It’s refreshing right now, in the sweltering midday heat of Rome in early July, to remember that there are places on this planet which were once cold. If only we’d all done more to prevent the planet overheating in the first place. I did try, a bit. In early December 2009 I had two trips planned to Nordic Europe* within the course of ten days. My plan was that I would visit my friends in Tampere (in Finland), fly back to London and then, the following day, take another plane to Copenhagen to join the protest at the Climate Conference. As it happened, on the morning after returning from Finland I was too skint, exhausted and hungover to travel to Denmark. At least I avoided any awkward questions about my dependence on unsustainable modes of transport.
Not that I regretted going to Finland: I subsequently went back twice in the space of three years. It was somewhere I felt an immediate affinity with. On my first visit I took immense pleasure in the complicatedness of the language. It was about three degrees and falling quickly in the early December Helsinki midafternoon, as I wandered round in circles both concentric and eccentric and asked passers-by one of the two or three phrases I knew: ‘Missä on… Ekaterinaburgkatu?’ – Where is Ekaterinaburg Street? I had no idea what the answers meant but, having long held the opinion that the best way to discover a new city is to get lost in it, didn’t mind zigzagging around for a couple of hours. Paying careful attention to where people were pointing eventually helped narrow it down when the winter wind became too much to bear.
The people I was staying with in Helsinki were from Russia but had made their home in Finland. Ironically, it was partly through them that I began to get a sense of the unfussy hospitality which characterises Finland, which is, after all, not Brazil: it’s not a culture which goes out of its way to impress or charm visitors. People instead exhibit a quiet, uneffusive generosity. Some of that stoicism must be to do with the climate. In the Kiasma gallery I came across a remarkable artwork consisting of a wood cabin, starkly furnished, complemented by a toy train set which gave off an occasional melancholy wail. Inside the cabin TV screens showed blurred images of snowstormed forests soundtracked by heartbreaking stories of people going missing in month-long blizzards.
Subsequently learning something about history introduced me to the concept of sisu, a kind of hardiness particular to Finnish culture and strongly associated with the staggering sacrifices of the Winter War with Russia. On the subject of suffering, getting deeper into Finnish culture would would mean dealing with the terrifying range of cases central to its famously impenetrable language (essive, inessive, ablative, illative…), which despite my attempts to rationalise them away as sort-of-like-prepositions-but-just-tagged-on-as-suffixes defy normal human understanding.
Heading north on the train I appreciated the silence and space. Outside the main cities Finland often feels barely inhabited. People told me that you can travel for days through the forest and not see a helvetin soul. This sparseness seemed to extend to the consumer economy. I enjoyed the fact that on the train there was a drink you could buy called ‘coffee’, as opposed to the skinny-grande-double-pump-caramel-gingerbread-latte-nonsense on offer in more crowded parts of Europe.
Tampere felt familiar, unsurprisingly so as it’s known as the Manchester of Finland. It has lots of remnants of its industrial past and maintains a similar deadpan sensibility: not so much dry as frozen wit. Among most Finnish people generally I’ve noticed (and admired) a certain earthiness which connects to my own northern roots, particularly when it comes to swearing. I am (courtesy of my friend Steve) the proud possessor of two of the most uproariously graphic insults in any human language, and although posting them here might result in my getting banned from WordPress for life I’m happy to email them to anyone who requests them.
Although it doesn’t reveal anything particularly edifying about my lifestyle at the time, I liked the Finnish relationship with drink. It felt that you could (if you had the money) sit in a bar in your trusty old pullover and three pairs of pyjama trousers and continue drinking until you passed out gracefully onto the sawdust floor to the sound of muttered voices and plaintive blues music. The limited variety of menu options and the narrow range of eating establishments suggested a disinterest in food which I, living in food outlet-saturated London at the time, found refreshing. There was also a carefreeness in the way that people left you alone. Nobody started talking to me just because I was from elsewhere. The society didn’t need my presence, and I appreciated its cool (because uncool) indifference. My memories of my first visit are suffused in a bluey-white blur of very strong alcohol and the weave of extremely thick socks.
Out on the streets I found more signs of that unfussiness and lack of pretension. I was amused by the surreality of Tampere’s musty Lenin Museum and the existence of a strip bar simply called ‘Big Tits’ (I didn’t go inside to find out how big). Finland’s neuroses (about drink, sex, other people) seemed to be on the surface. Maybe that’s what it (famously) has in common with Japan, a place I’ve still never been to but have heard described as having no subconscious. It’s easy to diagnose what’s wrong with Finland: it’s cold most of the year, people drink too much, nobody says please or thank you and everyone commits suicide regularly. As it happens, in ‘The Spirit Level’, published earlier that year, I’d read that in happier countries people kill themselves more. Lots of people doing themselves in is a better indication of social bonhomie than everybody killing everyone else.
I took a trip to my friends’ country home in a tiny village called Auttoinen. Their house was a sprawling place of immense human warmth reinforced by the (exotic by comparison with private rented apartments back home) decent insulation and central heating. The energy-saving ethos extended to the local bar, where words were employed sparingly by the local ‘juntti’ (yokels). You couldn’t call it entertaining but it was, also, exotic. I recognised the mood from any number of films by Aki Kaurismaki, Finland’s leading exponent abroad. This clip succinctly captures the dark, dour wit of many of his works, and if you’re intrigued and have got ten minutes to spare, there’s another short film here (the subtitles are in Spanish, but don’t let that you put you off) (unless you don’t understand Spanish, obviously*).
