Saunas and Silence

In the countryside of Finland, solitude is a national pastime

The Finnish idea of a perfect vacation: a Mökki on the shore of a quiet lake

In the farthest corner of northern Europe, tucked between a remote finger of the Baltic Sea and Russia’s frigid port of Murmansk, lies Finland. In North America, this latitude can land you in igloo territory. But when I touched down in the capital of Helsinki, Finland felt familiar—in fact, it felt a lot like Maine, where I spent my childhood summers.

Finland possesses a few features that Maine does not—for starters, a vast number of steamy wooden rooms full of naked people. But apart from the saunas, the similarities are striking: Finland has the same flat landscape, the same crisp air, the countless lakes, the fir trees and birches, and the fragrant wildflowers. Like Maine, Finland has a convoluted coastline dotted with rocky islands, and Finns even celebrate summer with lobster dinners—or rather, raucous evenings spent obliterating bucketfuls of crayfish. I was already feeling right at home when I met several Finns who revealed that they, just like my grandparents in Maine, owned a vacation cottage in the woods.

My new Finnish friends explained that staying at a cottage—called a mökki in Finnish—is basically Finland’s national pastime. Nearly half a million mökki dot the countryside, and that comes to roughly one cottage in the woods for every 10 Finns.

My friends decided I should experience a mökki for myself. I assumed this would be something akin to the comfortable vacations I’d enjoyed with my grandparents, when a stay at the cottage entailed plenty of cocktail parties, meals with neighbors, and strolls to town for a daily gabfest.

I was in for something else. When I asked a young woman in Helsinki to define the essence of cottage life, she gazed dreamily into the distance. “Washing dishes without running water or electricity,” she murmured. A man next to her nodded approvingly, and added, “Digging ditches.” (Only later did I realize he was probably referring to going to the bathroom.) And they both said emphatically: “Not socializing with other people.”

On the shores of the Baltic Sea

On the drive to my first mökki, the roads twisted through green fields of barley and rye and stunning yellow swaths of rapeseed. Sturdy red farmhouses and barns were scattered across the countryside. We arrived at a lake, and there in the woods was a very small, very charming cabin. My friends unloaded our supply of drinking water—which, in accordance with mökki tradition, consisted primarily of beer—and built a fire to heat the sauna. Someone pointed out the rowboat at the shoreline, noting that a rowboat and a sauna were the only two pieces of equipment necessary for mökki living. I was more concerned with a third piece of equipment, but when I found it—and indeed, it was more or less just a ditch—I was pleased to discover it was covered by an equally charming outhouse.

My hosts, men and women alike, armed themselves with forestry gear and disappeared. Had I been a Finn, I would have set off with industrious intent to thin trees, net fish, forage for mushrooms and berries, putter with hammer and nail, or even hunt down a reindeer. But I remained perched on the porch, enchanted by the sudden quiet.

When the others returned, it was time to unwind. We sat in the sauna. We jumped nude into the lake. We savored some drinking water. Then we clambered back into the sauna and did it all again. And again.

Soon I was much too relaxed to bother with the rowboat, so I just swam out to the middle of the lake and floated naked in the cool water, surrounded by silence and trees. The sky was a pure, empty blue, and there wasn’t a single plan for socializing in sight. It was the most carefree and restorative afternoon I’d spent in a decade.

Finland’s population is aging and growing richer, so some Finns have expanded the notion of the cottage getaway. When another Finnish family invited me to their mökki, I gladly accepted, but was startled to arrive at a large new home with vaulted ceilings, a fancy kitchen, and exquisite plumbing. It was still on a lake, and had a rowboat and a sauna—a slick electrified one—but lacked any Stone Age charms.

After another day surrounded by woods and water, though, I realized that what made Finnish cottage life so uniquely refreshing—and so different from my summers of socializing in Maine—was just as apparent at this fancy mökki as it had been at the simple cabin. These Finns, too, would happily spend weeks in the forest, never seeing a single neighbor. Even with a higher standard of living, the most desirable luxury was still the simple satisfaction of solitude.