A Lesson in Speaking Finnish

-On the Shoot of the Latest BMW Short Film-

One of the first things I notice upon stepping out of Helsinki-Vantaa airport, literally the first thing, is the seemingly endless queue of taxis which await me. What’s odd about this isn’t the fact that these drivers are lined up at one in the morning anticipating a surge of prospective clients that the emaciated airport won’t come close to producing, but that these taxis are recognizable as such only by the illuminated “taksi” sign decorating the roof of a BMW, Audi, or Mercedes Sedan. Finnish taxi drivers do, it would seem, have an affinity for German automobiles, or at least such is the case if the sample I’ve taken from in front of the airport is at all representative of the more than 9,500 taxis operating within Finland. I learn moments later from the driver of a particularly nice BMW 760 Li that this is partially due to some kind of loophole in the Finnish tax code which states that an individual using his or her car for business purposes is subject to a sizeable tax deduction. Despite being a pretty upfront chap otherwise, my stoic driver- who looks to have driven straight from the shoot of the latest BMW short film- doesn’t respond to my queries as to the actual size of the deduction, just that it was, in his crisply accented words, “sizable.”

London taxi drivers are renowned for their knowledge about not only their city but the history surrounding it as well. I’m starting to think that the affable but I suspect deadly Martin (pronounced Mar-TEEN), i.e. “the driver” as he’ll no doubt be called in the BMW film version, came from the same tree. You’ll hear no music in his car, or at least not from the radio. Finnish law prohibits it, he says. He cites a case from some years before which ruled that any music played in public, including in the back seat of a cab, is subject to royalty fees. Rather than pass off the fees to the clientele, Martin, and many cabbies like him, refuse to touch the radio dial. He speaks about it all in a low growl that’ll no doubt be the last sound whichever judge that upheld that ruling is going to hear.

There. Now you know way more about Finnish taxi’s than you’d ever wanted to know. But the whole experience with Martin was overall rather reflective of what I gathered to be the Finnish experience in general. It was a fascinating twenty minutes, not hurt by the fact that I was certain at any moment Martin was going to switch into high-speed chase mode and show us what his sleek little automobile could really do. In fact, this fascination which caused my previously drooping eye-lids to surge back up again was driven by what I found to be the Finnish conundrum, that is, the difficult balance struck between being one of the wealthier E.U. countries and having such an overbearing litany of laws to adhere to. How much these laws have served in shaping Finns to be as passive and orderly as they are I don’t know, but sitting here typing this even now I wonder whether it really is such a bad trade off.

Watching the Port of Helsinki melt into the gaping twilight from my spot at the stern of a Tallinn-bound Viking ship four days later, I can’t help but be a bit enamored of the Finnish lifestyle. Envious even. While the plethora of governmental restrictions may leave the occasional Finn feeling a bit emasculated and the others left to frantically grasp at alcohol before the liquor store’s mandated 6 pm closing time, one thing it certainly does do is bring a bit of civility back to daily life.

I concede, my perspective may be somewhat tainted as I have had nearly six months to wallow in the vat of undrinkable water and salo (pig fat) that is Ukraine, where drunken debauchery is the national pastime and heated disputes (read: fistfights) over language preference are commonplace in the Parliament. But while I have written extensively over the past several months about the latter country, now I turn to Finland, Vappu and Sterility.

The Toilet Queue in Helsinki's Central Park

-Vappu?-

I had the good luck of arriving in Helsinki only the day before Vappu’s eve. Before arriving I had never heard of Vappu nor had any idea what the word meant. To my ear it sounded like the Finnish word to describe the excrement one has to put out the morning after a night of heavy drinking. This, I thought, would be useful as there is no word currently in English to describe this procedure. A “Vappu” festival, I was told, would be taking place the upcoming Tuesday. The annual event is a government mandated holiday in which the entire city gathers in Helsinki’s central park presumably to come together and “vappu” the previous night’s excesses. In reality, Vappu is, I’m a happy to say, not a verb describing the Finnish way of pooping after a night of heavy drinking but a noun translated as Walpurgis night or simply, May Day.

