Saturday, 21 April 2007

Hot and sweaty, cool and relaxed

Finally, at the second attempt, I have enjoyed a sauna: Finnish-style. My original concern, that the conference would feature a mandatory sauna session and we'd all end up like this, proved to be unfounded. It looked like it was down to me alone whether to undertake the sauna experience.

While in Tampere, I had a good long chat with Olli. Olli is cool. He gave up coffee and cigarettes, but during the evening took pleasure in munching on slices of lemon. He has an apartment or flat that contains its own sauna, with room for 3.5 people. Olli patiently described the Finnish mentality with regard to sauna, which seemed to be largely about ritual.

His favourite method of sauna was to go to somewhere cold, have sauna, then jump through a hole in the ice covering a nearby lake and swim around briefly before the cold sets in. Hmmm. This appears to be a common and recognised practice in Finland (picture by Flickr user effyourself):


My earlier sauna experience in the airport hotel last saturday night, shortly after flying in wasn't really pleasant; the heat came from an electric fire and felt dry and unpleasant. I didn't so much get sweaty, as feel like there were lots of invisible needles being stuck into me. Plus, a group of, I assume, businessmen came in and started having a loud and animated meeting.

Being British, with typical British reserve, being in close proximity to lots of naked strangers basically letting it all hang out and generally swing, with a significant risk of skin-to-skin (or worse) contact is not my thing. Well, I guess I'd make an exception if it was Katie Holmes (without Thomas in tow), but otherwise no. So sitting in a very small room with four naked Finnish men, gesticulating and waving around bits of paper (is sauna a good place for documents?) wasn't that great an experience (constant thought: "Please don't make contact ... please no contact ... please no contact ...") and I left shortly afterwards. 

But, after Olli's description, I thought I'd give it another go. Either the entire country of Finland is mad, or I'm missing out on something.

Last night I arrived in Oulu and checked in to a hotel. Being Finland, it has of course a sauna (in this case, several). What the heck; I tried it - second time lucky, perhaps?

And it was great. Here's the sauna just before I stepped into it:


This was very different from the previous experience, being some coals or hot rocks or something in a metal bin type thing that you chuck water onto to increase the steam. The throwing on of the water and the pleasant sizzling effect was, in itself, strangely satisfying. My stay involved no pain or discomfort, just a gentle, almost unnoticeable sweating, with no effort involved.

I stayed in the 115 degree heat for a surprisingly long amount of time (for me, who detests hot weather), then went for a dip in the very cold hotel swimming pool. And came out very much woke up, but strangely relaxed. I can understand why Olli no longer needs coffee or cigarettes.

Sauna has therefore clicked for me. Sauna is good. I wonder, on my return, if I can persuade Berneray Community Council to pay for the building of a communal sauna on the shore of Loch Bhrusda? And I wonder if anyone else would use it?

+ + + + +

My other great Finnish experience of yesterday was the delights of train travel.

Two decades ago I loved UK train travel. Then some complete [explicit insult removed] in the government thought it would be a really good idea to break up the rail network, privatise it and open it up to market forces. Remember Railtrack? Remember before then, when InterCity train travel was actually enjoyable.

Now, I detest it. It's unreliable, slow, overcrowded, dirty, smelly (why does every Virgin long distance train stink of overflowing septic tanks?), miserable, cramped, badly designed (either no luggage spaces or full racks), noisy, full of chavs, drunks and neds, and unless you plan your journey with military precision and buy the tickets months in advance, is horrendously expensive. Any wonder that everyone wherever possible flies within the UK?

In Finland, I went from Tampere to Oulu. That's a fair distance, being 5 hours on a fast Intercity train.


Less than 40 quid in UK money. Big seats. A buffet car with tables and chairs, and a restaurant car with tablecloths. Airline-style personal radio channel selection in your seat. Booths for people to have private mobile phone conversations in without disturbing anyone. Loads of seating. Upstairs decks with big views. Sensible luggage racks. No crowds. Reliability to the minute. Clean. A choice of booths, communal, and couple seating. Compartments.

And unlike on UK trains, you don't have some eejit blast out on the tannoy every 2 minutes that the buffet car will shortly open / shortly close / does not exist / will be replaced by a trolley service containing only overpriced Jaffa Cakes for the next 300 miles.

The Finns kept their train company in state control and didn't mess with it. There's a very simple lesson here about privatisation, shareholder profits and market forces not always being the best path. Hot and sweaty is for sauna - cool and relaxed is for train travel.


  1. The winning habit of Finland at Silversprite22 October 2007 at 21:20

    [...] do Finns keep winning? Is it the Sisu? The sauna culture? A national resiliance through having larger and territorial neighbours through history? A [...]

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