Written by Jack Andrew Cribb
At this point I knew I had to shed both my clothes and my English sensibilities. I was a little merry from a few bottles of Karhu, one of the most prolific beers in Finland, which now sat empty in a group by the summer house. My new Finnish friends had laughed at me for buying it. I guess they were like my friends back home, they liked the good stuff. I took this laughter to mean that this beer was maybe the Finnish equivalent of a pint of Fosters back in England, and that even though I thought I was being cultural by purchasing it, I had made a mistake. Quickly the small group of people I had become intertwined with in the last few days ran like giddy children down to a small wooden hut that I had only briefly explored. It was made from birch logs that ranged from light and golden to dark and muddy in colour. The walls seemed damp like they were still alive. Everyone began to undress, and I realised I too would have to do so. This was to be my first taste of an authentic sauna, of mystical Finland.
* * *
I’d arrived in Finland a week earlier. It was my first time in the country, flying from Manchester to Helsinki-Vantaa, the city’s airport, conveniently situated about ten miles north of the city centre. If you’re trying to scare tourists entering a new country, make sure the first thing they must do is take public transport. If they reach their destination successfully, you can say they have proved their mettle.
I was meeting my friend Emilia, who I first met in 2013. I’d been travelling Europe with a friend (the sweet and loyal Ben), she had been travelling Europe with a friend (the kind and witty Lotta), and we met in Copenhagen’s Central Station. We had accommodation that night in a wonderfully vibrant hostel in the Nørrebro district, a hostel I would return to two years later with a group of friends from university, who became infamous for how much cheese and bread they could shovel down at the hostel’s breakfast. Emilia and Lotta had no accommodation. They were much more free-spirited than us uptight Brits, so we invited them to join us to see if there was any room at the inn (there wasn’t). It was our only night in Copenhagen, and resulted in ourselves, four Americans, and a girl from Oxford heading to a metal bar and downing copious amounts of Akvavit, a strong liquor flavoured with herbs and spices. We had to get a train to Berlin the next day, and spent the whole trip with our heads resting on the fold-down tables of the chairs infront. Fortunately, the sickness did not last, but the lessons I learnt and the memories and friends I created that night did.
After this lurid and brazen night in Copenhagen myself and Emilia stayed in contact, talking over Skype every now and then. She eventually came to see me in England, where she stayed in my home, a small northern town that doesn’t offer much culture, but the people are lovely and the beer is cheap. Now it was my turn to stay with her.
* * *
I’d been invited to a small event being held on the western bank of lake Näsijärvi, the largest lake in the Tampere area of Finland. These friends were an artistic bunch, and so, with a meadow, forest, and summer house at their disposal, had decided to put on the ever-so aptly named Saunafest. I was both excited and nervous, for I was the only Brit there. The good thing about Finland though, is that pretty much everyone speaks perfect English. I had no reason to feel anxious, and yet I did. I was the intruder. These people had grown up with each other, and I couldn’t help shake the feeling that I was trespassing on something wholly Finnish and therefore, sacred to them. Yet I was welcomed with open arms and much conversation. We danced to the bands that performed on a makeshift stage, ruined the grass that surrounded the summer house with the stomping of many feet, listened to the gurgles of a solitary baby that had been brought along by a young couple. I watched earnestly as Finnish poetry was read out (I didn’t understand a word but knew it was beautiful), I did yoga calmly as many mosquitoes divebombed towards me in an effort to drink the blood of a delicacy from a foreign land, I swung in hammocks and picked fresh blueberries up from the forest floor while repeating rude Finnish words much to the enjoyment of my new friends. I was content in this world, surrounded by music, friends, and all the vegan soup I could handle. Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I somehow didn’t quite belong.
* * *
“Sauna!” I shouted in response. My enthusiasm was not fake, yet neither was my anxiety. It is common, traditional even for you to be nude in a Finnish sauna, something not exactly adopted by my home country. In England you will only find saunas in either leisure centres, gyms, or spas, and only in gender-segregated saunas are you allowed to be nude, but it is still rare. I sometimes believe England is a land of prudes, but I may be jumping the gun there. We can be ignorant of things, we can be closed to new ideas, austere, uptight, downright Victorian. We can also just be ill-at-ease. I bet in any society getting your kit off around a bunch of strangers can be a terrifying thought. Yet here I was, undressing in a small room adjacent to the door that kept the heat of the sauna in. In that moment I decided to shed my Englishness, and stepped into the steam.
* * *
The traditional concept of the sauna is a large part of Finnish identity. They were the first buildings to be erected by travelling groups who settled in a new area, mothers gave birth in them, families bonded in them. They are egalitarian places; once you enter a sauna, regardless of who you are, everyone is equal. The sauna is a place for relaxation, friendliness, and cleansing. It is a proto-holy place.
