Soap in the Shower, Naked in the Dressing Room, and Other Curiosities of the Finnish Pool Culture
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Similarities between the two countries of Finland and Britain happen more often than expected. In Finland, a country of many lakes, it appears very sensible that all Finnish primary school children get taught to swim. When I was young, the local education authority had the same policy because Worcestershire has many rivers and canals. Britain has a long coastline and even in the landlocked Midlands, the distance is only about 120 miles to the nearest sea. The sea around the UK is a little more temperamental than the Baltic, so the knowledge of tides, currents and of course the ability to swim is very useful. In 2016, of the 187 English suspected accidental deaths by drowning, 56 were people who were running or walking alongside the waterway. Folks undervalue the importance of being able to swim, it can be a lifesaver!
In both countries, parents are encouraged to start their kids swimming at an early age with baby and toddler classes. Both countries have separate male and female changing rooms but that’s about as far as the pool culture similarities go. The normal Finnish swimming routine runs as follows: Take off clothes and secure in the locker. Then taking swimming costume, sauna towel and own towel through to the shower room, normally naked but modesty towel permitted. There are shelves and hooks for your kit near the showers. In the shower, scrub all over, including hair, to remove perfume, deodorant, grease and dirt. In Espoo, the authorities encourage us to shower properly by providing liquid soaps.
Then into the sauna for a quick blast, own sauna towel for sitting on but if you can tolerate the hot seat that can be optional too. Essentially naked in the sauna because it’s more hygienic and the high temperature may damage your stretchy swim costume. It’s also useful to make sure the body is well warmed all over because Finnish pools are heated only to a temperature to be comfortable for vigorous exercise. Also, the sauna is cleansing and then a second shower washes off any sweat. Then you’re ready to swim with appropriate apparel in place and don’t forget, if there is one, the foot disinfectant spray poolside.
The British routine is often much briefer. Showers are available but not always used on the way into the pool, sometimes a quick rinse happens. There may be notices about showering before swimming but no encouraging soap dispensers. The attitude appears to be that showers are for washing the chlorine off on the way out.
In Finnish changing rooms, it is common to see children up to around age 10 of both sexes accompanying the swimming parent. Young kids get used to seeing unclothed people of all shapes and sizes which might account for the Finnish lack of prudishness about being nude.
Segregation probably happens much earlier in the UK, boys go only with dads and vice versa. Changing rooms that I have visited in the UK also have rows of individual changing cubicles which enforces British prudishness and not necessarily a good thing regarding body-shape- sense. In Finland, it is usual to have the attendant wandering around the changing rooms, cleaning and tidying. The attendant may be female, and at first maybe a little unnerving for us naked male Brits. My Finnish wife mentioned that in the past there used to be ladies responsible for scrubbing customers clean, even more, worrisome for shy men. Normally, in the UK, the changing rooms are closed for an opposite-sex cleaner to work.
According to statistics for Espoo, there were 911,556 visits to the swimming pools in 2015, which is about 6.5 percent of folks living in the city that swim weekly. In the UK, Sport England statistics from 2015 state that 2.5 million people swim every week making it the top weekly sport. This approximately was 4.5 percent of the population of England.
The first time I visited a Finnish pool with the girls, I changed, showered and swam my kilometer. They didn’t appear, and without my glasses, I assumed that with my very poor eyesight I had missed them. Later while waiting in the café overlooking the pool I spotted them swimming. They had completed the Finnish pre-swim rituals that I was not aware of!
However, even though it takes longer to get into the pool, I am much more reassured about the cleanliness and quality of the swimming water in Finnish pools.