How to Helsinki: Sauna, That Scary-Hot Room Full of Naked

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Eppu here. Sauna is among the most well-known things about Finland abroad. Incidentally, sauna might also be the most commonly known Finnish word in English (although kalsarikännit seems to be making some inroads lately). Here is a short introduction to sauna I hope will be helpful to newbies.

Flickr johanjeijon Sauna ROI Midnight 2010
Sauna, Rovaniemi, on July 2, 2010, midnight sun; by johanjeijon
  • At its core, sauna bathing is exactly that: a form of cleaning yourself thoroughly. (Think extreme showering, of sorts.) Early saunas were typically small huts with benches along one wall, a wood stove (kiuas) in one corner, and a place for washing with pails of water in another. Modern saunas at pools or public baths (uimahalli) are right next to the showers, and in private homes they are attached to a full bathroom.
  • After an initial, quick shower, bathers sit down on the bench of their choice (high, middle, or low) and wait. If too cool, you can move up a bench and/or toss a ladle of water onto the stove for a burst of steam (löyly). If too hot, you can move to a lower bench, splash yourself with water with the ladle, or step into the shower room for a moment (or drink water, take a shower, go swim). In fact, dividing your sauna bathing into several consecutive short trips to cool off and then returning to the heat makes the experience more enjoyable. A final, good wash head to toe, fresh clothes, and a glass of water afterwards will feel heavenly.
  • Yes, you are indeed supposed to feel hot in sauna. Really hot. The point is to get the sweat flowing—that’s the main thing that’ll make you feel fresh and clean afterwards. However, you shouldn’t feel dizzy or bad; that’s not normal. Don’t be shy about stepping out for a moment before returning. Also note that anything metallic worn on the body (like glasses or jewellery) might get hot and feel uncomfortable.
  • Some people combine alcohol with sauna bathing (typically, a beer or two afterwards instead of water), but I find I get dehydrated enough to want to stick with non-alcoholic drinks. A little something savory can feel good to replenish the salt you’ve just sweated out, though.
  • There is some paraphernalia involved. The two absolutely essential ones are a bucket of water and a ladle, and they are included by default. If desided, you can bring a bottle of water to drink, a sauna whisk (vihta or vasta), a sauna hat, and a bathrobe (to cool off in after the final wash but before changing into fresh clothes). A small cotton or linen towel as a sit-upon (pefletti) can also be a good idea. (Note that some public saunas may require a sit-upon and rent or sell disposable ones to those who don’t bring a personal one.)
Sauna Whisks for Sale
Sauna whisks for sale at a Finnish market square (kauppatori) in 2004
  • There are no time limits or minimum stay to “do sauna right”—you stay as long as you feel like. I know people for whom sauna bathing is an hours-long ritual, whereas I’m a fairly speedy bather myself. (Note, however, that if you’re paying for sauna access, like at hotels and pools, they typically do limit your bathing time.)
  • Sauna bathing can take many forms depending on the composition and mood of the group. It can be silent and meditative, or active and chatty, or anything inbetween. It can be a private affair with each bather in their own thoughts, or part of a stag or hen night. It can be a part of families’ weekend routine, or it can be enjoyed by a solitary business traveler in a hotel in the middle of the week.
  • That said, even the more taciturn Finns can open up in sauna. Because we’re all literally reduced to our bare essentials, sauna is seen as a great equalizer and an easier environment to talk to strange people, especially Intimidating Foreigners (thank you, Arttu, for the wonderfully self-deprecating phrase).
  • And yes, you really are expected to go in completely nude. This is perfectly normal in Finland. In fact, bathing suits that have been used in chlorinated pools may release toxic gases in the heat and are therefore usually prohibited in public saunas.
  • It’s typical for a family to bathe all together, but not necessarily outside the home, nor necessarily after the kids hit puberty. Public saunas may be either segregated or co-ed, or there may be shifts set aside for women and men separately.
  • Note that, as with any place where people appear in a state of undress, there are strict social codes in place. Imagine going to the beach with your family—you wouldn’t want to be stared at, followed, intruded on, touched, or have your physicality commented on. It’s the same while sauna bathing.
  • A note about co-ed saunas specifically: Co-ed bathing tends to skew towards the younger and/or student populations, but it’s not universal. Not all Finns are comfortable with co-ed saunas, and there’s nothing odd about that. It’s perfectly fine to skip a co-ed sauna. Breaches of conduct (lewd comments or gestures), while rare, can happen. Again, think of a beach: it’s not likely that someone misbehaves, but since it is a public setting no-one can guarantee that everyone behaves 100% of the time.
  • You can have a sauna year-round, and we Finns do. (Erik and I can personally testify how lovely it is to have a sauna after hand-shoveling a foot of snow from the driveway!) However, sauna bathing in the nightless night of summer is special, especially at a cottage with added dips into a lake, river, or the sea. Since Finnish natural waters can stay rather cool even in summer, it’s typical to make several visits (sauna, water, sauna, water, etc.) before washing up. And grill some sausages for a salty after-sauna snack.

