I fire off one last Slack message, finish tipping my Uber driver, and stash my phone in my company backpack. I start putting my personal items in a makeshift locker.
“I can be anyone I want to be,” I think to myself, as I drop my boxer-briefs to the ground.
I’m at a community-led outdoor wood-burning sauna campground just north of Helsinki. Everyone here is buck naked.
I’m here on the recommendation of a local. I’m out of my element. There’s nowhere in the states like this. Not where I’m from, at least. People generally keep clothed in public near Brecksville, Ohio. I’m the only one here speaking English as my first language.
And here I stand, avoiding eye contact, looking out at the sea, imagining I’ve seen something unbelievable on this gusty 40-degree day. I’m wearing a coat of goosebumps.
I probably should have checked where the saunas were located first.
I shift my eyes toward the sky. There’s smoke billowing out of a chimney in the distance. I feign confidence and awkwardly trod in that direction.
This is totally normal. Finns don’t make a big deal out of public nudity. Why should I? Everyone on this planet, now and throughout history, has had a body. Yeah, this is totally normal.
I approach the wooden shack and tug open the door. I get more stares than I ever have. It’s packed. There’s no room for one more. I’m letting the heat out. I back up and close the door.
I’m standing bare-assed outside. I must seek refuge. I scan the skies in desperation, determined to detect another stream of smoke. I peer across the grounds and notice another wooden shack. It’s calling my name. Perfect. I waddle that-a-way.
There’s an orange construction cone in front of the door. No matter, it’s not meant for me. I move it aside and enter. There’s nobody inside. A relief.
It’s not hot in here. It’s possibly warm. Like the first sunny day of spring, when you’re not quite ready to admit that you still need your coat. Decidedly un-sauna-like. Tepid. I sit. I collect myself.
What am I doing? I don’t even sit naked by myself in my own home. I’m here to experience the traditions of a local community. Somehow, the argument I’m making to myself is to prefer sitting in a 12x12 room with a bunch of unclothed strangers. Immerse. Socialize.
On cue, the door bursts open. I’m startled. It’s a volunteer.
“Sauna suljettu.” The Suomi phrase bounces around the room and lands flat on the floor.
“I’m sorry?” I say, immediately eluding to my tourist status.
They retry, annoyed. “This sauna is closed.”
The cone tried to tell me that little detail earlier. I stand up sheepishly and exit under their supervision.
Outside, there’s a bench with plenty of space. A local sits on the end. He’s soaked, just out of a dip in the frigid sea. I take a seat next to him. I can be anyone.
“How’s the water?” I offer, a volleyball serve that’s heading straight for the net. Certainly not my best work. I keep my gaze at the ground. He takes note of my English.
“I’ve been at sauna all day. Usually I’m done after three or four sessions. I think I’m on 11 or 12 now.”
“Wow. Stay hydrated! I just got here. I’m from the States.” I feel the need to justify my English.
“Oh.” He suddenly cares less. “What’s… been your favorite… thing… you’ve seen?” I can tell he’s faking interest. I’m really not here to sound like a well-traveled snob. I’m a person. I’m relatable. I’m sitting next to you in the buff.
“Honestly, I just like seeing the city and talking to people. There’s not one particular place.”
“Oh.” He’s not really responsive. Uncaring. Cold.
I look up into his eyes. They’re bloodshot. He’s holding his breath, and suddenly exhales with a gasp. He shivers uncontrollably. I notice his skin is exceedingly blotchy.
Oh. He’s actually fucking cold. He’s actually not currently interested in anything but his health.
“I’m not normally like this. But watch. I can control it.” He takes a deep breath in and holds it. The convulsing pauses. He exhales. It continues.
“I’ve never seen my skin like this.” He holds his hands out. He turns them over to look at his palms. They’re pruned beyond belief. 90-year-old looking hands on a 30-year-old body.
“I look like a corpse. I look like I’m actually dead.” He’s not wrong. What the fuck.
“Maybe you should take a break, man. Go warm up.” I suggest that he heads back in to the sardine sauna. He agrees. I follow him, partly to make sure he arrives, partly because I don’t know what else to do. He opens the sauna door.
There are two seats available. We both breathe sighs of relief. We both take a seat. We become sardines. I close my eyes.
I don’t know where I imagine that I am, but it’s not here. I open my eyes.
I’m surrounded by 9 naked sweating men. I can’t imagine being more stressed. The heat tries to help me to stay calm.
One man closest to the wood-burning stove reaches down. He scoops a ladle placed in a bucket of water on the ground. He slowly transfers it over to the stove. He pours it in. The stove hisses, screaming, then quieter.
I’m suddenly hit with a wave of warmth. I close my eyes. This is it. The infamous, delectable löyly. The steam that opens your pores. Improves your blood flow. Brings upon a sensation of well being. Frees your mind. For a moment, I start to forget about my body, my surroundings. I start to understand this tradition.
I’m startled. The stove hisses. Again. Another scoop. Another wave of warmth. Okay, that’s a lot. I drop my head down closer to my knees. I take a deep breath. I stay put. I gather myself.
The stove hisses. Again. Like, again, again. The man seems to have forgotten there are humans in this sauna. I’m blasted by another screaming curtain of boiled cloud water. My ears begin to pierce. I believe I am starting to actually cook. I am not a sardine. I am a stalk of steamed broccoli. I am in the pot.
I immediately jump down from my seat. I open the door. I exit the sauna. I look out to the sea. Incredulous. Speechless. Naked.
“I can be anyone I want to be,” I think to myself, as I pull my boxer-briefs to my waist. I gather my belongings. I call an Uber. I check my Slack messages as I wait.