My Grandmother recently told me (right before turning to my mother to say that I would never provide her with a son-in-law or grandchildren) that I’m much too fond of the good times and that I need to settle down. I was more than a little offended and explained to her that I work seriously hard at college. Less than a week later, however I was on a plane to Norway with a connection to my favourite Nordic state. Yes, the irony of this did sting quite a bit.
This time, my visit to Finland was to be a short, but altogether memorable one. Short, because I arrived before midnight on Thursday and left before 7am on Tuesday. Memorable because I would eat some amazing food, learn to waltz and spend about 10 hours at the most confusing array of festivities I have ever experienced.
I was invited to attend a ball. I have been to balls before. I went to my secondary school debs (prom or grad, for those of you who don’t know) where I had to ask 4 people before someone agreed to be my date and my handmade dress fell apart. I had been to university balls where everyone was atrociously horrendified before 9pm and I spent the night trying to pour water into my drunk friend. All that disaster aside, formal events were usually enjoyable and I was fully confident in the knowledge that I knew how these sort of university based gatherings went down. Well, I was wrong.
It all started with Facebook. My date, who happens to be my boyfriend, has some pretty strange photos on his page. In the initial stages of a relationship, when it’s all flirting and indirect attempts to see if the person you like is a murderer or not, Facebook creeping is essential. If there was such a thing as Facebook Creeping in the Olympics, between Katie Taylor and I, Ireland would be a haven for successful female athletes. So being attracted to this person, I creeped on photos. Not just one. All of them. (Don’t judge me, I know you all do it. Well, I hope, for my own sake you all do it.) Within his photos lay some ones that required further follow up. There were photos of men, at what appeared to be a party for decorated soldiers and aristocrats taken in 1865. They wore white ties, waistcoats, black suits with tails, some of them had capes and almost all of them had an array of medals pinned to their jackets. He assured me it was a normal part of the culture in this part of Finland. I was sceptical. He had to be a Freemason, which he repeatedly denied. Just like a Freemason.
So when I was invited to this ball, I was informed that this would be the general attire. Weird as I though it was, I happily decided that this would surely be the only odd thing about the otherwise normal ball of a university’s society. Again, I was wrong. So. Very. Wrong.
So I bought flights, a dress and a shawl (I was told I had to wear one. Until after my main course was eaten. Then I could take it off.) and I skipped on my merry way to Finland, via Norway where I unknowingly spent €12.98 on a sandwich and a bottle of water. Fast forward to 11pm the night before the ball where I stood in a one-roomed apartment learning to waltz as Avicii pumped Wake Me Up from a Spotify playlist. What was happening? I was being told that I would need to waltz! Convinced I would be asked to make a blood pact at this gathering the next day, I had an uneasy sleep anticipating what was about to come.
I began the beautification process of turning myself into an optical illusion at around midday the next day and as I sat filing my nails, my date said something that made me realise that this was going to be among the more stranger nights of my existence: “I suppose I better fill you in on the rules now”
Rules? Are you serious? This ball had rules? Expecting the next words out of his mouth to be “The first rule of Årsfest is: You don’t talk about Årsfest. The second rule of Årsfest is: You don’t talk about Årsfest!” I readied myself. What followed was a list of complex instructions about when I could and couldn’t use the bathroom, the process of being escorted into the dining hall, dancing, when I could and could not consume liquid, and most importantly, the convoluted procedure of singing songs in order to reach the reward for such a performance at the end: A gulp of schnapps.
This was probably the most important aspect. There would be a bell and a toast-master (not a person who rocks at making perfectly golden crisped and heated bread, I checked) and this person would ring said bell and everyone would break out in a happy chorus of songs, reading the words from a carefully pre-printed songbook at each place-setting. All night 179 Nordics sat singing and occasionally engaging in actions and swaying while one pale and noticeably “not-blonde” Irish girl sat with an expression somewhere between fear and confusion. You’re reading this and in you’re head you’re thinking that it was in the region of about 6-8 songs. No, it was more along the lines of 28-30. Apparently, the rules are that no one may drink their beloved schnapps without first earning it (I’m assuming its a matter of earning it) through a few verses of song. Therefore, with no more than 2-3 minute intervals (I’m seriously not exaggerating on this) there was either an independent ringing of their fancy bell or a cacophony of table banging from thirsty Finns, calling for more singing and more schnapps. The process didn’t end there, however. After the last note rang out, came the toast-part (again, not a reference to bread. Although toast would have been pretty awesome) This required concentration.
Take your schnapps glass, the small shot glass, next to your water glass and raise it. Turn your whole upper body, first to the person on your left for a woman and on your right for a man and raise your little glass to them while making eye contact. This part is important to maintain adequate fornication for 7 years, apparently. You then say “Skål”. This action is repeated with the person on your opposite side and then to the person facing you. Then, and only then, may you drink your high percentage alcohol.
