Finland: The Pefect Balance of Nature and Culture
Below the calmness and chic design lies coffee-fuelled eccentricity. Under the midnight sun, Helsinki heats up with vodka, saunas and tango.
Forget DEET. Leave the Skin So Soft at home. This summer’s must-have mosquito repellent is brought to you by…Finlandia Vodka.
That’s right. Vodka. Actually, any vodka will do, according to Nordic lore. The point is to get staggeringly drunk, strip naked and pass out in the garden. By morning, the mosaic of mosquito welts confers seasonal immunity. Easy.
This regime is, I’m quite sure, a horrible prank fobbed upon gullible visitors. But the cheerful regulars in a Helsinki bar swear its truth on the grave of their celebrated composer Jean Sibelius. Later it emerges that vodka is indeed part of a natural insect-repellent recipe: applied to the skin and mixed with, say, citronella or clove oil. Binge-drinkers need not apply.
The episode illuminates many things about Helsinki, however. No matter how punctual the trams and graceful the water carafes, the Finns have a puckish streak. And when they spin tall tales for tourists, they sometimes stack combustible cocktails six-high. “Pffsst,” a match flares. Burning alcohol cascades down the martini glasses. The pyre burns away every possible preconception about the Land of 1,000 Lakes (starting with the nickname, which omits about 59,000 bodies of inland water).
Then the truths begin to emerge. The country that brought us Nokia and Linux also spawned the Leningrad Cowboys, a silver-screen spoof band with unicorn hairdos and the motto “make tractors, not war”. That chic Marimekko fashion, favored by Jacqueline Onassis during her Kennedy phase, is counterbalanced by the pot-bellied Moomintrolls of children’s literature. Though famously somber, the average Finn is wired on nine cups of coffee each day (the highest per capita consumption in the world). And they still roast meat in the sauna on occasion.
Don’t get me wrong. Helsinki is heart-breakingly gorgeous.
Over 80 museums, 400-odd parks and wide, sweeping boulevards charm guests, as do the clubs, cafes and boutiques. Recycling and public transport are en vogue. Wi-fi pulses through whole swathes of the squeaky-clean city center. And the surrounding fir-trimmed country stretches from balmy Baltic Sea islands to the Arctic Circle, where the Santa Claus Main Post Office fields Christmas correspondence near Rovaniemi.
But the capital’s chic, sophisticated citizens do occasionally grill wieners in the spa, as if illustrating the adage “a Finn is never too full not to eat a bit more sausage.” They then whip each other with bundles of birch twigs (vasta), an action said to exfoliate … and, appease the sauna elves. Finally, they roll in the snow or jump naked into a bay rattling with ice like a cheap fountain-coke.
Warmed by the Gulf Stream, Finland is 18 degrees warmer than its neighbors at that latitude. The sun doesn’t set during the two-month summer. However, none of this can quite convinces a foreigner, even one steaming pig-pink from an aspen-fired sauna, that a cold plunge is a hot idea. After all, these people eat herring, lampreys and mustamakkara: barley and pig-blood pudding with lingonberry sauce, chased with milk. What if they’ve got it all wrong?
But no, the Finns are right again. I roll and splash in the bay for 20 minutes, intoxicated by contrast – a scalding core temperature resisting the water’s chill embrace. Blood thrums through my veins. I am strangely serene. Maybe I’ll knock out a few furniture designs a la Alvar Aalto. Or express the gloom of my soul through tango.
Ballroom dancing, you see, never waned in Helsinki. Borne past its sell-by date on a flourish of accordion notes, the trend takes a fake-tanned, bleached-tooth twist on center stage. Hair teased high, Finland’s superstars croon in sequins. The ordinary folks shuffle – slow and sweet – to melancholy songs, perhaps fortified by beer and the odd pork sausage.
Gone is the fiery element, aptly described as "vertical sex", and the flashy solo steps of Argentina (the “other” tango capital of the world, according to locals).
The transplanted dance evolved under the midnight sun, where the winters are long, dark and cold, and the tiny population (five million) is isolated. This breeds a deep sadness, which spills over into the nation’s adopted art.
Scholar Pirjo Kukkonen explains the genre's transformation: "Our tango lyrics are as Finnish as could be. Nostalgic, melancholic words suit this music. They outline a strategy for surviving everyday life. The basic rhythm can be interpreted as reflecting inner life, perhaps even heartbeats."
