Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Helsinki’s “Finnatical” About Quirks

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By James Gaffney

Mature Life Features

Helsinki’s domed government building overlooks an 1894 bronze statue of Czar Alexander II in Senate Square.

HELSINKI, Finland —- Wherever you travel, it’s a good idea not to step on the toes of the hostess while tripping the light fantastic. Especially when she’s teaching you to dance. Fear of such a faux pas swept through my mind as, with clasped hands outstretched and cheek to cheek with a former Finnair flight attendant, we tangoed across the ballroom floor.

“You’re really not doing that badly,” reassured Riitta Kiiveri, who along with her husband, Pertii, was a competition tango dancer. The couple, who met while living in Southern California and returned to Helsinki, then took to the floor. They were poetry in motion as well as a paradox in this introverted Scandinavian country better known as the home of composer Jean Sibelius and Father Christmas. It seemed so out of the ordinary for a dance as dramatic as the tango to be fashionable among poker-faced Finns.

Riitta explained how the tango, born in the brothels of Buenos Aires, was introduced here in 1916, a year before Finland gained independence from a century of czarist Russian rule. It has grown into an obsession that can be measured by the sheer number of tango dance halls in Helsinki and the annual Tango Festival that lures 150,000 fans.

The tango is by no means the only way this quirky country dances to the beat of a different drum. For starters, various festivals are held throughout the year so men can carry their wives, pretend to play guitar to rock music, and compete to see who can sit naked atop an anthill the longest.

All of which seems to pale next to the annual Sleepyhead Day on July 27 when the laziest person in the towns of Naantali and Hanko is thrown into the sea.

Quirkiness aside, Finland has had a quietly significant influence on modern-day life. In 1967, Finnish designer Olof Backstrom invented those Fiskars scissors with orange plastic handles that finally cut our fingers some slack. Unlike what many Americans think, Nokia is not a Japanese company. It’s Finnish.

Finland also gave the world two Miss Universes and has trained U.S. Special Forces in snow-covered terrain.

Helsinki’s post-World War II architectural showpiece is arguably the performance center, Finlandia Hall, a sweeping homage to modernism by the world-renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

However, Finns will attest the best buildings of all are those created for this country’s sweaty No. 1 pastime: sauna. Numbers provide the proof. There are 1.6 million saunas for a population of 5 million.

Locals view sauna (pronounced SOW-nah, if you want to sound like an English-speaking Finn) as more than an agreeable way to unwind while beating yourself ever so gently with a bundle of birch branches to stimulate circulation.

To be invited to sauna is an honor.

“If I invite you to sauna, it’s a great pleasure to have you as a sauna friend.”Matti Kivinen said as he led his guest into one of the six saunas at the Finnish Sauna Society’s complex in Lauttasaari just outside Helsinki. He is the society’s president and, like most Finns, can debate at the drop of a towel the relative merits of traditional Finnish smoke and wood-burning saunas. Yet few have much good to say for the oft-ridiculed electric sauna, seen as a soulless intrusion on a centuries-old tradition held in near-religious reverence.

Mature Life Features, Copyright 2003

Written by Cecil Scaglione

October 6, 2011 at 12:05 am

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