FINNS jump in the snow to cool off after a scorching sauna. They love ice hockey, tango competitions, and reindeer fillet stuffed with cheese. And they speak a complicated language few outsiders can understand.
Living in a Nordic nation of 5 million people and 188,000 lakes, the Finns are a proud people who, despite declaring their independence in 1917, had to fight hard for freedom from the Soviet Union in the Winter War of 1939 to 1940. They have since been forced to walk a tightrope between East and West.
Never officially a part of Scandinavia and geographically isolated from much of the rest of the world, free-market Finland until recently followed a policy of "neutrality" dictated by Moscow, thus giving the world the cold-war word "Finlandization." The Kremlin forbade Finns from joining Western institutions that could lead to any involvement in any potential conflict between superpowers.
But with the Soviet bear gone, Finland is at last free to chart a new course. Fed up with teetering between two varied cultural spheres and two greatly different social systems, it is now trying to integrate fully into a united Europe - but is still suffering an identity crisis.
"Our heart and soul are in the East, but our brains are in the West," says Pekka Ervasti, a political commentator based in Helsinki who writes for the respected Ilta-Lehti newspaper.
"Our religion and model of government came from Sweden, but our mentality is somewhere in the Ural Mountains. We identify with the Russian melancholy more than we do with the Swedes, and that's where the conflict lies," he says.
Finland joined the European Union Jan. 1, together with Sweden and Austria. Some observers say that plans to join NATO may not be that far off, although for now the Finns prefer to keep neutral status.
Despite these radical political changes, Finland is still defining its personality, differing from the rest of Europe because of its geography, climate, ethnicity, and linguistic peculiarities.
The country that gave the world the composer Sibelius, the epic Kalevala poem, Finnish art nouveau architecture, and is ranked 10th in dollars spent per capita on books each year, has a winter that lasts longer than all the other seasons put together. In some parts of northern Lapland, there is no sunshine for 52 days a year.
Unlike many of their European neighbors, Finns have largely resisted Americanization. Although it is striving to sculpt a new image, it nonetheless wants to maintain its longstanding traditions. Even its food has retained its unique character: Fresh fish and venison are still more popular than the hamburger.
The "humppa" and tango dance competitions draw summer crowds, and the ritual of the Finnish sauna has remained a mainstay of every home - perhaps one reason why Finns have so much sisu, a special arctic endurance.
These days, Finland hopes to carve itself a niche as a bridge between East and West by retaining good relations with Russia, with which it shares a 790-mile border, and expanding commercial contacts with fellow EU members. "We want to be part of Western Europe," says Kauko Holopainen, spokesman for the new prime minister, Paavo Lipponen. "If we were left outside, we would be lonely men now."
"During the cold war, we wanted to avoid becoming an object of dispute between the superpowers. That's what our policy was," says Antti Kuosmanen, deputy head of Finland's EU secretariat.
He says that it was a policy that worked - although others perceived it more as timid acquiescence rather than an awkward balancing act.
"We always wished to be a normal European country, and we always felt more normal than others thought we were," he adds.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the vital trade quotas that Finland depended upon collapsed with it - and its economy went through turmoil and unemployment, which five years ago was roughly 6 percent, is now at 18 percent.
But many are pinning hopes on the new government, which has pledged to make a series of budget cuts to help the economy back to its pre-recession level (See related story at left).
Despite a new "Rainbow Cabinet" that includes politicians from across the political spectrum, the members of the ruling coalition seem united more for their similarities as Finns than their differences. Similarly, the predominantly Lutheran population is highly homogeneous. And observers say the government, hoping to appease voters, is doing all it can to keep the country that way.
"There are lots and lots of people in Finland who have never met a foreigner, partly due to our geographical situation and our closed borders after World War II," says Mervi Virtanen, head of the Office for Refugee Affairs in Helsinki.
Only about 60,000 residents of Finland come from outside the country, and the government has a refugee quota of only 500 people per year. Lapps number less than 3,000, and the roughly 6,500 Finnish Gypsies are largely treated as outcasts (See related story at right).
While both Finnish and Swedish are the official languages of Finland, less than 7 percent of the population is Swedish-speaking. And Finnish, a language similar to Estonian and distantly related to Turkish and Hungarian, can take years to master.
"The Finnish language is so different that when we have to operate along the lines of Western reasoning, it's a problem," says Mr. Ervasti of Ilta-Lehti, who like most young Finns speaks English fluently.
"When Finns began moving to cities they lost their identity somewhere," he adds, explaining how the urbanization and subsequent integration of Finns led to uncertainty. "And now they're the odd man out."