I should be used to this, I keep telling myself, but it doesn’t help.
The toilet is right in front of me, and I’m dying to go, but it’s too cold to pull my pants down.
For the record, it’s an attractive toilet, one of the prettiest I’ve seen. It’s located in the middle of a remote wilderness in the Häme region in interior Finland, on a densely forested isthmus between lakes Pyhä and Näsi. The loo itself is a tiny but charming hut built of wooden planks, painted red, and with a heart-shaped window in the door, the perfect place for private affairs. The latrine compartment is open at the back where the dirty business falls down, so that any foul smell is swept away by winds, disappearing into the Finnish wilds, possibly scaring off lurking polar bears.
I’m on holiday, and I’ve borrowed a friend’s cottage as far away from civilisation as possible. However, I can’t quite relax. On this lovely evening, the temperature hovers around zero degrees Celsius but it feels much colder this far away from the comfort of electric lights. The outdoorsy toilet has neither running water nor heating. The candle in my handheld lantern flickers.
I try to fight the cold by telling myself that feeling frozen is nothing but a state of mind and that people hereabouts have been using similar eco-friendly toilets for ages. Even in the heart of winter, when temperatures go down to minus 25°C—and that’s in the daytime.
Night temperatures dipping as low as minus 50°C have been recorded in the Lapland Province at Salla, a small northern Finnish municipality. It markets itself as a tourist destination with the intriguing slogan “In The Middle Of Nowhere” and where one of the main annual events is the “Nothing Will Happen Week”. Finnish humour aside, Salla was where one of the decisive battles of the Winter War, featuring Finns on skis against the mighty Soviet army, was fought in the winter of 1939-40. And boy, those soldiers must have frozen their butts off!
I finally do my business as a matter of national pride. I was born here, in the nearby tiny Finnish township of Forssa, and repeating this fact to my disobedient genes convinces them that using this loo is therefore my birthright and duty.
My native Finland is a smallish country with a population of five million people scattered around an area of 3,04,623 sq km of heavily forested land. Approximately 75 per cent of it is covered in trees, a westerly extension of the Russian taiga. Besides, one-third of Finland lies north of the Arctic Circle. If I had lost my way while getting to the forest loo, there’s a good chance I’d never meet another human again.
However, should you ever meet Finns, you’ll discover they are a hardy people descended from an ancient Uralic tribe, speaking a language that is thought to have structural likeness to the Japanese and Dravidian tongues. The Finns stick to their traditions: laconic manner, sentimental tango music reflecting the melancholic Finnish post-World War mentality, steam baths, severe alcoholism, and high suicide rates.
There’s an oft-repeated anecdote of two Finnish men meeting to have a good time. As they uncork their vodka bottles, one says, “Cheers, then.” The other replies, “Are we going to talk or drink?” The gloomy autumns and long, lonely winters are supposedly the cause of this introverted manner.
I’ve returned to Finland, and more specifically the small town of Forssa, to poke around at my own roots after decades spent in the tropics. I’ve come to look at the hospital where I was born and to walk through the dark forests where I spent my childhood years being scared of trolls and other supernatural creatures, and to see if I can remember anything else of those long ago days.
Initially, everything felt really nice: cool weather, fresh air, and the amazing natural spectacle of the onset of winter. Maple, oak, and birch trees become naked, gnarled skeletons standing out against the thick carpet of yellow, red, and golden brown leaves.
As the days grow darker it is easy to believe in magical beings like trolls or Santa Claus.
Midwinter, there is feeble sunlight only for an hour or two. At the end of September, the nights become longer than the days, and a few weeks later, in October, snow begins to fall. It goes on falling until March, sometimes into May if it’s a freaky year.
The snow adds beauty in the darkness, covering everything with a shimmering whiteness. It’s a miraculous material from a child’s point of view. Snowmen, snow castles, and snow balls to throw at friends and enemies alike make for creative fun.
But the one thing that I had managed to forget, and suddenly remembered now, was how cold it gets as soon as autumn starts to turn into winter.
Winters can be a formidable enemy of humans. One’s snot freezes. Icicles and snow fall off sloping roofs, killing people—in fact a rooftop avalanche almost smashed me once, long ago. It is no wonder, therefore, that those who survive this hostile weather love that generous bringer of gifts, Santa Claus. Santa is known among Finns as Joulupukki or the Goat of Christmas, suggesting that he was worshipped here in a pagan form before Saint Nicholas, or Claus for short, became the object of Christian winter feasts.
