A Needle in A Haystack
Our visit to Helsinki started slowly last week as we had a hard time getting acclimated. Mike wasn’t feeling well and I was tired because of pre-trip insomnia, as I tend not to sleep the day before we go on a trip out of nervousness and anticipation.
We got to the city late but enjoyed walking around and seeing Esplanade Park and the beautiful art nouveau buildings of this unexpectedly gorgeous city. We were walking down the street feeling a little lost when we saw a girl who looked like Jemina, our Hungarian exchange student’s best friend from Finland.
We hadn’t seen Jemina in two years since our exchange student Dorka had left the USA for her home in Debrecen, so I wasn’t sure how Jemina looked now. We had told her we were coming to Helsinki and knew she lived in the city but hadn’t really firmed up whether we would meet or not, and when. We knew 20-something year olds have busy lives, and we also knew that she was working full time.
My husband said “That’s Jemina!” and I said, “It definitely looks like her, for sure,” but I thought, so had the girl who had been working at the Helsinki airport earlier. And the girl at the coffee shop we had just walked by.
Every girl here looks like Jemina. Long blond hair, tall, beautiful, bright eyes and a pretty smile. I called out her name kind of shyly because of Mike’s insistence, and she was in a deep conversation with a friend and didn’t turn her head. Maybe it’s not her, I said.
“That IS Jemina,” Mike said again. I thought it could be, it really looked like her, but the city of Helsinki had 600,000 people in it. What were the chances? We were wandering down a busy street. It could be anyone. I saw the girl and her friend turn into a cafe, and with Mike’s prodding I followed them in. I felt like a stalker at this point. They were deep in a Finnish conversation, talking very animated when suddenly the girl turned my way when I said her name again. Her eyes lit up! It was her! It was Jemina. What are the chances?
We met a man born in Helsinki who talked to us for a long time in the sauna (we’ll get to him later) and told him what had happened. He said Helsinki is like a little town, even though it’s a big city. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone else. And it’s easy to run into someone in the cosmopolitan areas as everyone hangs around in the same general areas.
Still, what were the chances?
The Culture of the Sauna
The Finnish sauna. Can I just say this was the most enjoyable form of torture I have ever experienced? Yes, it’s an oxymoron. But the sauna experience in Finland is quite a wonderful paradox.
And honestly, torture is a relative term. But that’s what it felt like at the beginning of our first sauna experience.
Mike and I signed up for a two hour time slot at a Finnish public seaside sauna called Löyly on our second day in Helsinki. It sounded relaxing, and it’s a Finnish cultural pastime, so of course we thought we should try it. It would be like going to New Orleans and not listening to Jazz music. So off we went.
We took a bus to the Baltic seaside where the sauna was located and entered the sauna through separate dressing rooms to change into our swimsuits (typically the sauna experience isn’t co-ed and the participants go in naked, but we had chosen Löyly because it was a place we could experience the sauna together and with clothes on.)
I walked through a shower which I ignored because I thought it would be more practical to take a shower after the sauna. Not a good idea. Mike and I met in the middle lobby which had entrances to two different sauna rooms. One was a traditional smoke sauna and the other, a wood-burning sauna.
An attendant standing in the lobby recommended the wood-burning one first, so that’s where we headed. He also recommended a shower first. Not one to ignore advice I went back to the shower and splashed a little water all over but didn’t get my hair or ears wet, just my face. Mike did the same.
We took our tiny seat covers, which actually looked and felt like linen dinner napkins, and went and sat on the upper tier of the sauna. There were two levels and the bottom was mostly full. (We figured out why later.) It was a small room with already about a dozen or so people in it. We sat in the sauna for a few minutes. It was hot but not unbearable, but it was getting to be a little dry when the attendant came in the sauna and said would you like me to put some water on the stones?
“Why not?” Mike and I looked at each other and said. The expression is a little silent joke of ours because we find it’s an expression that Croatian people say a lot. And we’ve been saying, “Why not?” often since we moved to Croatia. So “Why not”in Finland as well?
We thought the steam would probably feel good since it was so dry in the room, right?
