As a teenager, I pictured Scandinavia as a mythical land of beautiful, blonde volleyball players, who like to take off their clothes and prance around in saunas.
Hollywood created this dream and the little I heard about the Nordic region seemed to confirm it. Scandinavian countries were model societies, the good guys of Europe. Instead of developing nuclear weapons, they developed digital networks. Instead of making war, they made risqué TV adverts that always featured in those "World's Greatest TV Commercials" programmes.
Alas, like my beliefs in eventual world peace and the All Blacks winning the Rugby World Cup again, this utopian dream faded as I grew older. By the time I moved to Finland I realised that although Nordic countries are in many respects model societies, they do have casualties, crime and clothes.
I still expected a liberated approach to issues like nudity, however. The drive home from the airport seemed to confirm my suspicions, but not as I had hoped. Dotted around Helsinki were statues of naked men. Not naked when casually emerging from the shower, like Michelangelo's David, but naked in situations which people usually aren't.
In the city centre there are three bronze men at work, bravely smashing an anvil with big hammers and no clothes (see photo).
On another street is a naked man sprinting in some sort of race (or perhaps to make his bus to work). I found them unnerving. Quite apart from the lack of female representation, there were occupational health and safety issues. I began to wonder how advanced Finnish society was, after all.
After a few weeks I realised that the statues revealed more than just a few bronze tools. It seems that there is a culture of nudity in Finland, but the reality is closer to a gender apartheid nightmare than any lust-filled utopian dream.
I like to swim for exercise, so was thrilled to hear that my girlfriend Sanna and I were living just five minutes walk from a swimming pool.
"There's one thing you should know" Sanna said, as I searched for my goggles. "Almost everyone swims naked." She added that men swim on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
I sat down, then said "I'm going for a run."
But in winter it is too cold and icy to run. I don't like gyms either, so after some thought I decided to try out the pool. After all, I was a liberal, outgoing person and apparently the building itself was very old and architecturally impressive. At the very least, there was a blog in it.
When I stepped inside the pool, it was not the vaulted Roman arches that stood out, but wrinkled pot-bellies, saggy bottoms and complacent, shrivelled genitalia. This wasn't a blonde volley ball team, it was an all-male bowls team.
Until recently at this particular pool, swimming in togs was prohibited. Now togs were allowed, but apparently not nearly as fashionable as birthday suits from the early 20th Century. All of the 15 or so men floating lazily around in the water were naked.
I had my togs ready, but ironically felt embarrassed to wear them. The peer pressure was intense - I couldn't bare to think of myself as more conservative than a pack of retirees. Deep down I was also interested in whether swimming laps naked was a wonderful, liberating experience.
I put down my togs, and using my goggles as some kind of fig leaf, walked quickly to the pool edge. I felt every bit as naked as I looked.
Once in the water I relaxed a little and took in the surroundings. From sea level there were fewer wrinkled white bottoms and more white vaulted arches. But again, this is not what caught my eye. At the opposite end of the pool, in an elevated chair, was a female life guard who looked about 18-years-old.
It felt wrong. I felt sorry for her, sorry for me and awfully uncomfortable again. I decided backstroke was definitely off the list, as I pushed out from the wall.
As soon as I put my head under, I realised my mistake in treating the water as a refuge. Goggles were the problem. It was like I was swimming in a bowl of transparent sauce, with everyone dipping their saveloys in at the same time.
To put it out of my mind, I focussed on the bottom of the pool and my stroke. I was still uncomfortable, but with the exertion I managed to find some rhythm as I neared the edge and propelled myself into a tumble turn.
I was half way into the turn before I realised what I was doing. That poor girl! I only hope that she wasn't looking.
Hugely embarrassed I kicked myself off the wall as hard as possible, not thinking to adjust my direction for the return lap, and launching myself straight into a swimmer who was following me.
I loathe accidentally touching people in the water under normal circumstances, but this was on another scale. In the space of five seconds I had shown my backside to a young woman and collided with a naked old man.
This was no dream, it was a nightmare. I swam the minimum number of laps that could justifiably classify it as a workout and left, still very embarrassed.
"Where is the closest normal swimming pool?" I asked Sanna that afternoon, once she had stopped laughing at me. "It's not so far." she replied, "About a 20-minute tram ride away."
I sighed, thinking about buying tram tickets and waiting at the tram stop in the rain. "Stuff Finnish culture" I said "I'm wearing togs next time."By Matt Kennedy-Good