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“No f*cking way am I doing that,” I thought, watching a Finnish granny leap into the frigid Baltic sea, her shrieks piercing the air.
“Well, she’s dead.” I concluded as I watched her grey locks slip beneath the surface.
But then she bobbed up from the water, smiling and splashing around like a giddy seal, puffs of her breath steaming up the air.
As I stood on the deck of the Löyly sauna, wrapping my towel tightly around myself, I decided, then and there, that when it comes to conquering winter, no one does it like the Finns.
Long-time readers of our blog know that Wanderer and I are sun-chasers. We hate the cold. That’s one of the main reasons why we left Canada to travel the world—to avoid having to see another goddamn snowflake ever again.
But it wasn’t until we got to Helsinki, Finland that we realized that sometimes the cold can be a good thing. Sometimes it can be so good, it’s even a necessity.
And that happens when the Finns have conquered the cold so hard, they’ve made winter their bitch.
Here are just some of the ingenious ways the Finns cope with their icy surroundings:
Sisu is a Finnish word meaning “going beyond one’s physical and mental capacity to push through difficulties against the odds”, which explains exactly how a 60-year-old woman can jump into a frozen lake like it’s a freaking jacuzzi.
The Finns have a grim determination to push through whatever bullshit life throws at them, which explains why they’ve thrived and survived, despite their country being one giant igloo.
Over our travels, I’ve made my opinion of saunas well known (huge fan), so I was delighted to learn that not only do the Finns share my love of saunas, they actually invented the word! In fact, “sauna” is a Finnish word meaning “a small room designed to make you experience dry or wet heat.” To the Finns, saunas are not only an obsession, they are a religion.
Case in point. In a country of 5 million people, there are 3 million saunas! In Finland, having access to a sauna in Finland isn’t a need or a want, it’s a human right.
Finns think of saunas the same way Mormon’s think of church. Traditionally, woman gave birth in saunas—the cleanest room in the house. Families also used it for purifications, celebrations, weddings (yes, they have sauna bachelor parties), and even to clean the bodies of the loved ones before they are buried.
Which is why they say “saunas are where Finns are born and where they go to die”.
They even have a word to describe the steam that rises when you pour water over the hot coals inside the wood-panelled room: Löyly (which is the name of the most popular sauna in Helsinki)
But the Finns don’t just stop there. They take saunas to a whole new level by using this sacred tradition to tame the cold.
Because after they sweat it out in the sauna, these crazy bastards go outside, cut a hole in the ice and plunge into the freezing water. That’s how they turn cold weather from an enemy into an amenity.
I had no idea what they meant, until I finally tried it for myself.
“AHHHHH!” I screamed, plunging into the freezing cold Baltic ocean.
I could hardly breathe as every cell in my body screamed in agony. And as I bolted out of the water, feeling like every nerve cell was on fire, a curious thing happened.
Every cell lit up like a Christmas tree, and for the first time ever, I felt more alive than ever. Exhilarating doesn’t even begin to describe it. I was reborn.
If you’ve never taken a polar bear plunge after melting in a sauna, do it at least once. You will be transformed.
If sisu and saunas aren’t your thing, you can brave the cold by heading to a Finnish market and indulging in a Reindeer burger.
While I wasn’t crazy about the idea of eating Rudolf, Wanderer said it was even tastier than beef (for me it tasted gamey and pungent, like lamb).
There’s nothing like passing the time in sub-zero temperatures, and long periods of darkness by eating weird ass shit.
In addition to reindeer burgers, the Finns also have Salmiakki, a candy that tastes like the bastard child of salt and black licorice, and Tyrkisk Peber, which tastes like what a candy scientist would make if she lost her mind and turned hot and sour soup into a lollipop. I’m not sure how exactly these candies are supposed to placate their kids, but it sure amuses the hell out of them to watch tourists hold back their puke just to be polite.
If all else fails, go with their best tried and tested method:
When it comes to drinking yourself into oblivion to chase away the wintry blues, the Finns take this to the next level. They even invented the word:
Which literally means: “The feeling when you are going to get drunk home alone in your underwear – with no intention of going out.”
They even created their own emoji to describe this:
And finally, you can combat the cold by building a good old-fashioned:
After a long hard day of roasting and then freezing ourselves in the Löyly smoke sauna (seriously, check this place out if you’re ever in Helsinki), we decided to cook ourselves up some delicious sausages at the Regatta Cafe, while sipping hot chocolate by the lake:
Yes, I know. It’s a hard-knock life.
So, there you have it. When it comes to the cold, the Finns have learned not only to sisu through it but tame it into submission.
After going to Finland, we’ll never look polar bear swims the same way again. And best of all, Finland shocked us by NOT actually breaking the bank like Denmark and Iceland did.
Here’s how much we spent in Helsinki:
|Category||Cost in USD/couple||Cost in CAD/couple||Notes|
|Accommodations:||$63 USD||$82 CAD||Airbnbs in Helsinki are generally not cheap but not expensive either. The one we ended up picking was a short tram ride from the city center and on the smallish side, but very clean, neat and compact. Our host left us some cute thick socks and a book called '101 Very Finnish Problems: The Foreigner's Guide to Surviving in Finland' which I loved.|
|Food:||$25 USD||$33 CAD ($14 for eating out, $19 for groceries)||Food definitely CAN be expensive in Finland–though not nearly as expensive as Iceland and Denmark. We ended up cooking a lot more and only eating a few things from food markets. After the reindeer burger and the weird ass candy, I decided to save our money for the saunas.|
|Transportation:||$12 USD/day||$16 CAD/day||During our four days in Helsinki, we only took the subway a handful of times and walked around for the rest. The 2-hour ferry from Estonia to Helsinki was only 10 Euros each (make sure to pick the Tallink Silja company) and trams are 2.20 Euros each person each trip.|
|Entertainment:||$32 USD/day||$41 CAD/day||This was by far our most expensive category–shocking, I know. Since the Finns practically invented the sauna, we had to try out as many as we could. The least expensive sauna was only 7 Euros a person and was just 1 room, the mid-range was 14 Euros/person and the most expensive one we tried was 19 Euros per person for 2 hours at Loyly. You must book ahead of time for that one since it's very popular.|
|Total:||$132 USD/couple/day||$172 CAD/couple/day||Even though we spent a lot on saunas, Helsinki ended up being not that expensive and comparable to most of Western Europe! If you're ever in Estonia, I would highly recommend you take the ferry to Finland and try their saunas. You won't regret it.|
What do you think? Would you ever take the plunge?
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