Mike and I were closest to the little iron door where the stones were kept, and the attendant lifted it slowly. It squeaked like a door to a medieval chamber opening. Then he reached down and got a giant ladle of water from a bucket on the floor and poured it on the stones. And then another.
The steam bubbled up and immediately Mike and I both felt the heat like an inferno on our faces. I grabbed my ears because I thought they were going to burn off. Mike jumped up and said, “I’ve got to get out of here” and bee-lined out of the sauna quickly. I watched helplessly. Is this normal? Is this what hell feels like? I thought as the heat struck my face! (Mike later said he felt like his face was going to melt off.)
I just couldn’t leave though. I sat frozen to the seat or “welded” to the seat would be a better word. I just kept thinking, surely this can’t be right. This can’t be it. Is something wrong? Did something go wrong? Why is it so hot? Maybe they don’t realize how hot it is? I sat there for another few minutes, and the heat from steam burning off the stones did begin to dissipate. Thankfully. And all was well.
But then the bracelet with my locker key hit my wrist and scalded me it was so hot. And I kept holding the tops of my ears because they still felt like they were burning. I sat there for as long as I could stand it, and then went outside the sauna to the outside of the building to the sea to find Mike. He was like an apple bobbing happily in the Baltic Sea with a few other sauna goers. I hurriedly jumped into the ice cold water and got a jolt of cold and adrenaline and felt wonderful.
It was such an amazing feeling! Aah, now this I can do, I thought. This is more like it.
So then we decided to go back in the sauna. I know, I know. We’re crazy, right? But a whole country can’t be crazy. And this is a national pastime. People have saunas in their homes in Finland and visit them on a weekly or daily even basis. I had to make sense of it, and after the cold plunge into the sea, I was starting to get it. It really felt good.
In the winter people go out into the snow after the sauna for the same effect, but the sea was so refreshing after the heat. Like yin and yang, you appreciated the contrast of the polar opposites.
Sure enough the second go round was much easier and much more pleasant and relaxing. I was dripping wet, so I didn’t feel so hot, and I had learned to sit on a lower seat because the steam didn’t sting so much when you were on the bottom level, hot air rising and all of that. I have to admit that I did duck a little now out of fear when they poured the water on the stones.
And then it happened that we met the ambassador of Finland right there in the sauna.
Well, okay, he wasn’t the real ambassador.
But he should be. They seriously should give him the key to the city of Helsinki or something. A big tall guy like a Viking walked into the sauna with his family and began to show us what the sauna was all about. He opened the iron door and started to pour water on the stones, but hesitated and started explaining the tradition to us when he saw we were foreigners. He was of Swedish descent but born in Finland and had been a regular sauna goer his whole life.
He explained the entire process to us and gave us tips on the best things to do to avoid getting burned, one of which was to wear your locker key on your ankle, not your wrist as I had done. If only we’d met ten minutes ago, I thought as I touched my tender wrist.
Turn your jewelry around to your back if you had a necklace on, he advised. Luckily I hadn’t worn any. Sit on the lower levels if you get too hot, he recommended. Unfortunately we had found that out, too.
They even have steps down and out of the sauna, he said, so you should move slowly down to the steps if you feel too hot.
Sauna etiquette also dictates you stay in the sauna right after someone dumps the water on the stones as opening the door releases a lot of the steam that sauna participants are looking for. I’m looking at you, Mike.
What Mike should have done was exit the sauna when someone lifted the metal door and reached for the ladle in the bucket. But of course, we both were all “why not?” at this point in the experience.
Also, he told us, it’s not an endurance experience. Fives minutes in the heat of the sauna is fine and then you go for the cold plunge. Sitting in there for 20 minutes just wears you out. He also told us about the traditional smoke sauna which we hadn’t yet been in. Someone had warned us it was a lot hotter, but we were starting to acclimate to the temperature and thought we could handle it at this point. Or maybe we were just delirious from the heat.
The smoke sauna is different than the other in that there is no chimney in the room to let out the smoke from the wood-burning fire that heats it up. They release the smoke in the morning after it’s been heating up all night and it’s typically dark but not smoky as the smoke has been released out. It’s like a dark cave with a woodsy campfire aroma.
Alexander, that was the ambassador’s name, also told us about the tradition of hitting yourself with wet birch branches while you sat in the sauna to get your blood circulation going. Um, what?
