I have buried the idea of ice swimming in Finland somewhere deep in the back of my mind. In my immediate vicinity, there are no Finns who enjoy this sport. At least that's what I think. On one of my last weekends in this lovely country, R. receives an e-mail asking us if we want to try it. S. (R.s friend) has done it some odd ten years ago, knows where to go and wants to take us along. My heart makes a jump and screams: YES! R. gets soft knees. Wading into water always takes some time for her. Wading into 0,6-degree cold water will almost certainly not resemble her idea of relaxation. Seeing my eagerness, she pushes herself and grabs everything we will need: bathing suits, a large and a small towel for showers and the sauna, crocks, beanies and lemonade. In the car, I feel sick to my stomach. I have claimed that this will be great, but I'm not so sure about it anymore. Am I insane? The Finns are crazy. That is undisputed, but me? Why do I want to do this? Swimming in ice is absurd!
We drive through a forest to a beautifully located lake that is also a spring. When, ten minutes later, we stand in a dark parking lot, surrounded by pine trees in the middle of a forest, my stomach sinks to my knees. Damn it. Since my two companions think similarly, we go to the water and look at the whole thing first. A steady stream of elderly individuals with caps, rubber boots and swim trousers or bathing suits walk past us into the water, linger there for a few minutes and then go back to the small wooden buildings. Everyone comments on our uncertain looks and gives us little encouragements. Because there are only friendly Finns, there is no going back.
When we enter the sauna, we are welcomed by a beautiful picture that I will never, ever forget. Women of various ages occupy the top bank. They all wear their bathing suits. Some of them also wear wool caps or felt hats to keep the head temperature constant. Never in my life would I have dreamed that there is such a thing in reality. The women move closer together so that we three also find a place. They are real character types. R. tells me later that the conversations move from the way the husbands go to the toilet, the best way of sorting kitchen utensils, to participating in ice swimming competitions. They are shameless and wonderful. I see my feelings reflected on R.'s face. We are in good company. The lady's announcement at the entrance "In the sauna, you will meet friends" is merely a fact. Here, dyed skinny blondes and overweight natural women meet and spent their time in the sauna with prejudice-free chatter. Unlike in Germany, the sauna is not a temple of relaxation, but a social event. This, of course, is not a general fact. There are many different facets of how to experience a sauna, and for the Finns, there is only one rule: no rules.
The wonderfully soft and warm water vapour feels like water in a hot bathtub. With each infusion, the perceived temperature rises until I can only breathe through my mouth, as my nasal mucous membrane is close to burning. The sauna with its 90 degrees doesn't get hotter. Just the water transfers the heat onto my skin directly. For a long time, it has trickled down my arms, and the small square towel on which I am sitting is dripping wet. I feel my head become empty and my eyes blurry. I have to get out of here.
The cold night air brings immediate relief. In goose-march, we walk on slightly shivering feet to the ice hole. The water is clear, the ice thick and covered with fresh snow. A pump keeps the water moving and the hole open. The people at the pit are giving encouragements. The news that there are newbies seems to have spread like wildfire. Everybody knows. A little awkward, I try to shoot a few pictures. After all, I will need proof. I want to show my brothers how tough I am. My camera is not working well with these fluctuating temperatures, and the autofocus only works every third time. I realise I will better describe this with words.
The first step into the cold water is like stepping into a thousand needles. Slowly I sink into the cold while trying hard to keep breathing regularly. Once submerged, it is smartest not to move any further, for every movement feels like the skin could crack.
The cold is like the fulfilment of a long-cherished dream. I feel the heat evaporate and my head clear. It takes only a few seconds, but then I sense the cold sink into me. Shortly after, I no longer feel my legs or arms, just my skin. Slowly, I get up and go back to shore. The next couple of seconds are painful, and I stand on my feet insecurely. Since I have no feeling in them, they could turn away at any moment. When I look down, they are pushed through. No risk of collapse.
The feeling slowly returns to my limbs. Only from afar I listen to the comments of the other ice swimmers. It feels like fireworks on my skin as if every pore wakes up from their frozen state and expands slowly, bumping into each other in the process, reminding themselves and me of the fabric that makes the skin the biggest organ in the human body. I can't help it. A smile spreads across my face.
While standing in the fresh night air, the skin feels hot, but when we arrive at the sauna every last bit of warmth has left my body. Entering the half-lit room brings as much relief as leaving did five minutes earlier. Again the water covers us, wraps us in a warm pillow of air, and the conversation revolves around us. Did we like it? Would we do it again? Yes and of course!
With the warmth, the feeling in my fingers returns. For the longest time I don't know, am I warm or cold? In five different places on my shrivelled hands, I feel both, often in places directly next to each other. It takes me approximately ten minutes until my eyes are heavy again, my head starts to feel empty, and I have to start breathing through my mouth. It's time for the second round. Overall, I go four times. Each time my body expands and tightens in the cold. I slowly learn to breathe through the discomfort and enjoy every single phase. I manage to move in the water. With every time I fell less pain.
The last time is the best. My companions have decided that they had enough and are getting dressed. I scurry to the lake for one last time. I have the ice hole to myself and can relax watching the distant lights on the other side of the water and the vast sky filled with stars. It's delightful. The silence feels otherworldly.
It gets cold, and it's time for me to get out of the water. Slowly and hesitantly, I stand up and move toward the shore. I have grown accustomed to the feeling of not being the master of my limbs and am expecting monumental fireworks on my skin. They come. It's a pain-like feeling, which ebbs through my body and becomes softer until it's no more than a tingling sensation. With a broad grin, I slowly go back to one last round of sauna. "Like a pro!" yells the older gentleman, who sees me from afar. Yes, like a pro.