From endurance to enjoyment, the sauna is only one of the Finns' particular pleasures

Email|Print| Text size + By Carol Stocker
Globe Staff / May 16, 2004

TURKU, Finland -- It's midnight, which means the sun has just set, and I am jumping naked from a dock into a very cold lake after a very hot sauna. When I surface, my head is enveloped in mist and I am whooping loudly. I must sound scary because my American friend suddenly changes her mind about jumping in. But I'm just having a peak experience.

If you come here and a Finn invites you to his home for a sauna, you must accept. It's rude not to. It is also a sensation not to be missed, so far beyond the familiar sting of wading into the Atlantic that it becomes pleasurable.

So is the ''warm up." Before each dip, my female companions and I beat ourselves in the sauna with a wetted switch of aromatic birch called a ''vihta," carefully bound so the silvery undersides of the leaves face outward. Our skin tingled with every swish.

The invention of the sauna is a tribute to Finnish ingenuity. Blessed with thousands of frigid lakes, the Finns built small sweat lodges in which to overheat their bodies enough to take the plunge.

The Finns' embrace of the passage through pain to pleasure might help explain why this country excels in endurance sports, such as running, ice hockey, and the biathlon, which combines long-distance cross-country skiing and shooting. The cardinal Finnish virtue is ''sisu," which means, roughly, gutting it out.

Most Americans who visit this Nordic country never leave Helsinki. It is one of the safest, cleanest, and most attractive capital cities in Europe. Open markets sell reindeer pelts and sweet pea blossoms. In summer, you never encounter a traffic jam, even at what passes for Finnish rush hour.

That's because everyone is in the country.

The biggest holiday of the year here, after Christmas, is the summer solstice in late June, when the sun sets only briefly and Finns head out to spartan lakeside cabins for a monthlong summer holiday. Business is done over cellphones. (Finland's own Nokia is the world leader in mobile communications.)

A neighbor asked me upon my return if Finland was a rich country. ''Do they have nice cars?"

I didn't notice the cars, just those lakefront second homes everyone seemed to own, the long vacations, the free college educations, free medical care, and seeming scarcity of crime and poverty.

Finland occupies the same latitude as Alaska, and both regions treat summer as one long, slightly manic outdoor party, with plenty of sports and plenty of liquor.

The long winters have not been the biggest challenge to Finland's survival, however. For 600 years, the country was a province of Sweden, with Turku as the regional capital. Then Russia overran it in 1808 and moved the capital to Helsinki, which was built by Russian architects and is a frequent stand-in for Slavic cities in Western films. Finland has been independent only since 1917.

Our hosts for the sauna party in Turku greeted us wearing the embroidered folk dress of their native Karelia, a part of Finland that was invaded and annexed by Russia in the 1939 Winter War. We had hardly entered the home of Antti Lehtinen, who spoke no English, before he was pantomiming loading rifles and shooting at Russians in his youth.

Though Americans think of Finland as Scandinavian, most of its people are a distinct ethnic group that speaks a language more closely related to Estonian. While Russia swallowed up the nearby Baltic countries, Finland spent most of the 20th century playing an alternately violent and placating cat-and-mouse game with its big neighbor to the east. This situation helped shape the cautious, industrious, and strongly patriotic character of its people. Thanks to its great success in design and technology, plus the retreat of the Russian threat, Finland is now imbued with growing confidence.

The Lehtinens had been planning our visit ever since their son, New York theater director Petri Lehtinen, had issued the invitation months earlier. Pirkko, Antti's wife of 50 years, had prepared a traditional midsummer feast of savory white fish soup with dill, called ''lavaret," homemade rye bread, cabbage, beef noodles, herring salad, herring rolls, creamed new potatoes, and homemade beer. Through an interpreter, she told us we would be ''golden angels" if we had seconds. So we did.

After the meal, we made a round of ceremonial visits, first to their son's house, then to a neighboring shipyard metal worker's garden. He showed off his abundant beds of vegetables and a collection of skillfully welded homemade characters from a beloved Finnish children's book series called The Moomins, who peeked from the lush vegetation like garden gnomes.

Next, we visited the clubhouse of an association dedicated to the works and memory of noted local sculptor Win Aaltonen, where Antti planted a rose bush he called ''The Rose of America" in our honor. Then on to the grandest house in the neighborhood, where the owners met us with glasses of champagne and another house tour. The evening concluded with saunas, Pirkko's homemade desserts, three kisses on the cheek, Karelian style, from Antti, and a keepsake sprig of lily-of-the-valley, the national flower.

This was not my only sauna in Finland. The Naantalin Spa nearby had a woman's sauna the size and shape of a small amphitheater. An elderly Finnish guest I met in the elevator showed me where to go and, in the dressing room, briskly stripped off her clothes and continued our conversation in halting English.

A naked person of brief acquaintance seemed more startling than a naked stranger, but a culture where families regularly sauna together fosters a relaxed and healthy attitude toward nudity. Boys of 6 or 7 frolicked unselfconsciously among the naked women in the hotel's sauna shower rooms, and one tenderly blow-dried his mother's hair.

The Finns have a soft spot for cozy summer shacks. The landscape was dotted not just with lakeside saunas, but also tiny children's playhouses and garden sheds, all gaily painted and decorated. Even allotment plots in urban community gardens feature their own one-room houses, often with a cot and a shower stall.

