Culture Shock in Finland – How to Dive, Drink, and Sauna Like the Finns

‘You want Finnish breakfast?’

I look up. One of the Finnish divers, who is also staying at the dive instructor’s house for a few days, is offering me beer. He has a wide smile and a large belly. His gruffly voice, thick beard, and the amount he makes me laugh reminds me of the drunk pilot in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson). I point at the bowl in my hands. ‘Nah, I’ve got cereal, thanks.’

Yesterday, the dive instructor collected me from Laivahostel S/s Bore, a museum ship and hostel in Turku. He looked vaguely like the image in his WhatsApp profile, and stood beside an unmarked van. His black trousers were covered in paint, and he was deep in conversation with a mysterious caller.

Perhaps I was feeling self-destructive. The holiday had gotten off to a weird start with the plane ‘aborting take off’ at Luton Airport because Air Traffic Control issued an immediate ‘stop’ order – a landing aircraft was too close. The appalling weather also meant that the dive locations had been changed.


Perhaps I knew all would be fine. I gave him my rucksack and watched as he placed it on top of a pile of work tools, next to a large kitchen knife. Then I got in the passenger seat.

Under my feet, screws rolled.

I sent a friend a message. It read something like, ‘Hopefully I’ll see you in a few days! Scared face emoji.’

I sent my mum a message: ‘I’ve left the hostel.’

The dive instructor put the phone down and explained that his day job is manual labour. That’s fair, I thought. Finland is an expensive country. I’d probably need two jobs, too.

We discussed the flight issues I’d had, weather problems, and subsequent change of plans. I think it’s a really British thing to become frustrated by not achieving what we set out to do on holiday, although I’m sure that we’re not the only people with this mindset. He agreed that this has been his experience with other Brits – We do what we came to do, and get annoyed when we can’t. I find it’s better to travel without expectation and see where I end up, with loose plans. Don’t think like I’m British is a controversial reminder to myself: Relax. Don’t expect the plan to unfold perfectly, or on time.

The wettest July on recordGreat

The Diving

Yesterday’s dive went smoothly, despite the weather, and a man who drunk so much that he couldn’t join.

Today is a full day of diving, and the rain is no longer torrential. I’m learning to use a dry suit, although the smallest undersuit they have is more like a duvet – I’m under 5ft.

The fresh water dive sites in Turku are small but beautiful, with 2-5m visibility, but there’s little to photograph underwater. Most are quarries, each with their own historical reference, but I’m constantly hearing stories of flooded forests, shipwrecks, and idyllic dive camps that I could join when the weather is better. These are promises that motivate me to master my buoyancy with this large air-trapping contraption.

I’m learning that the strict PADI rules I was taught have difficulties with a Finnish culture in which drinking is simply part of everyday life. They seem relaxed about their dives. They wake early, as is common with divers, slave over kit preparation, and complete the dives whatever the weather. But they also drink beer whatever the hour, seemingly with only two rules – they won’t dive when they feel drunk, and they won’t drive over the limit.

Barbecues are made – attempted – between dives, in true camping and community spirit. Invites for evening events are dished out over burnt sausages. Tonight, I’ve been warned, ‘the guys are coming back to use the sauna.’

Culture Shock

The dive instructor is being a good host. He’s already moved out of his room and lent it to me. Now, he’s inviting me to use the sauna whenever I like, when it’s heated. He’s reminding me that the guys will be naked – ‘I understand that’s not a thing in other countries’ – but that I don’t have to go in with them, and I can wear clothes.

Of course, I should have expected the plans might change. That’s the way this trip is evolving, and this is a laid back culture. One of the divers, during a debate about electric versus traditional saunas, invites everyone to test it out. I agree. It’s early, and I should be social. They suggest that his wife will go in separately with me. I figure that will be better. The only other female diver isn’t here, so I do at times feel like I’m crashing a male work party.

To my surprise, his wife stays out of the event. Suddenly I’m sitting in a lounge with six Finnish men, drinking Original (Hartwell gin and soda combination, popular since the 1952 Helsinki Olympics), while they swig beer. We joke about cultural differences and travel mishaps. Then they offer a room for me to change, and I don my swimming costume. ‘Join us,’ they say.

Well, I’m here now.

Don’t think like I’m British.

I push open the door to the modern, clean, and powerful showers, positioned outside the electric sauna. There are multiple settings of the rain-like water. I can opt to wash myself with different amounts of power, or focus solely on my feet.

I enter the sauna, and hot steam floods my face.

Six naked men carefully sit on tissues, on wooden benches. They joke about Finnish culture and the awkwardness of being naked.

Don’t think like I’m British.

They ask if I know what vihta is. When I shake my head, they give a brief explanation, and then excitedly retreat to collect birch tree leaves. They begin hitting each other with them, explaining that this is a therapeutic tradition. The sweet smell of birch merges with a whiff of cooking bread, produced when they pour beer on the stones.

The dive instructor turns to me. ‘Want to try?’

I stifle a nervous smile. The image of a sauna, with six naked men who are hitting each other with leaves, is making me imagine the reaction I’ll get when I tell this story… ‘Yep.’

I pat the back of the bloke next to me with the handful of leaves. They swish through the air and clap against his skin. I try again, and it feels oddly like a pillow fight. All awkwardness has been forgotten in a surreal moment of hilarious leaf thrashing. By the end, I’m not sure if it’s the distraction or the pleasant aroma wafting through this spacious sauna that encourages a sense of relaxation. It no longer matters who is or isn’t wearing something. We’re all just humans, just social, in a pressure-free environment.

Kippis! Cheers!

Still, all unusual environments are eventually replaced by everyday life. The clock ticks into the early morning, and I politely remind them that we intend to dive the next day. The helicopter pilot lookalike gives me a quick answer:

‘In Finland, we think about today, not about tomorrow.’

He giggles childishly, and I can’t help but laugh. Yes, don’t think like I’m a British person.

As the event draws to a close we celebrate the fact that, despite this globalised world, it’s still possible to find a unique culture mere hours from the UK.

‘So, you’ve had an introduction to Finnish culture. You’re going to tell all your friends, aren’t you?’ They say, chuckling.

Definitely, I think.

Back home, I have a strange craving for good, revitalising saunas – minus the nakedness. I’ve realised that our culture is fast paced, that spas are assumed to be occasional expensive treats, and that saunas in sports centres are a tick-box part of exercise. Finland scored highest in the World Happiness Report 2019, again. While the rest of the world sits lower on the list, I can’t help but wonder if it’s because we’re not encouraged to take a little time out of our multitasking lives to slow down and sit in a good sauna. Now, I try to mix saunas into my travels.

But I still prefer cereal for breakfast.

Note: The final day of diving did not go ahead.

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