A YEAR AGO, I moved to Helsinki with my Finnish wife Johanna and our one-year-old son. I had a feeling that moving to Finland would change me. I just didn’t know how until recently.
Like you, many of my habits have been shaped by my culture of origin. In Finland, I’m navigating across a different cultural landscape and I’m watching several of my American habits slip away.
I don’t mind being naked with strangers
In the land of 3.3 million saunas, it is inevitable that you will eventually find yourself naked with people you don’t know. And not care whatsoever.
I didn’t realize that I had reached this level of Finnishness until last month. A close friend of mine from New York was visiting us in Helsinki and I insisted that — on his last night in Finland — he must join me for a trip to one of the city’s public saunas.
I explained that Finns go naked — but men and women have separate saunas. The sauna is not, in any way, sexual. Coed saunas exist in Finland, or so I’ve heard, but the general consensus is that they’re creepy.
I was convinced that my American friend would fall in love with the Finnish sauna culture, savoring the searing heat and the refreshing dip in chilly seawater. But I was wrong. Very wrong.
Before entering the sauna via the changing room, I smiled and quipped to my friend, “This is where we leave the towels, man.” My friend was not amused. Clutching his towel around his waist, he growled “no way” indignantly.
Unfazed by my friend’s reluctance, I hung up my own towel and strolled into the sauna Finnish-style. I found a spot on the top platform — along with another naked man. A few moments later, my American buddy timidly opened the door to the sauna and located a spot on the lowest bench, still gripping his towel as if his life (or manhood) depended on it.
He lasted about three minutes before declaring “enough” to me and the other naked strangers in the dimly lit room. Since we had already agreed to swim in the sea, I followed him out of the sauna and outside onto the deck where there were stairs leading into the water. (Keep in mind that it’s November, so the sea hasn’t frozen over yet in Helsinki, but it’s getting close).
I descended the stairs first and submerged my whole body into the sea, except for my head. Finnish friends have taught me to avoid putting my head under so that I won’t suffer permanent brain damage.
After I had grabbed my towel from the railing at the top of the steps, my friend — true to form — climbed down the stairs so that the water was up to his knees and, immediately, he bolted back up the steps where he quickly snatched his towel.
Without saying a word to each other, we headed back inside. I ditched my towel in the changing room and walked back into the steamy sauna. I assumed my friend would show his face a few moments later, but he never came. This was when I started to wonder if I had ruined my friend’s trip to Finland.
When I emerged from the sauna, my friend was changing into his clothes. Apparently, he had just taken a long, hot shower in his bathing suit and he was ready to put this sauna experience behind him.
I don’t ask “How are you?” carelessly.
In Finland, “How are you?” is a dangerous question — because you may actually get a truthful response. And before asking this question, you need to ask yourself if you can handle the truth.
At one dinner party, I’m reaching for a slice of rye bread and to be polite, I ask a middle-aged friend of my wife’s family how she’s doing. She thanks me for asking and goes on to explain how she’s not sleeping very well. Not only that, but she’s convinced that she needs to take medication for her sleeping disorder, but she won’t be able to get medication for some time. I nod without saying anything, caught off guard by her honesty. Too much information, I’m thinking.
In the United States, if I ask someone how he or she is doing, that person knows that I’m most likely being polite and I’ll be met with the standard answer (“Good, thanks”). This happens even when things are not going well at all for that individual. If someone dares to share that he or she is just “okay” or “fine”, I know that this person is going through a major crisis and I should probably back off.
On another occasion, I’m at Hesburger — the Finnish fast food equivalent of McDonald’s — and I step up to place an order. I start with the traditional American pleasantry, “Hi. How are you?”
The jaw of the young Finnish woman behind the counter drops. She stammers, looks down and then, mumbles, “Uh, I’m okay.” I wonder if I just offended her by my warm greeting?
About 20 minutes later, I stroll up to the counter again and order an ice cream sundae with caramel sauce. This time I leave out “How are you?” and surprisingly, she looks more comfortable. I mention that I’m American and somehow that makes sense to her. She smiles faintly and under her breath, she mutters “Oh, that explains it.” In that moment, she surely has forgiven me for asking “How are you?” without caring.
I don’t grab coffee to go.
In America, we like things on-the-go. We eat breakfast in the front seats of our cars. We eat lunch at our desks, catching up on emails. And of course, we drink coffee on the run. America runs on Dunkin’, right?
In Finland, people slow down when they drink coffee. They sit down. They sip leisurely. They chat. They’re so relaxed that I often catch them staring into space.
Given our on-the-go obsession with coffee, one might suspect that Americans would far outpace Finns in coffee consumption. Nope.
The United States isn’t even in the top ten when you rank actual coffee consumption per person. The average Finn drinks twice as much coffee as the average American.
The fact that Finland is leading the world in coffee drinking, behind the Netherlands, doesn’t surprise me at all. Everywhere I go in Helsinki I’m offered coffee. And it’s hard to say no. Before moving to Finland, I averaged about one cup each day in Boston; now I’m up to four cups.
And the most surprising thing is that I rarely take coffee to go. I’ve learned from my colleagues to adopt the Finnish way of taking breaks to drink coffee — from actual mugs.
But a couple of weeks ago, I had an American relapse. I needed to rush out of our apartment, and I didn’t have time to sit down for a cup of coffee. I knew exactly what this situation called for.
Frantically, I rummaged through the shelf that held our coffee mugs and sippy cups. Eventually, I found one silver to-go mug, but its black cap was warped. And when I poured the coffee in, the bottom of the mug started to hiss and form tiny bubbles. Arrgh, this will spill all over me in the subway, I thought.
I shouted gruffly to my wife, “Why don’t we have one decent thermos in this house!?”
Johanna—without the slightest hesitation—snapped back, “Because we live in Europe. And Europeans don’t take coffee to go!”