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Monday, May 7, 2012

It's Vappu time!

One of Finland's main national holidays is Vappu.  It seems to be a combination between International Worker's Day (a form of Labor Day celebrated outside of the US), May Day, and 48 Hours of Partying Because It's Warmer and Lighter.  Yes, the Finns manage to cram a truly impressive number of national holidays between early April and June 21 (Midsummer's Day)! 

In any case, I had to participate for at least part of the time in this national holiday devoted to alcohol and outdoor parties, so on April 30 at the end of work I joined the crowds heading down to Esplanadi to celebrate the official opening ceremony of Vappu.  Unfortunately the picture just doesn't do it justice; when I left the office at 5:15 I was shocked by the number of people heading down towards Esplanadi and across to Senate Square.

The official beginning of Vappu is the crowning of the statue of Havis Amanda, which is in a fountain where the Market Square and Esplanadi meet.  You can't avoid the symbolism: a statue of a nude woman has a student cap put on her head by students at one of Helsinki's universities to mark the beginning of the warm season.  What a surprise?  Students noticing a naked lady?!  Neahhhh.

Well, when we got to Esplanadi it was completely packed, especially by Finnish standards; a few days later I learned that there'd been about 50,000 people in that c. 4-block stretch and park.  It was kind of fun to compare this to the Rally to Restore Sanity in DC a couple of years ago.  Here everyone kept slowly moving down, but until you got RIGHT next to the statue there was definite personal space around people; none of the crazy crowding with the Rally.  There were also tons of kids, strollers, balloons ... you name it, and most people were also holding champagne because it's traditional to toast Vappu with sparkling wine.

This shot was taken looking across from where I was standing--about 2 blocks from the statue since I had Ted with me--into the Esplanade park.  It looks less crowded that it was because (1) I took this about 1/2 an hour before the crowning and (2) the City of Helsinki had fenced off large areas of grass in the park itself to keep it from getting too beaten up.

This is looking down away from the statue when it got a little closer to the time of the crowning.


The actual crowning was kind of funny because there really wasn't any way to tell it had happened if you were standing anywhere other than right next to the statue.  There was no countdown and no big yell, and you couldn't really see anything other than the crane where chosen members from this year's chosen student club/organization were standing in preparation for the crowning.  At some stage there was a slightly louder noise and some people started waving these sailor caps.

Turns out the sailor caps are student caps, worn by the graduates of schools preparing students for university.  People buy them and keep them their entire lives to wear during celebrations like Vappu and in celebrations held by student clubs from these schools and the universities.  Throughout the Vappu celebrations and for a few days afterwards, you'd see groups of people like these wandering around Helsinki's streets wearing the caps.  BTW, they t'ain't cheap either; we saw them in Stockmann yesterday on sale for 100 Euros!  Is it too evil to say that I kept having weird flashbacks to Fleet Week in San Francisco?  :-)

Well, after the somewhat anticlimactic crowning (but very fun chatting with fellow participants) I started meandering with Ted up Esplanadi.  I must admit that I was curious about what I'd see.  All the Finns I knew and people who'd lived here for awhile apologize repeatedly in advance for the massive public drunkenness I'd see.  Yes, being embarrassed about public drunkenness seems to be a common Finnish concern, but it sure isn't common enough to stop the drinking. :-)  That being said, I've never found it to be that big of a deal; then again, after 4 years in Dublin it's legit to wonder about my standards!

What I didn't expect to see was a group of performers in costumes highly indebted to Hollywood's idea of Native America.  I'm trying to figure out WHERE on the Great Plains you could find feathers like that!

This gives you a better sense of the student caps, and as you can see, they're worn by folks of all ages.  You can also see these outfits that were clearly just worn by students of university age.  I hear they're current members of student organizations much like American fraternities and sororities, but they're co-ed and many of these groups are at the more technical and business schools.

In any case, I got to be quite the expert at taking stealth photos of these outfits, which I thought were quite fun.  I mean, I sure as heck would've done this when I was in college!  Mind you, I don't think I needed to be especially "stealth" about it: the students had been celebrating most of the day ... and probably the weekend before!

One of the things the students seem to do is collect patches, like you can see on the pants worn by the guy above.  I presumed that older or more senior members were the ones with more patches, although who knows if that's the case.  If it is, these guys were mere kiddies.

It was only after I took this picture that I learned that the mixed color pants (here yellow with part of one leg blank) signified that this student had dated or was dating (I think both apply) someone from a different club.  I kept thinking that this was a pretty strong way to eliminate much playing the field.  Imagine the pari-colored pants!

And, as a brief aside, can't say I would sew a patch that says "big" right on my butt. (Blow up the picture and you'll see what I mean.)

While Vappu is known for its all-night raucous celebrations (think Finnish Mardi Gras) I admit that I didn't see anything particularly shocking.  I'm sure there were some pretty toasty people on the Esplanade, especially closer to the statue, but it was still quite an acceptable family celebration.  Walking back to the Towers I ran into a couple of groups of high school students sitting on park benches who'd clearly begun celebrating, including one guy who was having a deep and meaningful discussion with a crocus.  I don't know who laughed harder, me or his friends.  (The official drinking age in Finland is 18, but I understand that kids as young as 12 or 13 can buy alcohol or are given alcohol depending on the older folks involved.)   I mean, don't we all do stupid things as kids, and sitting in a park drinking is relatively low on the juvenile stupid scale.

I got back to the Towers at the relatively staid hour of 8 pm (I had to get stuff done the next day before friends arrived in town a few days later), but some of the folks I knew from the Collegium were out until the wee hours drinking champagne, listening to bands, and doing the tango.  (Yep)  At least the weather cooperated this year, unlike last year where it rained all day.

Vappu proper was May 1, and basically Finns celebrate that much like Americans do Labor Day: picnics in the parks with barbeques and more drinking.  Since most Finns in Helsinki don't have backyards, the traditional place for picnics is Kaivopuisto Park down at the southern end of Helsinki; unfortunately when I went down there to take a look, I forgot to bring my camera.  While I loved the idea of the picnic and myself spent most of the day on the porch, even if I had to use my down coat as a blanket to do it, the crowds at Kaivopuisto didn't do it for me.  I was much more with those folks who picnicked at the parks around us!

As for the day after Vappu, let's just say a lot of people were a wee bit late to the Collegium.

Must introduce this part to Columbia!  Maybe that can become the excuse for my diaquiri party?

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