Me (far right) with the party attendees in the yard of the villa in Oulu. Courtesy: Ike Nyknen
There is this country in the north of Europe where it is almost a nightmare for the people to strike up a conversation with strangers, but taking clothes off around each other is a piece of cake.
Nudity is not something you ?tolerate? here; it is something very natural, something you accept as part of who you are as a human being.
Welcome to Finland.
Recently, I attended the high school graduation party of my friend, Halla, in the northern Finnish city of Oulu. I also interviewed her for my 2017 ?Finnishness? project, which you can read here:
?Everybody Should Be Feminist Because Feminism Means EQUALITY? [Finland 100/Suomi 100]
Nuggets of information on Finland and Finnishness ? one story at a time
I have this insatiable curiosity about Finnish people, their culture, their way of life and Finnishness in general. So when I got Halla?s invitation a few months back, I knew that I would certainly be attending.
Halla rented a beautiful wooden old villa in the tranquil district of Hietasaari for the event and I was the only foreigner (and also the only non-Finnish speaker) there. There were over 20 people, mostly young boys and girls and Halla?s handsome boyfriend, Felix.
A few days before leaving for Oulu, I asked some of my Finnish colleagues in Helsinki what a common gift for such an occasion would be.
?Flowers, gift cards and sparkling wine,? they said.
But I was not particularly interested in any of these. I wanted to come up with something different and unexpected, something that would be personally relevant to my friend and her life.
So I wrote a graduation message for her, and read it out in the presence of all the guests. You can read the whole message here:
How I Used My Passion for Writing to Congratulate and Inspire A friend
How you can use your passion to be creative.
Halla looked happy and content at the party. She put on the traditional white hat that students in Finland wear once they graduate from high school. She was walking around, chatting to guests, and trying to ensure that everyone had a pleasant time and nobody felt left out.
Hours passed by and the party went on. After around 10pm, when the sky was still dimly bright, Halla invited me to join her in palju (hot tub).
I have been in sauna before but palju was something completely new for me. I did not want to miss out on palju experience. So I decided to dive in.
In palju, people may spend hours for relaxation or simple pleasure. Generally, they position themselves next to each other, thus forming a circle.
A typical palju. Courtesy: Internet
Halla was in bikini in palju. So were her friend Miksu, whom she has known for more than a decade, Miksu?s sister Kiisa, and another girl Supa, who lives in Oulu.
Before I joined them in palju, Halla asked me if I had any swimming costume.
?No,? I said.
She then said I could get fully naked and be in palju.
I found her suggestion amusing.
I was a bit hesitant, and said I could be in my underwear.
I think she sensed my discomfort regarding the idea of being completely nude, and then said in a calm and nonchalant tone: ?If you are in palju in your underwear, there might be hygiene issues. Look, I do not care if you are fully naked and join us. You do not have to wear any clothes.?
I understood that she was sincerely trying to reassure me. I smiled and said: ?I have brought a new, clean underwear from home and I will wear it. So there will be no hygiene problems.?
She raised no further objections and I did accordingly as I had said. Supa?s partner Ike also joined us in his shorts.
For the next couple of hours, we socialised. A lot. Our discussions revolved around a diverse range of topics, including culture, language, music, leisure activities and whatnot.
Even before I came to Finland, I had read about the indispensability of sauna in Finnish culture and how these Nordic folks do not care about getting completely naked in front of each other in that heat chamber.
In Bangladesh, the social and religious values that I grew up with taught me that nakedness is not merely a taboo; it is more than that. It is detestable, abominable and kind of forbidden. Bathing together with the family members in the Bangladeshi culture is unimaginable.
But here in Finland, bareness (especially in sauna) is not directly connected with sexuality.
I remember my coordinator at work telling me this a few times: ?You foreigners do not really understand that there is nothing sexual about being naked in front of others in sauna.?
Sauna in Finland is not a place where people check each other out because nobody is wearing any clothes. It is not a place where you allow yourself to engage in sexual thoughts/fantasies because you have naked members of the same/opposite sex around you.
It is about relaxing and enjoying the whole act of being there.
In sauna, you experience the heat and you actually want to enjoy it. You do not want to fill your head with thoughts of sex or sexual activities. Well, you should not because that is not what a Finnish sauna is for.
And Finns get this crucial lesson when they are still in their childhood. Finnish parents take their little children to sauna with them and they all can see the naked bodies of each other, which is completely normal in this culture.
When you, as a baby, learn not to sexualise sauna, it is easy to grow up accepting that nudity in sauna is no big deal. It is just as natural as it is to not consciously get naked in the presence of other people during bathing in other cultures.
I did not grow up in Finland and did not have the perk of learning as a child that nakedness does not have to be squarely associated with sexual thoughts/activities.
Now, in my early thirties, I am learning it.