It will come as no surprise that although I began eating at around 7, I swallowed my last gulp of tea at 11:40. I shit you not.
Most of the readers will find this bizarre. But I haven’t paid tribute to the strangest and most mitigating factor. The singing, the conversation, the guest speakers and the general banter all took place through the beautiful, although entirely unknown medium of Swedish. Have you ever been on a holiday to a country where you don’t speak the primary language? You’re in the hotel room and it’s too rainy to go to the beach, so you pop on the telly and there’s some homegrown soap opera on. You kind of understand whats going on through the body language of characters (if the acting isn’t substandard) and the general behaviour, but you really haven’t got the slighted iota of what the hell these people are saying and so really you have no concept of what the sitcom is about. Yeah, well this ball was like that, expect it was as if I was actually asked to act in this show, arrived on set and was handed a script entirely in Greek and then someone yelled what I assumed to be the Greek version of “Action!”
For most of the night I was scrounging for words that sounded vaguely English, French or Irish, the only languages I know, or were one of the few words or number 1-10 I recognise in Swedish. (I had a very proud moment walking up the stairs when my date turned to his buddy and I understood an entire sentence: “Jag är hungrig = I am hungry”)
I have now perfected my look of abrupt loss and helplessness when someone in the departure lounge of Oslo Airport speaks to me in a language foreign to me and my subsequent spluttering and choking for words and expressions of “I don’t speak Norwegian, I’m sorry” are second to none. Waiters and waitresses sympathetically switched to English for my linguistic handicap and people stared blankly at me for a few seconds due to their though process occurring through Swedish when I violently attacked them with English. A theme of burlesque ran through the night, so when a middle aged woman in a green coat began to remove her clothing between courses to music, my shock was about 2 minutes behind that of everyone else’s.
Reading this, you might think that I had a stressful and altogether nerve-wracking night. That is not so. I actually had a fantastic time. I was incredibly nervous, I will admit. It was “meeting the parents” round 2, because I was meeting friends and the scenario was alien to me. My heart was thumping as I was escorted in (if you’re picturing a scene from Pride and Prejudice, you’re on the money) and I was very afraid of the sheer newness. But after only a matter of minutes, I was at my ease, talking and enjoying the company and the performance of some very friendly Swedish Speaking Finns. The people were so nice, so talkative and so very keen to make sure I wasn’t wandering aimless and blindfolded through the land of nonsense with frequent translations and contextual explanations. People made me feel welcome, they made me feel at ease and at home. Again, this stereotype that so many people, including Finns, have informed me of, that Finnish people are shy and detached is completely lost upon me. The guests, almost everyone of them I met, was eager to talk to me, to ask about how my boyfriend and I met (a story too long, with too many character to divulge), to ask about my night, my experience and my culture. Mostly people wanted to know what I thought of Finland. This made me like the Finnish population even more. There’s something incredibly Irish about a nation’s desire to be well regarded and liked on an international stage. Increasingly in fact, I see corrolations between Finns and Irish people. All that singing, for example, was basically wednesday night in the Rock Inn on College Road – everyone singing and consuming alcohol – but with that added dash of Finland in the organised and efficient inclusion of a songbook and choreographed hand actions and rules about when to drink.
I have also decided that Finns are beautiful. Like, everybody is. Not just the blonde and blue eyed, tall and athletic people or each gender, but everyone. Their Nordic features are incredibly attractive and striking. I couldn’t help staring and feeling incredibly conscious about my own freckled and ginger appearance! I just hope I looked as exotic to these utter god-like arians as they did to me. What kind of fabulous does a person have to be to win Miss Finland?!! I expected there to be a form of relief the following day at the at the after-party breakfast (Note to members of my society: we need to implement a Next-day-breakfast-policy immediately. That is all) Alas, even in their tired and hungover state, wearing weird overalls, darned with patches, they still looked painful beautiful. They had to be Freemasons.
I waltzed with many people, all who were pleasant and warm. I was given a napkin, folded into a flower and my own non-alcoholic option – a jug of pineapple juice – at the meal and was included in the champaign reception with a glass of a soft drink that looked like the real-deal. This never happens! Probably the very best part of the night, however? My name, correctly spelled on both my place setting and the seating chart. I have kept both pieces of paper. One is in my purse, in the pocket reserved for “special things”. It’s rare that this happens in Ireland, and nothing short of a miracle when it happens outside. Refer to my first blog post.
Despite the unnerving lack of daylight and the worrying amount of Freemasons and/or members of a cult, possibly the Illuminati, I have only fallen more in love with Finland. I should mention that if the Illuminati were present, then this assertion means that I am most likely in danger. If you don’t hear form me for a few days, alert the Gardaí, the Finnish version of the hopefully more efficient Gardaí, Interpol and Dan Brown. My safety is of paramount concern.