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.

"Absolutely!" he says. "Without it, you can't survive."

To understand sisu, Stites explains, it's important to know about Finnish history, which includes lots of wars, invasions and foreign occupation. Finns aren't just the victims of severe weather. They haven't been treated that well by next-door neighbors Sweden and Russia, either. Sisu, Stites says, has sustained Finns through all of their long struggles.

Best known in the past for hosting East-West summit conferences, Finland in the last 15 years has snapped out of its Cold War identity crisis. "Finnish officials used to spend a great deal of effort trying to placate the Russians," says Stites. The government, in deference to the Kremlin, even had a policy of returning Soviet defectors.

The collapse of communism changed that, finally giving Finns a chance to be themselves -- confident, resourceful and quietly cutting-edge. Nowhere are the results more apparent than in Helsinki. The quaint seaport city has to be one of the most pedestrian-friendly capitals in Europe; just about everything is within easy walking distance, or a short tram ride, of everything else. Part of what makes exploring the city so interesting is watching Finns demonstrate their winter resilience. It doesn't take long to see how the Finnish economy, rated among the most competitive in the world, has turned Helsinki into a techno-metropolis where software companies such as Linux and cell phone giant Nokia have made interconnectivity a way of life. The Internet is so pervasive in Finland it could be a public utility.

Despite the telecommunications boom, Finns continue to keep a cautious eye on Russia, and the vast Russian collection at the Slavonic Library indicates that little has escaped their attention. But this afternoon Stites would rather recuperate than work on his next book.

"Krapula," he sighs.

That's Finnish for "hangover," a word I added to my own limited vocabulary the first time I was here. Last night, Stites was out drinking with some colleagues. One of the advantages of early winter sunsets -- not that the sun makes that many appearances this time of year -- is that Finnish bar life starts at 3 in the afternoon.

"There's a whole culture of krapula in this country," says Stites. "Finns understand that sisu needs help in the winter, and krapula is the price. You would never show up for work in the U.S. and tell people about your hangover. In Finland, everyone understands."

Still, as with most things Finnish, there are limits. Just because downtown Helsinki has few, if any, stop signs doesn't mean drivers aren't expected to stop. What makes them? I once asked a cabbie. "Community pressure," he replied.

Russians like to joke that Finland is a big village. It could be. There's a feeling of small-town togetherness throughout the country. You can see it in Finnish history, too. Centuries ago, with the advancing Mongols right behind them, ancestors of the modern-day Finns began moving westward from their homeland in the Ural Mountains, eventually settling in the fens and forests of northern Europe. The Finnish people have had to be tough and well organized to live in this part of the world, qualities celebrated in "Kalevala," an epic poem filled with accounts of hardship and courage that could be the closest thing the nation has to a mission statement.

When I bring up the Sports Institute of Finland, where sisu training, I'm told, is part of the conditioning program, Stites is skeptical. Sisu can't be taught, he says. It's something that develops over time by direct exposure to sisu-producing situations.

Aren't there any shortcuts?

"Yeah, there are," he says with a laugh.

That's how he got his headache.

Buses for Vierumaki, where the sports institute is located, leave Helsinki four times a day, and I decide to make the 80-mile trip the following morning. If sisu can be learned, maybe I can take a crash course.

A light snow is falling as the bus leaves the crowded Helsinki station. On our way out of the city past czarist-era buildings and daring new architecture, often on the same block, we drive up narrow streets lined with pastel houses that could have been airlifted from the Caribbean. The bright tropical colors are intended to ward off the winter doldrums.

English is spoken by nearly everyone in Helsinki, but once out of town I have to fall back on my rudimentary Finnish and assorted hand gestures, neither of which help very much after I get off the bus in Heinola, 20 miles from my destination.

"Is this the way to Vierumaki?" I ask a woman standing at the bus shelter. She smiles.


More smiles.

"No English," says a salesman in an antiques shop across the street. I get the same response in a music store and a beauty salon. Back at the shelter, no one speaks English, although when I ask about Vierumaki, one man in a fur hat gives my arm a friendly squeeze and announces, "Arnold Schwarzenegger!" So I must be headed in the right direction, and I grab the next bus.

When we stop at the edge of a pine forest, a passenger whose English is surprisingly good says the sports institute is a short walk down the road. Forty-five minutes later I'm still walking. For Finns distance is more of a gauge of willpower than actual mileage -- in other words, a sisumeter. And mine is on empty when I flag down a Saab, the first car I've seen since I got off the bus. The driver assures me the institute is only a few more kilometers.

Under similar circumstances in any other country, it would be common courtesy to be given a lift. In Finland, it's not that simple. If I ask for a ride, I'm admitting I'm out of sisu. If I'm offered one, it confirms the same thing.

I let my fingers hang for a few seconds on the lowered car window. The heat feels good. What's strange is that it feels just as good knowing what I have to do. As the Saab disappears in a swirl of wind and snow, there's no telling how much farther I have to walk. But you don't build up sisu by following the path of least resistance.