Ilkka Heiskari, spokesman for the Seinäjoki Tango Festival, offers a more controversial theory. "The Finns are very melancholy, very sad. We drink too much, sometimes we kill people," he announces.
Riita, the tourist board representative, protests, but Ilkka shrugs and smiles. "We do not speak very much. Tango is our language. It's the quickest way to get a lady."
However goofy or retro – or just plain desperate – this trend, Finns should be forgiven tango. After all, their country is younger than the slinky dance. Long a Swedish trading outpost, Helsinki was annexed by Russia in 1809. Grand imperial buildings and a cosmopolitan culture sprouted in the ashes of a great fire. In 1917, Finland finally declared its independence, only to be absorbed into the European Union come 1995.
But the merger hasn’t eroded all national identity and midnight sun eccentricity. Just ask any Finn for medical advice like, say, a remedy for mosquito-repellent overdose. Chances are, they’ll trot out the time-old wisdom: if vodka, tar and sauna do not help, the sickness is fatal. That’s right. Tar. As in asphalt.
I’ll be back for the road not taken.
IF YOU GO
A Nordic maxim insists “a women looks at her best one hour after a sauna”. Test the magic in this steamed-up country (where 5.2 million inhabitants roast in about two million saunas). Saturday night fever is tradition, but most hotels offer weekday access.
Nudity is the norm (shy sauna-goers cover up with towels, also useful insulation against the hot benches. Happily, co-ed saunas are rare). Shower first, removing make-up and contact lenses. Most Finns remain inside for 5–15 minutes, then whisk, cool down, rinse and repeat. The Finnish Sauna Society has further tips, as well as six showcase sweat baths (€7 for Saunaseura members and €12 for guests; 9-6860-560; www.sauna.fi).
The Kotiharjun was voted Helsinki’s best public facility. Wood-fired and gender-segregated, the cedar cabinets approach 85–90 degrees and 100% humidity (€6.50; Harjutorinkatu 1; 9-753-1535). Detox, dine, drink or do your laundry at Café Tin Tin Tango (€17/hour for 1–3 people; Töölöntorinkatu 7; 9-2709-0972; www.ravintolaopas.net/cafetintintango). Or purge your pores in Art Deco decadence at Uimahalli, where staff deliver beer to the pool balconies (€4.50; Yrjönkatu 21b; 9-3108-7400).
Kickstart the mosquito cure
Drink at the Arctic Icebar, composed of eight-inch thick blocks. The €10 entry includes a vodka cocktail, plus a loan of gloves and a warm cape (both in futuristic foil-tones). Enter through the trendy Uniq nightclub (Yliopistonkatu 5; 9-278-1855; Open Wed–Sun 10pm–4am).
Tour town on the Spårakoff Beer Tram, a decade-old tradition. This bright-red carriage seats 24 for the 50-minute ride from Mikonkatu tram stop, near Helsinki’s Railway Square (€7; 9-684-074; www.koff.fi; Tues–Sat from May 10–Aug 13; hourly departures from 2–8pm).
U.S. travelers are flocking to Finland: 2004’s figures were up ten percent, approaching 2000’s record high, according to Nino de Prado, the Finnish Tourist Board’s North American director. The national carrier, Finnair, just added a Boston-Stockholm-Helsinki flight (www.finnair.com/us). Icelandair has good deals via its hub in Reykjavik (www.icelandair.com). And Scandinavian Airlines offers affordable multi-stop tickets with its Scandinavia/Europe Airpass (www.scandinavian.net).
Tour town on tram #3, which swishes in a figure-eight pattern through Helsinki’s finest sites, including Market Square, the Opera House, Art Deco Railway Station, Natural History Museum, Rock Church and Senate Square (€2 single or €5.40 for a one-day tourist ticket; www.hel.fi/HKL). Holders of a Helsinki Card – an attractions pass – can hop on and off freely (1-, 2- and 3-day cards are €24, €35 and €45; www.helsinkicard.com).
Or hop aboard a bright-green, communal Citybike. Return the free wheels to any of 26 stands in the city center (€2 refundable deposit; borrow a helmet from Jugendsali on Pohjoisesplanadi 19; www.hel.fi/hkl)