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You Know You Have Been In Finland Too Long, When...



This old chestnut has been doing the rounds of the Net for some time and in places it is showing its age. We have taken the liberty of adding a few glosses (for which we asked a furriner who's been here over 20 years and is therefore probably guilty of most of the behaviour being lampooned).

1. You rummage through your plastic bag collection to see which ones you should keep to take to the store and which can be sacrificed to garbage.

Apparently the plastic bags - formerly free, now costing about EUR 0.10-0.15 - supplied by Finnish shopkeepers are vastly superior to those in other countries. It's probably something to do with the weight of bottles they need to be able to withstand. In bag-stretching competitions (don't laugh, the Finns have had dumber contests than that - most of these wacky competitions are all that the American media ever report about the place) they have allegedly outperformed most condoms currently on the market. In any event, sales of the small black plastic bin-bags (not the BIG ones that line dustbin/garbage cans, but the little ones for in-home use) are pretty poor, and everyone uses the plastic shopping bags as temporary storage for garbage till it gets chucked out. An alternative and less attractive theory is that Finns are too cheap to consider buying shopping bags. Take your pick.

2. When a stranger on the street smiles at you:
a. you assume he is drunk
b. he is insane
c. he's an American


Err... isn't he? This one is getting a bit dated, really. Nobody smiles at you on the street, but the reason is that they are too busy talking into a cellphone or downloading their e-mail from a PDA to recognize anything much more than a few feet of sidewalk immediately in front of their feet.

3. You don't think twice about putting the wet dishes away in the cupboard to dry.

Ah. Well. Now, I could tell you that dishwashers seem much more common here than in Britain, and that the British habit - the poor devils often only have that one sink and the silly two taps - of not rinsing plates before they put them to dry makes me gag, but the secret to this one is that Finnish houses and apartments have excellent draining cupboards over the sink-unit, where the plates can dry off. No messing with a soggy tea-cloth to dry them. One great advantage of this is that the neighbours never give you "Souvenir of Where-we-went" tea-cloths as a gift for looking after their mail and newspapers, but something requiring a little more thought. When the plates are good and dry, you stack them in the cupboard where you keep them. Simple, really. But in our house, the chances are that the plates and eating-irons hit the table straight from the dishwasher anyway...

4. A friend asks about your holiday plans and you answer: "Oh, I'm going to Europe!" meaning any other Western European country outside Scandinavia.

OK. Someone's got to be on the periphery...and we do tend to identify with the other Scandinavian countries, however much we bitch about their respective faults. In many ways, Finland is an island. This is best seen in the fact that numerous rock bands and other artists think twice before playing Helsinki, as they will have to cart 25 truckloads of equipment by sea from Sweden and back, thus adding two or three days to their schedule for just the one gig.

Note: This last bit is now out of date. Finland seems to be on the map once more, not least because of the way the Baltic States have opened up, and also the draw of a big metropolis like St. Petersburg. We are no longer quite "the end of the line", and the supply of artists (particularly those in the sunset of their careers) has picked up considerably. Hey, even Madonna put us on her list.

5. You see a student taking a front row seat and wonder "Who does he think he is!!??"

I suppose this can only mean Finnish university students do not volunteer information for discussion at lectures. Many of them are probably asleep, and being young, have not yet perfected the technique employed by MPs, ministers and heads of state for appearing to be awake whilst dozing through meetings.

6. Silence is fun.

The national characteristic of polite reserve, currently being remodelled as people talk energetically into their Nokias and run up huge phone bills on mobile internet or TV chat-channels. The old stereotype of "talkative as a Finn" is becoming endangered as the country grows increasingly urbanised and people have to communicate. On a related note, Midsummer, a very liquid festival held at or around the Summer Solstice, contains one element that proves Finns do have a voice. As the evening wears on, robust and inebriated males of the species engage in good-humoured shouting across lakes at one another, thus: "Pekkaaaaaa, Pekkaaaa", "Arskaaaaa, Arskaaa". The conversation does not usually get much further than bellowed first names, I'm afraid. In such cases, a bit of silence would be fun.

7. The reason you take the ferry to Stockholm or Tallinn is:
a. duty free vodka
b. duty free beer
c. to party heartily...no need to get off the boat in Stockholm or Tallinn, just turn around and do it again on the way back to Finland.


