I was an au pair in Raisio, Finland, from September to December 2013. At 18 years old, I had just finished my A levels, and decided to take a gap year before university to experience more of life first. I love children, travelling, and languages, so I figured that au pairing would be a good way to start. And thanks to a Finnish friend who lives in England where I’m from, I’d already learnt a few words of Finnish. I organised my host family through the Au Pair World website, and after an Italian family arrangement fell through, I ended up in Finland with my lovely host family of two parents, three kids aged 5-13, and a cute little dog called Helmi!
Au pairing was an eye-opening experience in many ways, especially as I didn’t know much about Finland before I moved there. In this article I share with you five curiosities I discovered as an au pair in Finland.
The Finns love saunas! Every public swimming pool has a sauna, and most houses and even flats have one. Some houses even have more than one! In fact, the official statistics show that there’s almost one sauna for every two people in Finland! That was pretty shocking to me, coming from a country where I’d maybe seen a sauna once in my life. My host family had two houses (I’ll come back to this later). Their main house had a sauna, albeit they didn’t use it much. The public swimming pool nearby had a sauna. And their second house had two saunas: one in the main house, and one in the small cottage next to it. So I was never stuck for sauna options!
The nicest, most rustic sauna was in that small cottage, and most evenings when we were there we would use it. It was on the beach, so it acted as our shower after swimming in the sea, and we’d use buckets to pour water warmed in the sauna over our heads while trying to avoid getting shampoo in our eyes. Or it would be the final part of a relaxing evening spent under the stars. When the kids were involved, it would also be an opportunity for a water fight. The nicest saunas have a kiuas (wood-burning stove) which heats up stones, and then you throw water on the stones to create steam that heats up the room. The water you throw on the stones is cold, which makes it very tempting for young children to throw at each other (or at the au pair!).
You Have to Be Naked
Yes, Finns would definitely argue that a sauna can only be fully enjoyed naked. Whereas in other countries swimwear is mandatory, in Finland it’s the opposite: no swimming costumes allowed! This includes public saunas. They do, however, have separate saunas for each gender. Even so, it was an interesting experience for me. Since I didn’t really know anyone in the area, I ventured into a public sauna with the knowledge that I would never see anyone else there again. But thinking as a future teacher, I can’t imagine going into a naked public sauna that a student might walk into. In our home saunas, the family recognised that as a foreigner I might not be comfortable with naked saunas, so I wore my swimming costume, but I did have the odd naked sauna with the kids.
And the kids didn’t even acknowledge anything was unusual. Nor have little English children I know until they reach a certain age. This highlights how our aversion to nakedness is a cultural creation. In England we learn that it’s not OK, but in Finland they don’t. This is also seen in many bathrooms in Finland which have multiple showerheads together, so more than one family member can shower at a time. A useful function, but I can’t imagine taking a shower next to my mum! If you can get past the initial awkwardness, it’s quite liberating to have a naked sauna experience. And it’s much easier to get changed after swimming when you don’t have to worry about covering yourself in your towel.
2. Summer Cottage
I mentioned that my host family had two houses. This is really common in Finland, and many families have a house in the city and a second house (often just a cottage) by a body of water, like the sea or one of Finland’s numerous lakes. This second house is the mökki, or summer cottage, because the family mainly stays there during the summer holidays. My family’s mökki was only a 30-minute drive away, so we went there on weekends and school holidays. It was on the coast, so its garden included a beach with a hot tub and mini jetty! Next to the original small cottage (which is basically just two rooms, a sauna/toilet, and a bedroom… the Finnish essentials) they built another house with a wall featuring floor-to-ceiling windows to look out over the sea. Beautiful.