Weirdness as a national pastime
A history of Finnish genes and culture: part 2 of 6
Finns are weird. Most Finns will confirm this. It’s generally a point of pride.
We owe some spirit-stirring design to Finns like the Saarinens and Aaltos. But in the arts and culture, there’s also quite a bit of legitimate, ostentatious weirdness. Other Eurovision contenders determined to shock might send their bearded Conchita Wursts and their chicken-clucking beatboxer Nettas. But Finland doesn’t play; their one 21st-century Eurovision winner Lordi wouldn’t be caught dead looking human.
In film, Aki Kaurismäki brought us the bizarrely unplaceable Leningrad Cowboys and a bevy of jowly stoics, usually shot in morose black and white. Moomins and Angry Birds come from Finland. Pre-teen “hobbyhorse girls” cantering solemnly are not even a mannered movie plot; it’s an actual widespread craze. Finland has brought humankind both the World Mosquito Swatting Championships and the World Wife-Carrying Championship. On Finnish television and radio, up until 2019, for three decades diehard classicists could even enjoy daily news bulletins entirely in Latin. And lest anyone try to minimize the weirdness of this last project, remember that not only is Finnish itself not a Romance language, it’s not even an Indo-European language.
But that’s largely superficial strangeness. At the deepest level, the details of Finns’ fundamental strangeness are perhaps even more telling. Two of the most ingrained traditional Finnish passions are for summer-cottage life and sauna rituals. There are forest walks, wild berry-picking and mushroom foraging, hunting, orienteering, grilling, Midsummer bonfires and May Day bacchanalia, but, most basic and universal are the summer cottage and the sauna.
Summer cottage and sauna: it’s a whole vibe
A summer cottage isn’t a place for lavish creature comforts or ostentation. No matter how wealthy Finland grows, it’s traditionally a spartan, wood-frame or log-cabin getaway, even often proudly without running water or electricity, a rustic, minimalist, throwback to simpler times. People retire to their lakeside summer cottages for weekends and vacations to slow down, to live with less, to pare life back to the essential. For sure, it shares a kinship with camping traditions enjoyed the world over, but only maybe back-country backpack camping and without any flash gear, just a basic roof over your head and some great hearty open-fire cooking. Probably no cell phone service either. And stillness, so much quiet and stillness.
My lone summer cottage experience came care of a spry older mechanic, a gruff perfectionist who could fix, restore or build anything no matter how refined, elegant or complex. His summer cottage compound was a marvel, every bit built with his own hands. Behind the small, snug cottage, he was adding a bunkhouse for the grandkids, the outhouse was out of the way down a mossy forest path, and a ring of seating around the fire pit gave views out over the quiet pond, with simple dock and rowboat standing ready.
But the centerpiece of the whole destination was the rustic, stand-alone smoke sauna. It took hours of careful preparation and patience to have that traditional dark steam room ready at just the right evening hour. Our host’s quiet pride in orchestrating this perfect experience for family and guests was not unlike an Italian grandmother laying a perfect home-cooked Sunday lunch before her loved ones.