Finns may appear shy and serious, but their humor is dry and sarcastic, and they are opinionated and competitive. Finns follow all the traditional sports religiously, and every now and then new competitions come along, like carrying a wife, throwing a cell phone, or dancing tango.
There are a few things an American should know when visiting Finland.
Don’t: - Wonder out loud why Sweden has more world-famous products, artists, and athletes than Finland, or why the western neighbor always beats Finland in ice hockey. Too much to handle for the touchy Finns.
- Make the mistake of asking if Finland once was a Communist country, like Estonia, Poland, or Hungary. End of conversation, right then and there.
- Hesitate to talk to the person next to you in a bus or a train. The almost-hostile look is deceiving, and in most cases you’ll get a response, which could be the start of a real conversation. Finns follow the news, both domestic and international, and have strong opinions about the events. No such attitude as “whatever.”
- Think you’re seeing things if you have a feeling that almost everyone is wearing small rectangle-shaped eyeglasses. They are.
- Keep your shoes on if you are invited to someone’s home. First thing after entering a house or an apartment: shoes off. Also, don’t even think about leaving before kahvi and pulla (coffee and bun) have been served.
- Visit without calling first. The door may not open without a prior notice, especially on weekends.
- Make empty promises. If you say to a Finn, “Let’s do lunch,” he or she truly believes you have set up a lunch meeting and expects to hear from you.
- Tip. People are not used to tips and don’t always know how to react.
- Be surprised if you see Finns order and pay things with their cell phones. They are not just for talking anymore.
- Be confused if you see people walking with poles even if there is no snow on the ground. It’s called Nordic Walking, and it’s a very popular activity among all ages.
- Compliment Finns, even though they don’t take compliments well and don’t necessarily know how to reply.
- Take a risk and pass McDonald’s, Subway, and Pizza Hut. The Finnish cuisine is well worth trying.
- Leave Helsinki, the capital, and discover the countryside. There are many beautiful places between Helsinki and Lapland. Not all the bus drivers speak English-- so what? It’s an adventure. (A visit to Rovaniemi and the Arctic Circle to see Santa Claus, not a must.)
- Offer to buy a drink if you’ve made a new friend in a bar. But keep in mind, Finns can hold their drinks well, and you may not be able to keep up the pace of drinking.
- Make an effort and say, “Excuse me,” if you want to pass someone. But don’t expect a reaction. The right way to do it is to just push your way around.
- Use a fork and a knife when eating. No food is finger food in Finland if the silverware is available.
- Keep in mind that two things are expensive: alcohol and gas. And yet, both are consumed in high volumes.
- Refrain from discussing architect Alvar Aalto or composer Jean Sibelius; instead,talk about contemporary talent, like singer Karita Mattila or conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Know a few athletes’ names, and you’ve made friends for life.
- Learn a few words in Finnish, even though it’s hard. It’s an ego-booster for a Finn to hear a foreigner speak his language.
- Remember that Finnish women are independent and believe in equality. And especially that young women drink equally to men.
Text: Varpu Sihvonen
Photography: Eva Stenskär
(Of VästEnsemblen, Finland)
Finns razzle-dazzle the Big Apple Finns might be more known for their hot-blooded tangos, Marimekko, and saunas, but VästEnsemblen proved Finns have a lighthearted side, too. The theater company crossed the Atlantic to razzle-dazzle a delighted crowd with entertainment à la Broadway, giving the Finland Center Project in New York a push. Pulling it all together was the founder of VästEnsemblen, director Lilli Sukula-Lindblom.
“It was my dream for many years, to have an ensemble and tour and do all kinds of things,” Sukula-Lindblom said before the performance at West Bank Café. “I wanted to do vaudeville, musical theater, children’s theater… so I founded VästEnsemblen. What we bring to New York is a small part from our second production, the play Swing Sisters. I first saw the play in Copenhagen in the 1990’s and knew right away I wanted to do it. So, since we’re Finnish- Swedes and speak Swedish, I had it translated from Danish into Swedish and we put it up in 2006. We’ve performed it for about 6,000 viewers now, and in November last year, we received a prize from the Swedish Culture Fund in Finland for it. Now, Swing Sisters is quite a big production, and we couldn’t possibly bring the whole thing here to New York, so we brought only a sample.”
But what a tasty sample it was! In an evening saluting the wonderful swing music of the postwar years, talented Patricia Bergroth, Gigi Sannholm, Susann Sonntag, Thomas Lundin, and Roland Näse stole the hearts of an audience who could barely sit still to tunes like Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Deed I Doo, Blue Skies, Sentimental Journey, and …what else? – New York, New York.
Like most artists, Sukula-Lindblom has a voracious appetite when it comes to performing, and as a result wears many hats. Effervescent doesn’t begin to describe her animated personality.
“I was trained as an actress, but I am really a Jack-of-all-trades. I’m also a clown doctor, for instance. For me the most important thing with theater is not to have a starring role, but the meeting with an audience. As a performer you’re really there for the audience, not for yourself.”
One can’t help but smile when around Sukula-Lindblom and her lively troupe. There are stage clothes to be ironed, false eyelashes to be glued on, cheeks to be rouged, and hair to be coiffed in proper 1940’s style - Sukula-Lindblom manages to do it all while talking to me and making sure I get a cup of strong coffee. All the while, everyone’s singing, laughing, and asking questions about New York… a city they have already fallen in love with.
“I am a member of the Finland Center Project and I’ve lived in New York myself,” Sukula-Lindblom finishes. “I think we Finns need a house here in New York. So I am happy to add my help to the cause.”
The Finland Center works to establish a permanent place for the some- 3000 Finns living in the New York metropolitan area. Read more about their project plan on their website.
VästEnsemblen in their own words:
Patricia Bergroth: “I am a somewhat flattened optimist and an incurable romantic. I like to fill my senses with music and beautiful things.”
Gigi Sannholm: “More a bohemian than a pedantic. More quiet than outspoken. I am superstitious, and my motto is: Everything has its time.”
Susann Sonntag: “I believe in dreams and will never give up. My motto is: Everything has a meaning.”
Thomas Lundin: “I am an early-riser and a night owl who believes siestas should be obligatory in Finland. My motto is: Let all flowers bloom.”
Roland Näse: “I like to golf, I am pretty bad at it, but it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”