Saturday, 28 March 2009

Going local in the 19th century

An 19th-century female traveller, Edith Tweedie, was discovering local travel before us all. Here's an excerpt from Wanderlust: a social history of travel, by Laura Byrne Paquet. Pictured: how the world looked in 1897. So-called "British possessions" are marked in red. Map from Cambridge University Library.

One of the most cheerful nineteenth-century adventurers was an Englishwoman named Edith Tweedie, who published her impressions in a series of books under the name Mrs Alec Tweedie.

During a trip through Finland in the 1890s with her sister and some friends, she gets it into her head that she would like to experience a traditional Finnish bath, and nothing will satisfy her until she gets one. Disappointed that she can’t arrange to have one with the local peasants — for reasons that are unclear, but probably have something to do with the fact that the locals aren’t keen on sharing their ablutions with a stranger — she eventually manages to arrange for a woman named Saima who understands the traditional rituals to come and give her and her friends a group bath.

Difficulties arise almost as soon as the Englishwomen enter the bastu, or bathhouse. Saima gleefully begins tossing water onto hot bricks, and the visitors are soon roasting. Gasping for breath, they plead with Saima in broken Finnish to stop. The problem is that Saima is Swedish and doesn’t understand a word they’re saying, so she continues to steam them like a bunch of pale, damp clams. Finally, through hand signals and a general aura of panic, they make their wishes known. Saima obligingly stops pouring cold water on the bricks and starts scrubbing the bathers with soft soap and a bundle of rags. Once she deems them clean, she sluices them with pails of hot water, then flails them with a birch switch for a while. “It was an awful experience!” Mrs Tweedie exclaims. Nonetheless, the Englishwomen persevere. Finally, Saima signals that the bathers should head for the cold bath. They take a quick, frosty dip before wrapping themselves in piping hot towels and scurrying back to the room where their clothing is stored.

In retrospect, far from the birch switch and icy bath, Mrs. Tweedie is exhilarated by her adventure:

Whether it was the heat, or exhaustion, or the loss of one skin or many, we know not; but after a glass of mjöd, that most delicious and refreshing of Finnish drinks, we slept splendidly, and felt fit next morning for any amount of hard work, even for a journey to Russia through Finland, though we did not speak or understand the language of either country.

It’s hard not to get into the spirit of the adventure as Mrs Tweedie recounts her Finnish journey; she’s a splendid raconteur and game for just about any adventure. Her quest to explore Finland from a watery perspective leads her to try an “ant-heap bath,” which she has heard is good for rheumatism. Traditionally, an entire anthill would have been tossed into the bathwater, but in deference to the visitor’s presumed delicate sensibilities, her Finnish bath attendant bundled the ants into a little linen bag before pouring boiling water on them. To Mrs Tweedie’s dismay, when she entered the bathhouse she saw the bathwater was brown. “Did I shiver at the thought?” she asks the reader. “Well, a little, perhaps; nevertheless, I tumbled into the warm water.”

She also attempts a “waterfall bath,” where she and her friends enter a small structure built around a waterfall and simply let the cascade wash over them. “[T]he water, simply thumping on our back and shoulders, came with such force, that we felt exactly as if we were being well pummelled with a pair of boxing-gloves, or being violently massaged, a delicious tingling sensation being the result,” she reports. One wonders how a genteel Victorian lady would know what it was like to be pummelled with boxing gloves, but Mrs Tweedie does seem to have led an adventurous life.

Even when she and her sister try the more usual amusement of swimming in the lake, hilarity ensues. Since no bathing suits are available in the local shops, they buy some fabric and sew their own. The locals, who swim in the nude, immediately assume the crazy Englishwomen have fallen into the lake.

For Mrs Tweedie, her adventures with waterfalls and birch switches were the essence of her trip. Simply observing historic buildings and sipping tea with friends would not have been nearly as illuminating. “[B]aths in Finland are an art, and Finland without its bath-houses would not be Finland at all,” she concludes.