Finns Gone Wild

The celebrations in Helsinki for Vappu can give visitors the mistaken impression that Finns are always an outgoing, jovial crowd.
The celebrations in Helsinki for Vappu can give visitors the mistaken impression that Finns are always an outgoing, jovial crowd. (Paul Williams -- Helsinki Picture Bank)
By Krista Mahr
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 29, 2007

Two Finns are sitting at a bar, a bottle between them. They polish it off in silence and order another, at which point Finn A raises his glass and says, "Cheers!"

Finn B gives his companion a withering look. "Are we going to talk, or are we going to drink?"

By the time I landed in Helsinki last April for Finland's annual May Day celebration, this was the joke I'd been told -- by a Finn -- to sum up the northern nation's less-is-more approach to conversation. I'd been living in Iceland, Scandinavia's other oddball nation, for about a year. And I'd heard that during May Day, known as Vappu in Finland, the nation abandoned its famous shyness and let loose.

My Vappu began on the ground-floor bar of Hotel Torni, a historic downtown hotel and my base camp for the weekend. Built in 1931, the Torni, now part of the Finnish hotel chain Sokos, is renowned both for being the headquarters of Soviet bodies that remained posted in Finland after World War II and for having the best view of the city, from the women's bathroom in the hotel's rooftop bar.

Though it was Saturday and May Day wasn't until Monday, celebrations were already underway at the Torni's 1930s-era American Bar. On the bar stool next to mine, Helsinki resident Mikko Vaajamo sampled from a personal drink buffet of aged whiskey, champagne, espresso and a strawberry margarita.

"There are two days when you don't want to have visitors arriving in Finland for the first time," Vaajamo said. "One is Vappu." The other, he offered, is Midsummer's Eve, when things apparently get equally out of hand and could also give visitors the mistaken impression that Finns are always an outgoing, jovial crowd. Vappu, he said, "is kind of a nationwide coverup story."

May Day, also known as International Workers' Day, originated in the United States on May 1, 1886, when workers staged strikes seeking an eight-hour workday. Its recognition in the United States has dwindled, but the day is celebrated throughout Europe, Russia and Asia. As in some other cities, May Day in Helsinki has mostly lost its socialist roots and become a more leisure-oriented public holiday, when the end of a long winter is toasted with copious glasses of sparkling wine and modest regard for the morning after.

The following morning, April 30, I went to a May Day Eve kickoff event on the University of Helsinki campus. Helsinki's Vappu has become a big student day, and the city's crowning event -- when students scrub down the Havis Amanda statue at 6 p.m. on May Day Eve -- is attended by what feels like half the city's 565,000 residents. As we watched students make speeches on the rooftop of an academic building, I asked my host, Pekka Makinen, what I needed to know about Vappu.

"Sparkling wine," he answered. And, he added, a few simple rules. "If somebody tries to work or study during the celebration, he will be drowned in a small lake outside Helsinki." More seriously: "Everybody has to drink to dignity and be in a good mood."

By mid-morning, dignity was starting to wane; some students had clearly been at it for a few days. Wearing painter's jumpsuits in bright colors denoting their area of study (a pink suit, for instance, indicates a major in mechanical engineering), thousands of students milled around in various stages of inebriation, with cooking utensils, stuffed animals and champagne flutes harnessed to their suits. A woman splashed around in a hot tub fashioned out of a shipping container, and a few detoxing souls sat on the wooden benches of a simple tarp sauna, the same model used by the Finnish military in the forest and on peacekeeping missions.

On the flat rooftop, the female freshmen of the chemistry department performed the cancan, a cork popped into a stand-up microphone, and the students' version of Vappu had officially begun. The master of ceremonies sent the university's annual launch of a whiskey bottle attached to a cluster of red balloons into the air. We watched it float toward the treetops, bearing its message of fun.

As the day unfolded, most of my conversations looped back to one simple philosophy: "It's Vappu." Why do students wash the naked female figure of the Havis Amanda statue with soap and water? It's Vappu. Why is that naked man crawling up the statue? It's Vappu. Did you just drink an entire bottle of sparkling wine during our 10-minute conversation? It's Vappu.

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