According to our flight attendant, Helsinki’s Vantaa Airport is the oldest in Europe. This she shared as the plane began its final descent. I was neither impressed nor cheered. I felt, rather, as though my surgeon had just bragged about having the oldest tools in the hospital. It seemed especially anomalous for Helsinki, crowned the 2012 World Design Capital in honor of its progressive pursuits in everything from textiles to transportation, education to technology. It’s debatable, perhaps, what Angry Birds, the video game juggernaut of Finnish origin, has contributed to the uplift of humanity. On the other hand, Finland’s most widely adopted export remains one of its oldest innovations: the sauna.
Sauna is the only Finnish word that has migrated into common English. It was also the first word I needed when I left old Vantaa Airport.
“Sauna,” I tried on my taxi driver, gesturing to the air in the cab. “Whoa. It’s like a sauna.”
“Sauna,” she repeated, pleased to hear it. “Sauna, yes.”
So she turned up the heat.
Therein lies a cultural difference. To my taxi driver, and to all Finns, sauna is tantamount to goodness. In fact, an old Finnish saying goes, “One is to be in the sauna as one is to be in church.” I guess I’d just attempted to ask her to turn down the church in here.
I come from another sensibility around heat, the one that uses sauna in the pejorative. I decry any noticeable temperature, and I come by it naturally. Physiologically. I’m a blind guy. Denuded of sight, my body is left more sensitive, subjectively overexposed, to other stimuli. Heat is among the more intolerable. To me, it is neither relaxing nor revitalizing. To me heat is crowding and oppressive, like someone shouting in my ear. Worse, it induces claustrophobia, the kind a sighted person might feel if someone were to get up in his face and wave jazz-hands. Heat has no sense of personal space. If the sauna is like church, then I say someone should open a goddamned window in here.
But I wondered if I could learn to feel heat differently. Could I acclimate to it through a new cultural context? Maybe with some tutored appreciation? How could the entire Finnish nation, and more than nine centuries of unanimous sauna-love, be wrong? Typical blind-guy stuff—I just want to be like everyone else. Besides, a few days in the design capital of the world would let my body put Helsinki’s vaunted livability to the test.
On my first morning, I asked the hotel clerk, Jusa, what I might do while in town. He and his colleagues debated in Finnish, which, if you’ve never heard the language, sounds something like a drunken Berliner confusing Danish with Italian.
“Sauna,” was the conclusion, confirming my mission.
But not just any of the public saunas that dot the city. Some are overtly modern in sensibility, equipped with electric heaters instead of traditional stoves. Others champion a dry heat generated by an infrared gizmo—a Star Trek sauna. One sauna still burns wood, old-school style, adding an olfactory dimension to the experience, Jusa explained, assuring that he would find the right one for me. I gave him a day to research.
Luckily for me, the city was in the middle of its annual Herring Festival. Boat after boat had anchored ashore from the Baltic. Lapland lake fisherfolk had set up kiosks in a public market near Esplanadi Park, at the edge of the sea. All I had to do was leave the hotel, turn left, and walk until I found the water. Without getting run over. Or drowned. Or lost.
It should take about 20 minutes to get there, Jusa said.
So I walked.
This is as frightening to me as it is ordinary to you. Hoofing it unguided through an unknown city when you’re blind is an exercise in will and recklessness. Is this a curb? An intersection? Is there a light? Am I in the street? Necessity demanded I count my steps from the hotel to the first corner (158), then tally blocks as I went, lefts and rights, building a shaky mental map and generating mathematical breadcrumbs. One mistake on my return could set me off wandering for hours.
Within a block down Lönnrotinkatu—katu meaning “street”—only two observations cut through my terror. First, Helsinki’s light was gorgeous. My eyes can’t discern images, but they’re beyond light sensitive. Even a fluorescent bulb hurts. But here, the glare was a soft sodium glow, like a gauze that bandaged the sky. Then, at my first intersection, came an incredible relief. The zebra crossings were a marvel. So bold and large, and in such contrast to the street, that I could actually see them through the Vaseline-like blur of my retinas. I saw. It was exotic. They sure make terrific crosswalks in Helsinki. Take a bow, design capital.
The Herring Festival did eventually appear. It took more than an hour for me to walk there, six blocks, one dogleg to the right around a department store where people kept asking me if I was looking for the Crazy Days sale, another four blocks, and a 323-step meander through a slender urban park. Then I heard it. The city’s quiet gave way to a clustered bustle. A crowd thickened, then swamped me. There was sizzling, the shouts of hawkers, and the smell of salt water and fish oil. I simply bumped into a kiosk, the first boxy shadow I could find, and asked the void what I could eat. Hopefully it wasn’t selling bait.
In my hand landed a paper plate stacked high with small, garlicky bites. “Muikku,” the fisherman said. Tiny lake fish fried in a coating of batter and paprika. I ate dozens and dozens. In the chill October air, their warmth, their oily crispness were so satisfying, so bracing from the inside out. For days I would smell them on my hands, reminding me I was in Finland whenever I scratched my chin or sipped my coffee.
