I’ve been trying to work out exactly what it is I find so magnetic about Finland.

For a start, it’s cold: My freezer is cold, humming away at -18c to keep my pizzas crispy. In one Helsinki winter I’ve stumbled out of Urkki’s [1] into -26c. That really hardens your ice cubes, I can tell you. It’s also dark. Helsinki in midwinter gets less than six hours of sunlight a day. Up in Rovaniemi and points north they get little or none during the winter months.

The language is pretty much impenetrable: It glories in fifteen cases, a vocabulary based not on anything Indo-European but on Uralic, from the depths of the Ural mountains, which renders the simple ‘twenty-first’ as the eye-watering ‘kahdeskymmenesensimmäinen’. ‘Minä rakastan sinua’ has to be amongst the least romanic ways of declaring your love to anyone and there is none of the logical functionality of German or the warm embrace of Italian; this is a language that fights you every step of the way. Even if you do manage the near impossible and master it, the Finns are famously taciturn and prefer silence to filling a lull in conversation with waffle about the weather or the trains.

They like their coffee sour and cakes dry. In the cities there is a distressing enthusiasm for architecture made of square blocks of concrete. And yet…

And yet I find myself drawn here like a magnet. The winters may be long, cold and dark, but the summers are a glorious riot of nature, the hours of sunlight previously denied flung back at you all at once.

They have saunas. I’m aware that sealing yourself naked in a wooden box with strangers whilst poring water on a fierce stove, the better to steam yourself like dim-sum, all the while exacerbating the dehydration with alcohol is not everybody’s idea of fun, but for me a traditional savusauna followed by a swim in a clear lake on a summer evening is close to nirvana.

In general the people are some of the most genuine you will ever meet, directly and unaffectedly kind and, whilst it may take a little time to get close to a Finn, once you do you have a friend for life. There is a genuine feeling of social egalitarianism (we’re all naked in the sauna after all) which for a conductor is a joy. There’s a refreshing lack of pretension here – the new concert hall is called ‘Musiikkitalo’, literally ‘Music Building’ and it’s easy to find, situated right behind the headquarters of the biggest newspaper in Finland, ‘Sanomatalo, ‘Newspaper Building’…

They have sisu, the quality of courage to keep going no matter how overwhelming the odds. Think of Churchill’s KBO – ‘keep buggering on’ – but add more grit, a certain set of the jaw and narrowing of the eyes you’re somewhere close.

Even the language has its delights and figuring it out gives me a childish glee. To be able to turn the simple noun ‘Hotel’ into ‘Hotellilla’ (‘at the hotel’) or ‘Hotellille’ (‘going to the hotel’) tickles the same part of my brain as a cryptic crossword. There is a real delight in mastering a tongue-twister like ‘Vesihiisi sihisi hississä’ (‘the water monster was hissing in the elevator’) or learning to pronounce the vowel-shade word ‘hääyöaie’ (wedding night intention). Being able to turn ‘juosta’ (‘to run’) into ‘juoksentelisinkohan?’ (‘I wonder if I should run around aimlessly?’) leaves me giddy. [2]

I’ve long held that people either have a northern or a southern soul. Those of you with a southern soul will probably find my attraction for this gruelling place hard to fathom. If you’re not sure which you have, listen to Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony. If you run from its grey depression you’re a southerner. If you find in it an austere beauty, then welcome to the club, pour yourself a cognac and let’s sit here and enjoy the silence.

 

 


1. The Helsinki pub favoured by musicians. It also has an excellent selection of beer. Co-incidence? I think not. It’s named after President Urho Kekkonen who apparently enjoyed coming here and can be seen on their sign drinking beer out of a sauna bucket. I’m not convinced there is a similar depiction of Margaret Thatcher anywhere.

2. ‘Yes,’ I hear you thinking, ‘those long winter evenings must just fly by…’

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

  • In one way you are wrong: I have most definitely a southern soul (countries like Italy being amongst the only ones where people don’t think I am too loud and talk too fast), but I love Finland. I also think Finnish girls talk a little bit more than the men, but generally, it is a very warmhearted culture. Something that I always find lacking in Austria and Germany.

    David
  • I like your idea of northern and southern souls….I have tried many times to imagine an objective side of art, of music and interpretation, a truth side of it that would remain unchanged but probably the tools I was using were mirrors of my own subjectivities. and it frustrates me that I might never find it…

    You mention the beauty in grey depression which for me makes perfect sense as it can eventually only circle its way back to beauty, order and purpose, for the leck of which it came to life in the first place. It`s only time that separates the feelings emerging in the soul, otherwise they would all become one , in one moment being able to feel their logic and connections, offer them a meaning and through it, beauty..

    I wonder if you believe that this quality of the souls is a given one that we were born with and cannot be too much influenced or is simply the result of our circumstances and different angles from which we get to understand life..

    Thank you for your beautiful thoughts,

    Adela

    Screen name
  • Hi Adela

    Thank you for *your* beautiful thoughts. Yes I’ve often also wrestled with the question of if there is an objective truth in art – something like the Platonic ultimate Forms that create the shadows on the cave walls. Like you I’ve come to think that whether there is or not it’s impossible for us to tell as we can only know the world through our own experience. I suspect there isn’t an objective truth and that our personalities (or souls for want of a better word) are built up from the thickening layers of our experience. In that case we *do* change as we grow older (thank God!) and, indeed, as our experiences often contradict each other we are enriched and (hopefully) grow a bit wiser too. This I think is why all conductors should be born at the age of 70…

    What I’m certain of is that without darkness we can’t know light and that really great art plays with apparent ambiguities. Rather like in Beethoven’s Second, I hear a desperation, almost mania in the joy – imagine going deaf, contemplating suicide then writing THAT symphony! Stanislavsky apparently said that an actor must always find the opposite emotion in a line, the place where the uncertainly lies – from that comes richness and believability. I love that idea.

    The art that moves me the most has an element of melancholia even in it’s happiest moments. But I guess that’s just my Northern soul acting up again.

    James Lowe
  • With thanks to Johanna Saarinen for helping with my Finnish grammar!

    James Lowe

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