On the Road: Going Nordic in Northwest (or the Svedish Schvitz)

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Our Swedish spa in action in Northwest Woods on the first snowy day of the year. A. Hinkle photo.

By Annette Hinkle

The darkest days of the year are setting in and while I know this annual losing of the light makes people grumble, it seems to me that this time of year is best when it’s embraced.

So when it comes to winter, I look to the North for inspiration where the Scandinavians have it all figured out. Their solution is to bring in the light and the warmth in any form. For example, there is Glögg, that deceptively potent Swedish drink made with red wine, cloves and a liberal dose of gut-warming aquavit. And certainly you know that the Yule log (not the WPIX version) is an actual full scale pine tree that Scandinavians jam trunk-first into the fireplace in December and keep burning well into the new year.

And let’s not forget Santa Lucia on December 13, a day when the women of Sweden arise early, don white robes, put a wreath of burning candles on their head and deliver breakfast in bed to the males of the household. While Santa Lucia is said to bring faith, hope, and a reason to believe in good things to come, I can only imagine that for men waking up to beautiful blondes with trays full of earthly delights, those good things have already arrived.

But probably my favorite Scandinavian tradition for winter survival is the spa. I love the idea of sitting in a bubbling hot tub under the stars somewhere deep in the woods surrounded by a foot of snow and critters of the night. I envision the steam rising along with moon as friends join in this communal bathing of the Nordic sort. When things get too hot, you can hop out of the pool and roll around in the snow before heading in for a long winter’s nap with rosy cheeks and low blood pressure.

Now that’s the way to survive winter.

Unfortunately, I’ve actually never lived this lifestyle as my husband Adam and I have no Swedish friends, nor do we have a pool/spa combo in our own backyard. But that all changed this past August, when we met our future in the most unlikely of places — an Italian gas station a hot summer day.

It was a rest stop, technically, along the Autostrata halfway between Milan and Turin where we had pulled in to gas up.

Sitting near the gas pumps on a little concrete island was the most unlikely of contraptions one could expect to find while gassing up — an inflatable hot tub. It was not for public use (though no one was around to stop us), but rather was available for purchase. I’ve found that you can buy a virtually bizarre and totally random array of household goods at European rest stops and I suspect the curious selection of merchandise is defined by “what falls off the trucks” passing through.

Wherever it came from, this baby was plugged in, heated up and raring to go. We flipped the control panel to take it for a test drive, hit the bubble button and away it went like a Maserati on a test track.

Sure. It was pretty sweet. But there we were on the side of the highway in Italy on a 98 degree day with no imagination about how we could possibly bring home an inflatable hot tub even if we wanted to. So we said “Ciao” to the roadside spa, opted for a fine bottle of Barolo instead and came home to pretty much forget about it.

Well, at least I did. Adam, on the other hand, soon wandered onto Amazon.com (which he does frequently, found that inflatable hot tub and put it in our virtual cart. Priced at upwards of $600, it was destined to sit in that cart for a while.

Then came Black Friday (a day to which I still naively refer as “the day after Thanksgiving”) and Amazon saw fit to slash the price on the hot tub down to $350. When Monday morning arrived, so did an 80-pound box which I found sitting on our front porch as I headed out for work.

My husband was giddy with glee.

By the time I got home that evening, out new spa in the woods was fully inflated, filled with water and taking up half the floor space of our screened-in porch. It purred softly and the LED read-out indicated a chill 68 degrees. The heat up would take a while, I was told. About two degrees an hour until we hit our target of 100+.

Our teenage daughter, Sophie, eyed the tub warily. It looked a little too cheesy for her refined tastes and I could see she was debating whether she could still have friends over without wrecking her cred. I was a little wary too, wondering just how much 250 gallons of water weighs plus a tub fully loaded with six adults (like the picture on the box) on a wooden deck. Though I reasoned we would never actually get six adults in it since we don’t know too many people as svelte as the models pictured on the box.

When I arrived home from work on the evening of day two, I went out on the porch to find Sophie fully submerged and completely won over. She gave the thumbs up as the bubbles soothed away the stress of pre-calculus and AP physics. I soon joined her and found it was a great way to reconnect at the end of the day. No cell phones, computers or TVs allowed, so we were forced to converse about what was actually going on in our lives and the world. Would it also work to soothe political woes, I wondered?

Seeking to evoke the communal Swedes, the next step was to invite a few friends over on a Friday night to find out. I pulled the Christmas stuff out of storage and ran strings of white lights all around the porch to set the mood. We plunged in and made a night of it, reviewing the day’s bombshell news of Michael Flynn and the Mueller investigation, the inane tax cut bill which at that very moment was weaseling its way through the Senate, and wondering where in the world we would get health care in the years ahead.

Yet despite all this, somehow, we were at peace with the world. The soothing, bubbling jets drowning out the reality of a globe gone wild. Whatever tomorrow may bring, we were in our own hot tub time machine tonight.

I expect this will pretty much be where you can find us most evenings in the months ahead. And no, we haven’t gotten an electric bill yet … but we’re pretty sure we heard a transformer explode out front last night.

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