The Finnish Line

By Bill Thomas
Sunday, March 26, 2006

Sub-zero temperatures. Sunlight for just five hours a day. Centuries of Russian aggression. The people of Finland have a word for their renowned fortitude and resilience. Could an outsider get in on their secret?

It's a typical midwinter morning in Helsinki -- dark, dreary and freezing cold. After spending the night at a friend's house, I'm huddled with a group of commuters on the island of Suomenlinna, waiting for the downtown ferry. Known as "the Gibraltar of the North" for its historic military fortifications, Suomenlinna is home to hundreds of hardy suburbanites, and, in the frigid winter months, can be a merciless test of endurance. The boat ride into the city is a half-hour pleasure trip during the short Finnish summer, but this morning's voyage across icebound Helsinki harbor could be tough going -- at least for me. Insufficiently layered against the elements, I've got the feeling that nature, in all its Nordic wrath, is about to dish out some especially harsh treatment. When I mention this to the guy next to me, he looks up from his thermal coffee mug and smiles in a very Finnish way that says, Deal with it.

Finland in late January is no place for complainers.

The slightest rumor of snow can send Washingtonians into a panic. Finns see winter weather differently, not as something to be afraid of but to be faced up to, managed and enjoyed. Soon the 80-foot ferry is crashing through slabs of ice as big as king-size mattresses. Every time it lurches forward I nearly fall out of my seat. Meanwhile, other passengers are on their second cup of coffee -- Finns claim to lead Europe in per capita consumption -- and calmly reading the paper.

Nothing, I'm suddenly reminded, could be more fundamentally Finnish. In the five years since my last visit I'd almost forgotten about sisu, a Finnish word for something that's hard to translate. The equivalent in English might be "determination." Sisu, however, implies a trait much deeper in the Finnish character, so deep, in fact, that it's best observed in the dead of winter, when added reserves are needed just to make it from one five-hour day to the next.

Blammm. Ice smashing under us makes the cabin sound like a giant steel drum. Crrrunch. Kabammm. Nobody on board, with the exception of me, even flinches.

How do they do it? Where do Finns find the strength to exist in conditions like these? And how can I get some? I'll be here for the next three days before heading to Moscow on business, but without a little sisu of my own, I'm not sure I can last.

Like bungee jumping or joining the Marines, traveling to Finland in winter gives visitors a chance to see what they're made of, to measure their ability to withstand everything from darkness at noon to Arctic blizzards against that of some of the most durable human beings on earth.

I don't know if I'm up to it, but there's only one way to find out. When we dock, I'm going to work on my "inner Finn," assuming that's where sisu comes from. But where do I start?

RICHARD STITES, A HISTORY PROFESSOR at Georgetown University, has been visiting Finland for 26 years. As long as I've known him he's been talking about getting "into the zone," Finnish style. He has to know something about sisu.

"I've spent every summer in Helsinki -- and five winters," he says proudly when we meet in his office at Helsinki University's Slavonic Library. Stites, the author of several books on Russian history, considers Finland his second home.

I can see that the five winters are supposed to impress me, which they do. I'm not out to break any records, I tell him, yet that many winters must have required a certain amount of sisu.

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