From previous research I knew that a short ferry ride from the market where I was licking muikku grease from my thumbs could take me to Suomenlinna, Finland’s famed UNESCO World Heritage site, an island fortress built to ward off naval assaults from invading Russian fleets. Today, Suomenlinna is a cluster of tiny islands where Finns enjoy a walk, a winter’s swim, or the summer sun. A dip, I thought. I’d dare to wade into the frigid, dark Baltic.
Tap, tap, my white cane cleared a path to the market’s end, where a shopper asked if I was looking for the ferry terminal. She ushered me inside a small dockside waiting room, where I waited. And waited. Nobody from the ferry came. No announcements came, either. You’d think in the design capital of the world there’d be, you know, something. A desk. A person. A bell or a flare gun.
I heard a couple of customers enter and take a seat next to me. When I asked how to buy tickets, they explained something in Japanese. After a nod and a smile of thanks, I resumed the passivity of my total ignorance. I would just have to shadow close behind, like a needy little brother. The moment they left to board the ferry, I raced after them, tapping across the concrete, chasing the click of their footsteps, until finally they opened a door.
We were crowding together, it seems, into their car.
It must have made them a bit nervous, this large, tattooed, blind Canadian man imposing himself on their car pool. So I just smiled meekly and waved good-bye, as if I’d been their valet. Seems they’d given up on the ferry. I gave up, too, and counted my breadcrumbs home, feeling somewhat shunned by this quiet city.
Back at the hotel, Jusa was still on the sauna case. In the meantime, I decided I would eat my way back to a sense of place. Muikku had been my closest contact with Finland so far. Restaurants can, if I’m lucky, orient me to a city better than any map. Dinner that night at Spis was beyond playful, peeking and hiding from recognition. A salad arrived first, consisting of onions and onions alone. Some of them had a texture and acidity that made me mistake them for tomatoes. Others were as sweet as fruit. My entrée was a dish of wild hare, which the waitress warned me to chew carefully in case of remaining “shots.” Every bite was a lethally tinged thrill, though I failed to chip a tooth. Then, after a warm strudel with potatoes that had marinated to disguise themselves as apples, I enjoyed a small dessert. The whole evening had begun with an inconspicuous amuse-bouche of borscht and sour cream. And now, here it was again, returning, this time sweetened to a candylike broth, dressed in a whipped cream that had once been sour. So much disguise and surprise. So much pleasure in losing track of what is actually what. Like being a blind traveler.
The next morning Jusa presented me with a few pages he’d printed from the web. They were directions to my sauna, for the benefit of my cabdriver. This one, Jusa told me, offered a cooling swim as well as a variety of rooms at different temperatures. It even had savusaunas, or “smoke saunas,” perhaps the oldest style of leisure. The smoke from a stove is collected in the room, then vented, leaving a strong campfire haze, an olfactory balm to complement your cloak of warmth. I had only expected to be hot. Now heat had a lengthy custom menu of pleasures.
Jusa’s colleague, a young, chirpy clerk, posed me a last question before I left the hotel.
“You have strong heart, yes?”
“I think so.”
“Not so good if you don’t have strong heart. People they sometimes. . .”
Her English left her. I imagined, however, that she clutched at her chest to mime “massive coronary.”
The taxi ride took nearly an hour, winding me into what felt like foothills. The only notable landmark I passed, according to the driver, was Ikea. As our car rose and turned and wound, I mentioned how quiet, how elusive, I found Helsinki. The driver agreed, albeit quietly. It is not in the Finnish character, he explained, to create a spectacle. Good design does make itself invisible, I supposed. The better things work, the less noise, the less friction.
We arrived. When I stepped out of the cab, all signs of the city were gone. The air had chilled further, and the sour hint of the sea had given way to the perfume of a mountain forest. Beyond the breeze, I couldn’t hear a sound. Except the sound of my taxi leaving me behind. On a mountain.
Without a taxi stand. Or a clue.
I tapped my cane along a path until I hit a tree, then another, and eventually a building. A bit of groping revealed a door. And beyond that door, a reception desk.
“Sauna?” the receptionist asked. “Or sauna and swim?”
“Is there a pool?”
The lake that day, she said, was six degrees above freezing. Enough to induce a decent heart attack.
She handed me a towel and, I think, pointed to the men’s changing room.
“Can you guide me?” I asked.
But she couldn’t. And her blush was audible. I would be naked. And so would the other men. Only women were on staff today. I was on my own.
At this point I was tired of being on my own, of bumping about the design capital of the world like a mouse in a maze. But I’d come all this way, and the lake and the heat promised something a blind man could experience the way everybody else can. So once again I pinballed into the void, this time down the lodge’s hallway, feeling for a hot door, or a naked man.
The changing room was easy enough to find. A few benches, no lockers. I stripped down and pawed the walls until, no naked men in the way, I came upon a hot door.
Steam bled from inside. The sauna. I’d found it. So I stepped in, and stood there. Sweating. And sweating. And standing. Alone. It was underwhelming and lonely. My claustrophobia awoke, too, with nothing around me but blur and heat pressing in, as if my eyes were being snuffed, my skin constricting like a straitjacket.
