My Varusteleka haul




I recently discovered the weird and wonderful Finnish military surplus store, Varusteleka. I've always had a soft spot for surplus. Wool is a great fabric and practical utilitarian clothing tends to be my style. The site often has pretty darn funny, self-effacing descriptions of certain items. (Take for example these now-sold-out Russian army surplus boots.) Plus being in Europe, they have access to more exotic items, particularly former East Block stuff. There's a brick and mortar store in Helsinki but they currently offer $10 flat-rate shipping to the U.S. This makes it hard to resist making orders even for clothing where the fit might be questionable.

Related to this blog, I was surprised to find a couple really useful items for my sauna/bathing/swimming enthusiasm. Here's what I scored:



Towels! 
These are almost certainly from the former socialist republic of Czechoslovakia. Being small they were definitely intended as institutional/military towels. They were designed to get men dried with industrial efficiency. One towel is just large enough to dry someone off. While a few in the batch I got are sort of a dimpled textured cotton, none are terry cloth. For some this may be a no-go. Most Americans these days take for granted a flat piece of fabric is not a towel. (Those who feel this way have not discovered the wonderful Turkish towel tradition of the peshtemal, but more on that later.) 

For me, however, this is exactly what makes them great: The small size means that they work well for fitting in travel bags. I can pack two if I go out to a friend's sauna or, when visiting a public sauna, I can save a few dollars on the towel fee. I always keep one in my shoulder bag now for impromptu swimming in the Willamette River or laps at the local community pool. Since they are not terry cloth, they air dry more quickly and therefore tend to not get as smelly. They all come with a little loop so I can hang them up at work for on-the-go drying.

Why else do I love these towels? A few of them are cotton. But most seem to be a linen blend. This makes them softer and more absorbent. A few I absolutely treasure, as they are almost certainly 100% linen. They have a subtle sheen that is similar to my fancy vintage estate sale dinner napkins. They are silky smooth on the skin. Deelish!!!

It took about two and a half weeks for the box to arrive from Finland. Opening it up, I encountered a mysterious and compelling bouquet. Partly it was that characteristic military surplus odor. (What is that anyway? Rotting rubber?) This was mingled with a cloying but exotic Third-World-ish floral detergent fragrance. Bleech!!! I had to wash them all. Unfortunately, this messed up how they had arrived perfectly laundered and pressed. Since many of the towels are linen (or have a high linen content) they needed to be ironed. It's a huge time suck but I get an odd relaxing satisfaction with ironing these. (Maybe, if I keep buying them, I'll have to invest in an industrial pressing mangle?)

I ordered a fair number, all told I have somewhere around 50 now. Am I out of control? My intention is for them to live at the family cabin in Alaska. They can be used for the sauna there. The towels' inherent efficiency will work well for this purpose: They won't take up too much space. I can store a number of them in case we have guests and they will be easy to wash and identify as designated "sauna" towels. There will be enough so some can stay in rotation even while dirty ones are in Anchorage getting laundered.

Don't hate me! I may have bought them all out. There is however this Hungarian version still in stock--another small towel with hanging loop. They're just maybe not linen but still great!

Sandals!
One difficult lesson I've learned with "sauna-ing" in Alaska is that you really need proper footwear when standing outside in the snow. For my Dad's urban Anchorage sauna, to cool off we usually run around in the back alley. It's relatively private and/or it's fun to, on rare occasions, alarm the new neighbors or tourists with nudity. There's a vacant lot to roll in the snow and the alley is a good place to move around and air out as you cool off, getting the core temperature down for the next sauna hot cycle.

Over the years I've toughened myself up (or gotten used to) dunking in extremely cold water or giving myself snow baths. In fact I love this and saunas just don't feel as good without it. But the one thing I can't get used to is having my bare feet freeze while standing on ice or snow. Oddly enough, it's ok to be completely naked in even subzero temperatures but with bare feet on ice, it doesn't take long for them to hurt really badly even if it's comparatively warm out.


photo credit: Varusteleka.com

Whenever I visit Alaska somehow I never seem to have the right footwear for the sauna. I've often settled for awkwardly slipping into a pair of Sorel boots or lace-up shoes just so I have something to wear in the snow. Then I found these sandals at Varustelka. Sure I could pick up some dollar store flip-flops or maybe some no-name Crocs but these are just too cool! Being army fatigue green, my feet will be camouflaged if shit gets real. The Russian star and Cyrillic writing on the sole adds proper pro-level banya street cred to my sweat bathing. I've ordered enough to have a small sandal army for the saunas in Anchorage and at the cabin. No more frozen feet and we will be bathing in style! Plus they fit great: They're easy to slip on and off and they stay on my feet comfortably.  

I can imagine lots of Finns buying these for just the same purpose. I bet they are popular so the site seems to restock them in small quantities so they don't all sell out at once. Good luck grabbing some.