Finally: It’s not weird to be apprehensive by the thought of a hot room full of naked strangers. However, sauna is a wonderful, relaxing, and cleansing experience, and may just be worth overcoming those doubts. YMMV, naturally. If you’re sauna-curious but extremely shy, a hotel room or an apartment with a private sauna (yes, both are a thing in Finland!) are a possibility.

But don’t take just my word for it. Below are links to non-Finnish sauna bathers’ thoughts. (Note: Some apply specifically to Ropecon, the largest Finnish role-playing con, and therefore to the younger end of the geeky / nerdy circles in Finland.)

Two bonus links: a post from Visit Finland that combines useful info with a delightful lack of marketing-speech: Enjoy Urban Sauna Culture in Helsinki; also, “Sauna Time,” a comic from Scandinavia and the World with a humorous take on the difference between Finnish and Scandinavian sauna bathing.

And a note from Erik: For my fellow non-Finns who haven’t experienced sauna before, you may have your doubts about the whole thing. I certainly did before I tried it. Here’s what I knew about sauna before meeting Eppu and visiting Finland: 1) it’s damp and really, really, really hot; 2) you sweat a lot. Both these things are, of course, true. Now, my previous experiences with damp, hot environments and sweat were not good ones: humid summer days, over-heated pools, gym classes in un-air-conditioned spaces, etc. The thought that someone would voluntarily subject themselves to those kinds of conditions sounded very strange to me.

Here’s what I learned, though: sauna is different. In sauna, the damp heat and sweat feels good. It relaxes your muscles and quiets your mind. It gives you the all-over relaxing warmth of a hot bath, but no part of your body has to stick out in the cold air. You only stay in as long as it feels good: if it starts feeling bad, you just step out and cool down. And as soon as you’re done, you shower away all the sweat. There’s no feeling of clean quite like the clean of being fresh from the sauna.

Of course, your experience may be different. You may try sauna and decide you don’t like it, which is perfectly fine, but don’t be scared to give it a try.

Images: Sauna by johanleijon (CC BY-SA 2.0); Sauna whisks for sale by Eppu Jensen

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

Speculative Stories Online: Finnish Weird

Finnish Weird is a recent project to publish new Finnish speculative fiction in English. Published yearly by the Helsinki Science Fiction Society and edited by Toni Jerrman, the issues are available online for free to read or download as either epub or pdf.

Finnish Weird 3 Issue Covers

Each volume contains feature articles well as short stories by big-name authors such as Anne Leinonen, Leena Likitalo, Johanna Sinisalo, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, Maria Turtschaninoff, and others. At this writing, the fourth issue (2017) has just been released.

fw4_logo

Author Johanna Sinisalo introduces the project and the style suomikumma (“Finnish weird”) in the inaugural 2014 issue:

“After barely a couple of hundred years of written literary tradition and decades of gatekeepers who have shunned works including elements of fantasy as cheap escapism, Finnish writers now create fiction that is a phenomenal mixture of sf, fantasy, horror, surrealism, magic realism – you name it. It’s highly original, fresh and surprising, sometimes it celebrates elements of our rich folklore and mythos, sometimes it soars sky-high in sf worlds, sometimes the stories are almost realistic, but have that little weirdness or twist that makes them something other than mimetic writing.

[…]

“I’m not trying to say that we Finns reinvented the wheel – new weird – and are trying to claim it as our own, not at all. What I am saying is that Scandinavian countries did not invent crime stories either, but in the wake of the international success of detective and crime fiction from Sweden, Norway, etc., ‘Nordic Noir’ has become a label for a certain quality of story. In my opinion, the label ‘Finnish Weird’ is also a brand – a brand that promises a roller-coaster ride of highly original prose from very diverse writers with truly personal styles. We are weird and very proud of it.”

