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]

Lohikeitto (Finnish Salmon Dill Soup)

Imagine hot, tasty morsels of salmon melting in your mouth alongside soft buttery potatoes, creamy soup and fresh dill….

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just the thing to warm you up on a cold winter afternoon, right?

The day after Christmas, feeling a bit chilled, Leif and I wandered into Kappeli Café in search of a cup of hot coffee.

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Kappeli is a magical glass palace built in 1867 in the Esplanadi park in the heart of Helsinki.

And while they did have nice hot coffee, what we also found was an astonishingly delicious salmon & dill soup called Lohikeitto (pronounced: loh-he-kay-toh).

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Back home in Asheville, hoping to duplicate this lovely memory of Helsinki, I was delighted to find a good recipe for Lohikeitto on Nigel from New Zealand’s wonderful website, “Alternative Finland.”

This will make a delightful addition to our winter meals in Appalachia. Let me know if you try it!

Hyvää ruokahalua! (Enjoy your meal!)

Breakfast by Candlelight

What better way to begin a gloomy dark December morning than with an intimate breakfast for two by candlelight?

With the winter solstice nearly upon us, it’s a good time to appreciate why people in Denmark burn more candles per capita than people in any other country.

Naked in Denmark (part two) ~ The Magic of Not Being in Control

Come to the edge, he said.
They said, we are afraid.


Come to the edge, he said.
And so they came.


And he pushed them.
And they flew…

Guillaume Apollinaire

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The edge I was standing on that morning was the coast of Denmark. I could just barely make out the silhouette of Sweden across the dark waters.

Be not afraid, I thought to myself. Then, in the midst of a small gathering of people, I took off all my clothes and jumped into the water.

Ohmygod … so very cold.

No breath.

A few long moments later, I emerged from the water.

My skin felt astonishing –

lit from within

– like it was lit from within by a thousand fairy lights. A Scandinavian mermaid.

According to Karen (my Danish cousin who does this all the time), I can now say that I am a Viking – and not just genetically – but by virtue of having experienced the polar opposite of Danish hygge (roughly translated as coziness) when I jumped into an icy cold sea completely naked.

Why naked, you might ask? Because, as Karen explains it, it is so cold here in the winter that if you wore a bathing suit, it would freeze to your skin the moment you immerse in the frigid waters, and the only way to remove your suit would be to have it cut off. Being the egalitarian and practical people they are, the Danes therefore decided to do away with bathing suits altogether.

The day I became a Viking began innocently enough with cups of hot, dark coffee and fresh bread with cheese and jam in the kitchen of Karen’s cosy farmhouse –

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one of my favorite places in the world.

Karen looked at me and said – Okay, is this the morning you become a Viking?

I have been coming to this beautiful old family farmhouse since I was a kid. The first time, my mother left me there for several days on my own and not knowing a word of Danish other than the basics – chocolade (chocolate)
kransekage (a delicious almond cake)
farvel (goodbye) and tak (thanks.)

Kristin & karen @ sandbjerg 1963

Karen taught me a few more Danish words – farm, cat, rock, house.

Each morning, we rode bicycles across the countryside to attend Karen’s school – a completely bewildering experience for me, isolated as I was by the language.

At night, I lay in bed in a tiny bedroom up under the thatched eaves of the farmhouse, warm under a Danish dyne (down comforter), listening in the dark to hushed voices murmuring in the kitchen below.

I felt like a Danish version of Heidi.

That was my first experience ‘soloing’ – on my own, immersed in another culture where I didn’t speak or understand the language.

But I was hooked by the exhilaration of the new; by the mysteries and strangeness of it all, and (most importantly) by coming out okay at the end. Ever since, I have looked for opportunities to travel beyond the complacent zone of my normal everyday existence.

The year before I officially became “a Viking,” I had soloed to Ethiopia on a somewhat innocently radical quest to track down some stories for a book I was writing.

