By Kathy Hughes
In approximately two weeks, I will be exiting from a plane and setting foot nearly 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. Already, my anticipation is rising. What should I expect?
Everyone, myself included, cautions me about the cold. While this appears to be a given, I need to check, just how cold will it be? As I write this, it is now 16 degrees Fahrenheit in Manlius; by contrast, it is 25 degrees at my destination, Inari, Finland, and it is 1 a.m. there. The predicted high for the afternoon is 28 in Inari. Not only that, the 14-day forecast has it that the temperature will hover around 35 degrees for four days preceding my arrival. Instead of sweaters, maybe I should pack my shorts, flip flops and a bathing suit!
To be sure, I will be packing my bathing suit, not for swimming, but in readiness for the sauna. Two things Finns are passionate about are saunas and the tango. The Finnish sauna is known as a smoke sauna, as the room is not only heated by the wood stove, but there is no chimney. The smoke is allowed to fill the sauna, then before the victims enter, the smoke is allowed to escape through a vent.
None of this bothers me, so far. What does bother me is that there is no power connected to the sauna — that is, the occupants sit there sweating in the dark. Supposedly, one is encouraged by the darkness to contemplate the sauna’s ancient origins “bringing about a calm, hushed mood.” Of course, no sauna would be complete without the birch switches applied to stimulate the circulation, also in the dark, I presume. The description omits the plunge into a snow bank, or the bucket of ice water — I wonder why?
Am I alone in remembering Garison Keillor’s (of A Prairie Home Companion) narration of his poem, “The Finn Who Would Not Take a Sauna?” Much too long to be quoted here, it goes on for 16 stanzas, but the gist may be conveyed by just a couple stanzas:
But there was one, a shy young man . . . .
He was a Finn, the only Finn, who would not take a sauna.
“It isn’t that I can’t,” he said, “I simply do not wanna.”
Predictably, the shy, young Finn meets the love of his life at a dance (probably a Tango):
She looked him over carefully, she said, “You’re kinda thin,
But you must have some courage if it’s true you are a Finn.
Now I’m not particular about men, and I’m no prima donna,
But I would never marry one who would not take a sauna.
He takes the sauna, jumps in the frozen lake, and, although he cannot swim,
survives the trial, and the two live happily ever after.
There seems to be a preoccupation with the love life of Finns, not by the Finns, but those who study them. Years ago (1993), Morley Safer of CBS’ “Sixty Minutes” devoted a segment to the Finnish passion for dancing the Tango. Other media, including The New York Times and CNN, have covered this phenomenon. One observer commented, “Its blending of passion and melancholy perfectly expresses the Finnish soul.”
It looks like I am in for an experience. I’m not looking for love, but who knows?