My second visit took place during the summer solstice in 2011. Between June and August all of Finland heads for the countryside, particularly the lakes, of which there are apparently well over 100,000. If you can avoid the enormous local horseflies known as paarma – not quite as big as your average baby shark, but six times as vicious – it feels like paradise. At a midsummer party in Auttoinen I made friends with increasingly cheerful locals and some expat Africans who told me some hilarious stories about their interactions with more taciturn Finns. A Tanzanian told me about the marked difference between taking a seat on a nearly empty bus back home (sit down next to new friend, shake hands, pass time of day) and doing so in Finland (see other passenger, leave bus, go home, shoot oneself in head). It was difficult for them to adjust to the less convivial culture, and they were working as cleaners or musicians while trying to establish themselves. They seemed frustrated with the lack of opportunities for advancement open to them, but not about to give up on the country having invested so much time and energy into it. They were true Finns now, after all.
The next day on the train to Helsinki I picked up a leaflet aimed at newcomers wanting to learn Finnish. It was written in (excellent) English and was entirely positive in tone, rather than admonishing as would be the case in the rather-more-grudging UK. Back in the Kiasma I bought a book published by Sternberg (in the same series and spirit as the same publisher’s duo of Momus novels ‘The Book of Japans’ and ‘The Book of Scotlands’) which posits alternative future Finlands to replace the inevitably collapsing Welfare State, including a Finland which is repurposed as a nuclear waste storage facility. Another thing it imagines is a road bridge between Helsinki and Tallin, and as it happens I spent my 37th birthday travelling by ferry between Finland and Estonia, where I’m surprised to find that, contrary to everything I’ve ever been told about the Finnish language being totally unique but for a deeply buried lexical connection to Hungarian, Estonian looks and sounds almost identical. There is a short but silly photographic account of my adventures in Tallin here.
If lakes are important to the Finnish summer experience, having access to an island multiplies the fun. A friend of a friend had borrowed half of a small one for the season, and we spent an endless night with his friends from the other side of the island drinking something that tasted like licorice but had a strong aftertaste of something like ayahuasca. You couldn’t really call it a late night because night didn’t arrive, dusk turning straight into dawn. Waking up in the cabin it no longer felt like there was any limit between myself and other objects. Perkele. From downstairs I could smell my friend (who had been in Finland for more than ten years and so had acquired a measure of sisu) frying up some bacon. When I showed my face, which evidently looked like it’d just been through the winter wars, he politely invited me to go and jump in the lake. Having taken his sterling advice and chilled my bones to the marrow, I then went straight onto the small sauna he’d prepared and stayed there til it felt like all the alcohol I’d ever consumed was washed out of my skin, then took another dive into the lake, went back in the sauna, repeated the whole rinse cycle two or three times, and then began replenishing the lost salt and alcohol with a bacon sandwich and a beer.
One my third visit, in June 2012, I was accompanied by my then-girlfriend-now-wife. Being from Italy, she had been reliably informed by older, wiser generations of compatrioti that Finland is freezing cold all year round and that she would almost certainly get eaten by a polar bear. In reality it was 30 degrees. After a few days in Auttoinen introducing her to my friends and soaking up the rays (and the rain), we headed for the Turku archipeleago, where, driving round the labyrinth of tiny islands along tiny twisting roads and on and off, it felt like I was finally unravelling the tangled mess I’d made of my life. In Turku itself we stayed on a large boat in a cabin the size of a small mosquito, and by day walked around the town cooing at all the wonders of the nordic model of social democracy, with its large well-illuminated library reminding us that shopping need not be the be and end-all of a city. We visited the castle, and admired the fact that it wasn’t suffused in marketing overexcitability, that it wasn’t trying too hard to sell itself to us as ‘the authentic Finnish experience of medieval Suomiland’ or whatever nonsense some marketing genius in London would have been inspired to think up.
I’ve never lived in Finland and probably never will. I’m aware that many do and find it frustrating and unwelcoming. Personally, I find its existence a comfort. If, in the thankfully unlikely event I ever found myself existentially alone and listless, I would take a plane to Tampere, don my favourite pullover and at least three pairs of pyjama trousers, and head for a downtown bar to partake in a delicious, revolting glass of some sort of weird licorice drink, and after two or three sips lower myself gently to the sawdust-strewn floor. In the meantime, in summer 2018 to be precise, I will be back there, now-wife and new-baby in tow, for a hopefully paarma and polar bear-free midsummer holiday. Nähdään pian!**
*This now links to a version with subtitles in English, but I thought this was quite a good joke so I’m leaving it as it is, thanks anyway to Sandrita Toledo.
**This used to say Scandanavia but I was swiftly put right, kiitos Richard Millar.
***I told you the language was tricky, it took me about ten minutes to type that phrase.
P.s. Anyone worried that nordic countries are being invaded by legions of hate-filled new arrivals who don’t respect basic values of tolerance and peaceful coexistence will find supportive evidence for such a view in a Facebook group called Foreigners in Finland, where immigrants from Italy, Bulgaria and the UK (the sort of people who are so patriotic they couldn’t stand to live in their ‘own’ countries) spend their time in Finland bitching about other, less privileged, newcomers. I believe the local phrase to describe such people is ‘vitun urpo’ (not that they’ll have bothered to learn the language, but still :-)). This one’s for them