Okay, it sounded interesting, right? They didn’t have any in the first sauna we had been in so we thought we wouldn’t get to experience this tradition, but sure enough when we stepped up into dark smoke sauna and sat on the sauna benches, there was a bucket with two bundles of birch branches soaking in it.
You’re in luck, said the ambassador. They don’t normally have these in here.
I can’t wait, I thought.
So Mike and I took turns hitting each other’s backs and legs with them, and it was very stress relieving. Every couple should do it regularly.
So then we went and plunged back into the Baltic and went into a little meeting room with a nice warm fire in the middle of it and Mike got a delicious Finnish beer called Karhu (Alexander worked at this company, which was really cool!), and I got a glass of a wine and talked with the ambassador and his family for quite a while.
Then it was back in the sauna, then a rinse and repeat in the Baltic. And then back to the warm lobby.
I don’t think Alexander will ever know how much that meant to us having a local explain the culture and customs of an area. That combined with a day with Jemina showing us around made our week there such an enriching experience and made our time in Finland so much more interesting and memorable. I think it’s a good lesson for us as well. That we should reach out to tourists in our city in New Orleans or our new home in Pula. Like Alexander, we should all be ambassadors for our cities.
During our discussions with Alexander, he started talking about Finnish crayfish when he found out we were from New Orleans, and we learned about this Finnish delicacy that is a cousin to our own Louisiana crawfish. But there are some major differences. I already have another post written about delicious Finnish cuisine which will follow later.
All good things must come to an end though. We were shuffled out of the sauna as our time was up. It seemed to go by too quickly after we got the gist of it. It certainly wasn’t the torturous experience I thought it would be at the beginning. We really enjoyed ourselves, but it was only two hours long so we had to leave to let other people take advantage of this enlightening experience.
As I went into the little room to change back into my clothes a whole group of British girls were chattering and changing into their swimsuits getting ready to go in. “Should we shower before we go in?” they asked. “Yes, definitely take a shower,” I said. Some ignored me. They’ll learn, I thought.
I tried to give them a few pointers really quick, but it was all rush, rush, and I had already overstayed my time slot. And unfortunately for them, the ambassador was gone too now, so they were on their own. I hope they enjoyed the sauna as much as we had.
Alexander told us most Finnish people had saunas in their homes. According to the New York Times article published when Löyly first opened in 2016 titled “Helsinki’s New Eco-friendly Sauna, there are 3.3 million saunas in Finland, approximately one per household. “It’s a place where people go to relax and purify both their minds and bodies,” the article stated and Alexander had told us this as well. People normally go in and don’t speak and reflect, he had said. But for educational purposes, he had broken the rule of silence to explain the tradition to us, which we really appreciated.
We talked to Jemina later and she agreed. She loved going in the sauna in her home in the winter to relax, but tended not to use it in the summer. Her mother used it year-round though. I guess it’s like swimming pools for us in the Southern part of the USA, it’s a way to cool off for us in the heat of the summer, which is such a long season for us.
The sauna is a way to warm up for them during their long winter months. And the public saunas provide a social atmosphere as well, said Jemina’s friend Hanna, who said her father tended to go work out at his health club and visit the saunas there, instead of the one in their home.
To illustrate how widespread the sauna is ingrained in the Finnish culture, there is actually a sauna car on the Ferris wheel that overlooks Helsinki harbor. It costs about €1000 to rent it, but how cool is that? Stepping out of the freezing Finnish winter and jumping into a sauna on a Ferris wheel. Crazy! I love this quirky aspect of the Finnish people.
People go in the saunas to have serious talks with their children, Alexander had told us. And they even have serious business meetings and negotiations in saunas, he said. What’s really interesting is that the Finnish beer company Karhu actually invited Putin and Trump to have a meeting in the sauna when they both were in Helsinki in 2018. The sauna is said to put people on equal footing as you are supposed to go in sans clothes.
(See the video below from LBBOnline. It’s really great!)
The conclusion of this campaign is that neither of the men showed up, but just think how interesting it would have been if they had.
I know when I return to Finland, the sauna will be one of the first places I go.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” -Martin Buber