In Helsinki, Finland cleanliness isn’t next to Godliness, it is Godliness! Morning time there, the city that greets you looks as if all its residents snuck out sometime between midnight and dawn, armed with an arsenal of brooms, mops, bleach buckets and rags, and scrubbed the streets and buildings squeaky clean.
The city sparkles like Liberace’s rhinestone cape in the soft Scandinavian sun!
And not only is their city scrubbed hospital clean daily, the people go to extremes in their pursuit of personal hygiene. They sit huddled in a small closet sized cabinet that turns water into liquid heat and sends sweat shooting out of every pour in your body like popcorn tossed in a campfire. And they do it damn near every day!
The sauna is a highly unusual ritual during which a group of Finns sit jammed together, naked as jay birds, in small enclosures with ovens over which they’ve piled stones. When the temperature inside this sauna reaches skin-searing levels, the stones turn red-hot. They then ladle of water on them which instantly lets out a violent hiss like demons escaping from Hades, and an invisible curtain of heat that slams into you. Sweat pops out of you like pop corn popping at maximum speed. The result, according to the Finns, purges dirt from every square centimeter of your body and makes you as healthy as an ox.
The sauna is more than a casual diversion, it’s kind of a rite of passage, and indoctrination into Finnishnish itself … something I discovered soon after my arrival in Helsinki.
Immediately after I hugged Shirley hello (the reason for my visit to the far north of European civilization) her fiancé, Jaako, grabbed me and within the hour I found myself smack in the middle of a unique Helsinki welcoming ceremonial honor … the highest and hottest seat in a large, crowded, communal, blistering hot sauna!
That top seat roasts you quicker than the lower levels, to such a degree that you’d think your outer layer of skin is carmelizing. And as soon as you get used to that, someone throws water over red hot stones that turn it into a wave of heat that pretty much feels like molten lava.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t touch any part of my body. And like a sane, reasonable person I wanted to run right out of that inferno screaming at the top of my lungs … but that was something I couldn’t do no matter the cost! After all, at that moment, in that place I represented the USA, and I wasn’t going to let a bunch of naked Finns show us up!
I simply had no choice! I had to stick it out!
And I did! When Jaako finally stood up to leave I felt like shouting out for joy! I’d passed the sauna challenge with flying colors! Jaako and all his naked buddies, jabbering in the unintelligible tongue of the land, all nodded their approval as I squeezed my way past them.
It was as good a welcome to Finland as a fellow could hope to get … almost. The real best was saved for last!
Back at Shirley’s I met a vivacious, lovely young blonde who joined us. Her name was Gun-Brit. She was a smart, Finnish embassy employee whom everyone called Charlie.
I’d planned to stay in Helsinki for just a few days, mindful of Ben Franklin’s aphorism “after three days fish and guests start to smell.” But I had a such great time with Charlie that I started revising my travel plans on the spot!
Following a great, hearty Finnish dinner and more than a few drinks, I began to wonder if the old Stockholm “grab-and-hold technique” would work in Helsinki … it was, after all, part of Scandinavia too!
And miracle of miracles, it did!
The very next day I moved into Charlie’s modern, spotlessly clean apartment in downtown Helsinki near a farmer’s market where she purchased fresh food daily from farmers on boats … and spoiled me with dining that was as tasty as any I’d ever eaten.
Shortly after I moved in she arranged for her summer vacation to coincide with my visit … which extended my planned stay by several weeks, each of which sped by like a hydroplane on a still lake.
“Wow!” I thought while sitting down to one of Charlie’s tasty home-cooked meals, “You sure are one lucky dog, Joe! One lucky dog for sure!”
Coming next! Driving Around Europe Without A Map, Part 5 … INTO THE HEART OF THE EVIL EMPIRE
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