Getting Naked with a Dragon in Finland

I am sitting naked on a small wooden rack at the top of some imposingly steep cement steps in a darkened bunker. The stranger sitting next to me, also naked, is beating my back with a handful of frozen birch branches. The skin on my face is on fire as an enormous blast of hot steam envelopes the two of us, and others nearby.

A surreal nightmare?

No.

This is a fairly typical scene during Christmas Eve in Finland, the most popular day of the year at Kotiharjun Sauna, Helsinki’s only public sauna with a traditional wood-fired furnace.

I don’t understand a word of Finnish, but what I have come to realize is that each time the door to this Dickensian inferno opens, yet another naked woman will appear and she will shout something up to the unclothed Nordic goddesses around me that sounds like, “Hallu wat ko min umm canta loosa loh hee kar meh?”

[The correct spelling is probably more like “Haluatko minun kääntyä löysä lohikäärmeen?” which I think must mean, “Do you want me to turn lose the dragon?]

To which comes a chorus of replies: “Kyllä kiitos, emme voi saada tarpeeksi, että kuuma lohikäärme hengitys,” which apparently means something like, “Yes please, we can’t get enough of that hot dragon breath,” because each naked newcomer will then reach up toward the top of the enormous furnace glowering in the corner of the bunker and yank down on a lever releasing a tsunami of skin-scorching steam so dense it momentarily obliterates my ability to see the dozens of other naked bodies assembled in various states of quiet submission around me.

What I think of as dragon’s breath, the Finns actually call löyly – originally meaning spirit of life, but these days interpreted as ‘a cloud of sauna steam’ puffed out to purify the body and calm the mind.

This is how many Finns begin their Christmas Eve celebrations – which tells you a lot about the Finnish practice of physical and mental cleansing, and the Finns themselves.

The relationship between Finns and their saunas goes back more than one thousand years.

In addition to purifying the mind, ‘taking sauna,’ as they say here, has been credited with driving out diseases. Back in the day, women gave birth in saunas. And there are even claims that unhappy love affairs have been settled with love spells cast in an enveloping blast of löyly.

The ratio of saunas to Finns these days is one sauna for every 2.75 people. There are more saunas than cars in Finland. Which makes it kind of hard to avoid. But then, why would you want to?

Most public saunas disappeared with the introduction of shared saunas within apartment buildings, but Kotiharjun Sauna still operates daily. Built in 1928 in the heart of Helsinki’s Kallio district, the old workers neighborhood, it doesn’t appear to have changed much during its 90 years of existence.

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There are separate saunas for the men and women, vintage wooden lockers in the dressing & relaxing room, and a cooler of chilled drinks as you come in the door. It is not a luxury spa, but it is so much more fascinating for its spareness and authenticity. And it is the only public sauna in Helsinki that is heated with wood.

Today, there’s a free drink on the house for everyone just because it is Christmas Eve. I help myself to a Finnish beer, which I sip on in the locker room draped in a towel between visits to the sauna as I glance through the photos in a Finnish magazine about (what else?) saunas. The hardier souls, male and female, lounge atop a stone wall on the sidewalk outside the sauna, basking in the below-freezing temperatures.

I came here with my son, Leif, who is studying in Finland. Swapping tales on our walk home, it turns out that he and I both inadvertently broke several rules of sauna etiquette.

The main culprit was the vihta, the bundle of fresh birch branches you ‘gently’ whip yourself (or others) with. (It may sound like an odd thing to do, but my skin did feel quite lovely and tingly afterwards.)

Breach #1: Unable to ask any questions in Finnish, and not wishing to disturb the meditative state of those around me, I grabbed a ‘used’ bunch of somewhat wilted branches abandoned on a windowsill, not realizing I could purchase a fresh vihta from the freezer downstairs as I came in. Breach #2: I dipped my branches into another woman’s bucket of water (collective quiet gasp) when I should have gotten my own. Breach #3 Leif simply picked up someone else’s branches (while still in use) in order to flail his own legs and back. Fortunately, the Finns are a good-natured lot and everyone was very tolerant of our beginners’ mistakes.

Eager for another round of Finnish style of physical and mental cleansing, my son and I return a few days later for a pre-flight sauna the afternoon of my departure from Helsinki.

The woman behind the check-in counter smiles.

“Weren’t you here a few days ago?” she asks, seemingly pleased to see us again. Contrary to stereotype, she is eager to talk and explain the Finnish people and culture to us.

“Were you surprised at how talkative the men are in the sauna?” she asks my son about his Christmas Eve experience.

Leif nods. It was a surprise, given the reputation Finns have for being shy and recalcitrant, keeping space between themselves and others at the tram stops, preferring to look down at their shoes rather than make eye contact or small talk.

“The sauna is the only place Finnish men talk,” she says laughing. “And it’s because they don’t have their wives and girlfriends talking to them, telling them what to say and what to think!”

It is said that in Finland, more important decisions get made in saunas than in regular meetings. According to Visit Finland’s website, taking sauna together offers the opportunity for special bonding experiences – which have nothing to do with sex.

Leif and I get our departure cues mixed up. As I come down the stairs, dressed and ready to go, Leif comes out of the men’s locker room wearing nothing but his towel and heads out to join other semi-naked people drinking beer on the sidewalk outside in the freezing air.

