Guide: Small things

or A Chapter of A Guide to Finland, titled “Small things”

(will be given a proper sequential number later)

* * *

The other chapters try to tell you about the big things of Finland: history, winter, silence, barely controlled homicidal introvertism, things like that.

This chapter is just a collection of little details, little things that might help you understand Finland a little bit better.

Tango. Yes, the South American form of dance and music. It came to Finland after the Second World War, and it’s hugely popular — well, among the more aged anyway. There are endless Finnish songs in this form, and they’re all melancholy: no love, no hope, no money, dog died yesterday, stuff like that. Then again, something like one-half of all Finnish music is like that; almost all of the rest is music you need to be drunk to appreciate. Still, if you come to Finland and are in the risk of dancing outside a disco-rave context, knowing tango might be a plus.

Computers. Why, surely it cannot surprise you that a nation of introverted people loves its mobile phones, computers and other gadgets that make avoiding people easier? Since the temperatures of Finland are not good for easily excited people (e.g. key won’t fit, throws key away, looks for it, dies lost in the snow), Finns tend to be patient and thus good with computers. For an example consider one Linus Torvalds, whom the world must praise/blame for Linux. Because there isn’t much anything of value in Finland (well, some trees maybe), Finns are good in working with intangibles — like computer programming, or then designing thingamajics like the quite famous mobile phones of Nokia, the Finnish company.

All your friends know this. You were the only one to think Nokia a Japanese name. And now you know better. Go embarrass someone.

Metal. Again, it must be because of all the darkness and gloom: Finns are quite good in making heavy metal music of various kinds. If you’re interested in that sort of a thing (I am!) you might have heard of… (scratches head) Nightwish, Stratovarius, Children of Bodom, HIM, Lordi? I guess listing names is pretty futile; if you’re a fan of the genre, you know this already, and if you aren’t, listing names won’t do you any good. Just remember that when the lyrics turn to death, sorrow and anger, Finns know how to put them down and raise them up.

Karaoke. A microphone, prerecorded background music, a view of the lyrics, and one tone-deaf person trying to sing. I’m sure you know the concept, right? Karaoke is originally from Japan — kara ookesutora is Japanese for “an empty orchestra” — and it is one of those many things that Finland and Japan share, like the ability to be alone and aloof in a crowd, a love of bathhouses, and a difficult language unrelated to those of (most) neighbors. One wouldn’t straightaway think a common Finn very musical — and, oh boy, that thought is right — but karaoke is still popular; that might have something to do with the use of alcohol. Most Finnish excesses can be explained by asking this simple question: Is this something that a very, very drunken person would do? I suspect that if the weather was a bit warmer, streaking would be endemic every time the bottles get drained.

The most horrible karaoke experience occurs usually in a bus — one that has a TV-VHS/DVD combination to keep the travelers content during longer trips, and a microphone near the front — don’t attend an informal company trip or a youth get-together or something similar unless you’re sure of earmuffs or a baggage check.

Coffee. Though coffee beans don’t grow in Finland, Finns drink coffee like maniacs. This is often forgotten, because it’s overshadowed by the fact that Finns drink alcohol like crazed maniacs on speed. The kaamos depression — caused by the endless dark days of winter — makes getting up and going a bit difficult, and many Finns can’t start their day without a cup of coffee. There’s no consensus on whether coffee should be drank black and disgusting or nicely disguised with milk and sugar, though the writer has an opinion.

Note to biologists: Prohibit importing coffee, and in five years you’ll have a human that hibernates. Okay?

Subbed, not dubbed. If you open a television in Finland, you see that the foreign programs are subtitled, not dubbed over in Finnish. As a happy result of this, Finns are pretty good with English, the majority of foreign programming being either British or American, quite all of the series famous in the latter filtering to Finland sooner or later, from CSI to House, and from that curious lady Oprah to Conan O’Brien.

Also, it seems Germany cannot make a police series without it being shown in Finland sooner or later, and over and over again: Derrick, Der Alte, and so on. Other countries are more sporadically represented — the writer has to admit to finding Los Serrano, a Spanish daytime drama series, very amusing. Now, in more populous areas programs might be dubbed (spoken over) by local actors; in Finland the smallness of the audience and the general crappiness (personal opinion) of Finnish voice actors (again, a size of the pool issue) mean that only the shows aimed at really young children — so young they can’t read, or criticize voice acting — are spoken over.

Someone optimistic could say this leads to Finns learning either to read or to understand foreign languages better, or in the best case both. Someone less so could at the very least note that there have been several amusing books published in Finland that contain subtitling bloopers — understandable given the nervous strain of having to endure the Bold and the Beautiful for more than the half-hour, but still highly amusing.

Politics. Not something that has excited people for the last couple of decades — parliamentary elections (eduskuntavaalit) tend to get the count of those that voted to the sixties, presidential elections (presidentinvaalit) to the seventies. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between the parties, no particular fighting spirit, no immense ideological wars or divisions, and absolutely no rioting whatsoever no matter the results. Finland is happily in the post-democratic age where elections are regular and honest, the candidates reasonably upright, the reactions stolid and restrained, and the people bored to death by the whole exercise.

Complaining. Now, this might be universal, but Finns love to moan, gripe and bitch. With some other nation this might lead to bloodshed or revolution, or it might be balanced by brags of Manifest Destiny and past glory — not so in Finland. Finland is an inferiority complex wrapped in resignation inside a shell of kvetch. It might be the knowledge of the often warred-home fact that we are a very small nation between big ones: remember that until the Napoleonic wars Sweden was a Power — and it has been a power, lower-cased, since compared to Finland. And the various incarnations of Russia, powerful and slightly power-mad — well, ask a Canadian to imagine living next to the US without the help of the UK, and something similar emerges: for we have no Slavic, Germanic or post-Imperial grand family of kith and kin to call our own; and the first Finn to waltz to the dubious borderline of legend and history did so only 900 years ago, and did so by getting into a rage and killing a bishop. You try building national confidence from that.

Things Finns see as threatening. Increased alcoholism. Unemployment. Youth getting on the lawn. Russia. Unhealthy food. People complaining about unhealthy food. People griping about people complaining about unhealthy food when it’s only in their own good interests, and so on. Debt. A dearth of doctors and waiting for medical services. Every service draining out of the villages and into big cities. Not enough children. Too many foreigners. The sort of stupid troglodytes that would make a comment like the previous one. Russia. The foreigners seeing us as backward and dumb. The possibility that we might actually be backward and dumb. The prospect of having to teach your grandmother to use Twitter. The resurrection of Stalin. Russia.

Things that don’t bother Finns much. Corruption — there isn’t much any. Sweden — well, okay, they’re the butt of a thousand jokes, but we’re good neighbors really. Religion — who cares? Political ideologies — unless you’re one of those scary gimlet-eyes achiever-types. Ambition — heck, just getting and keeping a job would be nice. Fashion, haute couture, and anything beyond denim and tracksuits — unless you’re one of those neurotic about the Image of Finland, or live in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, where people are all uppity. Terrorist attacks, civil wars, genocides, volcanic eruptions and giant chinchilla attacks — because those don’t happen outside the World News section.

Now, a concluding word: stereotypes and generalizations most often aren’t true, but I hope that if I throw up enough of them, something like the truth will shine through. This was just another volley.

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