Last weekend I had what I sincerely hope will become a many-times-in-a-lifetime experience! I was invited to join a lovely group of people for the weekend in a summer cabin by a lake a few hours north of Helsinki. I loved that everyone I told about it was excited for me; maybe it was just because it was a novelty for me, an American, but I like the thought that even the Finns, having grown up with the summer cabins, still have a childlike excitement about it.
We arrived Friday evening and got the grand tour. There wasn’t much time for anything but food, beer and sauna (which I was told is basically the whole summer cabin experience). On the way, we stopped at a country shop in Heinola, the closest town. Heinola seems to be a town in the same sense as Upper Sandusky, Ohio is a town, and I felt very at home in the country shop. I was excited to find hirvimakkara–elk sausage, which incidentally, is delicious, and it was fun to try and read all the labels. We also got some munajuusto, “egg cheese,” which turned out to be a creamy custardlike soft cheese that tastes a good deal like bufala mozzarella. It took a while to heat up the sauna–building a fire, gathering some washing-water–so we took in the view and sampled the wild blueberries that grew by the stone path down to the lake.
I didn’t feel naked in the sauna, any more than you would feel naked wearing your hair tied back. In fact, by far the most uncomfortable part was just undressing–for some reason, to me the act of undressing seems more intimate than just being–and it embarrassed me to think the American culture so often fetishizes nudity. In any case, I felt silly worrying about it once I was inside the sauna. I’m not sure what I expected but this wasn’t it. The air was scalding and dry, with a scent that reminded me of an ironing board–very hot, but not burning. My friend warned me to breathe through my mouth, not my nose, and that immediately helped the initial feeling of being suffocated. The wooden benches were a beautiful golden color, unvarnished, and the shape reminded me of driftwood; the edges were comfortably rounded and felt like sinking into a hot bath to sit on. In about a minute or two I started sweating profusely, which contrary to how I usually feel when I get sweaty (sticky, itchy, tired, irritable…) felt very cleansing. Once everyone was in and situated, I had my first experience of löyly. Löyly is the steam that rises when water from a small bucket is ladled over the hot stones on the stove, and it seemed to also be used to refer to the feeling of the steam settling over the body. Whatever I thought sauna was, I could never have been prepared for this. The extreme heat in the sauna prevents the steam from condensing, so a few seconds after the hiss of water hitting the stones, there is a heavy, invisible, hot force that descends upon you and sinks into your skin and muscles. The closest feeling I can describe is exhaling into a really stretchy vinyasa yoga pose, feeling the tension leave and the energy flow into the space, but instead of the warmth coming from inside your muscles, in the sauna it comes from outside the self and inhabits you completely. After a while the lake started to look very inviting, so we ran down the rocky path and over the little pier to jump in the water, which had gotten quite chilly as the sun went behind the trees. The second round, I was a nössö and opted to just dangle my feet in the water instead of completely jumping in. After maybe three rounds, we wrapped ourselves in towels and retrieved the saunamakkara which had been boiling in little foil packets of beer on the hot rocks of the kiuas, the sauna stove, and ate them with dabs of sinappi, sitting on the edge of the porch cooling our feet on the grass. The surface of the lake sparkled deep purple and gold from the last light of the sun that doesn’t quite go down all the way, and there was a slight breeze that brought clean, fresh air and the sweet smell of blueberry bushes and wildflowers. It was the simplest, purest feeling I can imagine, and for a long time afterward I felt as if a little fire had been lit somewhere under my sternum, radiating with this warm feeling of wellbeing.
We spent some time in the sun on the pier, chatting, eating snap peas, and swimming. And swatting ourselves and each other whenever a paarma found a perch. These little horseflies are terrible, worse than mosquitoes, and left itchy red welts all over my skin. The sand on the beach by the cabin was fine and must have had some kind of reflective mineral in it, because it shimmered with tiny golden sparkles when it was disturbed. Little fish swam happily around us completely without fear. There was a family of seagulls that had claimed the little rock peninsula by the pier, and two fluffy grey young gulls spent most of the day crying loudly while their mother stole blueberries and hunted little fish. In the evening we played darts and badminton and croquet, and took sauna again. I think I liked the evening sauna a little better; it seemed more appropriate in the twilight, with a view of the lake that had turned deep purple and green.
