By: Samantha Albert
Last summer, my friend Corey and I traveled to the Nordic countries. We started in Sweden, then flew to Finland, then to Norway, Iceland and lastly, Denmark. We were on a mission: not only to find the best coffee shops the Nordic countries had to offer, but to tap into the meaning of “Nordic Café Culture” and to compile our findings into a book.
As we lugged our equipment and suitcases around from town to town, and country to country, from hostels to homes to coffee shops, there were times we felt so exhausted and out of place that all we could do was curl up together on a hostel bed, eating “American” peanut butter and watching some movie where Michelle Williams is in love with a rickshaw driver. Wine was usually involved. And although our adventure was probably the most exciting, life-changing experience of our lives, the comfort of home and family during those three months was something we had to do without.
This peanut butter movie low-point came in Helsinki, where all of our energies went towards navigating baffling maps and deciphering the bewildering Finnish language. The clarity of our mission was blurred by frustrations and homesickness, and by a growing feeling that we might not be able to uncover “Finnish” coffee culture. The Finns are known for drinking the most coffee per capita in the world…but we couldn’t figure out where they were doing it.
Then, one afternoon, we got our break. We were connected with the Toikka family through a friend in Seattle, who had spent time with them in the 70s (!). It was a long shot, but after a few emails back and forth, there was a car outside our hostel one afternoon. The straw-hat-wearing Anterro Toikka was waiting patiently in the car with his lit cigarette and open can of beer. We got in and the adventure began.
First stop was the university, where Anterro showed off his giant sculpture of the universe, and then to his art studio in the outskirts of Helsinki, where he charmed us with jazzy piano tunes as we waited for his wife, Kristiina. As soon as she arrived, we were riding bicycles through a lush forest that led us towards the public sauna on the Vantaa River.
We had known Kristiina for a mere fifteen minutes before we were stripping off our clothes in an old wooden house at the river’s edge and following her, completely exposed, into the sauna. We scrambled for an open seat, squeezing past a sea of sweaty breasts and shoulders. Children were pressed between their chatting mothers as the “queen” of the sauna, an old woman with beads of sweat dripping down her wrinkled skin sat unwavering, staunchly pouring water over the hot stones. This was a party – full of commotion, laughter, and gossip, and here we were, stunned, not only from this culture shock but from the colossal heat that was quickly working its way into every pore of our bodies.
Yet with every slow inhale of the burning steam, we deepened into a state of tranquility. The cultural divide no longer existed, sitting flesh to flesh with women in the same state of vulnerability. Soon the idea of “nakedness” no longer existed. Once the heat was truly unbearable, we gathered ourselves in towels and ran out the door, down the hill, and jumped off the dock into the frigid river. And as soon as the chill had sufficiently seeped into our bones, we took our quivering bodies back into the fiery madness, Sauna Queen eyeing us as we re-entered.
The blood in our veins was pulsating through our bodies as we peddled to the Toikka house through the tall grass and crickets singing to the setting sun. The body “high” from the sauna lingered when we arrived at the house and were greeted by Kristiina and Anterro’s children and grandchildren. Then, “Sauna Sausage” began. We had no idea if Sauna Sausage was a Finnish tradition, or just a family ritual, but we did know that the warmest and funniest family in Finland was feeding us crispy sausages and pouring vodka into our glasses as laughter and jokes filled the room. We sat around the dining table for hours as Anterro strummed his guitar, serenading us with The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” while their son Mikko furiously wrote poetry at the table and the grandchildren ran around us in circles, playing with their toy guns. The tingling in our bodies induced by the sauna was quickly replaced by the sensations that come from drinking strong, Finnish vodka, and every little joke and song was turning into hysterical laughter.
Amongst the chaotic intimacy of a family dinner came a sense of security and love, for in one evening, we become members of the Toikka family and received the comfort of home that we were so missing. And because coffee was our ‘thing’, Kristiina made us her coffee specialty by brewing freshly ground cardamom and coffee beans in her Melita. In her neon green outfit, Kristiina stood in the kitchen, delicately brewing us her cardamom specialty before bringing it to the table in perfect little mugs and serving us the richest coffee we had ever tasted.
Kristiina was our carda’mom’ that evening, and the Toikka’s, our Finnish family. We soon came to realize that coffee in Finland is like bread and butter — a staple of life and gathering. Coffee is consumed at fish markets, at funerals, at weddings, at coffee shops, and at home. It completes any ceremony, big or small, even an evening of Sauna Sausage.
Samantha Albert is a Seattle-based baker, maker, and writer.