As they would in any former Soviet country, the Finns take advantage of the Tuesday off work to engage in various raucous alcohol-fueled activities Monday evening. It’s something of a rite of passage for Finns, one which foreigners rarely have the fortune of partaking in. But first there was Sunday to get through.

-Sundays in the Atheist World-

Finnish May mornings are as crisp and chilly as Florida Winter ones, and then some, but unlike in the United States where recent studies indicate the majority of individuals and families attend a church service of some sort on Sundays, the Finnish prefer to hold church inside a café or, in summer, at one of their country’s many parks. And Finnish church is likely different from any church service you’ve ever been to. At the moment I’m currently sitting outside on the patio (despite the chilly Finnish summer) of Cafe Regatta, an unforgettably charming café nestled against the drab blue tones of the Baltic. Despite only being a short 10-minute drive from the center of Helsinki, were you to be dropped here amidst the trees and the lapping waves you’d think you were hours away from any thriving metropolis. In Scandinavia, the rules are different. There is no virulent or smooth talking man in a business suit speaking from a lectern, in his place at the top of the queue there is instead a red-haired woman handing out pastries and coffee. There is no worship service and the only arms outstretched you’ll see here are those holding open a door for the next in line or signaling for a cappuccino. It’s a different kind of gospel, one shared over a flat white (New Zealand style-latte) and Karjalanpiirakka (Karelian pie, a popular Finnish pastry made from rye crust, rice pudding and boiled egg butter), and one that I find infinitely more agreeable. There is no need for the gospel here and really, it makes sense. When you live in a place like this, what appeal could heaven possibly hold? Streets paved with gold? I’m not a Republican, so Finland’s will due fine, and are even tree-lined! 70 virgins? The women here in notoriously open-minded Scandinavia may not be, but when they all look like sirens and mermaids produced by the Baltic and given legs to wander ashore, virginity takes a back-seat.

The other, more telling thing, that I find so supremely satisfying about Café Regatta are the bathrooms. It’s something that the majority of people may let slip past them unnoticed, but the restrooms of an eating establishment or any general facility at all are usually quite indicative of the overall quality of said establishment (unless it’s that great, hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint with the rockin’ guacamole!). This is where Café Regatta is a real winner. The bathroom is less a bathroom than an entire cabin, separated off by about 50 meters from the café itself, with a toilet inside. But this room has a lavishly decorated interior that made me swoon when I entered. Good thing it’s private. Most cafes don’t have an eating area as nice as this one, much less a bathroom.

The Glorious Bathroom at Cafe Regatta

-Cast of Characters-

Traveling with me for the duration of my ramble through the Baltics is a fellow English teacher, Andrew, who simultaneously entertains me with his farfetched, disaffected and indifferent outlook on all things, and annoys me with his farfetched, disaffected and indifferent outlook on all things. His, however, is quite an interesting perspective to have on a trip such as this one and he’s turned out to be quite a chum.

For our trip through the Baltics I had used a website, www.couchsurfing.com, to arrange where we would be staying. Here, in Helsinki, I had found the consummate hosts- a couple, the man Finnish, the woman Russian, who kindly opened their flat to us. Jimmy, our Finnish host, was a would-be philosopher of sorts. I grew so accustomed to his frequent musings on everything from the existence of god to the wondrous and varied uses of cheese, two topics which I think we agree are of roughly equal importance, that I find myself similarly curious whenever I frequent the local shawarma stand- really though, where does that meat come from?

The Russian was a particularly kind hearted woman named Anya- kind hearted, and keen to prancing around the apartment where we stayed in nothing but lingerie. Since the apartment had only one main room with no walls separating kitchen from dining room from bedroom, during these four days we lived essentially like one big Scandinavian family, hence the nakedness… not that I’m complaining.

