Day two in Turku* *If you can think of anything else that rhymes with Turku, include it in the comments section below and the next beer is on me.
24.09.2015 - 24.09.2015
One of the many reasons why I enjoy traveling is to experience the local cultures. Of particular interest is how people approach both food and leisure. In Bangkok, I experienced a traditional Thai massage, actually paying to have my body nearly broken by a 4-ft 10-inch elderly lady. In Marakesh, my traveling buddy, Amy, and I opted for the Moroccan spa experience, whereby we were sponge-bathed by half naked women in an underground converted cellar (I distinctly remember calling Amy in the stall next to me, saying, “Is THIS happening to you?”) On this trip, the sauna was the experience to conquer. Let me explain.
While in Japan, the whole topic of bathing rituals was faced head-on when we were forced to shower in a traditional onsen (see explanation in illustration below). A fellow traveler informed me that in Switzerland - which is a scheduled stop on this tour - not only are the saunas co-ed, they’re also entirely nude. (When pressed about this in detail, I learned that eye contact is particularly important in these situations.) NOW… as an American, whose cultural values have been heavily influenced by Puritanism, this concept is not only foreign to me, but also partially scares the shit out of me. So, naturally, I’ve decided to conquer this.
My strategic approach to the fully-nude sauna is as follows:
1. While in Finland, another country very fond of this bathing ritual, practice being normal and un-American in a European bathing environment.
2. In Switzerland, approximately 2 hours before said sauna experience, consume copious amounts of very strong alcohol and set out to accomplish mission.
Boom, you got this, Nicole.
Editor’s note: I have no visuals for the following, so please exercise imagination with what I’m about to describe.
Mika finds us a Finnish sauna, that unlike any notions of a sauna I have, is tucked away in the woods and consists of a number of little hut-like cabins situated right on a lake. At this sight, I start thinking of some HBO documentary on nudist colonies that I saw when I was 10, and start second-guessing whether Mika would pull a prank like that on me. (For the record, he would if he had more time to plan this).
The Finnish sauna is also co-ed. But luckily, because this is a public sauna, bathing suits are not only acceptable, but preferred. So I figure I got this experience in the bag. How hard could it be to sit in a hot room in a bathing suit? Fully aware that I’m likely the only foreigner in this sauna, I commit to not uttering one word — just to see if my naturalness at being half nude in front of strangers can pass me as a local.
As my friend opens the door to this cabin that can’t be more than 12 feet long, what comes into view are about 15 people, all over the age of 70, half-naked, sitting shoulder to shoulder and visibly sweating on one another while some rocks in the middle of the room release steam. Before I can even finish mentally processing this scene, I break my own rule, and declare - loud enough for everyone in this hut to hear - “This… is… NOT… normal.”
It’s too late to turn back; I’m already dressed (or rather, undressed) for the occasion and I now have the attention of the entire sauna. They make room on the bench for me to sit, and the gentleman sitting next to me, an older, Daniel Craig lookalike, speaks to me in English — the equivalent an adult who tries to coax a child on the verge of a breakdown. As he’s speaking to me, I notice it’s getting incredibly difficult to breathe; so difficult that I had to focus on taking small sips of air so as not to burn my trachea. As someone is splashing water on the hot rocks, the steam seems to completely suffocate me and feels like I’m breathing fire. Rather than focus on the weirdness of this situation, I’m actually just focused on survival (I’m not even being dramatic; I really was committed to not being the only American who ever died in that sauna).
After about four minutes, I’ve handled all that I can, and head outside to the wilderness to cool off. The more traditional of the bunch (basically everyone but me) completes this cool down by dipping in the lake, which can’t be more than 45 degrees F. This whole sauna-dip-in-the-lake act is repeated at least three times, while the more experienced sauna goers can endure longer periods of heat.
Guess what, friends? Although *slightly* less graceful than I had hoped, I completed my attempt at the Finnish sauna. And aside from nearly burning my lungs and further damaging the reputation of Americans abroad, I thought it was successful… I daresay, easy. Not that I’m about to start a nudist colony or anything.
And the best part: As we’re walking back to the car, I say to Mika, “That wasn’t so bad.” And Mika says, in the most serious tone, “Fuck, that was the weirdest sauna I’ve ever been to… I’ve never seen so many old people on top of each other in a sauna like that."