I wish I understood the Finnish language. It's very frustrating to receive a copy of the first book of Finnish urban legends and not be able to read it!
When I met Professor Leea Virtanen, folklorist at the University of Helsinki, at a meeting in Texas, she promised to send me her new legend collection.It's titled "Varastettu Isoaiti." I know that must refer to the legend of "The Runaway Grandmother," because the cover illustration shows a car with a body rolled up in a rug on the roof.
The legend tells of a vacationing family who stow their grandmother's corpse on the car roof after she dies during the trip. Then their car and the corpse are stolen when the family stops for a meal on their way home.
I wonder what kind of twist the Finns give to this legend.
Virtanen also sent me a handy summary of her book's contents - but it's in German. Let's see now: The first story is listed as "Die gestohlene Grossmutter." That's "the stolen grandmother" for sure.
Combining my weak grasp of German with the cartoon illustrations scattered throughout the book, I worked out the titles of quite a few of the Finnish legends.
Some are easy: for example, "AIDS Mary," the legend about a man and woman who meet in a bar and decide to spend the night at his place making love.
He awakens in the morning to find - as the illustration in the Finnish book shows - that the woman has left a message written in lipstick on his bathroom mirror: "Welcome to the AIDS club."
The Finnish version even has its punch line in English!
I can also recognize from the pictures the urban legends that American folklorists call "The Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker," "The Dog's Dinner in Hong Kong," "The Laughing Paramedics," "The Boyfriend's Death" and several others.
"The Tarantula in the Yucca" is a giveaway, since not only does the illustration show a spider's face peering out from the hollow stem of the houseplant, but the Finnish title is "Tarantella jukkapalmussa." Just say it out loud, and you've got it.
But several of the Finnish stories baffle me. What's going on in the illustration of a punk rocker sitting next to a little old lady on a trolley car?
I can see the cat exploding in the microwave oven in one picture, and the laughing paramedics dropping the stretcher in another, and I know that both refer to well-known legends.
But what's the point of the drawing that shows a man being hit on the head by a candelabra?
And who is the man wearing the funny hat serving coffee to someone in yet another illustration? I've just got to learn some more Finnish, or at least improve my German.
When Virtanen spoke at the Texas meeting, she sadly admitted that only one of her Finnish urban legends lacked parallels in other countries.
This one told of a boy whose brain froze after he disobeyed his mother's instructions to wear a cap outside in the winter.
"This may be Finland's only original contribution to contemporary legends," she said.
I tried to cheer her up with an impromptu story about somebody cooking his insides in an overheated Finnish sauna, but another folklorist gave it away by saying, "Oh, that's just the tanning salon story!
The folklorist was right, because I was merely parodying the legend about the girl who cooks her insides by overexposure to tanning lamps.
I wonder how "tanning lamp" translates into Finnish.