Summer madness

27 June 2012 | Non-fiction, Tales of a journalist

Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

In the endlessly long days of the brief Nordic summer, what could be better than to go on a bender? Jyrki Lehtola explores a quaint Finnish custom

In Finland it’s cold and dark for nine months of the year. We spend the other three months drunkenly praying that tomorrow it might be warmer and lighter – and sometimes it is.

From the perspective of the national psyche, you’d think we might have learnt to live with the cold and the dark. We might have dealt with it and turned it into something useful to us and to our continued survival. Sadly though, this isn’t quite the case. For nine months we sit indoors staring at the television, complaining that there’s never anything worth watching and waiting for those three months to come so that we can go outside again.

And when we finally get outside, we go mad. No longer are we a silent, anxious people. Well, we are, but we pretend we’re a different kind of people: one that spends its time chattering joyfully on the beach, dancing, enjoying life, discussing, debating, participating, sharing.

The arrival of summer makes us go mad. By the end of June, this silent, anxious, suicidal nation has turned into the number one samba carnival of Northern Europe.

In the summer we can’t seem to stand still. We rush out of our houses and head for the beaches, the parks, the beer gardens, our own summer cottages, other people’s summer cottages, sailing boats, camping holidays, chamber-music festivals, rock festivals, poetry festivals, seminars, discussion events. Anywhere, as summer is a time of collective experience.

And because we’re in Finland, the motor behind this collective experience is alcohol. Finland is a country with a growing alcohol problem, and for nine months of the year we think very seriously about our relationship with alcohol: we talk about restricting alcohol ‘lifestyle’ advertising, increasing alcohol awareness in schools, and making pubs close earlier.

In the summer we forget all about this, because in summer we have a right and a duty to be drunk. In the summer alcohol becomes an acceptable, necessary part of a balanced diet, one that produces fun and warmth.

The media also does its part in pushing people ever closer to alcoholism. When the sun is shining, the media doesn’t describe the weather as ‘summery’, rather they tell us that now it is ‘beer-garden [‘terrace’: in Finnish, terassi] weather’, because whenever he sees the sun it is nothing short of a Finn’s national duty to seek out a public place where he can sip brown liquid from a plastic pint glass.

Still, you don’t need to go to a bar to drink yourself into a stupor: you can binge-drink in the park or at the summer cottage too. For this reason, the summertime media make sure they keep readers up to speed about which cider is the best, which beer is the most cost-effective, and gives regular updates on all the different kinds of alcohol you can drink in the summer, just so we don’t accidentally end up suffering from dehydration.

When the media spend three months keeping a beady eye on the weather, it’s not because there are still a few farmers in Finland, people for whom changes in the weather can have a very direct financial impact. No, newspapers follow the weather so that they can report to readers whether there will be good or bad weather in which to get sloshed.

And as for summertime drunkenness… Well, it’s a happy thing, connecting people. In the winter, a small news item about someone passed out in the park would be seen as a sorry tale of a Finland plagued with alcohol problems. When people pass out in the park in the summer months, however, it’s proof that they had a really great night out in Summertime Finland.

That being said, we’ve acquired something of a guilty conscience about our annual three-month summer bender. After all, nobody wants to be publicly labelled a problematic alcoholic. So to help alleviate our guilty conscience, summer is packed full of different events, often cultural ones.

In the summer, strange, marginal pursuits are suddenly transformed into activities for all: chamber music, poetry readings, old books, jazz, discussion panels about the spiritual future of the nation. A tourist might marvel at what an inquisitive, culturally thriving, civilised country this is. But things aren’t always what they seem.

Cultural events are like a tree, behind which we can drink in secret straight from the bottle. They represent an officially acceptable reason to drink in Summertime Finland, and this is why not a day goes by all summer without at least three different cultural events going on.

We can go to these events with a clear conscience, leave the family at the cottage. We agree to meet up with friends and listen to jazz – that’s civilised music if ever there was any. At the weeklong jazz festival you can be drunk all week, but you’re not actually drunk at all, you’re just at a jazz festival.

Weeklong discussion forums are an even better way to cheat yourself. We’re not here to drink, we’re here to think about the state of the world. Yesterday there was an excellent debate about the general malaise affecting the youth of today. Apparently they’re doing pretty badly. Dear oh dear, fetch me a pint, too, would you?

Translated by David Hackston

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