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.
Twenty years ago, Helsinki's May Day was a more political affair. Socialist marches dominated the city, and some students dyed red the traditional white Vappu hat, which most of the city wears for the party. But most people I met seemed to be more interested in the party than the politics.
"People get old and then turn from left to right," said Eric Sahlstedt, a reveler I met the next morning as picnickers gathered early -- and, for the most part, hung over -- in Kaisaniemi Park. "There's not much New Left anymore."
But he could, at least, point me in the direction of a march by the city's last political holdouts, about to begin nearby. As I left him and the morning park party, before the university students were due to arrive with their antics, I heard Sahlstedt's wife ask him if I knew the fun was just getting started.
"She wants to go see the workers," Sahlstedt said, to which his wife replied, flatly, "Oh."
I arrived in Hakaniemi Square just before the march started, men and women lining up carrying banners and flags of groups from the Communist Party of Iran to the Helsinki Carpenters' Union. A smattering of seemingly sober onlookers stood along the sides of the road to watch.
"The crowd is diminishing, but we're still here," said Seppo Eerola, secretary of the Carpenters' Union. "We are marching against capitalism and against globalization." Among their causes that morning was speaking out against Finland's membership in the European Union, which the country joined in 1995. "I think that the E.U. is the same as the Soviet Union these days."
While Eerola wasn't completely alone, he did appear to be fighting a losing battle. Across town, thousands had already staked out spots in Kaivopuisto Park, with picnics ranging from one person spooning shrimp salad out of a plastic tub to groups of 30 occupying complexes of tents with grills blazing. A passed-out student in his painter's jumper lay curled up in the grass next to a group of middle-aged men and women in smart trench coats, sitting around their smart plates of food.
One such group, ready to uncork their second bottle of Dom Perignon, said they had been gathering in the same spot in the park for the past 10 years.
I lost track of time ogling picnic spreads, and realized in a panic that I'd have to catch a taxi downtown to make my plane. Luckily my Finnish host flagged down a car and asked on my behalf if I could catch a ride.
They obliged (it's Vappu!) and I hopped in with Eric Pollock, an architect from San Jose, Calif., who has lived in Finland since 1975, and his Finnish wife, who was driving. Another stranger saw the transaction and also climbed aboard.
As we navigated the streams of people flowing in and out of the park, Pollock told me that the first time he witnessed Vappu, he was shocked to see people in Helsinki talking so openly to each other. "Is this Finland?" he recalled asking himself.
And part of the reason that people are so ready to indulge, Pollock suggested, may simply be that Helsinki is doing okay for itself.
"Business in Finland is good," he said, pointing out that, geographically, Finland is the closest E.U. country to 180 million Russian consumers. "The new Russian upper class has money to spend, and we are happy to take it from them."
Like the other people I'd met in the past 48 hours, Pollock talked about Vappu with enthusiastic affection, pointing out that, despite the fact that "10,000 mildly intoxicated" people gathered in the park that day, consuming an average of 1 1/2 bottles of champagne each, did I see any broken glass? Or police?
"Remember," he said, "in Finland, we are only happy one day a year."
Krista Mahr is a journalist living in Hong Kong.