Rain, plumbing, swimming dogs, and saunas
Drinking water, fog, and lakes
Helsinki and Suomenlinna – plumbing and rain
The day after Brenda’s race we drove down to Helsinki for a few days. The big city. We arrived a couple of hours too early to check in to the apartment, so were walking around in the rain for a while until we found refuge at a French Café. A young man working there gave us some suggestions on things to see, and told us how to use public transportation.
We finally checked into our apartment, which was great and felt really roomy after the pre-race week in a dorm room. Noteworthy were three water features it had in common with all the places we stayed in Finland – a curbless shower, no bathtub, and a bidet attachment next to the toilet plumbed from the wash basin. We have even seen these bidet attachments in public toilets. These are often gender neutral. There are just stalls, and sometimes urinals, but the partitions go from floor to ceiling so you can’t see under the doors. It never ceases to amuse me that seemingly the whole of Europe uses WC for toilet, an abbreviation of the Victorian euphemism Water Closet, while the US prefers Restroom, “Why, are you tired?”, and the UK goes with Toilet. Oh, and one public toilet featured a genderless urinal. Of course I looked inside. It was a giant stainless steel funnel that you can squat over, a modern take on the French hole in the ground toilets, or “bomb sight” toilets as an ex-Air Force friend calls them.
Another rainy day had us following a great recommendation from our café friend, the fascinating Tom of Finland exhibit at the Kiasma museum. Tom suffered greatly from discrimination against gays during his lifetime, but went on to establish the leather and beefcake look – think Village People – that has become a gay cultural icon.
During a beach walk later, we saw a young woman drop her bicycle on the beach, strip to a swimsuit, and jump into the water. Open water, or wild, swimming is alive and well in Finland. As much rain fell on this day as is normal for the whole month of August. The rain we’ve had since we’ve been here is highly unusual. Climate change in action.
An island fortress, a ferry, and more rain
A sunny day found us, 5000 miles and 10 time zones from our own ferry island, on a ferry to Suomenlinna, a fortress island that has pIayed a significant role in the later stages of Finnish history, and was another recommendation from our café friend. From that small ferry we could see other much larger ferries heading to Tallinn, Stockholm, and elsewhere from this port city surrounded by water.
Sitting in a bar later, looking over the street people watching, we were commenting on the percentage of blondes in Helsinki and the insane number of hair salons, seemingly one on every block. Then I noticed that the percentage of men with blonde hair was way lower. From our elevated viewpoint we started looking at the roots, and quickly understood the need for the number of hair salons. As to why extreme blondeness is the beauty standard, well, that’s a PhD thesis for someone else.
Our third day in Helsinki was marked by more rain, so we spent the day in museums learning more about this country’s history. I am drawn to understand how societies work through suffering. In another visit to the French coffee shop, we learned that the young friend was Finnish, but born and raised in Brussels, Belgium, to parents who worked for the Finnish government. He introduced us to some history. He explained that the happiness, peacefulness, calmness, introversion, and humility of the Finns is a consequence of their shared trauma and suffering. It led me to wonder if countries, like people, who deny their own past trauma, are condemned to live in suffering.
Pargas – swimming dogs
It was raining still the day we left. We headed west from Helsinki to an island in the Turku archipelago where we were renting a cabin. The city disappeared quickly, as there’s no suburban sprawl. The landscape transitions back to sandstone, birch, and pine.
We arrived at a log cabin on the water in the town of Pargas on the island of Ålön, part of the Turku archipelago. The cabin was just what we needed, rustic and peaceful. The owner is a mildly eccentric Swede. This is his summer place. He likes to show new guests around via Whatsapp. He was at work wearing a bow tie and had the air of a college professor. He left us a bottle of wine made with berries from the garden, and a loaf of homemade sourdough bread almost as good as ‘s recipe. A superhost.
The cabin had a sauna, a water view, and a swimming beach within sight and down a short path. Next to the human beach, there’s a dog swimming beach where every afternoon they train water rescue dogs, which was a lot of fun to watch.
This is a Swedish speaking part of Finland, so most signs are in both Finnish and Swedish. With my knowledge of Dutch and German, I’m able to figure out the Swedish about half the time, which is a huge help. Finnish, on the other hand, is not an Indo-European language. Apart from recent loan words, nothing is recognizable. Overall, it helps that most people speak English.
The Turku archipelago – islands and ferries
The Turku archipelago is a area of 20,000 to 50,000 islands, depending who’s counting. We drove a chunk of the Archipelago trail out to Korpo. There were four ferry crossings. The ferries are single deck, five lanes wide, and open, with traffic controlled by lights. Did I mention they’re free?
A helpful lady in a bookstore recommended visiting Utö, the most southerly island in Finland, but the fall ferry schedule would have allowed us just half an hour ashore. She told us that their family has their own island, and that they’re thinking of doing a swim-run race there. Swim-run is a popular sport in this part of the world. Participants are pairs, tethered together. They island-hop by alternately swimming between and running across islands. The best known of these races is in Ötillö, Sweden. We said, “Oh, swim-run like O-tillo”. She didn’t understand at first, but eventually said what sounded like “ah, you mean Er-till-Er”.
Wild swimming in the Baltic
We awoke the next day to a pretty morning, and decided to go for a swim, which was wonderfully refreshing. The water temperature was a surprisingly warm 64F, especially in light of the latitude of 60 degrees north, about the same as Anchorage, AK.
The Baltic is connected to the North Sea, but the passage is narrow so the salinity stays low at 0.3-0.9% versus 3.5% in the open ocean. This applies to the surface layer. The deeper water is saltier and has a different ecosystem. Tides are minimal and measured in inches, so currents are correspondingly very low.
Turku – a river and a well
With more rain in the forecast, we headed to Finland’s oldest city, Turku. Watery features included the river, and an ancient well in the historial Museum. Incidentally, Finland, despite a high meat and dairy consumption, is great for vegans. We found great vegan options whenever we were, but among the best was here in Turku at Roots Kitchen in the old market building, which is now a food hall.
When we got back to the cabin we checked out the sauna. This one was a room off the bathroom with a stack of electrically heated rocks in the corner over which you pour water to generate steam. OK, you all know this already, but it was seriously my first time in a sauna. And I’m hooked. We’re already looking at options back for home.
Swim and sauna – and ice
The following morning we swam and headed straight back to the sauna. Seriously addictive. We met a couple who swim every day until January, when it freezes over. At a nearby beach they cut a hole in the ice so they can dip all year round!
Thanks for reading! There’s more to come about this amazing country. The next post will cover our epic boating adventure! To make sure you don’t miss it, please subscribe to Mostly Water.