Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Dark Side of Mökki-life

No Finnish summer vacation would be complete without spending time at a mökki (summer cottage), and indeed sharing pictures on social media.

Mökkis are invariably lovely photogenic wooden buildings, set in the woods and close to a lake, a river or the sea. They are places to relax, go to [the] sauna, swim, barbecue food, drink beer, and enjoy life with friends and family.

But there is a dark side to this idyllic summer setting…

That dark side is… the outhouse.

Many of those mökkis are set in such rural locations that there is no proper sewage system. And so one has to do one’s business in a shed at the bottom of the garden.

Until I visited a Finnish summer cottage for the first time some years ago, I had only ever heard of outhouses in a historical or 3rd world context. The idea of them filled me with both disgust and pity.

In actual fact, Finnish outhouses are not quite as unpleasant as one might anticipate; but they are not that nice either.

However the Finns, who never miss an opportunity to laugh at the ancient plumbing in British houses, paradoxically seem to rather enjoy using the even-more-primitive outhouses. I have been to summer cottages where there was both a nice modern sanitized indoor toilet (connected to a septic tank) and an outhouse, and where Finns chose the outdoor option. Does it make them feel at one with nature, I wonder? Do they enjoy, like the bears in the tautology, doing it in the woods?

For those readers who have never had the experience (and for the Finns who might never have paused to think about the silliness of it), allow me to share the modus operandi:
  1. Head for the outhouse. 
  2. (Optional) If you don’t like mosquitoes, make sure you put repellent on before setting off.
  3. (Optional) If it is dark (obviously not at the height of summer, when it is never really dark in these Northern latitudes), make sure you take a torch with you. If you are lucky, someone will lend you one of those torches you can wear on your head (at this point, you will have already given up on any concern for dignity). 
  4. When you get to the outhouse, call out just to make sure no-one is in there (I have experienced outhouses with no locks).
  5. Enter the shed. Before your eyes lies a wooden bench, with a polystyrene seat covered with a polystyrene lid. 
  6. Remove the lid, trying not to look down. Note that the outhouse does not really smell bad – that is one of the not-quite-so-unpleasant surprises of using a Finnish outhouse.
  7. Sit down and do what you have to do. Note that the polystyrene seat is actually quite comfy (and warmish even on cold days) – that’s the other not-quite-so-unpleasant surprise of using a Finnish outhouse.
  8. Fight off mosquitoes and other insects.
  9. (Optional) If you hear someone approaching, sing loudly to yourself to indicate your presence.
  10. Upon completion of the business, use the toilet paper provided.
  11. Clean your hands with the antiseptic liquid provided.
  12. Take compost from a nearby container using the little shovel provided, and throw it into the pit to cover your tracks. As an aside, the compost is known as hajusieppo in Finnish, which can translate bizarrely but appropriately to "smell flycatcher".
  13. Put the polystyrene lid back on.
  14. Walk out of the outhouse to rejoin civilization
Easy, huh?

Well not if you don’t know.

A few years ago, while on a trip to Lapland, our local guide Ate told us the story of a couple of French tourists who had been using outhouses for the first time. After a few days, they complained to the guide that, well, their nether regions were getting rather sore. It turned out that they had been using the compost to clean themselves. Oh là, là!

As for me, I don't think I will ever really get used to outhouses, even if I know what compost is for and have never had displeasure of emptying the pit (yes, that has to be done sometimes!).

I am just relieved I have now been able to lift the lid off this dark side of mökki-life – so to speak.


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