New York Times Sunday Magazine, October 28, 2018 — Sisu is the perfect trail name. Here’s why.
“In January 1940, in the pages of this very magazine, a writer by the excellent name of Hudson Strode published an article with the headline “Sisu: A Word That Explains Finland.” A Finnish concept that’s tricky to translate into English with any real precision, sisu represents something like a deep well of inner fortitude. The Wikipedia entry includes links to “stiff upper lip,” “cojones” and “chutzpah,” but none of those phrases or words quite capture it. A “special kind of strong will” is the definition Strode goes with, something drawn upon by the stoic in order to persevere in the face of extreme adversity — say, winter, if you live in Lapland.
At one point in the article, Strode visits a Finnish town near the Russian border and meets the local sheriff. For sentimental reasons, this sheriff carries around a dagger, which he hands to Strode. Apparently a previous owner used the blade to fend off six attackers. “They fought for an hour,” the sheriff says. “He cut the six to pieces. I saw the finish of the fight — it was a glorious display of sisu.” Strode doesn’t record his own response, but he seems impressed. The sheriff slips the knife back into its leather holster and gazes to the east. “We shall have need of sisu,” he observes gravely, “to face what may come shortly.”
Reading about Strode’s journey — which took him to Finland at the start of World War II, only months before the Soviet invasion — I thought about my own rapidly approaching trip to the same country, for the same magazine, 79 years later. I smiled at the pleasing symmetry. Granted, my surname does not double as an active verb, not even in Italian. Also, I was going to Finland to report an article on salty licorice. But otherwise, our tasks were not dissimilar. Strode had introduced his readers to a word that explained a distant country and its underlying values. I would try to do the same, only with a really weird flavor of candy. (It probably pairs with herring.)
There would be need of sisu to face what might come shortly.”