When I was at school we had a foreign exchange cultural holiday, writes guest columnist Deborah, when a class from Finland came to our school for a week and, later, we returned to stay with them for a week. We’d put up a student at home when they were here in England, and we’d stay with their families when we got back to [I’ve opted to omit the name of the place : Ella] their home town.
I’d made friends with Katja, we’re still friends even now, and have each attended the other’s wedding.
Our class were all 17 turning 18 at the time and we were farmed out to the various families after the first day sitting in classes with our chosen partner.
We arrived on a Monday, and the week progressed as normal until Friday night when Katja’s Mum announced it was sauna night in the household. I looked through the window to see Katja’s Dad and brother firing up the sauna at the bottom of their garden, and the water of the lake at the bottom of the garden shimmering beyond.
‘Oh’, I blurted out. ‘We weren’t advised to bring swimming costumes with us’.
Katja and her Mum exchanged glances. ‘There is no need. We go naked in the sauna’
Everyone? Even in the course of the five days so far I’d fallen a little bit in love with Katja’s gorgeous looking, tall, lean brother. And he was going to go naked in the sauna????
‘Maybe you don’t know the Finnish sauna culture…if you don’t wish to go, it’s OK. You’ll be OK here in the house by yourself. We’re just at the bottom of the garden…’
No, no, no! I protested. A little bit of me didn’t want to appear like a prudish, uptight Brit. A little bit of me was excited by the whole idea.
In due course, Katja’s Dad and brother came back into the house and the ladies explained I’d join them. Katja’s Dad nodded and then went off to get me a sauna hat.
It looked ridiculous, but it was explained that it’s made of felt, is a good insulator, and would therefore keep my head at a better temperature if I was unused to the heat, as the head heats quicker than the rest of the body and can lead to overheating.
I was also handed a towel to wrap myself in if I felt shy or embarrassed, and to sit on in any case.
Everyone then disappeared off to their various bedrooms to strip off. I felt a huge lump in my throat as I took my clothes off, and wrapped myself in a really large bath towel. As we were undressing, Katja was explaining the finer points of sauna etiquette. I stood there swathed in a towel while she stood confidently naked in front of me.
If I was feeling a little uncertain, it got immediately worse when Katja’s brother casually walked into the room stark naked, a towel slung over his shoulder. He spoke to Katja, something along the lines of ‘are you girls ready?’ and we trooped downstairs, out of the back door and down the garden to the sauna hut.
Here in the UK, some houses share a driveway, with garages built separately around the back. Some houses share a common front door before separating into different dwellings. I was about to learn that, while houses had individual sauna huts on their property, just beyond lay a shared jetty. With lots of lakes around, boating seemed to be a popular pastime, and houses would share a jetty where they could (a) tie up their boats if they owned them (Katja’s family didn’t) and (b) use it to make their way down to the lake and jump in after the sauna. Apparently it’s beneficial health wise, closing the skin’s pores after they’ve sweated out life’s impurities.
Katja’s Mum, fully nude, stopped to talk to her clothed male neighbour before entering the hut, something that totally blew my mind! Could I imagine causually chatting with a clothed neighbour while naked in England? No way!
It was exceptionally hot in there. At first I was just blown away by the casual family nudity. I thought of my own family and how none of us would be brave enough to do such a thing. But that doesn’t reckon for the long Finnish tradition of sauna, where familial nudity is commonplace from birth.
I eventually dispensed with a sat on the towel. It felt strange, exciting but totally non-sexual. It was weird to be sat naked amongst relative strangers. The sauna was a lovely experience, but I couldn’t last in there as long as the rest of the family. Eventually Katja and I had to run the length of the jetty and leap into freezing water. It was summer but still felt freezing cold.
I loved it, though! Just the whole sauna experience and culture. By the time I was drying myself off with my towel it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Something I wanted to do again. A year later, I would do it again, travelling to stay with Katja, not as part of school, but a private holiday. School was out and daylight went on past midnight in that northern latitude. The second time Katja’s parents were out, she invited some friends over, her brother invited some friends over, and we had a sauna followed by a communal skinny dip, BBQ and drinking some vodka. Again, there was much communal, casual nudity, but the whole thing was entirely non-sexual. Even their friends who were boyfriend and girlfriend remained much more ‘hands off’ with each other than I’d have expected in a similar situation, even a dressed occasion, in England.
A fully nude Katja takes her place in the sauna while an initially covered Deborah sits lower, where it’s cooler.
(Credits : thanks to SL avatars Henry [Katja’s brother], Dolores [playing Deborah] and Anne [playing the role of Katja] in the SL photos above. Photographs were taken by me, Ella)