Earlier this week, my friend Ellie sent me a job listing for a travel writer with The New York Times. Long story short: I’m applying, I assume she is too, and I hope that some of the people reading this post will do the same. Like I said last week, travel writing has gotten stale and pretentious. If I can’t be the one to land the job – and, believe me, I know what a long shot it is to even make it out of the slush pile – then I hope it goes to someone who’s up to the challenge of making the world sound interesting again.
Fair warning: The application is long. Part of it includes a 500-word essay answering the question, What is the most interesting place you’ve ever been and why? For this week’s post, I’m sharing my first draft and asking for your full and unvarnished feedback. Without further ado.
When I rattle off my European travel itinerary, the most-asked question I get about Helsinki is, “Where is that again?” People recognize the name, but can’t quite place it on a map. Explaining that it’s in southern Finland usually doesn’t help. Neither does pointing out that it’s east of Stockholm and north of Riga. That’s understandable, really. When has a reference to Latvia ever cleared things up?
But Helsinki’s location is precisely what prompted my visit. Perched on the edge of the Baltic Sea, Helsinki is a popular connection hub between the Scandinavian Peninsula, Eastern Europe and Asia. When a layover between Copenhagen and Tallinn landed me there earlier this year, I decided to stay a week just to see what the city had to offer.
Turns out, not much – at least not in the dead of winter. A shocking number of locals were quick to point this out when I searched message boards and social media groups for ideas about how to fill the precious few hours of daylight the city gets in March. “Come back in July,” was the top suggestion.
Tempting as that sounded, it was not particularly helpful. I opted instead to embrace the Finnish winter in the boldest way possible, by which I mean that I went ice swimming in the dark.
For this I visited Kulttuurisauna, an eco-sauna where Finnish people pay $15 to steep themselves in a two-meter wide hole that’s been cut into the frozen surface of the Baltic Sea. While I watched some of the more robust patrons swim a few strokes in the icy water, I could only bear to take a quick plunge before clamoring back up the rickety ladder and onto the dock.
But, as is often the case with boundary-shifting experiences, it’s not the action, but the reaction that makes the discomfort worthwhile. As I huddled in the moonlight, sputtering and seizing, the freezing winter air hitting my skin, I found myself in a place somewhere between peace and pain. The proper term is probably “shock,” but to me, it felt like euphoria.
Ice swimming was my Helsinki highlight by a mile – and not just because the city doesn’t have much else to offer in March. Rather, it was because the experience was perfectly unique to Finland. There are few places in the world where one is encouraged to jump into the frozen sea and then sit around talking about it with a bunch of naked strangers in a dry sauna afterwards. Every place has something interesting to offer every day. It’s up to the visitor to find out what that is.
Oops, I bombed! The feedback is in and no one liked the above. So I did it again. Here’s where I landed. I don’t think it’s great, but hopefully it’s better. Long story short, I’m probably not ready to work for the NYT… but it never hurts to try. Many many thanks to everyone who commented – the feedback was so thoughtful and insightful… I’ll be applying it far beyond this little piece.
Helsinki might not be the most interesting place I’ve ever visited, but it’s the one where I went ice swimming. At least, that’s what the Finns call it. In reality, the water is so cold that it’s more like plunging – sort of like the ice bucket challenge, but in reverse and instead of donating money to charity afterwards, you just sit around naked in a sauna and brag about how brave you are.
For my foray into ice swimming, I visited Kulttuurisauna, a simple, trailer-like brick building boasting two wood saunas and an unfortunate view of the Hanasaari Power Plant. Behind the building was a wooden dock that was outfitted with a rickety metal ladder, which was loosely held in place with what appeared to be an old clothesline. Just beyond that was the two-meter gap in the ice that revealed the frigid, murky water people paid $15 to jump into.
The whole scene made me wish I had chosen a more mainstream holiday destination – one with warm museums, six full hours of daylight and the firm suggestion that everyone keep their pants on. But such regrets were useless. I had already paid the admission for one thing. And I was also holding up the line. In fact, that’s really what got me over my case of metaphorical cold feet: the prospect of native Finns thinking I was a cream puff.
On the off chance they were doing such a thing, they would have been right. My body did not take well to ice swimming – though, in fairness, not many do. As I lurched off the bottom rung of the ladder and into the frigid water, I couldn’t help but gasp. My heart felt as though it stopped beating; my muscles seemed frozen in place. For a split second, I panicked, fearing I would sink to the bottom of the Sea or, even worse, got sucked toward the churning industrial propeller that kept the water from refreezing. Only a few seconds had passed, but it felt like a desperate eternity. That’s the bad part of ice swimming.
The good part is what happens when you get out. You expect that it will only get worse once you leave the water, but that’s not the case at all. The rush of Arctic air, which was bitterly cold just minutes earlier, will have lost its bite. Each breath will be deep and even, the clearest you have ever drawn. As time goes on, your brain will have trouble deciding whether your body is hot or cold and, more importantly, why your mouth is yapping about it to a naked girl from Belarus. You will feel invincible.
Or maybe you won’t. Who knows? No two cases of Cold Shock Response are the same. But it will be a memorable experience regardless – one that reminds you that while every place is interesting, it’s up to the visitor to find out how.