At Home in a Finnish Sauna

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A traditional Finnish sauna is different from its American counterpart in nearly every way. The one I visited in Helsinki last evening with Jani, Sam’s wife Saga’s brother, is an old neighborhood institution, best described as a cross between a sauna and a social club.  Beer drinking plays a central role.

You bring your own beer—sparkling water in my case—and towel, pay the 12 Euro entrance fee (there’s an annual fee of 50 Euros, clearly the better deal) and step into the circa 1920’s wooden locker room with maybe thirty to forty very happy guys. Some of the men were playing chess on much used wooden tables under vintage photos of the sauna in earlier times.  Some were drinking their beer in groups of three or four on the wooden benches.  Most of the men seemed to be with friends, out for an evening of good times.  Most were wearing only their towels and the others nothing at all.  There was a lot of joking and laughing and while not raucous, a happy atmosphere of friends together filled the room.

Throughout the evening there was constant coming and going into the showers and sauna.  This in and out is part of the ritual.  First you walk into the large tiled shower room, hang up your towel and scrub down under the hot water.  Mind you this is an old neighborhood sauna—no fancy tile-work or trimmings.  It’s definitely not the Bay Club!  Clean and wet, you then pass into the sauna itself.

This sauna—the Kotiharjun Sauna, about fifteen minutes from the city center by metro—is one of the very few still heated by an immense wood burning stove, with rocks the size of basketballs on top. The stove is the size of a sedan.  Three tiers of cedar benches line three sides of the room.  The goal is to sit on the top tier where the heat’s most intense.  It’s not dark inside—more half light, like a Finnish winter afternoon.

Unlike American saunas, a Finnish sauna is wet from the steam rising from water tossed in buckets on the hot rocks.  It’s not a steam room but the air inside is hot and moist.  This prevents dehydration.  There is also an intake and outtake to allow fresher—not colder—air to circulate.  The Finns regard American dry heat saunas as deathly.

Now the fun begins.  After working up a hot glistening glow, it’s time for another quick shower and a walk outside in the snow.  At the Kotiharjun, there is a long wooden bench out front extending, at this time of year, into a snow bank.  This bench is actually on the street, though the street’s quiet with few passers-by.  At any given time, there are five or six guys—and women, too, from the women’s sauna on the second floor—sitting outside on the ice in just their towels and bare feet, drinking beer.  The night I was there was bitter cold, the temperature around 10 degrees F.  No matter, we all were out in the surprisingly not frigid-feeling cold, for about ten minutes.

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Then back again inside, to the showers, then the sauna.  Jani and I went from sauna to snow five times during the course of the evening.  A neighborhood public Finnish sauna is not a fast experience.  We were there for over an hour and a half.

One of the remarkable things about a Finnish sauna is the complete unselfconsciousness of all the guys.  I’m told it’s the same for women.  There is nothing whatsoever strange about spending an evening with your friends naked.  There’s no weirdness, no sidelong glances, no bashfulness.  Buff or fat, old or young, everyone is naked and enjoying themselves.

Once anyone there found out I was American they immediately welcomed me, offering me beer, asking me how I liked their sauna, would I come back?  Where in the States would a bunch of naked guys right away include a foreigner in their party?  For that matter, where in the States would a bunch of naked guys in a sauna speak another language fluently?

At my health club sauna in San Francisco—of the abominable dry heat kind—anyone who removes his towel is considered an exhibitionist at best, a weirdo at worse.  Others will walk out.  The fear of being thought gay trumps any naturalness the experience might otherwise have.  No one ever talks, much less jokes with friends.  You go in, bake until you sweat, and leave, without a word.  You look straight ahead and never make eye contact with anyone else.  It’s in no way fun.  Of course there’s also no beer involved!

Just as many Americans might shy away from stepping inside a Finnish sauna, Finns find the American experience mystifying.  A sauna is about relaxation and conviviality.  It’s not a solitary adjunct to a strenuous workout.

I’m never going to step into an American sauna again without thinking about how much better it could be—even without the snow!

A final note about a Finnish sauna experience:  yesterday was my son’s wedding to his lovely Finnish fiancé Saga, in Turku, Finland.  My other two sons David and Adam were also there.  It was Sam’s idea that we all dress for the early evening wedding in my hotel room.  But first, we spent the afternoon in the hotel’s private sauna—dad and his three sons.  We did all the same things as I had done at the public sauna in Helsinki.  From showers to sauna to snow and back again. I can’t remember the last time the four of us spent an afternoon together all by ourselves, especially having as much fun as we had.  Maybe we were too relaxed because by the time we dressed and walked to the cathedral we had only ten minutes to spare before the ceremony!  It was a doubly special day.

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