Finns Gone Wild

One Day Each Spring, Dig­nity Takes a Back Seat to Bub­bly

The Washington Post Sunday - - Travel - By Krista Mahr

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

hough 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 11⁄ bot­tles of cham­pagne

2 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.

PAUL WIL­LIAMS — HELSINKI PIC­TURE BANK

The cel­e­bra­tions in Helsinki for Vappu can give vis­i­tors the mis­taken im­pres­sion that Finns are al­ways an out­go­ing, jovial crowd.

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