Finally, there was Alyanna. I had studied with Alyanna overseas in Prague back in 2007. She’s a very interesting sort in that she has to constantly be fed attention like a child with a terminal illness. When this attention isn’t paid to her, she makes it clear with molten glares and heavy silence that she isn’t happy. We haven’t spoken in five years but little has changed in this regard. Nevertheless, she serves as a kind of anti-Virgil as she guides as through what she would describe as a Scandinavian inferno full of inhospitable, two-faced people and a backwards culture. Now, while I don’t study there as does Alyanna and thus know perhaps less about the people and their culture than she does, I was consistently taken aback by how friendly everyone was, not to mention once again just what a charming city Helsinki really is. Perhaps it’s just Vappu that has everyone in such good spirits.

And then of course, there’s me who most of you likely know but who, I assure you, has plenty of annoying traits that it will simply take you to meet me to discover.

-Vappuing-

It is a blustery ten before six in the evening and we are rushing off down one of Helsinki’s choked side streets in order to make it to the liquor store before closing time. The crowds are already making towards the park or any open space really in order to commence the Vappy festivities. It is Vappu’s eve which, I think everyone would agree, is really quite more exciting than Vappu itself which sees the entire population gathering in Helsinki’s central park, though it is quite a nice park.

We find the liquor store packed and after churning through the queue we take a couple of bottles of liquor- I honestly can’t remember what kind or else I’d tell you- and follow the crowds to the nearest patch of green grass. Top 40 music is blaring from every corner tonight and a cluster of Finns dressed as penguins are line dancing. Alcohol is consumed and everyone in our group of 6 or so seem to be having a jolly time when an oddly coupled gay pair joins us. One has bleached blond hair with a blinding yellow t-shirt and matching sunglasses whereas the other one, clearly older, has his long hair tied back in a ponytail and has on a trench coat, all of which gives him the appearance of some kind of Finnish Gay Rocker/Sherlock Holmes. The former of the two joins our party eagerly, swaying on the shoulders of all involved while spouting some drunken Finnish dialect that sounds as if it came out of a sci-fi movie. After some time they leave, having left a permanent mark on our memories, and we continue vappuing until the small hours which find us homeless as our experienced hosts have shut themselves in on this annual night of debauchery, preferring instead to rise at 6 am to head for the picnic early.

Though upset due to lack of our full, undevoted attention this evening, we follow a silent Alyanna home bearing the promise to make eggs in exchange for a space on the floor.

-Finnishing-

The week culminated in a weary Wednesday in which the entire country seemed to be at home recovering but which found us catching a screening of The Avengers (in glorious English!) at one of Helsinki’s high-tech cinemas. For the record, I found the film to be overrated tripe.

Watching the city drift away from the bow of a Tallinn bound ship that evening, I can’t help but wonder what more one could need living in a place like Finland. Finns are by and large healthy, with an excellent health care system, some of the world’s best drinking water, a stable government, long life expectancy, delightful cafes and English language films. What more does one need? A large percentage of the population even “Nordic-walk” here, which is something I’m determined to bring somewhere, sometime. They have an incredible public transportation system that is built entirely on trust as users are just expected to buy tickets before riding. One Australian I met who has resided here for more than two years tells me he has never once seen a ticket controller on board either a bus or metro here, yet no one seems to take advantage of this fact, preferring instead to abide by a code of honesty that shows in every aspect of their life.

“Finn’s are often mistaken for being rude,” the Australian tells me, “but that isn’t the case. Here, being honest is considered being polite.”

If there is one word I would use to describe Helsinki after all this it would be “sterile.” From their impressive, minimalist architecture that places heavy emphasis on a sleek, glassy look, to their overall demeanor and attitude, this is a sterile place with sterile people. I don’t levy that as a criticism, just as a note. It’s not like people here to “rock the boat.” Play friendly in Finland and you’ll do fine. Ask questions, be polite and respectful and you’ll do even better.

And don’t forget to tip the taxi driver.

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