Finnish fun

Part of why I booked us a session at the Löyly sauna was because I thought I might be desperate for bloggable material, desperate enough to try roasting myself and jumping into the freezing Baltic Sea. 

Not that there’s anything to dislike about Helsinki. Here was our first view of it, approaching on the ferry from Estonia:

But it’s not much older than San Diego and looked perhaps less interesting. On our first full day (Friday, Sept. 23), Steve and I followed our pattern and roamed the streets, guidebook in hand. The weather was nippy but dry, and we spent more than five hours taking in many of the major sights.

A striking contemporary church called the Temple of the Rock draws a steady stream of tourists.
Helsinki residents have an enormous music center…
Lovely parks…
And waterfront food tents offering inexpensive and interesting snacks.

It was all pleasant, but not much to write home about, nor did our outing Saturday to the island fortress known as Suomenlinna provide any of what you might call excitement.

You reach it via a short ferry ride.
The fortress didn’t much impress us, but we enjoyed strolling around the islands.

On Sunday, our last full day, we did a test run on the tram from our apartment to the central train station, a magnificent building to which fast airport trains connect frequently.

Helsinki’s central train station matches any we’ve seen elsewhere.

Then we walked to the central library nearby. It opened less than three years ago, and I can attest: both its design and contents are spectacular; it’s no mere book repository but rather a comprehensive cultural center.

You can borrow musical instruments and experiment with them in a sound-proof studio. Or play video games with your friends, or work on sewing projects, or fabricate a prototype.
Readers can luxuriate on a celestial upper floor.

It made me briefly imagine moving to Helsinki just to get a library card. Instead we walked to the National Museum of Finland a few blocks away. The exterior looked almost grim. But inside we found the polar opposite of that boring grand ducal museum in Lithuania. The Finnish institution grabbed our attention with one clever exhibit after another. In a room that focused on medieval times, for example, the push of a button showed what x-rays had revealed about each of the carved wooden religious statues in the room — which trees they were hewn from, the original paint job, etc. Pushing a button in another gallery devoted to portraiture transformed some of the portraits into our (sort of) doppelgängers. (That’s Steve in the middle; I’m on the right.)

Some effects were simple but moving: a scroll of photos taken of individual Finns every single year from 1900 to the present.

In other rooms we learned about the Finnish love of coffee and the passion for heavy metal (along with headphones with which to listen to some of the country’s most famous headbangers.) Another video montage let visitors watch how the landscape around Helsinki evolved over centuries, compressed into just a minute.

We would have lingered but had to hustle to our sauna appointment. Steve, who hates both extreme heat and cold, had to be talked into this, but acceded, a good sport as always. I thought a sauna visit was important because saunas are such a big deal in Finnish culture and elsewhere in this part of the world (particularly Estonia). I’d read all my life about how these far-northern Europeans enjoy getting overheated then jumping naked into snowbanks (while beating themselves with birch switches?!) I’d always dismissed this custom as being somewhat deranged. When would I ever have a chance to get more insight into it?

Visiting a sex-segregated facility, where the ladies and gents (usually naked) swelter separately seemed creepier than patronizing a sauna where Steve and I could don bathing suits and sweat together. The upscale Löyly offered this option. Housed in a low-slung wooden building on the waterfront, it took about 20 minutes to walk to it from our flat. An inviting bar and restaurant takes up a big chunk of the complex.

But we went inside and from the front desk, we collected towels and a locker key, then followed the instructions to each enter the changing room designated for our sex. After donning our swimsuits and showering, we met up and found the first of the facility’s two sauna rooms. 

We pulled on a clear glass door and climbed up a steep set of steps to find a dimly lit L-shaped space lined with two levels of benches. I was startled by how packed it was. I’d had to make a reservation for 3:15 precisely, which I’d assumed was intended to control overcrowding. But the benches were so full it was hard for us to find a space to squeeze into. Once we did, I sized up the folks around us in the gloom. The vast majority looked to be in their 20s or 30s, with young men outnumbering the women. Some exchanged short comments with each other, and we heard some British accents, but clearly this wasn’t a conversation space. In short order, I started sweating, and the heat intensified whenever someone threw a dipper of water into the heating contraption at the base of the steps. After maybe 5 minutes, I was ready to get out.

We knew Löyly had two types of saunas, one “Finnish-style” (where the heat is produced with electricity) and a more traditional wood-fired one. The smell of burning wood in the second made it clear which was which. The wood-fired sauna felt at least as hot as the first had been, and it was even darker. Again we groped to find a perch. This time we struck up a conversation with the girl sitting next to us, an Ohio native who worked for a Finnish company and was visiting Helsinki for a business meeting.

She’d already gotten into the sea a couple of times, she told us; her evident survival inspired me. When I felt close to fainting from the heat, I signaled to Steve I was ready to take the plunge. At Löyly, you don’t literally jump into the Baltic (actually the Gulf of Finland); rather you walk to the end of a platform and descend a ladder. Normally, I’m someone who can’t enter a 75-degree swimming pool without shrieking. But this water was so cold it belonged to a different realm.

Unlike any swimming pool, there was no getting used to this cold — so intense it would suck the life out of anyone who lingered long. To the extent my brain was functioning, it registered amazement I was still breathing. I even treaded water; took a few strokes. After maybe 15 seconds I climbed out and stumbled back to the wood-fired sauna, which warmed me up as efficiently as it had the first time. After a while I went outside and re-entered the ice-water. Steve wouldn’t immerse himself, but at least he put his feet in.

I would have cycled between the heat and cold a few more times, but we had to shower, dress, and move on to our final dinner before starting the journey home. Steve ordered sautéed reindeer, while I savored little whitefish known as vendace, breaded, fried, and served on a mound of buttery mashed potatoes.

Both were delicious, as was virtually every meal we ate in all four countries on this trip. I felt so relaxed it was almost surreal, and it was hard not to credit the sauna for that. It took a little while, but I had learned something I didn’t expect, and not just about saunas.

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