Helsinki: Cold, darkness, sauna

sweet-rocks-along-the-shoreWinter in Finland means a lethargic, unforgiving cold.

This cold doesn’t so much make your teeth chatter as creep inexorably into your core like a spirit of vengeance, nauseating you from within as if your very bone marrow has been dry-frozen. Yet the Finns nonetheless walk about in stylish tight jeans and light dress coats, seemingly immune to the cold, disregarding it like they scoff at the rest of Finland’s Arctic voodoo: A preternatural darkness and atmosphere that can cause depression like exam time at Tokyo University.

This was Petri, a Finn in his late twenties who sat down next to me in the Helsinki train station at 8 a.m. and insisted I read him my sightseeing list. He wore a sharp jacket and beret and still reeked of alcohol from the night before. After an unsuccessful attempt to take me for my first ride on the Helsinki metro, he recounted in halting English tales of drinking 90-proof homebrew on his father’s construction projects in Lapland.

At this point, I still didn’t understand Helsinki’s cold; that would come later, as I wandered with two friends around the island fortress of Suomenlinna. After three hours clambering around rocks slippery from a thin layer of frost, I felt like a TV dinner forgotten in the back of the freezer drawer. And so I headed for the closest thing to a human-sized microwave: the sauna.

I’ve sat in Russian banyas until the traditional beating with birch branches felt like a fingertip massage on my flushed skin. But the Finnish sauna was hotter yet.

The cooling-off room of the Arla Sauna.

The cooling-off room of the Arla Sauna.

I stumbled upon the Arla Sauna on my way to somewhere listed in a guidebook, and would have otherwise never found the place, which attracts the kind of die-hard clientele that might patronize a local dive bar or Shriners’ chapter in a country with less need for steam. As soon as I poked my head in the courtyard, a blond manager who looked and spoke like the Scandinavian Groucho Marx dropped his load of towels and ushered me inside.

The sauna itself was a large, grey-tiled room with three tiers of wooden benches that exuded the sweet stench of conifer and sweat as they heated. Two locals who spoke English told me the place was built in 1929 and is the last public gas-heated sauna in Helsinki. After so many years of steam, the ceiling was shedding its asbestos-flake skin like the underside of a giant serpent.

Soon I was tingly all over as my senseless appendages succumbed to the heat, which continually redoubled as the old-timers ladled water onto the stones in the giant furnace each time they entered or exited the room. I felt the pressure on my eardrums jump every time new water hissed onto the rocks.

By the time I had taken a few rounds in the sauna and the cooling-off area, which was a large room of benches and buckets crisscrossed by a motley assortment of pipes and spigots, I felt confident enough to add on more water myself. I was poised, ladle in hand, when the blond-mustachioed manager appeared in the sauna.

“Sit down,” he ordered, taking the ladle from me and proceeding to throw in cup after brimming cup, deftly ducking the steam that would explode out of the furnace hole like a cannon shot.

The locals were friendly, especially a bald middle-aged Finn sporting a goatee and colorful tattoos that looked like they had been done on the South Seas, using rum as an anesthetic. The fellow seemed pretty buttoned-down until he started talking about the latest innovation in self-applied steam, the “smoke sauna” (the goal of the sauna, after all, seems to be to mimic the sensation of burning as closely as possible). Then inexplicable cuss words started popping into his English in unusual places, disjointed and not expressing any particular emotion, simply there for unknown effect. Either he learned the language from a gang of football hooligans, or the steam had finally gotten to him … In China, opium drives folks ff their rockers, in Djibouti, it’s khat, but in Finland, steam is the drug of choice …


One Response to “Helsinki: Cold, darkness, sauna”

  1. Stephen Streed Says:

    Exquisite little vignette.

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