enforce the bribery scheme.  This is considered common behavior.

Part of the issue arises from antiquated laws where businesses are trying to make their way in the new globalized economy with old laws not designed for the new market-driven system.  The employment laws protect employees like industrial workers of the 30s, and it’s difficult to fire someone.  And, the taxes are high.  As I was told by someone, instead of paying the full salary, the salary on the books was marked at 20% of the full salary.  Then, at the end of the month, everyone got a little white envelope which had the rest of their pay.  This is commonplace and expected.

Of course, rule of law is an important institution, and once you start having people break laws a little and it gets normalized, then people tend to break laws a lot.  The research on lying shows the same thing.  And so I found myself wondering at any encounter whether things were as I saw them or whether there was something that was just hidden from sight.  For example, I went to a meetup.  The people were all nice and it was a great little event.  I got there 15 minutes early and the three organizers were there already having their food.  And so I wondered, “Do they pre-organize these meetings so that they get a free meal for bringing 10 other guests to the restaurant and come early to avoid detection by the other participants?”  Maybe so, maybe not.  The point is that it would not surprise me if they do because I got the general feeling that this is how Ukrainian culture works.

So why did I wait to publish this piece?  Frankly, I did not want to say anything while in the country that could be construed as negative.  Who knows?  Maybe I would get a knock at the door that some complaint about xyz had been made, and now I needed to appear in court or some such nonsense.  Keep you head down and certainly don’t say anything.  There may be free speech, ostensibly, but I wasn’t willing to push my luck.

Is Traveling Abroad Dangerous?

Kate and I have traveled to many places in Europe over the past year  like Paris, Barcelona, Seville, Athens, Sofia, Krakov, and Kiev, and we are surprised by friends and family who ask us “Is it safe to be there?”  My immediate thought is “Don’t worry about us – is it safe to be where you are?”   Part of this is quite understandable because the US government issues travel advisories (click here for the most recent example) which warn Americans to be on extra-special lookout because violence can occur in public places like nightclubs (Paris), shopping malls (Barcelona), school retreats (Norway), and open-air malls (Turku, Finland).   So travel abroad gets presented as though it is a dangerous affair.

But it isn’t.

I was talking with a friend in Phoenix about random violence in America that occurs in churches (Texas, North Carolina), schools (Sandy Hook, Columbine), outdoor concerts (Las Vegas), nightclubs (Orlando), and even Federal Buildings (Oklahoma).  But these events are relatively rare and receive inordinate publicity due to their horrific nature.

What gets missed in the discussion in America is the daily killings.  Today I pulled up the Chicago Sun Times newspaper, and for a random day, Monday, November 6, there were five people injured in shootings:

  • A 37-year-old man got into an argument with another man who pulled out a gun and shot him.
  • Twol older people (67 and 50) were walking down the street when a car drives buy and people in the car and people on the street start shooting at each other and the older innocent bystanders took bullets.
  • A 17 year-old boy got into an argument with another male who pulled out a handgun and shot him.
  • A 32 year-old man was standing on the street when three males walked up and shot him.

That sounds pretty bad, but no one died. But the paper reports: “The day’s gun violence followed a weekend in which five people were killed and 24 others were wounded in citywide shootings between Friday afternoon and Monday morning.”  (See:

Meanwhile I feel completely safe walking the streets of Helsinki or Kiev or Dubrovnik or Sofia.  The probability of being a victim of random gun violence in these places is minimal.  The question that Americans should ask is not whether it is safe to travel to Paris, but rather “Is it safe to travel to Chicago?”

I know that many will say that these shootings are in the wrong parts of town and that you just need to stay away from those places.  In that regard, I have a couple of thoughts.  First, if you visit a place like Helsinki, there is no part of Helsinki that is comparable as the “wrong part of town.”  You can get off at any stop on any bus line anywhere in Helsinki, and you won’t have to worry about your physical safety.   Second, I’m not sure I like the idea that we have two-Americas, a safe America and a dangerous America where one has to worry about which America you are in.  And third, it appears more and more that the danger of this dangerous America is now leaking into safe America, where you can be a congressman at bat in a baseball game and have to run for the dugout because shots are fired.

I am not an anti-gun nut or anything like that.  I own a shotgun, I’ve fired many guns at gun ranges and in the woods, gone hunting, and I believe in our second Amendment.  I have friends who own guns.  But traveling abroad has also shown me that some people in the world live without fear of violence in their daily lives too.  Not so in Atlanta or DC or pick your favorite city.  People talk about the second amendment in freedom terms, and freedom to own a gun is a nice thing, but freedom from fear of violence is also a wonderful freedom to have.

A lot of people are against any regulation of guns in America: registration, wait times, background checks.  And many won’t draw distinctions between handguns, shotguns, and assault rifles.  But there are plenty of alternative universes right here on our planet where ownership of a shotgun gets treated differently than an assault rifle because there really is a difference in terms of its destructive effects; that’s why we can’t own hand grenades. Handguns can be concealed where as long arms cannot.  In some of these alternative universes, the idea that you might have to wait a week or more or complete a gun safety course or register the weapon like an auto is just part of one’s civic duty to own and manage a dangerous device.  Does it ever make you wonder why we tolerate the registration of cars and require insurance on them when we won’t tolerate gun registration or have gun insurance?  My concern is that America will opt not for minor restrictions upon gun ownership like those found in the rest of the world but, in an attempt to find safety, will instead focus on creating a police state where our guardians act like the military in part because our citizens are so dangerous.  I am skeptical that such an approach will bring us safety from either the police or our fellow citizens.

DNA in Action

I have seen many relatives in Finland.  Here’s a second cousin (whose name I’ll withhold for privacy).  What do you think….is there a family resemblance?