Despite a sharp increase from 2004 (when taxes on alcohol went down), Finns are still only in the upper middle section of the European league table in terms of per capita alcohol consumption (now up to about 10 litres per head of 100% alcohol a year, by comparison with the boozy sods in Luxemburg or the Czech Republic or Ireland who drink a good deal more). However, the Finns are the Usain Bolts of the drinking sport, rather than long-distance runners (which is a bit strange when you think about it, given our earlier glories at long-distance running). Alcohol is still viewed to some extent as a forbidden fruit; even after the reductions, it is still rather heavily taxed, and whilst the Alko stores are increasingly pleasant and well-stocked places to shop, the truth is still that wines and spirits are not as easily available as in Central Europe.
Hence (at least this is my theory and I'm sticking to it) it pays to have a decent belt of the stuff and get some benefit, if it's costing so much and is hard to come by. Sipping is for wusses. In recent years, partly as a result of tax differentials on wine, Finns have moved from the grain and hops mentality in the direction of wine-drinking. At the same time, they have slipped closer towards a European attitude to drink - a couple of glasses on a weekday evening after work - without totally surrendering their proud national traditions of getting legless on Friday and Saturday nights and then going jogging the next morning to shake off the cobwebs.
The general consensus seems to have been that the reductions in taxation of five years ago, when Estonia joined the EU (prices were slashed as it was thought prudent not to encourage people to import hundreds of litres of vodka as soon as the import restrictions were lifted) caused a good deal of social grief, including the ugly realisation that alcohol-related diseases and accidental alcohol poisoning are becoming a very significant cause of death among working-age Finnish men and women. Taxes have been consistently raised thereafter.

8. Your coffee consumption exceeds 6 cups a day and coffee is too weak if there is less than two spoonfuls per person.

Hey...the coffee's damned good here. And we don't make a fetish out of it like the Americans have done. We just drink the stuff, and don't give it fancy foreign names and a huge price-tag. At least we don't drink that instant coffee muck.

Note: We’ll have to climb down on this one a bit. Latte prices have got ridiculous, but Finns still tend to drink more coffee at home than in cafés. Starbucks still have not made landfall here, and the chances are they won't.

9. You pass a grocery store and think: "Wow, it is open, I had better go in and buy something!"

Opening hours have been pretty much deregulated, and most supermarkets are open till at least 8 or 9, shops no longer close infuriatingly at 2 on Saturdays, and they seem to be forever advertising Sunday opening in the papers. Sunday opening is common in the summer, and also in the run-up to Christmas. Kiosks are open till 21.00, petrol stations often later. This is a typically outdated claim about the country.

Update: Complete liberalisation of Sunday shopping went through Parliament in 2009, and will come into effect from 2010. This still won't mean you can go and buy a bottle of wine at 2 a.m. from a corner shop, but it's progress of a sort for those who do insist on shopping at odd hours.

10. Your native language has seriously deteriorated, now you begin to "eat medicine", "open the television", "close the lights off", and tell someone: "you needn't to!". Expressions like "Don't panic" creep into your everyday language.

Errr... Yeah. I guess.

11. You associate pea soup with Thursday.

Several hundred years ago, when Finland was still a part of Sweden and taxes were levied for the King, money was scarce and peas were used for payment. However, since peas had hitherto mostly been used as pig food, something had to be done to raise their status. The population was thus encouraged to eat pea soup. Soldiers got a weekly portion of pea soup, sometimes strengthened with pig's trotters and the fatty parts of pork. After the meal the bones were used for magic. Thursday became pea soup day, since the Catholic religion proscribed meat on Fridays and people needed a solid dinner the day before. Over the centuries pea soup has acquired at least nine different names in Finnish; moreover it has also become a traditional Shrovetide food, before Lent. Today pea soup is also inseparably connected with the Finnish oven-baked dessert pancake.

12. Your idea of unforgivable behaviour now includes walking across the street when the light is red and there is no walk symbol, even though there are no cars in sight.

After witnessing on television the horrific scenes filmed by a camera atop a downtown Helsinki building - in which unwary pedestrians doing the above were tossed into the air by passing cars, I can only say it's sensible behaviour to wait for the little green man. Your average city driver follows traffic lights, and usually stops for them, but tends to ignore pedestrians hovering at the sides of crossings. When there are no cars in sight, chances are the one just around the corner is making the most of the unusual lack of traffic and will hit you doing 60. It's not about independence of spirit - it's about staying in one piece.

13. Your notion of street life is reduced to the few teenagers hanging out in front of the railway station on Friday nights.

Again... it's not quite that bad...there are lots of teenagers.

14. Sundays no longer seem dull with all the stores closed, and begin to feel restful instead.

See #9. Also take a trip to IKEA on a Sunday if you want excitement. Mind you, take a book - something like "War and Peace" - for the lines to get into the parking lot and out past the check-out. The only really dull day is Christmas Day (since Christmas is celebrated the evening before), but you can read all those nice brick-like biographies of former politicians that people bought you.

