Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Finland: a portrait of the people and place


An old joke, popular among Swedes, runs as follows: Two Finns open a bottle of vodka. One says "Cheers!" The other replies, "Did you come here to talk or to drink?"

At first glance, the Finns are a forbidding people. Finnish bars tend to be lined with solitary drinkers, and Finns who come across strangers in the forests will look away rather than say hello.

The countryside seems equally unwelcoming. Finland is so heavily forested that Finnish maps leave woodlands blank and mark clearings green, and in the five-month winter the country seems leached of color, like a grainy black-and-white photo.

Even the language is a challenge. Finnish, a Finno-Ugric tongue, bears no relation to Europe's Indo-European majority, and even the basic pattern "one, two, three" -- similar in almost every European language -- comes out yksi, kaksi, kolme.

But the sheer complexity of the language is, paradoxically, an advantage. A foreigner who makes the effort to master simple phrases like "thank you" and "you're welcome" -- kiitos and ole hyva -- will be guaranteed an admiring welcome in any village in Finland.

In the same way, Finnish reserve has its reverse. Finns are not the most outgoing of people, but for that reason a stranger willing to make the effort of initiating contact is likely to be welcomed with a hospitality which has few rivals in Europe.

Finnish culture is, in fact, the product of its environment. Its habits, rules and taboos were shaped by the nature of the country -- and the best example of that is the sauna.

The sauna -- pronounced "sa-oo-na" -- is the only Finnish word to have entered the English language. In Finland, it is a way of life.

Practically all of Finland's 187,888 lakes are lined with sauna cabins, built within sprinting distance of the water. The most characteristic sound of the Finnish countryside at any time of year is the patter and splosh as naked Finns rush into their lakes.

But the sauna is not a modern invention designed to provide macho lumberjacks and mobile-phone engineers with an endurance contest. It is an ancient exercise in hygiene, dating from the times when winters were too cold to allow any other form of washing.

Winter survival, indeed, lies at the heart of Finnish culture -- it's also the reason Finns seldom say hello to strangers.

"Finns traditionally used to spend the winter in small, wooden buildings, which were easier to keep warm," one Finnish friend once told me. "They tended to have big families, who were crowded together in one small room all winter."

"The only way to escape was to go into the forest. That's why Finns ignore each other when they meet in the woods: We don't think it's polite to interrupt someone's personal space," she added.

Personal space itself is a result of the country's geography. Finland is by far the most sparsely-populated country in Europe, and the sheer emptiness of the landscape allows Finns to measure their personal space in meters.

The same geographical situation provides them with something which very few other countries can enjoy. A Finnish national park warden, also a friend, once took me into the middle of his forest, 300km from Helsinki, and told me to listen. The silence was both beautiful and deafening.

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