I love and actively seek out public bath experiences when I travel. At Olympus Spa, a Korean women’s spa in Seattle, I had my first body scrub and felt like my skin had been turned inside out–in the best possible way, of course. At the communal, cooperatively owned Breitenbush Hot Springs in the Oregon Cascade Mountains, I sat in tiled hot pools and stared out at the lush Willamette National Forest. In Stockholm, I swam in the ornate hall at Sturebadet. And in New York City, I oozed through the opaquely steamy basement of the creaky and classic Russian & Turkish Baths.
My most unusual public bath experience occurred at Çemberlitaş hamam in Istanbul, when I watched the woman sitting right next to me on a wooden bench get a Brazilian. The wax was melted over a single burner in an old coffee can, and applied with what looked like popsicle sticks. I wanted to leave, but didn’t want to leave her alone. Afterward, she smiled brightly at me and wiped the sweat off of her forehead.
In preparation for this year in Finland I read, and heard, A LOT about sauna culture. Sauna is such a fundamental part of Finnish life that the Fulbright center has a special page devoted to it. Given my love of public baths, this was one of the things about which I was most excited. For readers who grew up in Finland or in a place with a public bath culture, this blog will likely seem quite elementary. Despite the fact that I have visited a good number of public baths, I am now beginning to understand the difference between appreciating the ritual of sauna, and intrinsically knowing the ritual of sauna. So in this post I’m going to talk about some of the very basic things I have learned about sauna, as well as share some life changing experiences I have had (and it’s only the first month!).
To start, a well known suomi saying about sauna:
Jos terva, viina tai sauna ei auta, tauti on kuolemaksi.
If a person isn’t cured by tar, spirits, or sauna they will die.
The sauna has historically been referred to in Finland as the poor person’s pharmacy, thus, the above quote. (By the way, I haven’t tried tar yet–currently taking suggestions for what that might look like.) The title of this post, Saunanjälkeinen, or, post-sauna, refers to the absolute relaxation and overall good feeling you get after sauna. Supposedly, you can just say you are post-sauna and people understand you’re done for the day. I’m going to give this a try at some point soon. I think that Post-Sauna would also make an excellent title for a Nordic cultural studies anthology.
Kumppani and I are fortunate enough to have our own private sauna. This is so because when I was organizing our housing, I was told I had the option to pay a bit more and get a larger apartment with a sauna and a balcony. Um, yeah, I took it. After seven years of living in paint-peeling, creature-infested New York City apartments with suspiciously slanted floors, a newer apartment with a sauna AND a balcony is pure luxury. As a bonus, there are not regular visits from the fire department, no one is selling drugs in the stairway, having sex in the lobby, peeing in the elevator, or screaming, “YOU’RE GOING TO JAIL TONIGHT, M***ER F****R” in the breezeway at 2 am.
But I diverge. Here is our sweet little sauna.
While it’s not the absolute norm to have a private sauna in your apartment, it isn’t unusual, either, especially in newer buildings. In older buildings, it is more likely that there would be a shared sauna, and you might sign up for your hours of use.
There are more saunas than cars in Finland, according to this piece in the Huffington Post. And, according to Wikipedia (yes, I just cited Wikipedia) there are roughly three million saunas in Finland, which is a country of five million people. That’s about half the population of New York City. If you split New York City in half and gave everyone access to a sauna all winter, I’m sure it would be a much more pleasant experience.
Not all saunas are operated in the same way. For example, the sauna in our apartment is electric. It literally plugs into the wall like an electric heater, and there are heating tubes under the “rocks” that make them glow red.
When we turn it to the maximum temperature it gets SO HOT we simply refer to it as “skin peeling.” According to the sauna lady thermometer on the wall, this is around 130 degrees farenheit.
Our sauna is covered entirely in wood. Just outside of the sauna is the shower. It is best to shower before getting in the sauna, since keeping your skin a bit wet helps counter the skin peeling effect. Pouring water on the rocks also helps, as it makes the air moist. This is known as löyly, the delightful and comforting sauna steam that envelops your entire body.
