Warning: This story contains full frontal nudity.
The thing I really had difficulty adjusting to in Finland was the length of the days. Finland is north. Quite far north. In the summer, when I was there, it never really gets dark. It gets toward twilight until about 1am, and then it starts getting lighter again. The first night I woke up every hour expecting it to be morning already.
The following night I got out my emergency eye mask and slept a whole lot better, but would have been easy pickins for any assassins.
In winter it’s the opposite and barely gets light. Those long winters have the tendency to turn the good folk of Finland into Goths. I’ve never seen so many Metalheads, Goths and Emos in bright sunlight as I did that week. Over the summer, every weekend there is a music festival in Finland, and every single one seems to be Death Metal festival. I imagine every weekend, the average Finn throws off the work clothes, Goths up and spends the two free days in a field listening to the delicate strains of bands such as Deathbound, Torture Killer, and Impaled Nazarene.
Famous Finnish folk song.
I was in Finland for a festival. Not a death metal festival. My death metal days are so long ago and so dead, there are probably a dozen death metals songs about them. No, I was in Finland for an improvised comedy festival. For more information about my improv antics you can see the blog dedicated to that.
On the last night there was a party. It was the thing I feared the most. Okay I’m not afraid of parties, in fact quite the reverse. However this one was at a sauna.
I’m not a sauna person. I find them stiflingly hot and can never stay in for long. Plus the fact that the Finns sauna as God intended – i.e. as naked as the day he kicked us out of our mothers’ wombs – makes them especially unenticing.
For those of you who haven’t experienced it, which is most of you, naked I look like a frayed piece of string. Pale, fuzzy with sporadic bits flailing off. Although these days the string has a slight bulge in the middle like it’s a worm digesting a bead.
I don’t really have body issues, but I think people who have to encounter my body will have issues, so I try to keep it covered up. It remains quite covered up even when the sun is out because I can go from white to lobster-red in exactly no time at all.
The Finns have a system for saunaing (check this is the correct form of the verb). They boil their skin in the hot room for an allotted amount of time and then they jump in a frozen lake. Some of the real keen ones then birch themselves with bits of tree.
Well, I did that. All of that. I did it in the reverse order.
So that party was not as I had feared taking place inside the sauna, it was just that there was a sauna in the party location, which took some time to get to the lobster-boiling temperatures the Finns like. At some point someone rushed in and said there was a lake a short walk away. A party full of drunk improvisers, is going to find a lot of people who say “yes” to the craziest of suggestions, and so before we realised it, a group of us were heading down towards the lake with the intention to jump in.
So on the way to the lake, through the trees, someone pushed a branch aside that thwacked me in the face. I didn’t realise it then, but that was the start of the Reversed Finnish Sauna Ritual. I’d been birched.
There is a sting after a twig thwacks you across the flesh, but after that sting is the feint pleasure of relief as the pain ebbs away.
When we got to the lake, we threw off the raiments of mortal men and jumped. This act was dubbed Finny Dipping by international improv playboy Jstar Atlanta.
It was damn cold as you’d expect, but when you’re with a group of people all doing the same, you share that suffering. I was determined to not tough it out. I grimaced and watched as other people left the water until I realised the Finns were still in the water, and not only enduring it, but loving it. They were frolicking and splashing each other. It was time to leave. I was, however the last non-Finn to do so, so there.
When you get out of the water, the relief is amazing. It feels so good that the freezing water is no longer surrounding your lower parts.
People of the Lake. This is 1 am.
When we got back to the party, the sauna was at full furnace. Several Finns tried to convince me to get in. I told them it was not my thing. “I have been in a sauna before.” “A Finnish sauna?” “Well, no…” That was it. I could not convince anyone after than I knew what it was like because a Finnish sauna is different to other saunas. I assume the same way that a French firing squad, for example, is different to a firing squad from any other country. There is a clear difference to students of the whole firing squad ethos, but to the person being pointed at by all those guns, the difference is not apparent.
So I was convinced. I debriefed once more and got in. Yes it was hot. Way hotter than any sauna I’d been in before. The Finns like it hot. It explains that old classic movie, “Suomi Like It Hot.”
As soon as I was in, someone said, “okay, nobody leave for 10 minutes. It’s not warm enough.” NOT WARM ENOUGH!! It was the temperature of an angry sun in there.
But, I held out; I did my time and even went back for a little more, later.
Now, the feeling you get getting out of the steaming room into the (relatively) cool air is amazing. That relief is pure joy.
Finnish pleasure seems to be all about experiencing the extreme and then the pleasure you get from leaving it. I began to think that maybe the Finns don’t really like death metal. They go every weekend to a festival and listen to it for 3 days and then when the come back, put on the radio and listen to some cheery, cheesy Scandinavian pop it feels AMAZING.
The antidote to Death Metal?