15. You finally stop asking your class "Are there any questions?"

A wise teacher will only ask this question seconds before the bell. This minimizes the awkward silence, and gives everyone a good feeling that they would have asked a question, but...

16. Your old habit of being "Fashionably late" is no longer acceptable. You are always on time.

Nyah... some of us are.

17. Hugging is reserved for sexual foreplay.

What's sexual foreplay?
The Finns are not big in the body-language department. It's that "polite reserve" thing again. There have been dozens of earnest studies of the Finns' shortage of small-talk and touchy-feeliness. The upside of this shortage is that most Finns, gruff and bluff though they might be, are pretty honest. A lack of "daaahling" remarks and hand-kissing in the culture is matched by relatively little back-stabbing after you've gone.

18. You refuse to wear a hat, even in -30°C weather.

As with eating quiche, real men don't wear hats. Crispy ears are a fashion statement. Seriously, however, anything below -10 tends to require long underwear and the regulation woolly hat or "pipo". Quite another issue is the fact that people living in the south of the country have probably not experienced -30°C for so long they really don't know how anymore to deal with it. Some recent globally-warmed Helsinki winters have seen people playing golf - not ice-golf - in January.

19. You hear loud-talking passengers on the train. You immediately assume:
a. they are drunk
b. they are Swedish-speaking
c. they are Americans
d. all of the above.


Errrmmm... you always hear loud-talking passengers on trains these days. Just before they start to speak, you hear a loud peeping noise, probably vaguely reminiscent of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", though with the more modern machines you can programme in your own ringing-tone, so it might be Black Sabbath or Lynyrd Skynyrd or – patriotically – HIM or The Rasmus or Nightwish or even Lordi. When they speak, they say things like: "I'm on the train", and "You are breaking up" (as the train enters a tunnel), and "What's for dinner, love?" and other valuable bits of communication. They are not drunk, nor Swedish, nor American, but Finns through and through. Besides, this whole statement sucks. If you travel on the New York subway or the London tube, it's not exactly the Tower of Babel there, either. It's only the tourists who are talking; everyone else is minding their own business, reading or doing the crossword. Only when the train stops unexpectedly for a suitable length of time do people start talking to their neighbours. Further empirical studies are needed on the number of minutes' stoppage that is required in different countries before I can buy this one.

20. You no longer look at sports pants as casual wear, but recognize them as almost formal wear.

Almost??

21. You have undergone a transformation:
a. you accept mustamakkara (Black blood sausage) as food
b. you accept alcohol as food
c. you accept.


The sausage in question is found mostly in Tampere. Fortunately, it does not travel widely, as it has no known natural predators, and if it got loose it could destroy the digestive system of the entire country. As it remains in Tampere, nobody really cares.

22. You understand why the Finnish language has no future tense.

No, I don't think I ever will understand that one... Finns are quite future-oriented at two particular times of the year. On the day after Midsummer (see above), they say "Well, it's all downhill from now on" and prepare feverishly for winter, and similarly after December 21st they perk up and start thinking about Midsummer - ignoring the fact that they still have to get through January, February and March before the place becomes inhabitable again...

23. You no longer have to search for the flushing mechanism.

How dare you! Finnish toilets are the envy of the known world. The little bidet shower that you often get next to the loo ranks amongst the finest inventions of modern man - or woman - and its absence in countries such as the US is one more reason to be proud of our European heritage. The loss to the language of "Pull the chain" is a small price to pay for luxury commodes.

24. You no longer see any problem wearing white socks with loafers.

Nope. And at EUR 2.00 for three pairs from the local gas station, they're a steal. Hey, you can even change them every week!

25. You just love Jaffa.

This carbonated orange beverage is supposed to be the panacea for upset tummies. I find it spoils a perfectly decent gin.

26. You've come to expect Sunday morning sidewalk vomit dodging.

The writer seems to have signally failed to grasp the cultural importance of this northern variant of hopscotch or "not walking on the lines", as made famous by A.A. Milne.

27. You know that "religious holiday" means "let's get pissed."

I have long suspected this was the reason why so many religious holidays were moved from their correct mid-week position to the nearest Saturday. Now I know.