The institute, when it finally comes into view, is a welcome sight. Timo Vuorimaa and Tommy Ekblom, two track coaches, are waiting for me beside a potted palm in the lobby of the administration building.

"We're fairly unique for this far north," says Vuorimaa. The sprawling complex is both a year-round fitness resort and a practice facility for Finnish Olympic teams. The golf course is buried under two feet of snow, but the indoor tennis courts, swimming pools and riding stables are open; so is a training center where sisu is tested.

Vuorimaa proposes lunch, and on the way to the cafeteria we stop at a statue of the institute's founder, Lauri "Tahko" Pihkala.

This looks like a man with sisu. Ekblom agrees. Pihkala's nickname, he says, means "grindstone" in Finnish.

Over herring and rye crackers washed down by several rounds of coffee, I learn that Pihkala also is the father of Finnish baseball. The sports-minded Finn traveled to the United States early in the last century, got hooked on the national pastime and brought it back to Finland, where it's called pesapallo.

Curious to know how the Finnish version compares to the American game, Ekblom draws a pesapallo playing field on a napkin. Pihkala obviously took some liberties with the traditional baseball diamond. First base is where third base should be; second base is where first base belongs; and third base is in left field. The terminology is different, too. A strike is known as "a wound," and when you're out, "you're dead."

Ekblom suspects the emergency-room expressions may have something to do with the Finnish siege mentality. Pesapallo, he says, is a rural game in Finland, played during the spring and summer months in small towns, where fans yell and scream and drink lots of beer. He's happy to hear that's what fans in America do, too.

Baseball season seems a long way off as we trudge through the snow to the training center, and I'm handed over to Matti Heikkila, head of physiological testing.

According to Heikkila, Finns are physical fitness nuts. At an early age, children are introduced to rock climbing, hiking and other activities that many will pursue throughout their lives. Like health care and education, athletics are seen as a necessary component of Finnish life. Every February there's a one-week national holiday when Finns of all ages take part in a 50-mile ski race. Thousands participate, and, in a countrywide demonstration of sisu, most cross the finish line.

Given the interest in endurance sports, it makes sense that Finnish trainers would know something about how to prepare. Heikkila says sisu plays a definite role, but then so do dedication, commitment and all the other qualities coaches everywhere talk about.

Right now he's putting a group of business executives through their paces. Companies in Finland regularly allow their employees time away from the office to take part in three-day workout retreats. Six men and women are riding stationary bikes, while Heikkila sits behind a computer monitoring their vital signs. Later, he has them scheduled for gym exercises and outdoor activities. This time of year most people hit the golf course, which has been converted to a Nordic ski track. At the end of the program each person will get a complete record of his or her progress.

When I tell Heikkila that, earlier in the day, I walked all the way from the bus stop, he nods without comment. Finns frown on bragging about personal accomplishments, and an hour's walk in a snowstorm, by Finnish standards, doesn't qualify as an accomplishment anyway.

Sisu requires constant work, Heikkila says, especially in the winter. That's the real test. Finnish winters, while they may help people increase their sisu, can also have the opposite effect of wearing them down. Unfortunately, many younger Finns have gotten fat and lazy, he laments. "Life is too easy. They're losing their sisu. That's for sure." Not a problem for Heikkila, who works on his sisu every chance he gets, often at his cottage in southern Finland, where he and his wife like to take scorching saunas followed in winter by a low-centigrade skinny-dip.

"You ought to try it," he says, warning that I should be careful. The wrong combination of hot and cold could ruin my vacation. I'm glad he reminds me. With all the sisu-enhancing sit-ups and squat thrusts he wants me to do, I forget I'm on one.

BACK IN HELSINKI, IT'S TIME FOR THE NEXT -- maybe the ultimate -- step. After taking Heikkila's advice and getting in touch with the Finnish Sauna Society, I hop a tram in front of the Swedish Theater in the center of downtown. Finns are preoccupied with their national identity. This country is Nordic, they proclaim, not Scandinavian, even if Swedish is the second official language, as well as an occasional nuisance. I once saw "Pulp Fiction" in Helsinki, and the Finnish and Swedish subtitles took up half the screen.

On a night like tonight, nothing in Finland says more about national identity than a sauna; there are more than 2 million saunas in the country, or roughly one for every two of Finland's 5.5 million people. It's not only snowing, there's also an Arctic cold front blowing in, the kind of cold that numbs the extremities and puts survival instincts on high alert. When I arrive at the society's rustic lodge at the end of an ice-covered road, Seppo Pukkila, my host for the evening, is waiting. Pukkila used to live in Chicago, he says, adding with a note of civic pride that Helsinki is colder. We strip, shower and head for one of three smoke saunas. An old Finnish tradition, a smoke sauna takes half a day to prepare. A wood fire is started in the morning to heat the sauna room, and after the smoke clears hours later it's ready to use.