The typical Santa figure—bearded man clad in homespun clothes and knitted red cap—is based on the folksy tonttu, a dwarfish gnomelike spirit living under peoples’ houses. If you’re good to it and put out a bowl of porridge every Christmas, it’ll act like a watchdog, keeping evil at bay and looting your neighbour’s larder to fill your fridge with free food and beer. Neglect it and it’ll ignore you too, and won’t bother to wake you up if your house catches fire.
The modern avatar of the tonttu remains the only supernatural entity Finns take seriously. It is said that Santa’s top-secret James Bond-style workshop, where toys for kids are made, is hidden inside the 1,630-foot high Korvatunturi Mountain right at the border with Russia. According to my GPS, that is 800 km from where I am right now, but as we all know, Santa—just like James Bond—operates globally.
Santa gets 7,00,000 request letters a year, which means that the Finnish postal department virtually lives off Santa’s fame in these days when post offices elsewhere are shutting down due to lack of business. The postal department maintains an official webpage at www.santaclaus.posti.fi with guidelines for those who want to become Santa’s pen pals. Tourists can even stay at the official Santa Claus Village near the Arctic town of Rovaniemi, where Santa’s mailroom, incidentally, is located next to the airport (www.santaclausvillage.info).
It sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? I too was a staunch believer in Santa as a child, but I couldn’t help noticing one curious thing: every Christmas, just before Santa was expected to drop by, my dad would have to go to the loo. Year after year he missed Santa’s visits, which irked me a lot, until I put one and one together. My dad was leading a double life… Santa and my dad must be one and the same!
The other thing that keeps Finns alive during those long, cold winters is the sauna. An estimated two and a half million saunas cater to five million Finns. Even if the entire population takes a bath at the same time, visitors needn’t be afraid of ever being left without a seat.
In theory, Finnish saunas are a distant relative of Turkish hamams, but are actually nothing like the spacious architectural structures in Istanbul. Nor are they similar to the clinical saunas found at international spas. The Finnish sauna is usually a small wood-panelled cabin, almost pitch dark, lit by a single candle and a wood-fired stove. In the old days saunas were set at a safe distance from the main house—just in case the sauna caught fire, your home wouldn’t burn down with it. The best saunas are usually by a lake, so that you can take a dip in cold water when the sauna gets too hot. However, modern saunas tend to run on electricity and have a thermostat to control the heat, so nowadays you also find them in basements of apartment buildings. But this particular sauna I’m talking about, in the forest north of Forssa, is where I used to bathe as a kid.
And yes, let me assure you that a sauna remains the best cure for wintertime blues. Thoroughly frozen after my visit to the loo, I hit the sauna to thaw my bones. The heat makes my curdled blood flow again. The main challenge was to undress outside in the ice-cold night.
The typical sauna has a three-level set of wooden bleachers: first timers are advised to occupy the bottom one because the higher you go the more mind-blasting the heat gets.
Among men, it is a popular sport to throw ladles of water at the kiuas, a wood-heated stove stacked with hot rocks, and create löyly, hissing clouds of steam. It may seem like torture, but this is the way men befriend each other here. Women go to the sauna separately, so I’m not sure if they also do the löyly one-upmanship thing.
Inside, the temperature can easily cross 90°C, which means that the difference between outside and inside temperatures is around 100°C, if not more. After a while in the sauna, I can’t breathe anymore and scoot out to cool off. If there was snow on the ground, I would have happily rolled in it. Instead I fumble about in the dark outside the sauna, trying to locate the cans of Finnish beer I had picked up at the supermarket on my way to the forest, and greedily suck down the ice-cold Lapin Kulta.
This is how the Finns do it. First you purify yourself on the outside with hot steam, and then you wash your insides with cold beer. After one beer, the sauna suddenly seems attractive again and it’s time to go indoors for the next round of löyly.
Finland is located in northern Europe. Most of its main cities, including the capital Helsinki, are concentrated in the south and along the coast. Forssa is a town in Häme region in the south. It is 116 km northwest of the capital Helsinki. the towns of Salla and Rovaniemi are located in Lapland, Finland’s northernmost region. Rovaniemi is 835 km north of Helsinki. Sparsely populated Lapland falls above the Arctic Circle—but is a popular place to see the aurora borealis (Northern Lights), visible on winter nights.