* * *
The heat knocked me for six. I’d never experienced anything like it. The saunas I’d been to in England (or half-saunas as I now see them) were never this hot, one would assume to prevent any lawsuits (extremes of heat affect us all differently – so in England this means if you have heart issues or you are pregnant the sauna is a no-go place for you). I was one of the uninitiated, in a foreign land, naked, participating in a foreign tradition which holds great reverence in this country. I was held in two moments; a moment fuelled by nerves and trespass, and a moment bathed in the love I experienced around these people.
A wooden ladle was carefully dipped into a bucket of water, then raised and dashed underarm over hot rocks that sat atop a black metal stove that burned bright. Fizzling vapour poured out into the space around us, rising up and condensing on the ceiling slats. My ears burned, my eyes hurt, and every breath I drew stung my mouth and left me feeling like I hadn’t breathed at all. I didn’t think I would last long. The others were calm, reticent, jovial, and I sat weeping sweat like the rest of them, but thoroughly more uncomfortable. How did they deal with this? Was it something innately Finnish? Was the sauna trying to exile me from the pure heat after detecting my foreignness? I’m not that sensational, so I’ll simply put it down to not being used to that sort of heat. After around ten minutes I adjusted. After fifteen I detected the slight but tell-tale signs of enjoyment.
Being completely naked around strangers has a profound effect. You feel open (in more than a literal sense). Eventually all ideas of tension and anxiety melt away. If you’re naked around someone, there is no pretence. No defence or politics or story created by the clothes you wear, just your skin, your scars on show. I have immature friends back home who later asked me if there was any sexual connotation (as there is oftentimes implied with nudity in this country) and I immediately answered everytime with a stout “no”. It was just about the heat, the steam, and the conversation. It is incredibly humbling, and makes you truly respect a person. I genuinely believe if people were naked around each other more often, there would be more happiness. And please don’t misconstrue that as thinly-veiled sexuality, I’d be offended if you did. It was pure and it was genuine.
After about fifteen minutes or so we would disembark the sauna and make our way down to the shore of Näsijärvi. Still nude, we walked along a small jetty that had reeds growing around it, climbed down a small set of stairs, and threw ourselves into the water like fiery stones from the hand of a god. The water was absolutely freezing, or what my increased body temperature deemed as such. But like the sauna, you soon got used to it. Swimming wild like that was a dream. I was caressed by the water, massaged by it, hugged and swaddled by it, as if I was a babe in the arms of a mother. The Finns, my friends, swam around me. It was like renewal. I felt light.
We would venture back to the sauna, spend another fifteen to twenty minutes in its embrace, and then return to the water. This was repeated in a cycle like a moon’s orbit, retreating into the warm darkness of the sauna, and then venturing into the deep and cold water. The sauna was a womb, the water, a new life. I had never felt such deep clarity either in my surroundings or myself before. It was a feeling I will try to recreate for the rest of my life.
On the last day, after the bands had packed up, the tents had been taken down and the grass below them allowed to regain its shape, the outdoor toilet emptied (I foolishly volunteered for this because I thought it would be funny – it was, but still), and the various denizens of this land which for three days was known as Saunafest had gone, the last group of people there, my group, the close band of friends fate had dropped me with in a journey that started almost four years ago on the red brick streets of Nørrebro, entered the sauna for the last time. At this point I’d become addicted. I wanted nothing but sauna, to make up for the all the years I’d lived without it. Previously one Finn who was in the sauna with us (I never learnt his name) asked me;
“Are you new to the sauna?”
“Yes, yes I am” I replied.
“You’re doing good man!” He exclaimed. “I wouldn’t have thought a Brit would be able to stand it!”
I’m glad I showed him differently. As we took our penultimate swim in the cooling waters of the lake the Sun shone bright. It vividly graced the flowers, mosquitoes; illuminated the hammocks people had slept in and bronzed the bark of the trees that stood like guardians over the water. The people had accepted me, the water had accepted me, the sauna had accepted me, Finland in all her grace and beauty, had accepted me. My friends laughed as they swam; we dug lake mud from the deep and drew the word ‘sauna’ on our chests in reverence. We painted ourselves like some ancient tribe that may have travelled through Finland, through Norway, through the small isle of England. My identity was forever changed by that weekend, and though I may never understand the true meaning of sauna to the Finns, I can claim to know just a little bit. A little bit is enough.
On my final night in Tampere I thought I wouldn’t see those people again, but they entered the flat I was staying in, gifting me a bunch of bright yellow flowers. We laughed and drank tea I had brought from my then-home until the Sun went down.