There are entire stores for sauna accessories and I’m sure that you can get as fancy as you want. Here’s our basic bucket and ladle.
Thus far, I have been in the sauna AT LEAST once per day. When everyone else was outside enjoying the unseasonably warm fall (thank you, climate change) I was doing my sauna routine. There are two reasons for this.
First of all, I am convinced that the aforementioned seven years of living in New York City have made me averse to going outside and dealing with people. This is why I like winter. There are less people around. When it’s nice outside the first thing I think is, great, the streets will be full of noise and crazy. And while some people thrive on this cacophony, it’s not my favorite. So I’ve developed a habit of staying inside when it’s nice outside, so I have spent a lot of time in the sauna over the last month. (If my parents are reading this: don’t worry, I’m also going on bike rides and walks and getting my vitamin D.)
The second reason I have spent so much time in the sauna is because I have been preparing for what is ominously referred to as “the ice swimming.” This happens during the also ominous sounding time of “the dark days.” Ice swimming is where they cut a hole in the ice, and after you get really hot in the sauna, you dip your body into the water and then when you come out you supposedly feel sort of like you got struck by lightning but in a really awesome way. So I knew that in order to be able to do this, I would need to start preparing my body for the juxtaposition of sweaty sauna and icy water. So what I do is get the sauna skin peeling hot and then when I can’t stand it anymore, turn the shower on ice cold.
Now, I am quite sure that any Finnish readers are either laughing or shaking their head and thinking what a fool I am. So I want to assure them that I know that an ice cold shower burst is not the same as ice swimming. I’m just saying that I’ve been doing this as a daily ritual to prepare.
Over the past week, I got my first taste of what ice swimming might be like, when some very generous colleagues invited Kumppani and I to a family summer cabin on the Turun Saaristo, or the Turku Archipelago. Having a summer cabin or access to a friend’s–at an archipelago, lake, or anywhere outside of the city–is quite common and highly valued. People go to their cabins and they DISAPPEAR. It’s not hard to do, either, because these cabins are frequently in off the grid areas, as was the one we visited last weekend. Not a speck of cell phone service. It was disorienting and wonderful.
We spent the day looking for chanterelles in an enchanted forest. That’s not something I would have imagined writing without irony before I came here, but it really felt that magical to me.
After the first half hour of going to the place where they had found them before, our friends seemed disappointed that there weren’t as many. Kumppani and I pointed out that the amount of mushrooms in the bucket would already be enough for a $20 small plate in NYC, so we were really impressed. But as the day went on, we found more and more mushrooms of varying edible types that our friends turned into a delicious sauce for potatoes later that evening, along with some local Aura blue cheese on bread and the most amazing salmon and sausages that were smoked on the grill.
After dinner, it was time to heat up the sauna, because, as our friends put it, the sauna is the grand finale. This was not like our electric, skin peeling sauna. The cabin sauna was wood fired, and built outside down a long path, just about fifty metres from the dock, where you could—and we did—jump into the icy Baltic.
When I say icy, here, I’m sure that Finnish readers are laughing again, because this is not yet icy at all. But for myself, the sauna novice, water that is roughly 50 degrees F feels pretty v***un (that’s &$^% in Finland) cold when you cannonball into it off of a dock, naked, AT NIGHT. I’m not one to jump into cold water, and I’m always a little wary of ocean water that I cannot see the bottom of. Growing up in Florida, especially, swimming at night in the ocean was considered dangerous. But sure enough, Kumppani and I walked out of that deliciously sweaty, wood smoked sauna and jumped right into the inky Baltic. (Also, she wants credit for going first.) After climbing out of the water, a strange and comforting warmth came over my body and I was able to stand out on the dock for a few minutes enjoying it, before I felt the cold and was ready to go back into the sauna.
Ever since this experience, we have had some very interesting philosophical conversations about how the risks in which we take pleasure have evolved throughout our lives.
Just a few days later, I went to Helsinki for a Fulbright event with some fantastic graduate students who will soon be heading to the U.S.. We spent a few hours discussing grad school applications and other cultural protocols, and wished Onnea (luck/the best) to them all.
