A blanket of scorching heat envelops my body, as I sit trapped inside a small boxy room. Water sizzles and sprays up over a fire of burning coals. No, this is not a horror movie, but yet an experience one may call “the most extreme.” I’m inside a Finnish sauna. My host sister’s goal is to get the sauna as hot as possible by throwing water on the sizzling coals, while my goal is to make it through another minute of sweltering heat. My journey to Finland started when I applied for a summer exchange program through my local Rotary Chapter (www.rotaryyouthexchange.net). During my exchange, I spent a month living with a Finnish family near Finland’s capital, Helsinki.
Finland, a Scandinavian country and part of the European Union, is located near the top of the globe at about the same latitude as Alaska. Interestingly, most of Finland’s climate is similar to that of my home state, Wisconsin. In Lapland (northern Finland), the climate is harsh with cold and snowy winters, and reindeer (yes…there are such things!) live there. Throughout Finland armies of tall pine trees tower over a rocky landscape, sitting adjacent to nearly 190,000 glacier-carved lakes. The Finnish forest is like an enchanted fairytale, with overgrown green scattered upon the forest floor, and speckles of sunlight streaming through the pines.
Finland has extreme daylight changes due to its location in the northern hemisphere. The longest day of the year takes place at the end of June on a Finnish holiday called Midsummer. During Midsummer, my Finnish family visited their cottage in Pernio, a picturesque town bordering the Baltic Sea. Midsummer traditions include an enormous dinner, endless saunas, and a gigantic bonfire, amongst a multitude of friends and family. First came the dinner; the Finns take pride in their meals, creating a beautiful table to eat at, specially decorated with colorful Marimekko patterns. The dinner menu included everything from new potatoes to fire-fried salmon. After dinner the saunas began. Every single household and cottage in Finland has a sauna, as they are a daily routine for Finns. Finnish saunas are INTENSE, and a clash of extremes. To start off, everyone goes into the sauna together…naked! I was a little bit too modest to try such an extreme, so I wore a bathing suit. During Midsummer saunas, a special item is created to make the saunas even more “relaxing,” as the Finns say. A “vihta” is a collection of baby birch bark branches naturally woven together, and then soaked in steaming water. While in the sauna, the Finns slap themselves with the vihta for a massaging effect. Of course, a sauna is not complete without running down to the shore and jumping in the Baltic Sea! After getting an overwhelming head rush from the ice-cold saltwater, the next step is to scamper back up to the sauna. This process repeats as long as you can withstand it.
Traveling teaches not only facts and figures about different countries, but also life lessons. My journey to Finland taught me to step out of my comfort zone and try new things, especially with all of Finland’s “extreme” activities. Living with a new family showcased my differences in opinions and behaviors, and taught me to adapt and work and play with others. Most of all, my journey created lasting friendships of a lifetime, with some of the most thoughtful people I have ever met. Today, whenever I venture out on a new endeavor, my Finnish experiences give me confidence to go out of my comfort zone and try the “most extreme.”
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