Flights to Vantaa International Airport near Helsinki from New Delhi can take up to 27 hours with layovers. If the transfers are not in a Schengen country, you may need an additional transit visa.
Finland is part of the Schengen area so a Schengen visa is valid here unless it has travel restrictions. The visa fee is payable to the embassy of Finland in New Delhi, where visa applications are handled: read instructions on www.finland.org.in/Public/Default.aspx. (011-4149 7570)
The most flexible way for internal travel is to rent a car. Note that there is the danger of colliding with wildlife, big animals such as moose and bear, or sliding off icy road surfaces. There are good long-distance bus services; the main carrier Matkahuolto (www.matkahuolto.fi/en/) offers a variety of tickets including unlimited travel passes for between one and two weeks. Trains are only convenient between main cities in the south or for a long overnight ride between the capital Helsinki and the Arctic Circle up north. Finnair flies to major cities including Rovaniemi if you want to visit the Santa Claus Village situated a few km from Rovaniemi airport. Cruising by ferry lines through the archipelago to the remote Ahvenanmaa islands is reasonably priced and fun.
May-September (Occasional thunderstorms) – Max: 27°C, Min: 10°C
During spring and summer the weather is pleasant. Visitors can go boating or canoeing, and enjoy outdoor entertainment such as concerts/theatre in parks. From June to July, the sun barely sets. The drawback is the abundance of insects, including ferocious mosquitoes.
October-April (Snow) – Max: -0° to -20°C, Min: -25°to -50°C
Winters get colder the further north you go and the snowy season may continue into April-May. Low temperatures require you to have the right layered clothing. Finns suggest you eat vitamin C tablets to keep healthy in the cold.
Camping Most towns maintain a camping site, often by a lake. Guests are expected to bring their own tents, but the ticket fee includes facilities such as toilets and hot showers. Generally only open in summers. Go to www.camping.fi.
Camping in the wild According to an ancient custom, a traveller may pitch a tent in any forest as long as no trees are damaged, no fires lit, or garbage left. You are not allowed to put up a tent within sight of any habitation. If in doubt, ask at the nearest farm for advice about where to camp.
THE FINNISH WAY
Rent a cottage Basic cottages and posh log cabins are available all over the country. The best are situated by lakes, but even the simplest have a sauna and a kitchen where you can cook. Guests are expected to do the cleaning or pay extra cleaning charges, and might need a car to access remote cottages. Depending on facilities, rates fluctuate; expect higher rates in summer, the peak holiday season. Book through www.finlandcottagerentals.com or www.lomarengas.fi or go to the Visit Finland website (www.visitfinland.com/directory) and click “Where to Sleep”.
Igloo Village Kakslauttanen is situated in the northern fells of Lapland and offers accommodation in igloos, a kota (an indigenous tepee), or log cabins. It gets cold but you’re provided with a sleeping bag, woollen socks, and other necessities (+358-16667100; www.kakslauttanen.fi).
Rovaniemi Arctic Snow Hotel is built of ice and snow and even has a snow sauna. It is open only from end-Dec to March(+358407690395; arcticsnowhotel.fi).
Appeared in the December 2013 issue as “The Fine Art of Freezing”. This story has been updated in December 2017.
In Finland every hotel, public bathhouse, home, and cottage has a sauna, so finding one is never a problem. Having a sauna bath is a social custom and a good way to get to know Finns. However, as ladies and gents usually bathe separately, you will not get to know any Finnish ladies in the sauna if you are a gent. Avoid big meals and hard liquor before a sauna, as this can precipitate a heart attack. Finns usually steam before dinner and only have beer during breaks. At public bathhouse saunas, visitors must shower before going in. Place a towel on the wooden bleacher before sitting, to avoid scorching your privates. If being nude makes you uncomfortable wrap yourself in a towel. However, this will make you feel hotter. A first-time visitor should sit as far away from the stove as possible, since the hot steam can cause burns. If somebody offers to whip you with birch twigs (vihta), this isn’t anything more than common practice to make the skin breathe. Finns usually steam for 10-15 minutes, take a break, and return for another round or two. Newbies can spend as long or as short a time as they like. The finishing touch is to wash with soap, usually outside the sauna in the outdoors, or in an attached washing chamber.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).