Having lived here in Finland for a while now, one thing I have come to observe is a distinct lack of frivolity amongst the Finnish population. The common stereotypical Finn is introverted and emotionless and will take all possible actions to avoid accidental interaction with a stranger. Examples of this are seen everywhere;
- At bus stops where there is always at least 2m between waiting riders even if it is raining and it means you have to stand in the rain rather than stand a little closer to someone else and get under the cover of the shelter.
- On the bus, where you don’t sit next to someone else unless all of the seating pairs have someone sitting in one of the seats, only then do you sit beside someone else.
- On public transport it is not normal to make conversation with a stranger, so no passing the time talking about the weather, or the lastest sports match up.
Although to give them credit many of them do actually recognise these social insecurities and at least are able to laugh about it, and there is a whole line of comedy which essentially pokes fun at what it is to be Finnish.
The one day a year when all of this is forgotten is Vappu, which begins on the evening of April 30 and carries on well into the 1st of May. Vappu is a celebration of the memorial day for Saint Labor and has been celebrated in Finland since 1890, it is a day celebrated with gusto by students and former students. All graduating High School students in Finland are presented with a special white cap, which they don every year on Vappu. The country is full of people wearing white hats during this period.
In Helsinki the central city streets are just packed full of people of all ages partying the day away. At 6:00pm on April 30 there is a ceremonial capping of the Havis Amanda (a nude female statue in the market square area). By Sunday the fountain area around this statue will be awash with empty cans and bottles…
Helsinki is normally a reasonably clean and rubbish free city however this all gets thrown out the door at Vappu, as we walked down Esplanade (the main street of Helsinki leading to the harbour) it was strewn with broken wine bottles, discarded cans and miles and miles of streamers. The white hats also varied in colour from the crisp clean white of the newly graduated students to the creamy, stained caps of the older generation who had obviously enjoyed many a beer or wine out of their caps over the years.
It is reported that around 300,000 people can be out in the streets and parks of central Helsinki on Vappu, which for many Western countries today would be a recipe for disaster or at least a booze fueled riot or two, but the Finns seem to be mature enough to handle their alcohol in a manner befitting a civilised society.
After partying into the early hours of the morning of May 1st, they are up again for a picnic not long after. In Helsinki they crowd into Kaivopuisto and many other parks and beaches around the city to continue the festivities albeit in a more refined manner. Some will go to great effort for the picnic including bringing along portable saunas and spas…
Another peculiarly Finnish trait you see in abundance on Vappu is the drinking overalls worn by students. It seems each educational institution has a particular colour of overalls which students wear out drinking (they could have been handy back in NZ when I was a student…). These overalls are adorned with all sorts of patches which come from either some sort of sponsorship or are from drinking establishments they frequent, some will even have loops and hooks for carrying glasses and other essential drinking items…
Needless to say, but the 2nd of May sees a lot of Finns looking worse for wear at work (if they manage to make it), where stories of the weekends celebrations are eagerly shared and the countdown to Vappu begins once again…. Vappu also marks the change in season with the dawn of summer finally spreading its warm glow across the land, which has been wrapped in darkness and cold for the best part of the last 6 months.
We now have summer to look forward to (the standard Finnish joke seems to be that they are not sure on which day it will be this year…) and can ditch our thick jackets finally and even go down to the beach and dip our toes in the sea. Soon the green spaces in the city will be filled with girls in bikinis sun bathing while they have a chance, and the days will not end as the sun stays up through the night.