Double-sided Finns

Ketija Riteniece comes from Latvia and spent time getting to know the drinking culture in Finnland

"Never touch a Finn" was one of the main pieces of advice given during the "Survival Finnish" lesson to exchange students. Later I heard that repeated several times. And keep a distance.

That perfectly hangs together with my conception of a typical Finn. Introverted, shy and gloomy. Not exactly your best friend in five minutes.

Another warning to remember when going to pub was to keep your friendly mouth shut. Talking to strangers is considered flirty in Finland.

It's commonly said that you should warm up a singing voice before coming to traditional student sitz – a sort of "sitting around a table and having dinner" thing. But I wasn't told to prepare for physical activities and switch on a chirpy mood. It was a huge surprise to see those quiet Finns beating the table for another song with quite obscene lyrics, singing hand in hand, jumping on chairs and crawling under the table, shouting and laughing. What was going on?

Photo: Tom Hensel (flickr)
Alcohol makes Finns warm up and break out of their stereotype as a reserved and distant nation.

"It's all about the alcohol,” explains the Finnish girl sitting opposite. Well, I could not exactly grumble about the lack of it. Already my stomach was filled with a mixture of cider, wine, beer, snabs, punch, something black and something green...

A middle-aged man with old-fashioned glasses sits down next to me – not the type I would like to flirt with. Surprisingly he starts a conversation. He is a history teacher, married, no kids. We converse easily about teenagers and medieval history for a while and then say a friendly goodbye. Is another rule broken? Or is it "all about the alcohol" again?

Of course we all have heard the phrase "hard-drinking nation" concerning Finns before, but not many of us are aware of the complex history surrounding drinking in Finland. It's not just that beer is mentioned in the national epic, the Kalevala. In the Middle Ages seamen and soldiers got their wages paid in beer and actually drinking water was seen as wasteful. "Taking a shot of alcohol every morning annihilates all worms," instructs a Finnish medicine book written in the 17th century. They believed that nothing but beer made Finnish women so fertile that they gave birth to twins.

But the fight against alcohol in Finland has a history as well. Lapland was the first territory where prohibition was introduced – already in 1842. For the whole country it came into force in 1919. Prohibition allowed producing alcohol only for medical, technical and scientific aims.

Photo: sokr (flickr)
Finns usually travel to Tallinn to buy cheaper alcohol

Of course it didn't work out so simply. Doctors prescribed champagne and brandy as the best treatment for most illnesses. Smugglers lived like kings and policemen were corrupt.

Although prohibition was cancelled in 1932, the government still tried to control the habits of a hard-drinking nation. Buying drinks in alcohol stores monopolised by the state was quite complicated and the limit per customer was only one litre. After the Second World War there was a rationing system. Finns were introduced to a variety of wines to change their habits. Although wine has been appreciated ever since by Finns, the aim of importing wine-culture was to reduce the consumption of strong alcohol, and that has still not been achieved.

Present efforts don't have much effect either. Although the age and hours of purchasing drinks are limited and prices are inflated, Finns - with their pure ten litres a year - are still the hardest drinkers in the Nordic countries. As they did during the Dry Law period, Finns find ways to buy alcohol. Nowadays, for example, ferry trips between Tallinn and Helsinki or Stockholm-Helsinki are a popular way to import a large amount of cheaper drink.


Kippis – believe it – while being in Finalnd you will learn how to say "cheers" faster than "excuse me"… because you'll have to repeat it before every single shot of snabs. This traditional Finnish spirit tastes only a little bit better than pure vodka.

"Alko" – if you are under 18, you're not even allowed to step into Finland's (state run) alcohol stores without your parents.

A Finn is not at work because of a hangover," says a girl who has been living in Finland for six years. She says that no one is supposed to talk about feeling bad the next day or talk about drinking at all. Do they still have some fear left from the twenties? Or maybe they get back into their "cultural shape" next morning – not talking about their emotions, keeping their distance, although last night they were dancing together? Do Finns have two faces – the drunk and the sober one?

It seems as if Jim Jarmusch captured this double-sided nature in his movie "Night on Earth". A lonely, gloomy and not very kind Finnish taxi driver picks up three other drunk Finns in the middle of the night. Not too friendly and chatty at first, they pour their hearts out later on. Such a warm- and open-hearted people! Was that only about the alcohol? 

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