No sweating the details in Finland Summit: Clinton-Yeltsin Helsinki meetings don't need to be a pressure-cooker. Take a sauna instead.

March 20, 1997|By Antero Pietila and Ulla Karki

Knee injuries and heart problems aside, if Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin really want to accomplish something during their two-day summit in Helsinki, perhaps they should do things the way Finnish presidents do.

That is, negotiate in a sauna bath -- while beating one another with birch twigs. The first one to retreat from the heat -- usually to roll in the snow or dive into the frozen sea -- is the loser. Sort of a small-scale Cold War, with limited casualties.

That's just one of the unique pleasures a visit to Finland's capital offers the world's two most powerful tourists today and tomorrow. It may be old news to President Clinton, who has visited before (he was there as a Rhodes scholar -- when he smoked but did not inhale). But just so both leaders get the most out of their 48 hours, here are a few native insights into the city, its customs and attractions.

First, it's a pity the summit takes place in March. The best time to visit is in June, the time of the midnight sun. Nights are incredibly occupied with just keeping warm. (The low was 18 degrees yesterday -- a veritable heat wave!)

One way to stay warm, of course, is the sauna, probably Finland's most powerful institution. In olden days, it was where babies were delivered and where cadavers were laid out until burial.

Even today, a co-ed family sauna bath is a weekly ritual. Lovers take saunas together. And business deals and labor negotiations are routinely sweated out there. What better place to decide the future of NATO?

Once they've toweled off, Clinton and Yeltsin can try a little low-impact exploring. A good start is a stroll (Boris can push Bill's chair) through the Esplanadi park, which leads into downtown from the city's market square. Its old linden trees surrounded by neo-Renaissance houses make it resemble the boulevards of Paris, but without any annoying French people.

In the upscale shops and fancy cafes by the Esplanadi, the presidents will find a high concentration of fascinating native fauna: hordes of Helsinki yuppies speaking incessantly on their Nokia mobile phones. Finland has one of the world's highest per-capita ratios of cellular phones.

Nokia may sound Japanese, but it's actually a Finnish high-tech company -- the second largest cellular telephone manufacturer in the world (and though Finns don't play football, sponsor of America's annual Sugar Bowl).

To warm up again after an Esplanadi stroll, the summit partners might stop at one of Helsinki's many pick-up spots.

In Finland, "afternoon coffee dances" are hot stuff. Tango is probably the most popular dance music in Finland (although youngsters lean more toward techno). Even the summit site -- the ultramodern residence of Finland's president -- is called "Tango."

The Argentine-born dance came to Finland in the 1930s, became a bit more sedate and is said to be a window to the Finnish soul: melancholy but passionate. Otherwise reserved, Finns can quite forget themselves in the whirl of the dance, and love can bloom. Too bad for Bill; he'll have to sit this one out.

Unlike many tourists in Finland, the two presidents probably won't be faced with trying to translate the country's inscrutable language. Finnish has 15 cases for nouns and 161 conjugations and personal forms for verbs. It is also a very fluid language -- new words can be made up just by stringing others together. Thus are born tongue-twisters like lahitulevaisuudensuunnitelmat (future plans) and ymparistovalvontaviranomainen (conservation authority).

Still, Bill and Boris might want to impress their hosts by learning at least a few important, if less challenging, expressions. Like kiitos (thank you; pronounced keetos), hyvaa huomenta (good morning; hewvah hooahmentah), kylla (yes; kewlah) and ei (no; ayee).

If they are feeling rambunctious, the presidents could probably ditch their security details. A city of more than half a million inhabitants, Helsinki is a very safe place; one can walk in most parts of downtown even late at night.

And people do walk, or take the bus, streetcar or metro (the metro line is as long as Baltimore's). Streetcars are an integral part of Helsinki's urban identity. They feature a little pub-on-rails, which is even equipped with a restroom.

Helsinki, though, can be fairly expensive. President Clinton will notice this if he stops at one of the many hamburger places in the city -- a decent burger will set him back about five dollars.

But if Bill and Boris get thirsty? No problem. Finns enjoy a drink or two, and the presidents can be sure to find some company for a few rounds of Finnish olut (awloot), or beer.

To conclude their day, the guys should head for Uudenmaankatu Street, hot spot for the city's young and young-minded. Here, they can toast -- just say "Kippis!" -- their summit successes with a few rounds at Fiba, a new bar that sells only drinks made with Finlandia vodka.

As they make their rounds, Bill and Boris should not get too carried away if crowds gather to cheer them.

Finns tend to gush over all celebrities. One of the most thunderous welcomes in recent times was for Ronn Moss -- "Ridge" on the CBS soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful."

Antero Pietila grew up and worked as a journalist in Finland. He has been with The Sun since 1969 and writes editorials. Ulla Karki is a Finnish exchange student at Towson State University and a Sun intern this semester.

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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