Another chapter for the Guide to Finland, my educationary and cautionary guide to the charming land of snow, snow, mosquitoes and snow.
As always, you can find the ready chapters of the Guide under “Pages” on the main page of this blog.
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This chapter consists of a few random notes about what happens when Finns and alcohol meet. Since those meetings often cause considerable discontinuities in memory and good judgment, this chapter’s similarly broken into short, gulp-sized pieces.
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Drinking can be a dignified, social occasion. In France, I hear, and in similar highly dignified places, people can sip wine at supper, and enjoy a taste of brandy in the evening.
Not so in Finland.
Finns — your standard, stereotypical male Finns — drink anything that has alcohol in it, including antifreeze, and drink it until it’s all gone. They don’t sip, they don’t behave in a civilized manner, but they drink — because when a Finn does something, he does it without frills and without too much thinking.
Or, all too often, without any thinking at all.
The good part of drinking with Finns is that there are no occult rules to be followed: no toasts to saints or ancient gods, no abstaining from absinthe after midnight, no special cups, nor speeches or careful comments about the taste — just the single-minded task of getting drunk, treating the liquor, no matter whether fine or foul, as just another work to be done, another nail to be hammered down.
The bad part of drinking with Finns is, of course, that such indiscriminate drinkers will get raving, biting drunk quite soon, and then it’s a knife-slashing, axe-fighting, rifle-shooting buddy-slaying time all night long, or until a policeman comes.
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In the army, where I was a frighteningly long time ago, there were constant and rarely substantiated tales about the desperate tricks thirsty soldiers did during long, leaveless camps — running lighter fluid or truck antifreeze through a triple slab of bread, and drinking the resulting near-alcoholic paralysis-liquid.
Soldiers returning from their leaves staggering, dirt poor and still roaring drunk aren’t a solely Finnish phenomenon, but Finns do even these wild binges quite singularly without any reservations or second thoughts whatsoever — drinking until there’s no drink, no money or no glass-lifting hand steady enough left.
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Finns are usually quiet and restrained types, but alcohol makes them alarmingly talkative — it’s as if the average amount of social activity over time is the same everywhere, but Finns have just divided their social activities into short, intense outbursts separated by long days of near-catatonia.
Actually, this “sudden peaks model of Finnish behavior” is one of my best explanations for the ways Finns behave. Frenchmen might be moderately talkative and cheerful all the time, but Finns keep their words and worries bottled up, until they all burst loose in a short, violent gush of social interaction.
Alcohol or some other mind-altering stimulus (like hearing that Finland won the European wheelchair-stair bowling championships) often triggers one of these manic outbursts.
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With the usual Finnish winters, and the usual company of the other Finns, life in Finland can be a bit dark, tiresome and depressing. After the liquid claws of alcoholism dig in deep, the valleys and troughs of life get darker, tiresomer and even more depressing, but the occasional (or near-constant) bright highs of loud drunkenness make forgetting them easier.
Each summer many Finns — dozens, I’d guess — drown because of alcohol. The usual scheme goes a bit like this: Midsummer. A drunken Finn. A rowboat. A nice view from the middle of the lake. A sudden need to piss. An unsteady form in a boat, trying to stand up and empty his bladder into the lake. The next day, a three-line notice in the local newspaper.
During winters, the more bravehearted drunken Finns go outside to run around in the snow, sometimes wearing only their underwear, sometimes not even that. Sometimes some don’t come back.
This Darwinian selection has made Finns into people that, instead of resisting the lure of drink, survive very well in cold places instead. Ah well — evolution has no foresight, and neither do Finns.
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Some Finns do their drinking in company, some do it all alone. Some talk a lot when drinking; others are quiet. These two groups don’t overlap as nicely with the previous two as you’d want.
Some Finns prefer beer; some drink ciders or long drinks or whiskey or toxic goo from vats hidden in student-apartment closets. (The author’s knowledge of these things is very limited.)
Most Finns go for quantity instead of quality. With drinks, as with many other things, Finns don’t understand or care about formalisms, manners or highly cultivated tastes. A bottle of France’s finest might cause gasps, and a bit of Scotland’s best might dredge up a lusty smile, but if you really want to delight a typical Finn, bring a mixed crate of beer and cider with you.
(In Finland, cider or siideri apparently always means a mild alcoholic drink. The author, being a filthy absolutist, isn’t really the person you should trust when learning about these things. Consult a Finn less challenged in the popular pastime department and, if necessary, make him translate a bit of the Finnish Wikipedia for you.)
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Of course not all Finns — not even all Finnish males — are disastrously suicidal (or just homicidal) alcohol-abusers. Many know where their limits are, or at least realize, after an amnesiac weekend, that they’ve gone beyond their limits once again.
Not all Finns are drunks, but instead of giving you excuses and accurate facts, I much rather mutter our own stereotypes and folk-tales; after all, if you come to Finland, you’ll have to deal with the Finns’ picture of themselves as much as with the way Finns actually are.
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Foreigners can have a tough time in Finland. Consider, for example, this.
You are in a Finnish city. You are louder than the people there usually are. You raise your voice more, your tones vary more, and you gesture and show your emotions much, much more than the people there usually do. You have a few similar people with you.
When (or rather if) you talk to other people, your speech is difficult to understand, as if it was in a foreign language, and even if you speak Finnish your pronunciation is exact, even exaggerated, but a bit stilted or slurry. If a Finn speaks to you, in common clear and rapid-fire Finnish, you have trouble understanding his intent, or answering him.
Who are you?
In Finland, most often, you are either a foreigner, or you are drunk. Since foreigners are much rarer than members of the second category, this might explain some of the looks a foreigner (or a clutch of them) gets in Finland.
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Remember, scaring the pants off you with cultural notes like this is a valuable public service, and since no-one else seems to be doing it, I do.