I got to try Sahti, which I was told is the oldest traditional beer and is not very popular, more of a novely item for its historical value or an acquired taste for enthusiasts. I was told it tastes like bananas. It does not taste like bananas. The first flavor is that of rotting cantaloupe, with a smell to match. It took me a couple of gulps, but I found another series of flavors on the back end that reminded me of cloves and spice (Wikipedia says it’s juniper. I think it’s a bit generous to assume anybody can taste juniper in that). It wasn’t terrible, but as for Finnish flavors, I have to say I prefer salmiakki.
In the afternoons we went and foraged for wild berries in the forest–mansikat and mustikat. The wild blueberries were everywhere; miniature bushes only about six inches high with tiny berries about the size of pony beads or smaller. We hiked through open forest area, the ground covered in thick, soft moss and silvery lichen, the berry bushes mixed among patches of yellow wildflowers and lingonberry bushes, the lingonberries still rare, small, and green. The wild strawberries were much harder to find, but I savored the prize when we did. No bigger than the tiny blueberries, dark red, they seemed to contain more juice than was possible and had a sweet, herbal flavor so different from store-bought strawberries.
We filled some cups with mustikat until our fingers were stained and sat on the deck in the sun, eating them in the way of Finnish children: a handful of fresh picked berries warm from the sun, a splash of milk and a sprinkle of sugar. Sort of like blueberry cereal, and the milk turns purple. The flavor of fresh berries, milk and sugar reminded me strongly of old fashioned strawberry shortcake that I had growing up.
On Saturday night we grilled and ate huddled around a picnic table on a kind of covered patio that overlooked the lake. I brought ingredients for s’mores, or the best that I could manage, which meant wheat digestive biscuits instead of graham crackers and marshmallows that caramelized rather than toasted. The Finns watched me with a kind of detached curiosity as I managed to find some sticks in the woods and sharpened them with a knife. I demonstrated the two camps of marshmallow toasting (golden brown or burnt to a crisp) and how to put together the little cookie sandwiches. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always believed in a sort of mythology of s’mores, as if it was a sacred part of the ritual of the campfire. The gathering and sharpening of the sticks, the arguing about which toasting method is better. The toasting itself, moments when the talking ceases and everybody just stares into the fire, faces growing warm from the flames. My Finnish friends loved making the little sandwiches and looked sheepishly at me with marshmallow melted all over their fingers and bubbling out of their mouths. I had a curious thought; I was told that in sauna, there are no titles–everyone is an equal–and I thought that maybe everyone is equal in s’mores, too. Everyone ends up with marshmallow on their face. Afterwards, we broke and burned the sticks and watched the sticky marshmallow bits turn black and fall into the fire. That part has always felt important to me, as if it would spoil the ritual to leave any evidence for the next morning. S’mores are a campfire ritual, not meant to be seen or mentioned in the bright, perhaps too honest light of day. At one point a friend struggled to keep her melty marshmallow on the stick, and I confided that I have always believed in little fire imps that dance among the embers, claiming the fallen marshmallows as penance. We decided to call them grillitonttu, after the saunatonttu, the Finnish mythological elf-like creature that lives in the sauna.
The last morning we gathered at the grilling patio and made lettu, a sort of crepe-like thin pancake. I watched the cooking while nursing a mug of coffee with a picture of Moominmamma on it. We spread the pancakes with whipped cream, jam, and fresh berries with a sprinkle of sugar. Then we took a two-person kayak out on the lake and explored. The lake stretched long and narrow to the north, dotted with little rocky islands. One island had a shallow sandy beach where it was possible to tie up the kayak and explore a short way up into the island. There were rocks all along the edges of the island, covered in this seafoam-green, spongy lichen and patches of different shades of moss. The yellow flowers were everywhere, mixed among the blueberry bushes, and I walked barefoot on fluffy patches of moss between the trees. The rocky beach had a fringe of reeds and lily pads, and the sand wasn’t so much the sand that I would be accustomed to from vacations to the Outer Banks, but instead a kind of coarse, shimmery sand made up of lots of tiny multicolored rocks. I thought the blueberries on the little island tasted different, and even better, than the blueberries by the cabin; I know that’s completely in my head and related to the idea that hunger is the best seasoning and of course when you work for something, you tend to value it more. But that day I felt that rowing a few kilometers out on a sparkling, windy lake to a deserted island and hiking into the forest to forage merited especially sweet blueberries.
The bus ride back to the city was mostly uneventful, except for an alarm that kept going off and causing the driver to pull off the highway, sometimes after several minutes of obnoxious beeping. I napped, and it seemed that very soon we were back in Helsinki, which looked loud and cramped and a little too much concrete after the lake. But as I started walking back to my apartment, I thought I was actually glad to be back. This city is just as beautiful as the country, and I think that’s something very rare to find.