The first time you see a naked Russian man gently shrouded in a steam bath can be upsetting. But never so much as when it’s coupled with the nauseating revelation that you too are nude. And 18. And in Finland.
The man, with heavy hooded eyes and a neckline of mountain gorilla body hair, looked across the foggy room at me, blinked, then cracked his neck. Clearly the relief of the sauna was a long time coming. I hear Putin will do that to you. To my left, a party of teenage Brazilian boys sat smirking. One, lips shaking, willed himself to swallow his punchline. While on the right, three lumpy Australian girls sat. Here we were in a space no bigger than your suburban American dining room, huddled around a pile of hot rocks. Just a bunch of kids in Lapland, Finland, free-balling it. If the first day of this trip was this exciting, I could only imagine what they had planned for us with the next day’s main agenda item—reindeer rides.
The Rotary International Exchange Program: helping kids literally see the world for more than 75 years. Sure any 18-year-old could go to state college and inevitably see naked people their freshman year, but could they see them in a eucalyptus sauna just above the Arctic Circle? Me thinks not.
I sidestepped the traditional high school-then-college trajectory of kids the USA over and hitched a ride to Scandinavia. And though Rotary had assigned me a country to live in for a year, little did I know I would end up in these circumstances.
My wish list read as follows:
I had a yen for towheads.
And the application process had been stringent. For a month I waited as friends received college acceptance letters. With every “Where you going to school?” I’d deflect and say, “Hopefully I’ll be overseas.” Hopefully. When finally one night as the family was gathered in the den sitcom watching, the phone rang. From the kitchen I could hear my dad, “Hello, yes I’ll put her on” then cupping the phone, “K-Pops!”
I ran in.
“Hello Kinsey, this is Dick Frampton from Rotary, how are you doing?”
“Well, I just wanted to let you know that we’ve reached our decision regarding next year’s exchange students and…(pregnant pause)… you’re going to Finland.”
“Wha–” insert sounds of choking snorts.
Picture the scene in Sense and Sensibility when Hugh Grant arrives at Emma Thompson’s house and she says, “So then, you’re not married?” And Hugh goes, “No” and she proceeds to totally snot rocket all over Barton cottage. That was me on the phone, falling apart.
I think I returned the receiver to my dad.
Nestled between Sweden and Russia, Finland sits on the cusp of Scandinavia, like a leftover container of Ben & Jerry’s Oatmeal Cookie Chunk chucked in the back of the freezer and forgotten so long it developed a thin, over-layer of ice—a cold exterior penetrable only with room temperature vodka. It took some shots, but I managed to penetrate it. Today I still maintain contact with a handful of extremely close Finnish friends.
Back in the sauna, the Aussies were getting antsy, their flesh cooked to a perfect medium-rare. I followed them out in hopes of tracking down dinner. Finnish fine dining had yet to evolve into the James Beardian world then. Thin Wasa crackers taken with butter were the norm, along with a portion of boiled potatoes, skinned tableside with one’s own knife. A smattering of root vegetables in the form of a lackluster salad typically accompanied the provided fare and in addition to some form of protein, chicken for the most part, all was served with the presentation only a population forced into a near eternal winter could muster. Meals were sustenance, not a celebration.
Celebratory occasions were saved for the rare cloudless day. That’s when Finns broke out the good stuff, preferably Finlandia, tossed some makkera (thick sausages) on the grill and partied until the sun went down, which in winter it never did, ever.
Taken as a gap year, a study abroad can be magic. In my experience, it must be what J.K.Rowling fans feel when handed a mug of butterbeer at Harry Potter World. For one year you’re given a pass, free to recreate yourself not just in another town, but in an entirely different country. Sure, there were some low points. My first host father only spoke to me in the dim stairwell of the basement quietly smoking a North State cigarette while sipping Salmiakki Koskenkorva. In hindsight I recognize the paralyzing depression he must have been experiencing having lost his job, but at 18 I diagnosed him instead as a kindly creeper. Of course, it could have been worse. I knew an Australian girl who, upon her first day of exchange in Holland, walked down the stairs to find her entire host family at the breakfast table in the buff… It was a glass table.
“Oh, didn’t we tell you?” her host mother casually said, “We’re nudists.” So what did she do?, I asked her. “I took off my clothes and joined them,” she told me.
And that boys and girls, is what we call acclimation.
My conquest began at Imatran Yhtieslukio high school. Picture it like this:
You walk into school and two dozen blondies greet you with curious smiles. One uncharacteristically friendly Finn wreaking of smoke saddles up to you.
“I’m Lauri. What is your name?”
You’ll be thrilled to have found your first Finnish friend. Sure he appears like a stockier Scandinavian Marlboro man and sits alone in the cafeteria, but at least he’s outgoing.
It won’t be until two weeks later when Lauri invites you to an event in the forest that you’ll realize he’s into LARP, live action role playing. Medieval to be exact. Continued research will reveal he’s been deemed a pariah by the better half of the entire student body. You’ll swiftly (albeit gently) turn down his LARPing invitations, feeling bad, but knowing you have just a year in this chilly nation and can’t spend all your weekends wielding a mace in chain-mail.