As in Canada, most of Finland's population is in the south. Our trip took us along the old King's Road that follows the Baltic coast. It's about a five-hour drive from Turku on the Swedish side of the peninsula to Kotka near the Russian border.

The air had that euphoric feeling of perfect early-fall New England days with temperatures in the 70s and no humidity through most of our trip. Starting from Helsinki, we traveled east, stopping at Porvoo, the country's second-oldest town after Turko. (It has been only a generation since people left their farms, and most cities are new.) The clear, cool northern light made the pastel colors of the historic houses and their flowery window boxes pop and shimmer like a David Hockney painting, but the long shadows cast by the low sun gave proof we were not far from the Arctic Circle.

At a former factory there, we attended a performance of the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. The conductor was the dashing and brilliant Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one of many successful Finns abroad who come home for the summer.

We also stopped at Loviisa, a pretty waterfront garrison town of crumbling old forts, and visited the 18th-century former headquarters of a Swedish commandant. He had planned to use a series of dikes and floodplains to stop the advancing Russians, but the czar's army invaded in winter and simply walked over the ice.

The Russian presence is strongest in the eastern industrial Baltic port of Kotka, where Russians come to load up old cars and trailer trucks with European goods. On the way there, we stopped at the crashing Langinkoski rapids and visited the Langinkoski Imperial Fishing Lodge. Here, the Russian royal family still commands nostalgia. A photo of Alexander III and the empress Maria Feodorovna peeling potatoes hangs on the wall of the 1889 log building. Volunteers such as Ragnar Backstrm have retrieved much of the original rustic furnishings. He told us his group had to lobby long and hard to get the royal twin beds back from the Finnish president's summer house. They also had to buy a substitute set of silver to exchange for the czar's cutlery, which had been used for Finnish state dining functions. (Before she converted to Orthodoxy and changed her name, Feodorovna was Princess Dagmar of Denmark, who lived to see her son Nicholas II become Russia's last czar, and Russia create the Soviet Union.)

Our Kotka host was municipal landscape architect Heikki Laaksonen, a regional Frederick Law Olmsted who is ambitiously ringing his city with parks. Over dinner at Villa Krkisaari, a bed-and-breakfast on a peninsula of birch trees, he talked of World War II.

''Russia asked permission to come in for strategic purposes," Laaksonen said, ''and so did Germany."

Stalin or Hitler -- what a choice. Finland fought with Germany to retake Karelia and its other lost territories, which it briefly did. The Russians retaliated with massive bombings.

''Estonia had to make the same choice, and they let the Russians in," said Laaksonen. ''And they just got their country back a couple of years ago!"

It was not the war, however, but the tough schedule of postwar reparations to Russia that transformed Finland into a modern country. With tremendous national will, it industrialized almost overnight to produce ships and trains to meet the Soviets' timetable, and thus retain its independence. When Finland sent the last train off to Russia, there was a national celebration --and a new generation of capitalists and city dwellers, who still look to the countryside for inspiration.

After a long night of talk, food, and drink, we took a ferry back to Kotka from Villa Krkisaari. The owner waved us off from the dock. When we rounded the peninsula, she was on the other side, still waving until she disappeared in the long summer twilight.

A visit to the little-known, 17th-century ironworks village of Fiskars west of Helsinki was another highlight. When the Fiskars company (it invented those ubiquitous scissors with the orange handles) relocated to modern headquarters 20 years ago, it turned the entire factory town that it owned into a subsidized artists' cooperative. With its waterfalls and industrial buildings of stone and wood, it looks like a New England mill town, but older. There's a restaurant called Fiskars Wardhus, an exhibit hall, and rows of shops selling high-quality arts and crafts created by the 120 families who live there.

One of them is Howard Smith, an African-American artist, and his Finnish wife, potter Erna Aaltonen, who have converted a barn built to store apples into a home brimming with their adventurous work. Smith said he moved to Finland from New Jersey in the 1960s after concluding that his career in the United States had been blocked by racism. Though Finns are more reserved than Americans, ''Many of the friends I made here 40 years ago held fast till death," Smith said at one point. ''Differences of opinion are resolved with a bottle -- but not over the head."

Meanwhile, Aaltonen marveled at our candid conversation. ''We are not so outgoing," she said. ''You start talking so easily!"

I also asked a lot of questions of the Finns I met, but they seldom asked any of me. They consider it impolite. I can't say that Finland is an irony-free zone, but simple sincerity is still a virtue here, as are helpfulness and honesty. In Helsinki, people bring rugs to river banks to scrub them clean and leave them there for days to dry.

''If a policeman took a bribe in Finland, it would be a front-page story throughout the country," Laaksonen said.

Sexual equality is also a source of cultural pride. Forty percent of Finland's elected representatives are women, and the president, Tarja Halonen, is, too. She married in office, we were told, partly because when she traveled with her longtime partner, foreign protocol officers didn't know what to do with him.

Near Turku, we visited the grounds of the president's summer residence, which is open to the public. No equivalent of the Secret Service was in sight, but the head gardener, Matti Tuominen, let me into one of the greenhouses to pluck some of the cherry tomatoes grown for state dinners. A statue near the official residence depicted a frolicking couple, naked of course. I couldn't picture anything similar on our White House lawn.

Carol Stocker can be reached by e-mail at

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