I stayed the rest of the week in Helsinki due to the good fortune of a friend of a friend offering her apartment while she was out of town. Our experiences of generosity in Finland have been absolutely overwhelming. It is phenomenal how many people have offered us places to stay, cooked meals for us, taken us to cultural events, and etc.
Hyvä antaa vähästäänkin, paha ei anna paljostakaan.
A good person gives even when not having much, whereas a bad person doesn’t give even as they have a lot.
While in Helsinki, I kind of went sauna crazy, by visiting saunas three days in a row, escorted again by extremely kind and generous colleagues. Here’s an article that talks about some of the saunas I visited, in addition to being an interesting general discussion of Finnish sauna culture.
On the first and third day (yes, I had to go back) I went to the Kultturisauna, which is similar in design to a Japanese bathhouse. There are gendered separate spaces, and then a common entrance behind the sauna where you go into the sea.
Another sidenote: sauna culture is traditionally sharply divided into separate spaces for men and women. This strikes me as very interesting for a culture that has only one pronoun. I’m sure that there must be a sauna world that is more gender inclusive—and by inclusive I mean both by having everyone in one space, and one that would be supportive of gender non-conforming people.
The thing I love about Kulttuurisauna is that it is located in the city of Helsinki, so it’s not the natural world sort of experience that we had at the archipelago cabin. It’s more like someone built a sauna in Red Hook, Brooklyn. When you get in the water, you stare across the water at a giant pile of coal and beyond that, a collection of shipping containers. It actually is strangely zen to swim in that interface of progressive, minimalist design and excessively toxic ocean.
When you go to a sauna with sea swimming, there is often a small sign that tells you the water temperature that day. At Kulttuurisauna the little blackboard said 15 and my U.S. brain began to busily convert that into a number that meant something to me. The guy behind the counter said, don’t try to figure out another number, just jump in it, then you’ll know how cold 15 is.
On the second day of my personal Helsinki sauna fest I was taken to a private sauna. In order to go to this sauna, you must be invited by a member. In order to become a member, you must be recommended by two existing members, and each of them must have already been members for at least five years. This sauna is in a quiet Helsinki neighborhood and sits in more of a natural setting, so it’s somewhere between an Archipelago cabin and swimming across from a coal mountain. This sauna also has multiple rooms at varying temperatures, which are heated in different ways (smoke, wood, and even electric). At the entrance, you can buy a bag of frozen birch leaves, with which you beat yourself while in the sauna. I sat in one sauna room where a woman was doing this, and the smell of the birch was absolutely gorgeous, like a high end, herbacious cocktail being muddled. The other women sitting next to the woman hitting herself with the birch branches were completely nonplussed by the little bits of birch that flew around. There is a simultaneous and amazing respect for personal space here, without a fear of getting too close.
At the private sauna there was a long dock to the water, with steps leading down into the sea. I need to say something here about being naked in public. In the U.S., I have visited many public baths (as I mentioned at the beginning of this post), and all of them are clothing optional, which means that people don’t wear anything. But there is something about the Finnish sauna culture that speaks to my earlier comment about the difference between appreciating a ritual and having intrinsic knowledge of that ritual. I now realize that in the U.S., people being naked—even when everyone is naked and that’s the expected protocol—still has that sort of “we’re all naked and we know it and we don’t care but we’re still aware that we’re all naked” thing going on. People being naked here in Finland, however, just is. And not only is there an obvious comfort, there’s a pride in it, I mean, in the way that people carry themselves. Or maybe it’s just so awesome to be surrounded by women of all ages giving zero v***ut about what anyone might think of them–because no one is thinking, everyone is just being. I have never sensed such an absolute lack of self-consciousness in a room full of naked women as I have in these Finnish saunas. Maybe I’m not yet aware of the social signs—I’m sure there are many to discover.
After the third sauna/sea swim at the private sauna, we went to the café, and I had beetroot pie and two different kinds of cabbage salad. It was just perfect.
Kumppani and I have been invited to a queer party in a few weeks that promises glitter, rainbows, unicorns, and (gasp!) a mixed sauna. So much to experience…
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