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It was an experience that initially scared me to pieces (especially the first night, which involved unexpected encounters with a monkey, a leper and a prostitute.)

But I survived and came back changed in many ways. (You can read more about these adventures @ TheRedMoonLetters.com)

So jumping into the cold sea in Denmark – uden toj, as they say over there – shouldn’t have been something I would hesitate to do.

But I did – at least until I remembered the mantra I had adopted back home in the mountains of Appalachia.

Be not afraid.

And so, when Karen repeated, Kristin – is this the morning you become a Viking?

I said yes.

Off we went to the edge of the sea. It was a small challenge, but I did it, surprising myself in the process.

After it was over and I was reveling in the skin tingling loveliness and the high that accompanies an unexpected flirtation with dare devilishness, it occurred to me that perhaps the magic is really in not feeling in control.

I let that intriguing thought – the relationship between the fear of not being able to control things vs the magic of unexpected outcomes – ruminate in my head for awhile before challenging myself again.

A few years later I tested this idea by signing up for ten days of hiking in Iceland – an adventure just extreme enough to feel I was testing my limits without a reasonable expectation of dying in the process. I didn’t know a soul in the country, or on the trip, and I don’t speak Icelandic. I would definitely not be in control. Of anything.

I booked onto an REI trip –

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and then spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying that I might not be able to keep up with the others.

Visions of twenty-somethings scaling the landscape in athletic leaps and bounds with me slowly trudging through ice and volcanic ash, some distance behind, haunted and taunted me.

Rather than face this humiliation, I nearly backed out of the trip. But just in time, I remembered –  Be not afraid.

Inside my head, an interesting dialog unfolded as the logical, rational part of me was able to calm the emotional, irrational part of me by framing the trip as a photography assignment.

And for some reason, the ruse worked.

Which is a good thing, for had I succumbed to my fears –

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I would have missed ten days of astonishing adventures and new friendships.

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Much to my surprise, I was out-hiked each and every day – not by twenty-somethings (there were none on the trip) – but by three sixty-somethings.

There was also the flat out exhilaration of being a part of a group of intrepid souls hiking an active volcano – each of us hoping we would be able to make a 2.5 hr descent through fields of snow and razor sharp lava rocks in a breathtakingly inadequate half hour window, should it happen to erupt.

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These Icelandic experiences, and others, turned many of my fears and concerns on their heads. My pre-trip jitters had been total rubbish.

A recent post from The North Face outerwear company reminded me of what I had gained from hiking in Iceland: the truest version of ourselves stands well beyond comfort’s perimeter.

Thanks to the encouragement I received from a winter’s night message in Appalachia to be not afraid –

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– I have been pushed at the edge, in the words of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and found I am able to fly.

*****

If you need an image to help you remember to be not afraid, how about this one of my Danish cousin, Karen proving her true Viking ancestry with an icy plunge –

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– something she does nearly every day, even during the cold Scandinavian winters.

*****

photo of me with Óliver & Kjartan in Iceland by Anne-Marie Davidson.
photo credit for the shot of Karen unknown.

Naked in Denmark (or, How a Winter Night in Appalachia Inspired Me to Live Fearlessly)

I was standing on the very edge of terra firma in Denmark, looking across a dark sea of chilly water towards a distant Sweden.

Dawn was breaking and I was stark naked.

Why I was standing there, ready to jump into the cold water, can be blamed upon something I experienced one winter’s night in Appalachia.

But to explain how this bizarre moment came about, I should first tell you a little something of the circumstances that led me to take off all my clothes in public in a foreign land – not normally a habit of mine!

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When I moved to the mountains, I was an uptight, stressed-out mess. Years of single parenting, a year of intense care-giving for my father, the death of my unique and wonderful artist sister, the incessant struggles of being self-employed in the documentary film business had all taken a toll on my equilibrium. Or, at that point, lack of.

