06 January 1977

Sauna in Sweden and a watershed in life

Today I had an experience that would change me for the rest of my life. I was in Sweden visiting my friend Karin, my high school sweetheart whom I had met in England a couple of years ago when we were both students of English in Bournemouth.

I had spent several days with the family in Stockholm when they decided to move to the summer house they owned by the sea in a town called Oxelösund.

It was a very cold January evening when they prepared dinner with lots of crabs, potatoes, and glogg, a potent Scandinavian hot drink made up of alcohol and melted sugar.

After we were done eating to everyone's satisfaction and had drunk substantially, though we were not quite done with that, Karin's father, Bo Ossian, proposed we all go and take a sauna together. I thought that was a very cool idea even though I have never done it before in my life.

Next thing I knew everybody started taking their clothes off, like... all their clothes off and grabbing some towels. I was brought up in Catholic Italy and attended schools run by priests so I was slightly shocked at the sight but played along and took my towel.

Once everybody was ready the father opened the door of the house and a swift draft of icy air from outside rushed into the dining room. The outside temperature was minus 20 degrees centigrade I was told, normal for an evening this time of the year. We all walked out into the dark night and in a minute or so reached an outhouse where this how now was located just next to the Waterfront. Their water of the Baltic Sea was frozen solid. We all went inside the outhouse where the temperature was about 90° Celsius, typical Scandinavian sauna

A few minutes later we were joined by a couple of friends, I think neighbors, covered in nothing their own skin. Once inside the sauna, everybody laid the white towels that had hitherto wrapped milk-white bodies on the wooden benches to sit on and here we were, completely naked enjoying the heat.

It is hard for me to describe what I felt being completely naked not only with my sweetheart but also her parents, her stunningly beautiful sister, who at age twenty looked quite old to me, her sister's tall and soft-spoken boyfriend, and a couple of family friends who happened to pass by and joined us. A few frozen beers served the purpose of toasting to friendship and avoiding moments of uneasy silence.

After 15 minutes my hypothetical father-in-law said it was time to go out and jump in the water. I was very perplexed at this idea, first because the temperature gap between inside and outside the sauna room over 100 degrees Celsius and, second, because the Baltic Sea was actually, as I said, frozen solid.

No fear: Bo Ossian took an ice pick and started to punch holes through the surface of the sea, which was frozen four maybe five centimeters deep. We could have walked on it, I am sure. But we did not, we swam into it. After a minute or so he had made a hole big enough for several of us to jump into. I hesitated but it was so cold standing in the night wind that I thought it could not be colder in the water. 

So we all jumped in the water, I screaming and yelling, they calm and relaxed. I remained there barely floating for maybe 30 seconds before jumping out and running the few steps which separated me from the safety of the sauna.

Heat, sweat, drink beer, skinny dip in frozen Baltic sea, repeat. this was my routine for three rounds until Karin said it was enough and we could walk back to the house.

On the way, still dripping cold sweat, protected only by a white cotton towel around the waist, we met two neighbors who were taking a walk to the waterfront. they were fully clothed with fur coats and hats, boots and gloves. Karin waved to them hand decided it would be good manners to greet them. So we stopped and she introduced us. Then they started asking questions about Italy and how my trip to Sweden was going so far. I tried to answer politely but as concisely as possible to try and make it back to the house before my sweat froze on my skin. Which I did, and which it did, but about five minutes later we were all back in the dining room where more glogg was waiting to provide a stroke of the whip to our guts and restore a sensation of warmth and peace for the rest of the night.

What happened today might be dismissed as an insignificant episode in the life of a Mediterranean adolescent who is exposed to a more liberated, some would say emancipated, society, and culture. And maybe that is really all there was to it but, for me, it marked a watershed in my life. It drove the point home that the way things were done in Italy definitely not the only way and, more importantly, was not necessarily the best way.

In fact, I realized, there and then, while still under the influence of glogg, that "my way" was going to be more like the Scandinavian way than the Italian way. More like the secular, egalitarian way than the religious, compartmentalized way.

What I did not realize was that this would not be understood, let alone accepted, by most of my friends and family back home. But, like Frank Sinatra sang a few years ago,  I would do it my way, anyway. It would bring me pleasure and satisfaction, but it would also make my life more difficult. It would create more obstacles on my path to life than a 17-year-old kid could even think of. This was definitely one of the most significant days of my life so far and, I suspect, ever.