Finland. The frozen wasteland of the north nestled between Russia and Sweden. Home to Santa Claus and reindeer and the withdrawn, socially reclusive, silent Finns.
That’s the general misconception about Finland. Yes, it’s a Nordic country rubbing shoulders with Sweden and Russia, and Santa Claus does in fact have an entire village dedicated to him in the Arctic circle city of Rovaniemi complete with a herd of reindeer. But, though the Finns may come across reserved at first, give them a shot or two (more like ten) of kossu (the colloquial term for the Finnish vodka Koskenkorva) and you’ll see a whole other side to these people.
I expected a major culture shock moving to Finland from sunny South Africa. I was prepared for the miserably dark and ridiculously cold winters, prepared for not being able to speak a word of their Elven-like language, and prepared to be ignored by the reticent populace. What I was not prepared for was the Finnish drinking culture. The pursuit of inebriation and consequent intoxicated behaviour is truly something to behold. The Finns can drink, and I thought South Africans were hardcore, consuming the most beer per capita in the world. But we ‘Saffers’ would be passed out stone cold paralytically drunk while the Finns ordered another round.
Drinking isn’t restricted to bars and nightclubs either. Finns drink anywhere despite the no alcohol consumption in public law. Cans of beer, cider and the Finnish speciality lonkero (a typical ‘chick’ drink, a mix of gin and fruit juice) are a common site in parks and even in the hands of those strolling through the street. The police routinely check the ID of those carousing in public places, and while under-age drinking is strictly prohibited, it seems the police turn a blind eye to public drinking. They’re a friendly and helpful lot, the Finnish police, making their rounds on weekends, picking up those too intoxicated to make it home before they freeze and perish exposed to the winter temperatures.
One of the most important Finnish past-times is going to the sauna. This can be an electric variation in private homes or the traditional wood fired saunas at the rustic summer cottages dotting the various lake shores around the country. Going to sauna automatically means drinking. There’s nothing better than a couple (many) ice cold beers or a bottle (or six) of chilled vodka while sweating in a tiny room with a bunch of other naked people at 80-odd degrees C. Surely it must be the effects of the alcohol that then inspire the Finns to leave the comfort of their warm sauna to go rolling in the snow, naked. While that’s borderline insane, I could still understand the physical pleasure of intense heat followed by intense cold and the joy of tumbling naked in fluffy snow. What really left me speechless was the insistence that you’re only truly Finnish if you go ice swimming after sauna. What this involves is hacking a hole in a frozen lake and then traipsing from the sauna (often naked) to the lake, out onto the ice and dipping yourself in the frigid water before returning to the sauna. Apparently this is invigorating. I call it crazy.
It could only have been in a drunken stupour that the Finns came up with the idea of wife-carrying competitions. Yes, you read correctly. The annual wife-carrying championships are held in the little town of Sonkajärvi. The male participant is required to carry his wife in whatever way he can across a 253,5m track complete with a dry and wet obstacle. The minimum wife weight is 49kg and the prize winner receives his wife’s weight in beer. And if this sounds a tad strange, how about mosquito killing competitions (disputed by animal rights activists) and sauna survival competitions – in which a couple of people have lost their lives in recent years trying to outlast the Finns in absurdly hot saunas. Mosquito killing and wife-carrying contests I can almost understand as being part of this bizarre Nordic culture but there is yet another odd thing that the Finns do on an annual basis that can only be explained by imbibing copious quantities of alcohol.
Turku irti suomesta. The annual attempt to separate Turku from Finland. Now Turku is a lovely city that reminds me a lot of Cape Town back in South Africa. It was, unfortunately, also the first capital of Finland while the Finns were under Swedish rule. The ‘hatred’ borne by Finns against the Swedes is rather good-natured and expressed through humour, at the Swedes’ expense of course. So every year, Finns band together with assorted tools and attempt to separate Turku from Finland, sending it back to Sweden. Such an endeavour can only be undertaken with a beer in hand, which I guess helps the Finns make sense of their somewhat silly annual event.
Finland is a quirky country populated by an idiosyncratic bunch of people who are anything but shy and silent after a few pints. Although I may never be a true Finn since I value my extremities and have no desire to plunge into the freezing cold waters of a frozen lake, I am no longer shocked by the antics of the Finns.