Images via Finnish Weird

How to Helsinki: Finnish Summer

“Kesätie” = Summer Road

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Erik here. There is something special about the summertime in Finland and if you haven’t experienced it before, you have a lot to look forward to. If you’re not used to the summer at high latitudes, though, you should know what to expect. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • The Finnish summer is a time of light. In northern parts of the country near midsummer, the sun is in the sky all night long and there’s no visible difference between midnight and noon. In Helsinki in August, although the sun does set for a few hours, it doesn’t get darker than twilight. Expect to see a lot of sun.
  • Unless it rains, which can happen a lot. There’s an old joke: “The Finnish summer may be short, but at least it doesn’t snow much.” Summer weather can be changeable, from cold, raw, and rainy to clear and hot. Be prepared for all possibilities.
  • If you’re not accustomed to the light summer nights, they can mess with your body clock (especially when piled on top of jet lag). You may find it easy to lose track of time without the changing light to cue your body to feel hungry or tired. Keep an eye on the time and make sure you’re eating and sleeping regularly.
  • If you’re like me, the light nights may also make it hard for you to sleep. Most hotels in Finland will have light-blocking curtains, but you may also want to consider a sleep mask. (I find melatonin very helpful for regulating my sleep as well.)
  • With the light nights, it cal also be easy to lose track of time if you have an appointment to make or shopping to do. Many Finnish shops and restaurants are not open as long as Americans may be used to, and they may have different hours in the summer (including some that have very limited weekend hours). It’s always a good idea to check store hours ahead of time.
  • Summer is also mosquito and tick season. If you’re going to the woods (which you definitely should, if you have the chance), make sure you protect yourself well with long, loose, light clothing and bug spray.
Finnish summer night
  • Despite these warnings, the Finnish summer is magical. There is really nothing to compare with the light, quiet summer nights. If you have the opportunity, go for a late-night walk. You’ll be glad you did.
  • Speaking of magical, don’t miss out on Finnish ice cream. Ice cream kiosks pop up all around in the summertime where you can get a cone or ice cream bar. Finns make good ice cream, and a lot of it is low-lactose or lactose-free (look for “VL” / “vähälaktoosinen” or “laktoositon”), and/or gluten-free (“GL” or “gluteeniton”).

I hope you enjoy seeing Finland in the summer. It is one of the best times to visit the country. It is also one of the best times for meeting Finns. The summer is a relief from the cold, dark winter and, at least for some people, it can have an effect on temperament. Characteristically dour, taciturn Finns can become more relaxed and open in the summer sun, even a little goofy. Summer is when this sort of thing happens:

Thunderstruck by Steve’n’Seagulls (LIVE) by Steve Seagulls

Enjoy it!

Images by Erik and Eppu Jensen

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

How to Helsinki: Kalevala

The Defense of Sampo (Turku Art Museum; 1896; tempera on canvas; Akseli Gallen-Kallela)
The Defense of Sampo via Wikimedia (Turku Art Museum; 1896; tempera on canvas; Akseli Gallen-Kallela)

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Erik here. You may have heard of Kalevala before. It has inspired English-speaking authors from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to J. R. R. Tolkien. If Kalevala is new to you, it’s well worth knowing something about before heading to Helsinki for Worldcon. Kalevala has an important place in Finnish culture and fandom alike.

Origins of Kalevala

In the mid-1800s, with the rise of national romantic movements across Europe, there was a passion for rediscovering and recording oral literature and folk traditions before they were wiped away by modernity. The Grimm brothers in Germany may be the most famous collectors, but similar efforts were happening in many pats of Europe, including Finland. Elias Lönnrot, a rural doctor in eastern Finland, began collecting old songs and stories from the people in the villages he served. Numerous characters and themes were woven through these tales: wizards and warriors, love and longing, mayhem and magic. Many of the characters seemed to be versions of pre-Christian gods and spirits who had survived the the coming of Christianity by being turned into heroes or fitted into Christian stories. Lönnrot also learned the techniques that master singers used to weave one tale into another, building up a larger story out of a common store of incidents and refrains. After many years in the field, he put these techniques to use himself, stripping away Christian elements and assembling a wide variety of the stories he had collected into one grand epic. He called this tale Suuri Kalevala, or “The Great Land of Kaleva.”

Brothers Poavila and Triihvo Jamanen reciting traditional Finnish folk poetry in the village of Uhtua, 1894, photograph by I. K. Inha via Wikimedia
Brothers Poavila and Triihvo Jamanen reciting traditional Finnish folk poetry in the village of Uhtua, 1894, photograph by I. K. Inha via Wikimedia

At the time, Finland was part of the Russian Empire (having been under Swedish rule since the twelfth century and conquered by Russia in 1809), but an independence movement was stirring and many people were beginning to pay attention to the elements of a unique Finnish identity. Kalevala became one of the focal points of this movement. By reaching back to pre-Christian history, almost a thousand years before, it promised a validation of Finnish identity grounded in primordial origins free of Russian or Swedish interference. Finland gained its independence in 1917 (happy centennary!) and Kalevala has remained a vital part of Finnish culture ever since.

