The young, dark-haired man behind the desk at the gym said something to me and whatever it was, he was being passionate about it, that much I knew. He was smiling, and pounding his chest, and pointing at me. I’m reasonably good at lip reading, but that time, I was confused.
Usually, he just takes my card, swipes it, and gives it back to me, so I often keep my earphones in my ears, smile politely, and keep walking.
But, this time, he was still holding onto my card and talking, so I scratched my head a little, and like a great magician, discreetly pulled the earphone out without him noticing.
He saw the puzzled look on my face.
“I was just saying that I like that,” he said, and pointed to my forehead.
“Gonna tattoo one of ‘em right here,” he added, and pounded his chest again.
That’s when I realized he was talking about the three yellow crowns, the national symbol of Sweden, on my dark-blue woollen ski hat.
“Yes,” I said, delighted that I was now able to join the conversation.
“Yes! They do look good,” I added.
“Right here,” he said, and pointed to the right side of his chest with his index finger.
He swiped the card, and I kept on walking with my head held high all the way to the dressing room. After all, he was right, the three crowns do look nice, even to a Finn like myself. That’s why I had bought the hat in the first place.
A few days later, I was back at the gym, and the same guy, the one that has that dark Middle Eastern look, greeted me. With a big smile on his face, he was pounding his chest again, and then he saw my hat.
“Wait, where’s your nice hat?” he asked me. He looked a little disappointed.
That time, I was wearing my Dad’s old hat that he used to wear in the rink when he was our hockey coach. It’s red and white, and thick and warm, and it says “SISU” in big letters on the sides. Sisu, one of the few Finnish words even non-Finns, and especially people in Sweden, know.
Now, the Sisu on the hat is simply a reference to the Sisu trucks, but still.
“Oh, this one one. Well, today I’m all Finnish, you know. Sisu!” I said and pointed to the word.
“Nice,” he said.
“You know, in Finland we have this thing called sisu,” I said again, and pumped my fist a little.
He didn’t say anything, but he looked like he’d never heard of sisu. He swiped my card, and handed it back to me.
“I’m still gonna get that tattoo,” he said. “Right here,” he said, and pointed to his chest.
I walked to the door, put on my shoes, and watched him swipe a few cards for others who had just come in, and then waved goodbye to him from the door. He waved back and shouted: “Sweden!”
People laughed. He laughed. He was happy.
Last night, I was at the gym again, and, yes, I wore the hat with the three crowns – just to make my new friend happy.
After all, sisu can’t be taught.