"We call this one 'purgatory,'" Pukkila says, grinning.

The minute I open the door I'm hit with a blast of hot air that takes my breath away. The room has the smell of woodsy aftershave. In the dim light I can make out the shadowy figures of three naked men sitting on elevated benches. (Female members have the facilities to themselves on Mondays and Thursdays.) Pukkila introduces me, and the conversation switches to English. When he brings up my search for sisu, everyone says that I've come to the right place.

Two minutes in purgatory is all I can take.

Pukkila leads the way to the back porch, crowded with more naked guys of various ages, shapes and sizes, each steamed to a bright red. There are bankers, mechanics, artists and bureaucrats, men from all walks of Finnish life, bound together by a common devotion to toasting, then freezing, their buns off.

It's snowing and cold, but the heat from the sauna will keep us warm for the next few minutes, says Pukkila. More than enough time for what he ominously calls "phase two."

We proceed nude to the end of the society's pier, where a ladder disappears into the slushy Baltic Sea six feet below. Pukkila goes first. The idea is to climb down the ladder and, when the water is chin high, let go.

"Don't stop," cautions Pukkila. "Go straight in. It's the only way."

Stepping into the sea is like a shot of Novocain. The effect quickly spreads up my legs and back, then down my arms. When I'm up to my neck, I slip into the dark water, churned to the consistency of a Slurpee by a little wave-making machine under the pier. It's hard to tell if my nervous system is shutting down or revving up. In any case I can't feel a thing, except snowflakes hitting my forehead, until Pukkila taps me on the shoulder 15 seconds later, signaling it's time to go.

After another round trip from the sauna to the sea, Pukkila says he has to leave for a meeting. That means I'm on my own. During my fifth and final visit to purgatory I stay for almost three minutes, my personal best. At the end of the pier, it no longer seems strange to be naked and climbing into the freezing water. As I'm congratulating myself, I hear a sudden splash behind me and turn to see a big brown duck. I've never been eye to eye with a duck in its natural habitat. The two of us share a moment bobbing in the ice-cold sea before I have to get out.

I think I feel my inner Finn stirring.

Wrapped in a towel and enjoying a beer and sausage by a roaring fireplace in the rec room, I tell a society veteran about my encounter with the duck.

"Oh, that one," he says. "He drops in from time to time. We should make him pay dues."

ON MY LAST NIGHT IN HELSINKI, I get together with Stites and some of his friends at the Cafe Strindberg on the Esplanade, the city's main thoroughfare. Stites is in his usual jovial mood, and before long has the group of half a dozen people laughing at his recap of my sisu quest.

"This sisu stuff is somewhat overrated," declares Geoff White, a Brit who's been living in Helsinki for years. Stites disagrees. "Finnish women have a lot of sisu," he insists. "They hold the country together."

As an example someone mentions "The Cuckoo," a recent Russian film set in World War II. The movie is about an earthy Lapp woman, living alone in her empty village until a wounded Russian soldier and a Finnish army deserter show up. She nurses the Russian back to health and puts the cynical Finn to work. It soon becomes clear that the woman is far more adept at most things than the soldiers, whom she feeds, clothes and invites into her hut one at a time on an as-needed basis.

White concedes that Finnish women can be formidable, but they also have "a soft side," he says, suggesting I see for myself at the Miss Finland Contest. The contest is being held that night at Helsinki's largest casino, the Grand Hotel, near the railroad station.

Outside there are television trucks and a line of people waiting to get in. By the time I make it inside, the ballroom is full, and the only place to find a seat is at the bar, where White and his Russian girlfriend, Ludmilla, are watching the pageant on a big-screen TV. This year's event, I learn, has been marred by scandal. Instead of the usual 10 finalists, there are only nine. One was dropped the day before for conduct unbecoming a potential Miss Finland. She reportedly had a criminal record and had posed for pornographic pictures.

"You might expect something like that to happen in Sweden, but not here," says a Finnish woman providing me with simultaneous translation.

Tonight is the evening gown portion of the competition, when finalists also have to answer questions. One is asked to name the last book she read, to which she replies, One Hundred Years of Solitude , the ideal tome for this time of year in Finland.

White and Ludmilla are soon bored and leave to gamble, but I want to see who wins. That honor goes to a knockout from the Helsinki area. There's much excitement when the judges' decision is announced and the winner is crowned.

Later, as contestants file out of the ballroom, some of them stop at the bar. I tell a blue-eyed blonde I recognize as a runner-up that she should have won and offer to buy her a drink. But she has one already.

What will you do? I ask, meaning what will she do with her life now that someone else has become Miss Finland.

She flashes the same gleaming smile I just saw on television, tosses back her golden hair and says, "I'm going ice fishing with my mother."

Now that's sisu.

Bill Thomas is co-author of Red Tape: Adventure Capitalism in the New Russia. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at

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