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

HELSINKI DAYS

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.

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