Sunday, September 9, 2007

Summer Cottage 101

OK, OK... I think we can all agree I have a lot of work to do when it comes to blogging. Let me set the record straight, though. I thoroughly admire all those folks who faithfully post to their blogs. However, I've always believed in the whole concept of baby steps. That said, while it appears I've started with posting every 2-3 weeks, I aspire to posting at least once every few days. I'm here in Helsinki until the end of the year, so I have a bit of time to practice, I suppose!

All that said, I don't want any readers to think I've been sitting here, twiddling my thumbs. Oh no!!!! Lots of stuff has been going on and I've made an effort to jot down notes, reminding myself of things that might be worthwhile posting to this blog. One such topic (and one which I think is incredibly relevant to any visit to Finland) is that of the summer cottage. Pray tell: What is the summer cottage? Well, here in Finland, there are over 476,000 summer cottages (that's a statistic I read associated with 2006, so the number is probably higher, now) in Finland. That's for a country with roughly 5 million inhabitants. The summer cottage is preferably located as far from civilization as possible. That means at least an hour outside of any city. Ideally, the cottage is situated right on a lake. As a result, a number of these cottages are located in the lake district north of Helsinki (there are about 190,000 lakes from which to choose). This location is desirable for a couple of reasons: 1) it provides an idyllic location with beautiful scenery; and 2) it makes the sauna experience that much better if you have an icy cold lake to jump into once you're heated up to perfection!

A good number of these summer cottages haven't been winterized, but I've been told by some of my new Finnish friends that the Finns so love being outdoors and the solitude their summer cottages afford that they have increasingly begun to winterize the cottages, allowing for full utilization both during the short summer season and what is better known as "the rest of the year" or "winter".

I had the tremendous fortune of being invited to a summer cottage somewhere in the general region of Tampere (see the photo of the red house, up top), located almost two hours northwest of Helsinki. The weekend entailed a group of about ten Finns (all old friends) getting together for an annual fiesta. I happen to know one of the attendees through the research work I'm doing on Finnish housing policy and housing finance. I had mentioned to him that I love crawfish and had read that crawfish are a delicacy, here in Finland. Anyway, my "co-worker" remembered my saying that and took the liberty of inviting me to attend this annual get-together as crawfish plays a big role in the weekend... every year they assemble a big crawfish feast.

So, we packed our bags and headed off to the lake region! I'm fairly new to blogging, but I'm going to try to attach some photos of the weekend. It was a fabulous time, particularly as I cannot stress just how important the summer cottage is to Finnish culture. As I previously mentioned, Finns truly value their solitude and time spent in the great outdoors and the summer cottage usually affords them with precisely that!

In addition to indulging in a lot of crawfish (I had cuts on my fingers to prove it!), I was initiated into a world including terrible Finnish vodka (they told me it gets better the more you drink it... a COMPLETE lie!), weird lawn bowling and loud, Finnish singing. I can barely pronounce Finnish phonetically when I'm sober, let alone sing it when I've indulged in a couple of shots of Korskenkova (trust me... this stuff is DANGEROUS!!!). On a side note: It's very amusing to hang out with a bunch of Finns after they've consumed a lot of alcohol. It's in stark contrast to what they are like when they're sober. They go from being very quiet and reserved to very loud and vocal. Anyway, back to the summer cottage... when we weren't eating crawfish, drinking or singing we were partaking of that other famous Finnish pastime... sauna!!!!

Now, I've been in a sauna before. Actually, I've been in a sauna on more than one occasion. Usually, I think it's been at health clubs or the like. Let me tell you... Finnish sauna is totally different (only in the best ways possible). Sauna is an absolute obsession in this country. Like I mentioned, the population of Finland hovers somewhere around five million. However, there are approximately two million saunas in this country. Like the number of summer cottages, this number is also increasing. What is funny to many people is just how small many apartments are, here. Still, many Finns are insistent about having their own sauna. Kitchen... who needs one???? Give me my sauna!!!!

One of the nicest aspects about the whole summer cottage experience is that they come equipped with their own sauna (usually a separate mini-hut) situated alongside the lake. The picture at the top of this post, with the grey, wood house is actually the sauna at the cottage where I stayed. Most of the summer cottage saunas are heated with wood, which lends a really wonderful quality to the heat. There's a chimney, so none of the smoke ends up in the actual sauna room. However, the heat feels very different than when you're in an electrically-heated sauna, which is what I had experienced, to date.
Whenever you take sauna, you are always with members of the same sex (exceptions are only made on very rare occasions). I was really obsessed with not making any faux pas while taking sauna. In my compulsive fashion, I had this checklist of questions running through my head. So, I asked my Finnish hosts, "What should I do? Do I wear a towel?" After all, I had only known these people for less than half-a-day at this point, so I wasn't sure what protocol was. They replied, "You do what ever you want to do. Sauna is meant to be an entirely relaxing experience. If you want to wear a towel, you wear a towel. If you don't want to wear a towel, you don't." My questions continued: Do you have to swim in the lake after sauna? Do you wear a bathing suit when swimming? How many times do you go back into the sauna?
Again, my hosts were really nice and answered patiently: You don't have to swim in the lake after sauna. It's entirely up to you. Again, sauna is meant to be a completely relaxing experience. In the same vein, it's perfectly o.k. to wear a bathing suit when you jump in the lake, but no one is going to look at you funny if decide to skinny dip, either! How many times you repeat the whole process (sauna/lake/etc.) is entirely up to you.

So, you heat up the sauna room for about an hour. Similarly, you start a fire under some water in a antechamber. You use the hot water to bathe with before and/or after you take your sauna. I've got to confess, at first I felt a little awkward sitting naked with a bunch of strangers, but soon you get over your prudish American tendencies and just deal with it. The Finnish attitude is that nudity is totally natural and there is nothing sexual about the experience. In keeping with my new earth mother attitude (i.e., nudity and the like) I elected for the skinny-dip version of swimming in the lake. This was the absolute best part. You sit in the sauna 'til you think you're going to pass out. Then, you run out to the lake and jump in and it's total refreshment like you've never known. You swim in the lake for a few minutes (that's about all it takes for your extremities to start getting numb!), at which point you jump out of the lake and run back into the sauna to warm up and get the circulation going. Like my hosts said, it's really up to you how many times you do this. There's no right or wrong answer.

Once you're done, you feel at least five pounds lighter and super-clean. It is the most incredible experience. After I got done, it was like I had an epiphany. I was like, "So THAT'S what all the fuss is about!" Now, I'm hooked. Unfortunately, there are no lakes by my Helsinki "cell" (masquerading as my studio apartment), but that's o.k. It almost makes sauna by a lake that much more of a precious and treasured experience. OK. Enough waxing poetic about sauna. I have to leave something for my next blog.

Remember... baby steps. 'til the next time!

1 comment:

Willo said...

I so enjoyed your description of your sauna on the lake.Your blog took me back to that wonderful awkwardness of the experience in Finland.

I come from a community of Finnish Immigrant homesteaders in SD so grew up with Saturday sauna with the neighbors. The lake experience and fresh birch switches were an added pleasure in Finland.

The Finnish homesteaders lived in the smallest homes imaginable and as a very short person, I miss that scale of building. I read now that there is a small house movement which is probably a back-lash to the castles which are being built all over the US today.