28. You enjoy salmiakki.

Salmiakki is - hmm, how can I break this to you gently? - salmiakki is sal ammoniac, and according to Chambers Dictionary of Science and Technology (a venerable edition from 1974), it is: "chloride of ammonia, which crystallizes in the cubic system. It is found as a white encrustation around volcanoes, as at Etna and Vesuvius. It is used in chemical analysis, in medicine, in dry batteries, as a soldering flux, and in textile printing". Salmiakki is also the name given to a salty licorice candy containing this strange stuff, and is immensely popular among Finns, particularly when they are not in the country and therefore cannot get it. It even became a drinks fad almost as threatening to the nation as absinthe was to France, when mixed with vodka to make "salmiakkikossu". Along with hard rye crispbreads and other delicacies, it is a staple of web-sites advertising Finnish goods for the poor souls who are no longer resident here. I have also heard that salmiakki is a by-product of one of the nastier bits of the pulp and paper industry, but this myth, delightful though it may be, is probably no worse than the thought that Finns of all ages are stuffing themselves silly with something that might better be used in a dry cell battery. You will never know until you have tried it.

29. You know that "Gents" is another term for sidewalk.

The City of Helsinki is somewhat concerned about two aspects of urban life at present, to wit the presence of "ladies of the night" in some districts, and the weakness of the Finnish bladder. A few years ago the old draconian rules about public alcohol consumption were relaxed, with the result that major street festivals - May Eve and the Helsinki Festival's "Night of the Arts" are two that come to mind - became very liquid indeed, to the point of public urination in places where people shouldn't. The city fathers have since then tried to curb both the hookers and the piss-artists, and the government introduced nationwide legislation on the subject of public drinking not so long ago. Even so, if you plan to be in Helsinki on May Eve, pack rubber boots.

30. You know that more than four channels means cable.

Yes, mate, and I know the Springsteen song, too - "Fifty-seven channels and nothing on". Besides which, TV is yesterday's thing - nearly everybody is getting their jollies from the Net instead. Apart from English soccer and the hardcore porn that kicks in on a couple of channels after midnight, most of the cable stuff is re-runs anyway, and it doesn't come cheap. Digital TV has also come in, which increased the choice somewhat for those without a satellite or cable connection.

31. When you're hungry you can peel a boiled potato like lightning.

Many restaurants, even at the top end of the scale, still make a point of serving the boiled potatoes that are a part of the fish hors d'oeuvres table in their skins. This is not only in the summer, when new potatoes don't really have any skins to mention, but also in the winter months, when they do. I imagine it's a vitamins thing. Finns are very adept at removing the skins, having learnt the technique from birth. Other nationalities, unskilled in these niceties, look on in horror. "Let them eat French (Freedom) fries", say I.

32. You've become lactose intolerant.

Milk is still drunk at the family dinner table, although beer, OJ, and even - gosh! - wine are making inroads on this custom.

33. You accept that 80°C in a sauna is chilly, but 20°C outside is freaking hot.

A teeeensy bit over the top... In truth, anything under 80°C is "a warm room" or a Swedish sauna. Outside of these two places, sauna is generally unrecognizable anyway and not worth the bother. And to qualify the outside temperatures, 1997,1999, and 2003 were all vintage summers, and it was in the high 20s (that's over 80°F) for days and weeks on end. Nobody complained except the farmers, and they always complain anyway. Speaking personally, I think too much is made of the cold here. It's all people ever think about the place. I can assure you I've never been as cold as on an English school playing-field. It's not the cold that'll get you, it's the dark. November is for the real lovers of Finland. Anyone else with an ounce of sense gets out on October 31 and doesn't return until the Christmas lights go on. By the time the really chilly stuff hits, there's snow about and it seems lighter already. Houses are so well insulated that hypothermia is pretty much reserved for derelicts, but SAD ("seasonal affective disorder" - basically a lack of adequate sunlight) affects us all to some extent in the winter months.

34. You know how to fix herring in 105 different ways.

35. You eat herring in 105 ways.

Well, actually most of us do far more than that...we knit socks from herring, scrub our backs with herring in the shower, use herring-eyes as shirt buttons, sculpt herring into dainty household ornaments, grind up herring scales for use as an aphrodisiac, and fill our cars with herring liver oil. At the current price of gasoline, you know it makes sense. Again, this is all a bit passé. Herring is no longer such a staple. For one thing, it is conspicuously more expensive than chicken, pound for pound, and it's a lot easier to order a pizza or Chinese. As Descartes said: "Cogito ergo dimsum" - I think, therefore I eat takeaway.

36. "No comment" becomes a conversation strategy.

We've done this one... Politicians use "No comment" out of old habits, believing they'd better check with the Soviet Embassy before they say anything. They reserve comments for their biographies (see above).

37. You can't understand why people live anywhere but in Finland.

Well, you can't really call it "living", now can you? I mean they just "eke out an existence" elsewhere. And one good thing about this place (touch wood) is that with the sole exception of the summer mosquitoes, we don't have many of the "Acts of God" that so often beset places that are warmer, more glamorous, and where the booze is cheap and plentiful. Which is nice.


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