The air was beginning to shimmer a warm golden grey as we pulled up to the summer home in Hämeenlinna. It sits by a lake, of course. Between the house and the lake are apple trees and a sauna. The light wrapped us, holding on a little longer, and then it departed. By this hour, dinner had been made, and we ate. And then, flashlights in hand, we walked down to the sauna and disrobed.


Dock, Lake, Finland


The changing room exuded the familiar sauna smell of wood, birch, damp. I stacked my clothes in a little pile. The lack of electricity emboldened me somewhat: we were girls and guys together. Despite being no sauna newbie, this was fresh to me. I had been camping in Siberia, then bumming around on couches in the Baltic countries; hadn’t touched a razor in a month. But we were all enveloped in darkness. Skin brushed skin. I relaxed. Löyly, steam, washed over me. It snuck into my nostrils, my throat, down into my chest. I dripped.

Emerging into the chilly, so crisp, night, I carefully padded my way over the grass, down to the dock, into the lake. The cold water forced the air out of me. I submerged myself, scrambled up the ladder, back onto the dock, back onto a bench in a sauna, bodies all around. Repeat. Repeat. And a final rinse under the cold showerhead outside. My skin flushed; I felt fresh; I felt relaxed.


Sauna in Hämeenlinna

The sun brushed our cheeks, soft and cool. We gathered round for the rules of “the Olympics.” The second of three tasks: find the three best mushrooms. Off we tore. Scrambling down forested hills, dirt dislodged, coating my ankles. Running, eyes fixed on the forest floor, looking as keenly as I could. No mushrooms. Back onto the road, up a hill: here are some. Are the pink ones safe? No? Only a couple of tatti for me. The whistle, tearing back up the driveway, panting. Here are my meager findings. But I’m smiling. Because hurtling through the forest, eyeing the details, is exhilaration.

Later, in a calmer manner, we returned to the woods. The pink mushrooms actually are edible after boiling, I learned. We strolled and stooped slightly apart from each other, gathering. My basket filled with pinks and one beautiful megatatti. I balanced my can on the uneven ground, gathered the few mushrooms I sighted, took a sip, stood. Simple, meditative, pleasure.


Elina with Pink Mushrooms


It’s still light, and it’s back to the sauna. Everyone can see everyone, but it feels just normal, just natural. I’m probably the only one even thinking about nakedness—simply that it’s a thing, not that it’s weird—from my outsider’s perspective. In the dim, steamy light of the sauna I learn some new words, ettu peppu and taka peppu. Front butt and back butt. Each peppu is designated as to fit more people on the sauna bench. We sweat on each other. Some of the guys hum the dwarf song from the Hobbit, and then practice the chorus for System of a Down’s Vicinity of Obscenity. It would feel surreal if it didn’t feel so right.


Beautiful Finnish Lake


Again, I pad through the grass and vault into the lake. Then I stand in front of the sauna, sipping a cider and chatting with whoever else is taking their break, steam rising from our skin. Then back into the löyly, drifting toward the humming of the men, hovering in front of the tiered benches in the cooler air before I am labeled as an ettu or taka peppu and squeeze in.

Steam. Jump. Cool. Repeat.

I feel calm; I feel free.

I must be glowing after the sauna, for I feel more alive. We all change into formal dinner clothes. I even put on lipstick. It’s time for dinner, the centerpiece of this entire weekend, which is a crayfish party, a Swedish-Finn tradition. The main platter is a spiral of red claws. Elina and I enjoy our vegetarian alternative of artichokes. We pass around rye bread with a mushroom salad made from our day’s foragings. There are toasts. After the toasts come songs. Many are in Swedish and I fumble through the lyric book that is passed to me. After songs come shots.


Crayfish Platter


After dinner comes dancing, to the most eclectic selection. I don’t even remember what was playing apart from when I delayed heading to bed because I simply couldn’t miss Start Wearing Purple or Dancing Lasha Tumbai. But I remember the dancing. Sometimes I sat and watched as the clock crept well past midnight, regaining my strength. Most times I bopped along with everyone else. On occasion I was swept off my feet—literally—by far better dancers than I. We laughed, we spun. We were silly, we were crazy. We were glad.