It is finally the summer holidays, why write about saunas and about Finland? Well this year I had this strange idea of spending parts of my summer holidays in Finland. Every Norwegian I meet is like “You are spending your SUMMER holidays in Finland? But why?”. Why spend your summer somewhere North of where you already live? I just thought I would check out this country that is neither Scandinavian nor Russian. Yet European.
First of all, this is a horrible summer in Finland. It has been 8 degrees for the past days or maybe weeks. It is raining, it feels like the autumn is ending to give place to the winter. But, wait a minute. It’s the 30th of June!! That alone is enough to depress anyone.
And to add to this misery, I realise by walking around Helsinki that the number of alcoholics is very high here. People are drinking alone in the streets at any time of the day or night. Finnish economy is in depression is what I hear. People also seem to be a bit depressed, and my friend tells me Finland has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. No wonder.
I am hoping to eat great Finish food, but that seems to be composed of potatoes and salmon. Not very exotic for me who lives in Norway. So I think of trying something typically Finnish: saunas.
There are saunas in Norway too, but Finland is known for its saunas, so I thought I would try one out. The lady at the entrance tells me everyone needs to be naked in there, and that the best is to take a very cold shower when I feel very hot. “There are two old ladies in there, just look at what they are doing”. “Is there food for sale here? No but the other persons in the sauna might have food”. What did she mean by that? I was about to find out.
As I enter this public sauna it looks a bit like a slow movie on the Soviet era. The decoration is very old, there are benches everywhere in the changing room to read, and a lady with dark blond hair is sitting there looking at something very far away beyond the wall, drinking a beer. I take off all my clothes to go in the sauna, and when I turn around she is in the exact same position but without any clothes on. Still drinking her beer.
Then I get in the sauna, and as planned there are two very old ladies there chatting in what is probably Finnish. As I go up to sit on a wooden bench of the sauna one of the ladies goes out and I see her back is full of wet leaves. What on earth is happening in here? I look around and see a bucket of water with long branches with leaves. The other old lady starts slapping her body with the branches while saying something. They have decided to ignore me as well as the other woman sitting there. “They put it very hot so that tourists will leave faster” she says. And she might be right.
As I get out to take a cold shower so that I can go back in again, they are both chatting on the side of the public bathroom, and start yelling when I take the shower in my hand. The tube is detached from the wall, and they seem resigned to the fact that it is broken, so I just screw it back on. As they see this amazing skill of mine which is getting them their shower back, they start smiling at me and invite me in again, this time sharing their bucket of leaves with me and talking to me. They show me the best place to sit and show me how to make some steam. Then one of the old lady slaps my back with the leaves, releasing a strange but very comforting smell in the whole sauna.
Then, as I am apparently their new friend, they open their bags and hand me a beer. And another one. And another one. Then they get out sausages and a stick and start grilling them close to the fire to make a little fest in the sauna. This is potentially one of the most surreal things I have ever experienced: a picnic grill in a sauna in the middle fo Helsinki with two old ladies, all of us naked and sweating like pigs as the temperature goes up to 95 degrees in there. They are super happy to share their meal with me, and as I am starting to feel a little headache (beer + sauna = not a good idea) they leave. I stay a little longer with my thoughts drifting away, not sure whether it is because I am slightly drunk or simply dehydrated.
I think of all the times I went into a sauna in Norway, in gyms for example. No one every offered me sausages and beers, especially not to grill and drink inside! That was so damn koselig. In Norwegian saunas so one talks to each other and people are so stiff, thinking of their training and how fit they want to be. My conclusion is that maybe this tradition is something we should export to Norway.
I eventually get out after many dives in the hot and comforting wooden box. I wish I could jump in the sea after this. The smell of the burnt wood and the leaves will stick to my skin for a while I hope. As I get out of the building again I see men in their little towels sitting outside chatting the afternoon away while going in and out of the sauna. They are literally sitting half naked on the side of a pavement in the middle of the city while drinking beer (by 7 or 8 degrees), and it seems very normal for everyone.
Man this country is strange.