Then a man’s voice said something to me in Finnish. He also knew how to say it in English.
“Are you looking for the sauna?” he asked.
This was an odd question. I was standing in the steam, naked. In the sauna.
Then I heard more voices. They finally dared to make a spectacle of themselves, it seemed.
“This is lounge,” the man’s voice explained. “I’ll take you to sauna.”
And he ushered my naked body away, through a door, and into a super Christ-almighty hot room that was oh-my-god-wow, now that’s a sauna.
Sauna is, make no mistake, a desexualized occasion in Finland. Nudity is as plain as the nose on your face, and about as big a deal. But I couldn’t go along with it any further. I felt too much a spectacle with my cane and peculiar gaze, so I returned a moment later with my bathing suit on. Nobody seemed to mind. Nobody wants to be a spectacle.
I crabbed to the top tier of the wooden benches, which hived up perhaps four or five levels. A large hand pulled me there, encouraging me into the hottest part as I heard a ladle of water hit the stones on a stove below. Olli, the man who had pulled me up, now pressed his hand to my back and told me to duck down. His tone was urgent, as if we were at war. So I jammed my head between my knees and breathed, as instructed. Olli was right, I could find a bit of air this way. And that’s how we stayed for a long time, me and Olli. Our heads between our respective knees, gasping, sweating something awful, chatting. It’s an odd posture in which to meet strangers.
God it was hot. And sweaty. And uncomfortable. My skin felt slick, bordering on slimy. But soon, I began to feel something different. Discomfort fell away. The heat ceased to be invasive. Instead, it held me, wrapped me, like a second skin. Meanwhile, my conversation with Olli wandered. He installed fences in the city. My father worked the same job back in Canada. Olli had three children, two girls and a boy. We talked about my daughter. My writing. Words and steam filled the air between us. Without moving, we escaped the heat into our little stories and lives. A kind of travel. My kind of travel. Indeed, sauna can be like church. People gather. There is a spirit in the air. A shared warmth.
Suddenly Olli stood. Time for a swim, he declared.
An icy lake seemed like another continent. But out I went, following Olli, padding down a long path to a dock. “Be careful,” Olli warned: “You must have a good heart.”
He also advised me to cling to the dock when I dunked my head under. The sudden shock of cold water, he explained, can do funny things to a person.
As I lowered myself into the lake, the rise of its stinging chill squeezed the air out of me like a tube of toothpaste. My eyes went starry. And then I saw nothing at all but a pulsing white. The air was gone. The voices of the other dippers thinned and warbled in my ears.
“Keep moving!” Olli shouted.
But the only movement I managed was to fall over, letting go of the rail, fainting into the water. I was at a bare threshold of consciousness when Olli snatched my arm and towed me back up to the dock, where the October air now felt like a tepid bath.
“Wonderful, yes?!” he beamed.
“I feel like shit.”
“Wonderful!” he assured me. “Sauna is like getting drunk, but in reverse. We start with the hangover, then feel better.”
Other dippers were now swimming about the lake. Their hearts, it seemed, were made of titanium. Proud, Olli took a deep breath of mountain air. I managed a shallow one.
Back inside the saunas we went. This time Olli wanted to show me the hot one. The godforsaken doozy of all hot rooms. These can reach upwards of 200 degrees. In fact, for many years Finland hosted an international sauna-sitting competition in which competitors endured unimaginable temperatures for unimaginable durations. The competition was shelved, however, several years ago when one robust sauna sitter died. Burns were not unheard-of.
Olli couldn’t tell me the temperature in this particular room, but in less than a minute my lungs felt singed. When I sat down, the bench burned my ass. Who knows, another minute and I might have cooked my eyes and cured my sight. The only other person in the room was an elderly man who moaned as we entered. Or maybe he was begging for mercy. Historically, Finns prepared the bodies of the dead in the sauna, as it was considered the cleanest of rooms and the most spiritual. I waved my hand at Olli for help. Get me out of here. Please. And as I stumbled out of the hellfire, the elderly man moaned again, as if to say a final goodbye.
But it was all true, the good Olli had promised. What sauna had promised. Heat is transformative. With it we turn water into steam. Sand into glass. We cook our food and we enliven our flesh. By the end of the day, back in my hotel room, I felt limber and revived, brought back to some kind of internal balance and fortitude, suspended between the polarities of hot and cold.
On my last morning in Helsinki, I drew on that fortitude and walked. I walked myself back to the Suomenlinna ferry, determined to discover a way to the island that eluded me. Not that I cared about military history or the view or the Baltic water. I just didn’t want to be left out.
Again I plunked down in that little ferry building and waited, and listened. Nothing happened. Half an hour passed. An hour. Nobody came. So I waited some more, just a man alone on a bench in a room, as if in a sauna. And it was, in its own way, a lovely thing. Helsinki’s light was soft in the windows, the air cold outside. A
Photographs by Max Sher. This appeared in the January/February 2014 issue.
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