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Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Snow isn't Slippery" and Other Finnish Myths

Ever since real winter started here (that is, snow always on the ground and temperatures almost always below freezing), myself and one of my Finnish friends have had a standing joke about walking in the snow.  She insists snow isn't slippery; I think she's hallucinating.  It's made me think, though, about some of the myths Finns tell themselves and other people say about them.

1.  Finns are taciturn.  I don't know where this comes from.  Sure, Finns are not like Southerners--willing to talk to anyone at anytime--or like the Irish--where playing with language is part of the culture--but where does this whole idea that Finns don't talk, that Finns are rude because of their reserved style, etc., etc. come from?!  Yes, I've run into a few surly types and a few nut jobs, but aren't they everywhere.  In the main, the Finns I've met here in Helsinki have been kind, helpful, and willing to talk.  And I don't even have to always initiate the conversation.  And it doesn't just happen when I have Ted.  No, people don't drag new acquaintances to their homes for dinner, but that doesn't make Finns taciturn and rude--jeese.

Actually, in all seriousness, I've talked to some of my colleagues, both Finns and non-Finns, about this, and we've come to the conclusion that part of my disgust with this stereotype comes from the fact that I've spent all my time here in Helsinki.  Helsinki is, after all, the largest city in the country and has the most foreigners; folks get used to us oddities and adapt somewhat to deal with us.  That being said, the fact that they DO adapt itself says a lot.  If you're willing to alter some aspects of your behavior to accommodate foreign visitors with different expectations, well, that's pretty impressive ... and nice.

2.  Along those lines--although this isn't a myth about Finland--why do Finns feel like they so frequently have to apologize for their country?  I don't know if the apologies really reflect insecurity or are a face-saving device (our country really is the best but we shouldn't act like we know it is), but my Finnish colleagues are always excessively pleased when any foreign media, etc. praises Finland.  Someone I know once flippantly described it as "small country syndrome," but funnily enough, my Irish friends didn't do that.

3.  Then there's the most pervasive myth, one that's been dominating my life since December: snow isn't slippery.  Okay, guys, where does this idea come from?!?!?!  Yes, compared to 3 inches of packed ice--the current surface in the park across the street--snow is like walking through sand, but guys, I went down on my back just 3 days after the first snowfall: no ice, no ridges in surface, just pure snow!  Some of my colleagues explain the constant snow on the sidewalks as evidence that it isn't slippery: the city leaves the snow with some dirt on top on the sidewalk so that people have something for their shoes to grip into.  I come at it from a different perspective: that of geology.  Basically geology is that glaciers are formed by layers and layers of snow packing down over time.  In other words, the Finns and I are walking on glaciers everyday by now!  And you're going to try to tell me glaciers aren't slippery?! :-)

BTW, you should see the very impressive ice ridges that appear where the glaciers/snowy sidewalks meet the warmth from inside stores!  :-)

And I should note that, despite my friends poo-poohing of the slipperiness, even the Finnish Meteorological Institute posts pedestrian warnings on their website (today we are officially "very slippery") and the newspapers are full of articles about people breaking and straining things from slipping on the ice ... oops, I mean, snow. :-)

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