10.12.10 – I went “native” this evening by visiting a good friend Dave to throw some water on the hot stones (kiuas) and take an invigorating dip in the subzero Baltic. Just a typical Friday night in Finland. Yes, I did it, now where’s my badge?
Dave and I belong to a Finnish study group, a group of 3 or 4 friends from our Finnish class meet and try to decipher what we know about Suomen kieli (the Finnish language). We also try to share what we know about Finland. Dave has mentioned in the past he belongs to a sauna club located on the waterfront. I asked Dave this morning if we could choose a day when we could go and he responded “What are you doing tonight?”
Sauna is many things in Finland and it’s not something you can easily describe to outsiders, but one thing you should know, sauna is a substantial part of the Finnish culture. Wikipedia provides a great first glance to understanding Finnish Sauna so check it out. One thing you probably won’t be able to read about and is best to experience is the relaxing sensation which borders on euphoric. I’m lucky to be a sauna veteran but this would be the first time to take a dip in what I like to call, a Finnish swimming hole.
After a brisk walk which often had us trudging through knee-deep snow, we entered the men’s changing room and quickly changed into what my English friend calls a “bathing costume”, a bathing suit to us Yanks. Wearing clothes in a sauna is not typical but in this particular one it was customary. The sauna was typical in the sense that it has wood benches surrounding the kiuas, the special stove topped with heated rocks the size of large potatoes used to heat the sauna. We joined a couple other people and sat down to “settle in.” No one was speaking but every once in a while someone would throw some water on the stones to make löyly, the sauna steam. It’s a very calming and relaxing feeling and the sound of the löyly made me think something was telling me “sshhh”… quiet, and then the warm wave of the steam which makes you breath in slowly and deeply. Soon you really feel at peace.
The heat can become a bit too much, so we stepped out for the second step, a dip in the water. I was surprised how… I can’t say warm but I wasn’t cold either… it was to be walking around wet in nothing but a bathing costume when it was -5°C outside. We walked a short distance out to the water where a hole in the ice, slightly bigger then the sauna itself, was awaiting. My plan was to watch Dave go first and then I would try the plunge but in my head I was jumping from “Wow, it’s not that bad walking out here” to “Holy mackerel, there’s the subzero water I should jump into!” It was best not to think about it and luckily there were two ladders leading into the water so… in you go. Yes, it’s cold, very cold, but bearable. I was in up to my neck, I exclaimed loud enough for Dave to hear two words that don’t go together, Holy and a four letter word that begins with “F”, turned around and raced out. Dave’s been doing it awhile so he stayed in slightly longer but luckily it wasn’t long before we were back in the sauna with the kiuas wishing us “sshhh.”
We eventually went into the water two other times. It’s kind of a wash, rinse, repeat cycle. Heat up, cool off, heat up, cool off. The first time was definitely the hardest because you don’t know what to expect. I think the most amazing part was being outside but not yet in the water. It feels so good to be out, surrounded in snow in the dark of night, so exposed but at the same time so comfortable.
The other times in the sauna there was actually a bit of conversation going on so we were able to talk to some Finns, who love to share the sauna experience and are always interested to hear what foreigners think of it. They told us the most popular conversation in the sauna amongst Finns is the weather. Maybe it’s because they are so happy to be out of the cold and in another world, warm in the sauna.
Dave and I decided to “throw in the towel” so we changed and headed out for another popular thing to do after sauna, enjoy a cold pint at a nearby pub.
- Finnish men bare all in engaging documentary (reuters.com)
- The Europe Issue: A Finnish City Prepares for the Limelight (travel.nytimes.com)
- Finnish Swimming Hole (tbeidler.wordpress.com)