Sweating in Helsinki

Trip Start Aug 01, 2009
Trip End Nov 08, 2009

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Flag of Finland  , Southern Finland,
Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hands up if your mobile phone's a Nokia?... Quite a few.
Hands up if you know that it comes from Northern Finland?... Hmmm, not so many!
And I'm guessing that even fewer of you are aware that, before its transition to the international telecoms industry, this Finnish company produced rubber boots - useful trivia for a pub quiz, eh?

All I knew about this country when I touched down at Helsinki airport, was its geographical location and the fact that its far north is home to a portly, bearded old man in a red suit who only works one day a year.  Thirty two hours later, thanks to the local knowledge of my local friend Paivi, I am much better informed.  I now know that the composer Sibelius is from here and not from Russia, as I had previously thought.  And the Moomins?  No, not Swedish, but Finnish.  Beyond these mis-conceived notions of mine, however, the country has much darker associations with these two neighbours, having originally belonged to Sweden and later fallen prey to the Russians - it was not until 1917 that Finland won its independence.

Through the long, cold years of foreign domination, however, as I learned from Paivi, there were three constant comforts, central to Finnish life:
1. Snow - in my view cold rather than comforting, and happily absent on this summer visit
2. Salmiakki - a revolting salty licorice, which I was forced to chew before I spat it out in disgust.
3. Sauna - ahhh yeeesss, the sauna...

Just a couple of hours after landing, I was being instructed to dsirobe and rinse in the communal shower, before being led into  a steamy room with several seating tiers and a large, aged heating contraption in the corner.  I settled on a wooden bench, closed my eyes, and listened to the hiss as Paivi splashed water onto the scorching stones, and sighed with pleasure as the intense heat penetrated my skin and eased my tight muscles, in shock at shouldering a big pack again afer 3 months rest.  I was just slipping into a state of total drowsiness and limpness when I was jolted back to full consciousness by the surreal command:
"Now grab the bunch of leafy birch twigs and slap yourself with them, all over your body!"  Hmmm...  But, bizarre as this sounded, I followed orders and was surprised at how invigorating it felt on the skin and how enlivening the scent of the birch leaves was when thus activated.  As two more beautiful blondes entered the room, I was amused at the thought that I was participating in a complete Scandinavian stereotype: a room of tanned, toned, naked, Northern European females, (and myself, the wobbly, white foreigner), glistening with sweat, practising self-flagellation with birch twigs... I was almost expecting Benny Hill to make an entrance!  Of course, in the more authentic stereotype, this would have been followed by a roll in the snow or a dip in an icy lake, but, being in the city centre, we had to take our cooling-down sessions, wrapped in towels, on the chairs outside the building.

We left, utterly relaxed and feeling totally cleansed, and, having sweated up an appetite, made our way to our dinner venue, which Paivi had told me was a  very traditional Finnish country-style restaurant.  So 'country' in style, in fact, that several of the tables consisted of wooden shelves attached around old tractors... hold on a minute, I thought, I'm the wrong Colloby to be eating here!  Stephen, you would have loved it!  A bottle of Karjala beer, some stimulating conversation, and a huge plate of veg later, I finally collapsed into my Finnish bed for the night.
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