A small nation with a brave past - and an image problem


Ah ha, I thought. A Finn who has finally fouled up. A Finn in a fix.

With a deadline looming, I had been trying to get into my hotel room, but the blasted plastic didgery that passed for a key no longer worked. After three faultless days in Helsinki, at last there was a chance for a little outrage, a spot of fist-thumping, a small speech, perhaps, about customer's rights.

You see, it's an addiction for those of us who live in Moscow. Go more than a few days without a gripe about the impossibility of life - the pollution, the potholes, the prices - and you start entering consumer cold turkey, jittering with irritation at having nothing to moan about.

The impeccably mannered young man behind the desk of the Radisson-SAS hotel was as cool and calm as the blue spring sky outside. "Our mistake," he said, snapping my plastic card in half. "Here's a new one." It was all over in 15 seconds; there was no time to fire off an insult, let alone to demand a humble anteeksi (Finnish for "sorry, pardon").

Not long ago, Time magazine conducted a survey on the adjectives most frequently used to describe inhabitants of the smaller nations. Finland's five million population was deemed to be "plucky". It was a tribute to their history of sharing a border with a giant bullying neighbour, and especially to their courageous defence against Stalin's invading troops in the Winter War of 1939-40.

But they could also have been called hyper-efficient and, - at least on the surface - unerringly calm. Several decades of organising world summits has earned Finland an unchallenged reputation as the planet's butlers, who discreetly attend to the needs of fractious and capricious superpowers.

Last week's two-day summit between presidents Clinton and Yeltsin was a fine example. Thousands of journalists, officials and others (including a free-market-minded group of prostitutes from St Petersburg) descended on Helsinki.

The world's journalists, with their demands for instant information and five-star treatment, are not easy guests, as anyone with experience of the whining White House press corps would testify. Yet this neat little city, perched on the northern edge of the Gulf of Finland, carried on working like clockwork. We were even allowed to travel free on the trams.

Much of this was simply a question of technology. This was the first cyber-summit. Key moments, from press conferences to Mr Clinton's undignified arrival in an airline catering truck, were instantaneously downloaded on to the Internet.

Within seconds, you could not only watch video footage of the US president on one of the many computers provided at the Helsinki press centres, but you could also - by clicking on a mouse - fast forward or rewind to whichever excruciating moment you wanted. It seemed to catch on; the Finnish state broadcaster, YLE, said that its home page had a "colossal" 55,000 visits.

For the Finns, it also served another purpose. For there is another side to their international reputation which they want to erase: they are, if the truth be told, sometimes thought to be ... how can I put this tactfully? ... Stolid, dull, a little on the lumpen side, perhaps.

Last week, Finland seized the chance to fight back. Its Internet site was packed with information aimed at proving that the country amounts to more than just summits and saunas. Net surfers were bombarded with facts aimed at overhauling the world view of the Finn.

There was information about the Finnish Woman, who appears to be forging ahead in the fight for equality: she holds 68 seats in the 200-strong parliament, as well as the posts of Foreign Minister and mayor of Helsinki.

You could read about a strange Finnish New Year's custom in which farmers throw molten metal into cold water, and then study the shadow thrown by the resulting shape. There were details of the cuisine ("Bread - Still a Favourite"), of their love of the mobile telephone (more per head than any other country on the planet), or their Palm Sunday practice of lashing their friends with willow fronds.

It won't work, of course. The world will go on teasing the Finns, just as it will the Belgians, and the Irish. Perhaps it's to do with the size of the country. Perhaps it's their weird-sounding language. But the Finns have at least proved one point: they are definitely plucky.

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Arts and Entertainment
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint)
newsBloomsbury unveils new covers for JK Rowling's wizarding series
scienceScientists try to explain the moon's funny shape
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Shine Night Walk 2014 - 'On the night' volunteer roles

Unpaid Voluntary Work : Cancer Research UK: We need motivational volunteers to...

Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable & Accounts Receivable)

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable...

Senior IT Trainer - Buckinghamshire - £250 - £350 p/d

£200 - £300 per day: Ashdown Group: IT Trainer - Marlow, Buckinghamshire - £25...

Education Recruitment Consultant- Learning Support

£18000 - £30000 per annum + Generous commission scheme: AER Teachers: Thames T...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star