As he turns to leave, I notice a stray birch leaf on his shoulder.

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[art: Russian Venus in banya by Boris Kustodiev]

Author: kristin fellows

Kristin Fellows is a street photographer & travel writer, based in Asheville, North Carolina. Kristin’s adventures in the past several years have taken her to Iceland to hike volcanoes and photograph puffins; to Barcelona, Mexico, Addis Ababa, and New Orleans for street photography; and most recently, to Athens for a big fat Greek wedding, and to Helsinki to get beaten with frozen birch branches in the city's oldest public sauna. She is also a documentary film consultant and has worked on more than 200 hours of public television films & productions. Her photograph, “Skywalker,” was chosen as a National Geographic Photo of the Day in 2015. Kristin is still working on her first book, The Red Moon Letters – a non-fiction, dual-narrative thriller set in Ethiopia during the time of the Haile Selassie. Educated in both London and the US, Kristin also has a cherished diploma from the Icelandic Elf School (Álfaskólinn.) Kristin is the niece of the late New York Times foreign correspondent, Lawrence Fellows. Follow Kristin on Instagram @ kristinfellowsphotography

2 thoughts on “Getting Naked with a Dragon in Finland”

  1. I laughed out loud at your breaches. They say the best storytellers tell things on themselves. I learned quite a bit from your post. Thanks! We moved from Finn Town, Ohio (i.e. Ashtabula) when I was four, so we only saw the Finnish relatives on holidays. I do know that I was born with such a dense clump of dark hair that they nicknamed me a Finnish word for “black head”. No, little brother and sister, it wasn’t “pimple head”. They’re just jealous that I got to live in Ashtabula longer than they did. We three kids used to sauna together, and sometimes, when you occupied the lowest seat closest to the door, you couldn’t resist taking the entire bucket of water instead of just the dipper-full, and drench the hot rocks on the woodstove. The wave of steam seared our throats and lungs before we burst through the door to the outside. Dragon’s breath indeed!

    When Dad converted the wooden “tool shed” to a sauna my little brother had the honor of building the first fire in the wood stove. We were all sitting in the house in great anticipation of the first sauna. We had to wait an hour or so for the fire to heat up the rocks in the upper metal bin of the stove. Then the lights went out and we heard the fire engines. The stove was too close to the wooden wall. The building was wired for electricity so all the lights on our street went out. The firemen saved all but that one wall. In the middle of the chaos Dad’s mother (of the Finnish part of the family) called. It was the first time I saw Dad cry. That spring he rebuilt the wall with concrete blocks.

    On a happier note, I had an early coming of age epiphany in our sauna. I was a shy and socially awkward teenager. I didn’t obsess about my physical appearance, not even my big nose, but I did not feel pretty either. My change of heart happened looking in the sauna mirror. Dad had put an antique dresser with a lamp on each side in the sauna dressing room. He put red light bulbs in the lamps. The dim light with such a warm, rich glow transformed the dressing room like magic. I was amazed to see an attractive young woman who might even be considered sexy some day! Thanks Dad, I needed that.

    Nice going getting the photograph of Leif. If he has children some day I bet they will enjoy teasing him about it. I hope he is learning some Finnish while studying abroad. I regret that we didn’t learn it like my cousins in Ashtabula. Good for Leif for doing some traveling. A family tradition, yes?

    Here’s a reward for all who have slogged through this post. I have a North Carolina friend whose son married a Finnish woman. Reetta, “a modern mythologist”, and her co-star, a “professional explorer”, have made a nine-episode series in Finland called “Back to Nature.” I don’t know whether it has been translated into English, but the teaser has, and it’s enticing. The teaser is available in two places: https://vimeo.com/1-2883126 and: http://backtonature.tv/ All nine episodes are available at: http://areena.yle.fi/1-28883126 It sounds exciting.

    Now for shameless self-promotion. My little story about Dad and trees is in the February issue of WNC Woman magazine. wncwoman.com Click at the top on Issues, then Past Issues. It’s “Rooms Beyond the Walls” in February 2017. It comes from a creative writing class where we did a timed writing (No lifting your pen from the paper. It evokes our subconscious minds.). We were asked to describe a room in the house we lived in when five years old. Next we circled the parts that mattered most to us and did a writing on one of those. I was soon out of the room and outdoors. There’s a part in it that is very Ashtabulan and Finnish. I recommend to all trying this exercise yourself.
    Carol Diamond

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    1. hi carol, thanks for sharing your childhood memories! they sound wonderful (apart from the fire.) and i’m happy to hear that you saw your true self in the sauna mirror 🙂
      yes, leif is learning finnish as part of his studies and yes, we are a peripatetic bunch. must be something in our nordic genes.
      i enjoyed watching the “back to nature” tailer, thank you for sharing that. i will be interested in seeing the full series, as i work in public television and often work on nature & travel projects.
      i also enjoyed reading your “rooms beyond the walls” (great title) piece in wnc woman mag. i like how you immediately went outside when choosing the room to write about — that does sound very finnish of you! i’m sorry your father’s life ended as it did, but love what he was able to give you at least during your childhood, some beautiful lessons, and especially the love of trees. thanks very much for writing & sharing your thoughts. kristin

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