Updated: Feb 14, 2020
Today I am in Malmo, which they say is in Sweden, but some (many here) would say Skane. There is a very strong Skane identity – the poorest part of Sweden, they sometimes resent the rich Danes who “come over here and buy our property, because it is cheap for them”, as one fellow in a sauna conversation earlier this year put it. This was in Springtime, and Jeremy and I took a few days for a Swedish / Danish swim break. We were in Palsobad, North of Malmo, on the Swedish side of Hamlet’s castle (when fact and fiction meld seamlessly) at Helsingor. But really we were in Skane, the place with a dialect that proper Swedes, Stockholm Swedes make fun of. But a place with firm regional identity. With that buzzing around my mind, I got off the train at Malmo Central and took the bus down to Ribersborg, then walking the long jetty to the historic bath house. And what a bath house! Men to the left, women to the right. Naked to the core, stripped of pretension and affect, sauna conversations are huge equalisers. I had a conversation about winter swimming and saunas with a pompous medic at the sailing club in West Oxfordshire. “Of course, we British don’t go in for that sort of thing”. No, I thought, you don’t. In my mind, as a generality, the class system would get in the way of the democratic sauna idea. This doesn’t apply to swimmers, which is one of the things I find intensely pleasing – when down to your togs (or less), it is just you and your body. Outdoor swimmers in the United Kingdom are not given to hierarchy, and are among the very loveliest people I have ever met.
I launch into the water at Oresund, off the steps on the rocky bank. Enough to take pleasure at feeling the cold seep slowly into my body, swimming far enough out to feel in the ocean, and not just ‘off the sauna’, feeling the incoming tide pushing me back, swimming carefully not to come close to the women’s swimming area, admiring the ‘Turning Torso’ building in the distance. This ikonic building symbolises the entry of Malmo into the modern world, after decades of urban decay. Out of the water, the sauna block has two saunas for men, two for women, and one mixed sauna. The only person that gets to move around both areas is the young women in the red hoodie, whose job it is to keep the huge wood burning stoves in each sauna stoked, all day long. Once ‘cooked’ I sit outside alongside a couple of older men, who look like they do this every day – “yes we do. It keeps us young”. Last Spring, at Palsobad, Jeremy and I were asked if we did sauna in the UK. We replied, not really, but there are a small number of places in London we know of, that do winter swimming and sauna – Parliament Hill Lido, and Tooting Bec Lido came to mind. He replied “rather than do you do sauna, how could you not do sauna, for all the good things it does to mind and body”. Indeed. Yes, we agreed. I thought of the pompous medic at the sailing club, and his mental deficit. Imagine if the British did sauna, how much happier everyone would be.
I swam, I sauna’d, I swam, I suana’d, I dipped to finish cold, took a cold shower, bid my goodbyes, and took to the clubhouse café. No time for lunch, although they do great food there – fish fried in butter with a big handful of capers on boiled new potatoes has come to be my nostalgia dish here – so good! Last time I came with Jeremy and I had this perfect fresh plaice and Jeremy a bowl of bottomless tomato soup. But before leaving I got distracted in conversation with the sauna fire stoker lady and the café staff. They asked about my project – “is there really so much to write about swimming in these places?” Yes, I responded, there is the place, there are people, there is art and architecture, there is nature, there is history – everything is layered. Then the café attendant opened up – “Yes, history! Ghosts! Hilda and Hulda!” The stoker-women was clearly surprised, with an eye-catching glimpse that seems to be perfected in Scandinavia. “And peppercake”. OK – there is cake in this account and I am immediately alert. I must try some, if they have some – pepper cake. Did they have pepper cake today I asked. “No, sorry”, they said in a very happy ‘you misunderstand’ kind of way. The two young women loved working at Ribersborg, and it showed - I could see why. “No, no, Peppercake, not pepper cake. We don’t usually have pepper cake. But Peppercake, she was an attendant at the bathhouse in the 1930s, around the time that it was built, along with Hilda and Hulda. Peppercake got her nickname because she was a red-head firebrand who had a heart of gold, both flames and sweetness”. I was disappointed in the absence of pepper cake (must look out for it for the future) but pleased to have been introduced to Peppercake - I somehow pictured her swimming Winter and Summer and the seasons in between, red hair ablaze. So Peppercake, Hilda and Hulda, built into the fabric of the bathing house. According to some, they can sense the stern brooms of Hilda, Hulda and Peppercake sometimes at the end of the day, cleaning and tidying away. It’s comforting, says the café attendant “to know they are still with us here – they must have loved it as much as we do”. I am certain of that, and concur with them. Memories deep.