Like a team of persistent and pernicious sculptors, all of these challenges had etched themselves into lines on my face and on my psyche, chipping away pieces of my potentially happier self.

These circumstances had all been demanding and tough in their own way, but even worse for me was just the grinding competitiveness of daily life in a big city. And the fears. Two decades of the fear that I wouldn’t be able to take care of my kids, that I wouldn’t be able to pay the rent or the mortgage or any of the bills, fear that I would die in a plane accident (or a car accident), that my kids would be shot at school, be injured playing sports, crash while learning to drive, fear that I would get cancer like my sister, fear that I was eating the wrong things, cooking with the wrong pans, etc. Scared that someone would steal the idea for the book I had spent more than a couple of years researching and writing (yes, that actually happened) and scared that I was too jaded or miserable to attract true love into my life.

One of only two single parents in a large neighborhood of smug marrieds, as Bridget Jones might characterize them, I let these fears eat away at my potential for well being and happiness like acid rain.

As soon as I could, I escaped to the mountains, relying only on blind instinct that this would be a place to heal and renew.

The mountains surrounding Asheville are, after all, some of the world’s oldest – so they know a thing or two about survival.

I only knew I needed peace and quiet, and their healing energy.

Although I had often gone to various churches (more off than on) during the big city years, I made a conscious decision that would not be a part of my new life in Asheville.

I just wanted to be in nature, be still,

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and just “be.”

But then a chance encounter with six words took place in (of all places) a church, and (of all times) – on Christmas Eve. The irony of this was not lost on me.

Why was I even in a church, you might ask?

The simple answer is that I was doing my former husband’s girlfriend a favor.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and my son, my former husband (yes, he moved to Asheville, too), his girlfriend (Nan), and I had gathered together at my new little home on the mountainside overlooking a bird sanctuary for a festive holiday meal and an exchange of gifts.

our first christmas in asheville

It was later in the evening when I heard Nan say she wanted to go to a service that night at Jubilee church. Steve (my former, her current) didn’t appear to be interested in going.

A little tipsy on the spirit of Christmas and goodwill toward all mankind, I heard myself say that I would take her.

What on earth did you just say?! my startled inner self exclaimed. It’s dark and cold out there! Wouldn’t you rather stay home, drink wine, fall asleep by the fireplace?

Yes, dammit, I would!

But it was too late. As Nan’s face lit up with gratitude, I realized I was committed.

And so, within half an hour, there I was, reluctantly sitting in a circle, inside a church, along with dozens of others bundled up against the chill, trying my best to tune out the words of Howard Hanger, the charismatic minister of the Asheville Jubilee experience.

He was going through the Christmas story and I’d heard it all before. Many times before. So instead, I turned my thoughts to what people were wearing and might there possibly be any handsome single men there.

Thus occupied, I didn’t hear any of the sermon until, about 2o minutes into the service, clear as a bell, in the midst of the random muck of my mind, I heard these words:

What if you were not afraid?

Howard Hanger had just gotten to the bit about the angels appearing and startling the shepherds.

Hah, that’s crazy, I thought. I can’t imagine not being afraid.

Think about it, Howard said, pausing to look intently at each person in the large circle around him, including me.

What would your life be like if – you – were – not – afraid?

It would be quite amazing and glorious, I realized.

So captivating was this thought that I then missed the rest of his sermon, completely wrapped up in those six words, and a different vision of my life from what I had been used to.

The idea of being not afraid, the permission to be not afraid, the idea that it might actually be okay to be not afraid, was so alluring that I decided that evening, instead of a New Year’s resolution, I would adopt it as my “New Year’s mantra” in the coming year.

And that was why and how – nine months after this Appalachian experience – I found myself standing naked to the world as dawn was breaking on the shores of Denmark, ready to jump in some chilly, chilly Scandinavian waters.

Be not afraid, I whispered to myself.

And jumped.

 

[read Naked in Denmark, part two]