The trip was a very interesting one.  I saw my DNA in its many forms, but not obscured with American culture.  And I came away understanding a great deal about myself.  I met many people with whom there was a near-instant bond that transcended culture.  It was obvious within minutes that we were alike even though separated by 100 years and two different cultures.

I’ve always been one to think in contingencies.  Not only have a plan B, but a plan C and plan D.  And I found in Finland a culture that thinks the same ways.   And it became apparent that the climate is so harsh in the winter that failure to think that way killed off those who did not.  It’s no surprise that I have this quality; it’s not really luck, but rather the result of thousands of years of necessity embedding itself as a DNA rule.

If you have a unique heritage, I strongly recommend the experience of visiting the motherland.  You will walk away understanding a considerable amount about why you think the way that you do and what parts of you are from culture and what parts of you are hard-wired.

Old Photos – Revisited

Well, my scanning is now complete of the old photos, and I have turned to editing them.  The original is fading, but the edited photo of my great grandmother Alma and her kids (Linda, Matt), was restored to how it looked in circa 1910 when it was taken.


Look at those details that I was able to bring out.  you can see the strands of hair and the detail on the dress.  I also did an edit of the marriage photo that was previously posted.










To do this sort of work, I recommend scanning in the photos in RAW mode at very high resolution (4800 dpi).  I did detail enhancement with some HDR tools, but the majority of the retouching was done in Photoshop.

Old Photographs

The past few weeks were great weeks.  As a result of research done by the Karstula parish in Finland, I knew that my great great grandmother Mathilda had come to America in 1901.  Her husband had died, and she remarried and had another girl Ottilia at the age of 43.  Her new husband had already come to Ohio, and she was now following with her infant daughter and 19 year old teenager (my great grandmother).  Sadly, Mathilda died about six months after arriving, but my great grandmother found a husband, and here is their photograph circa 1902.

The only reason that I have this photograph is because I had been doing genealogy research before I came to Finland.  And so I researched the descendants of baby Ottilia and discovered that her descendants were living in Ohio.  That was great, and so I called some of them up just hoping for a return call.

They did call back and are very nice people.  And, in fact, they knew my great grandmother and some of her offspring.  When the eldest daughter of the people in the photo died, these descendants of Ottilia had the task of cleaning out her home, and they found the four photo albums and kept them safe.  FOR 50 YEARS!  Some photographs probably have no remaining duplicate.   REMARKABLE.  I have much to thank for my cousins’ careful attention to the matter.

This cautionary tale is reason alone to make this post.  Before you toss old photographs, consider whether there may be someone else for whom the photos may be invaluable.  That alone is enough.   But there is more.

As I flipped through the photos, I saw a photo of my son looking from the pages.  It wasn’t, but it was.

If you know my son George Hokkanen, then you will immediately recognize how remarkable the resemblance is between my cousin Tom and George of the same age.  ASTOUNDING.

My mother had opined (in that funny way that Finns may share their opinion) that George did not look like any of the Hokkanens.  There were multiple interpretations of that remark, some better than others if you know what I mean, and it was very much like her to make ambiguous remarks like this.  But she was certainly correct in the most literal sense–at least with respect to the family photos that we had, George made no appearance.  But we didn’t have the photos of Ottilia and her descendants!

Gene expression is a funny thing.  You get two copies of every gene, one of which may be domant until it isn’t, and gene sequences can pass for many generations unimpacted. And so your doppelganger may just be 2nd or 3rd cousin.

Coffee Time in Helsinki

In deference to the culture which I am now in, I went out for afternoon coffee at the neighborhood coffee shop.  (Usually I only have coffee in the morning.)  In further deference, I selected a piece of pulla to have with my coffee.

The taste of the finely-textured, semi-sweet dessert bread with the distinct taste of cardamom brought back memories of mummo Anna (i.e., Grandmother Anna)  that would make it at my house several times a week when I was growing up.  This was some sort of specialty pulla given related to the upcoming Easter season, and this had both berries and a glaze and a splash of powdered sugar.  I had never eaten a pulla like this, but it was quite a treat with the coffee–which, in deference to my origin, was an Americano!  Note to dad: I did not, however, dunk the pulla in the coffee.


Welcome to Finland!

I am one who appreciates irony more than most.  And to an already richly ironic life, I added yet another one of those vignettes in life that seem to define it…..

I spent a healthy effort in moving to Finland.  As one may have seen in previous posts, I had to research my genealogy to get my grandparents’ birth certificates, obtain my parents’ birth certificates with Apostilles, fly to Finland and tender my application to remigrate (as they call it) for permanent residency.  Later last year the Finnish Immigration Service sent the card to me in Bulgaria, and finally I made my flight reservation to Finland a week ago.  These efforts spanned over a year and thus were spread out before, during, and after the election and its profound polarization.  My observation that America was undergoing a hellish period of history was a central reason for my obtaining a remigration permit!

And so I landed a few days ago and immediately called the Population Registrar (known as the Maistraatti) to activate my residence.  The person who answered the phone could not have been more welcoming or pleasant.  She asked who I was and what kind of a card I had, and when I told her, she mysteriously sounded more happy than many Finns and told me to just come down to the office any time I wanted to check in.  And so I rode the bus into downtown Helsinki, and went up to the second floor and into the office.  This was GLORIOUS!  Over a year’s effort had come to fruition!  I looked around and saw that they called numbers, and with the excitement of a ten year old, I went over to the ticket machine, pushed the button and grabbed my ticket!

I was already feeling somewhat of a flood of emotion (for me anyway), and my ticket did nothing to stem it, and indeed, it sort of made things go sideways for a few seconds.  I am not someone to interpret the world in metaphorical or supernatural terms, but if there is a deity who intervenes in peoples’ lives, he definitely has an ironic sense of humor!!