It’s been ten years to the day since I was last in Scandinavia, driving up from Denmark, crossing the ferry at Malmo into Sweden, motoring north into an endless countryside of forest and lake, crossing the Arctic Circle into Norway, bowled over by the fjords and snow-capped mountains. I wanted Finland to complete the top tier of my Scandinavian trophy case. Misnamed Iceland (which is largely green) and Greenland (which is largely ice) will have to wait for next time.
Perhaps it was fitting that my goal this week was a little experiment called couch surfing. For at least one night, anyway. However, the realities of filming a TV show like Word Travels, when schedules and budgets are tight, and a crew of six have to be accommodated, means that returning to my broke and backpacker travel roots can only be alluded to, before it needs to be filmed from multiple angles. The formerly broke and formerly backpacking Robin, the same guy who ten years ago slept in a cheap shared rental car or camped on the side of the Swedish highway road, was greeted at the airport by a 16 seat passenger van, along with smiling representatives of the Helsinki tourism board, and shepherded to the stylishly modern Hotel Klauske. Bottles of in-room mineral water cost $10. The Finns, who are regarded in some blogs as being shy and somewhat cold to foreigners, warmed up to us with almost motherly care (especially when they saw me swaying in my restaurant my chair, the result of too little sleep, too much schnapps, and way too much smoke sauna).
Sauna, my first departure for investigation, is so intrinsically Finnish that the ceremony of sweating borders on the religious. Within its hot, wooden walls, the sauna is a time to meditate, to discuss lively debate, to catch up with family and friends. The Finnish Sauna, or more accurately, the saunas in Finland, have little to do with getting sweaty, or feeling sexy. Finns sauna naked because that’s how a sauna should be enjoyed, and I pity the fool who walks into a large public sauna wearing his Speedos. In fact, in some parts of Europe, I was surprised to learn that nudity is strictly enforced. Here, it is understood that the body in sweat, is not the body in heat. Which is how I came to find myself lying butt naked in a public sauna, stuck to a wet plastic mattress, watching a jolly rotund young woman scrub the bejezus out of me. But more on that later.
Sandwiched by Helsinki’s fish stalls and ferries, I came across a T-shirt in a market that read: Good Girls go to Heaven, Bad Girls go to Lapland. To answer whether bad boys go there too, we hopped on a one-hour Finnair flight to Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland. North to the Arctic Circle, to the land of the midnight sun.
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