Kalevala has an earthy immediacy. The poetic language of Kalevala is colloquial and its heroes, despite being magical warriors, live rustic lives as farmers and fishers not much different from the village folk Lönnrot collected the tales from. There are occasional mentions of wars and great battles and one daring Viking-like raid, but more often the tales revolve around such tasks as chopping down trees, mending horse-drawn sledges, and pulling in fishing nets. The power of nature is ever-present, from the summer sun and the winter frost to the trees of the forests and the water of Finland’s ten-thousand lakes.

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How to Helsinki: Resources by Worldcon 75 Staff

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Eppu here. Erik already started with his take on Finns through American eyes. I want to briefly highlight some resources Worldcon 75 has already published through their progress reports and elsewhere:

  • “Finland: A Very Short Guide For Your First Trip” (Facebook)
  • “Finland: An Assortment of Notes and Information” (in Progress Report 1)
  • “Finnish Fandom: Some Unique Characteristics” (in Progress Report 1)
  • “Finnish Foods and Where to Find Them” (in Progress Report 3)
  • “Hotels: Understanding the Differences between Countries” (in Progress Report 3)
  • “Non-Fandom Things to Do in Helsinki, If You Have the Time” (in Progress Report 2)
  • “Älä hätäile! Don’t Panic! A Short Guide for Pronouncing Finnish” (in Progress Report 2)

Confession: I had to check what kind of food vorschmack is, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten it! 🙂

Post edited for style.

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

How to Helsinki: Concerning Finns

170119lippuWorldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before. Maybe we’ll see you there!

Today, we’d like to introduce you to your hosts: the Finns.

Erik here. As an American who’s been married to a Finn for over a decade, I’ve had a lot of time to learn, observe, and make mistakes, so let me offer you the benefit of my personal experience being a foreigner in Finland. Finnish culture can be hard to get a handle on for Americans like me. While some things will feel familiar, especially if you come from small-town New England like me, some of your basic social instincts can also lead to awkward situations. Like any group of people, of course, Finns are all different. There’s nothing I can say that will be true of every Finn you meet, but there are some things worth knowing so that you can be a good guest.

After many years of living between Finland and the US, here’s the best way I can describe Finnish culture: Finland is a small rural village of 5 million people.

Finland used to be a relatively poor, rural country dependent on timber, farming, and fishing. In the past couple of generations, it has become a wealthy, urban, high-tech country, but many Finns have held onto the values and social conventions of their rural ancestors. This is the root of many features of Finnish culture: the village mentality that we are all in this together and we all depend on one another. The rules of Finnish life are grounded in the expectation that you will take into account how your actions affect other people, their time, their personal space, and their responsibilities.

With that in mind, here are some specific dos and don’ts of being a good visitor in Finland:

DO be on time – being late is disrespectful of other people’s time and obligations. Even if it’s just for a casual social event, showing up late in Finland is as rude as not showing up at all in the US.

DO make room for others – when walking on the sidewalk, waiting in line, riding the bus, or anywhere else. Make sure your bag or purse isn’t in anyone’s way, either.

DO line up – and keep the line orderly if you’re waiting for something. Finns in general have a larger bubble of personal space than Americans, so be careful to make sure you’ve found the end of the line.

DO give people space – Finns expect a lot of it and they will give you a lot of it in return. If you’re talking to a Finn and they back away, don’t chase them. They’re probably not trying to get away from you, they’re just resetting comfortable boundaries. (See previous points.)

DO take your shoes off if you visit a private residence – so you don’t track in dirt that your host then has to clean up. Most Finnish homes have places for taking off and putting on shoes right by the front door.

DON’T interrupt – Finnish conversation tends to be slow paced, but people will usually make room for you to speak. Don’t jump in when someone else is talking.

DON’T suggest getting together unless you want to make concrete plans – “We should do lunch some time” is just a casual pleasantry in the US. It’s an expression of general good will with no commitment attached. In Finland it is a commitment to future plans and Finns will expect you to follow through.

DON’T make small talk – if you’re in conversation with a Finn and feel like there’s an awkward silence, don’t try to fill it. For most Finns, silence is not awkward at all, but comfortable. The conversation will start again when someone has something to say.

Another caveat: Finns are also aware of being a small culture in a larger world, especially younger Finns and Finns in the fandom community. In the company of foreigners, they may well make an effort to accommodate a different set of cultural expectations. They will still appreciate you making the same effort for them.

Hopefully this will help those of you heading to Helsinki for the first time. Finland is a wonderful country to visit, especially in the summertime. Being a good guest while you’re there will help you enjoy it to its fullest.

Image: Finnish flag, photograph by Yangtsefly via Wikimedia

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.