A Visit in the Dead of Winter
©1997 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
If a sick person is not cured by tar, spirits or sauna, then they
This is me, back in 1975, during a visit to the Finnish Sauna
Society at Vaskiniemi,
on the outskirts of Helsinki. After the 230 degree F heat of the
Society's smoke sauna,
an icy plunge into the Baltic felt great. Honest.
I'm told there are more saunas in Finland than cars--over a million*.
No other country has attached so much national pride to their
bath. Cold weather, abiding folk traditions, and hard living conditions
(until recently) have made the sauna dear to the Finnish heart.
Unlike other sweat baths, modernization did not leave the sauna
behind; rather, it helped the traditional sauna to develop and
become the symbol of all sweat bathing throughout the world.
I sailed to this icy land in the dead of winter, snow flurrying
around my boots. Icicles grew in my mustache. "This is insane,"
I thought, remembering the sun of California a few weeks ago.
Sun? It was still dark at eleven in the morning. If I hadn't known
that months of fiery saunas awaited me, I'd have turned around
and caught the first boat out of Turku's frozen harbor.
I watched a road crew diligently filling a crack in the iced pavement,
seemingly unaware of the blizzard raging around them. (It seemed
like a blizzard to me.) While I felt out of place, these workers
seemed at ease in cold and darkness. Their forefathers had scratched
a mean living from the unyielding Nordic soil. I can understand
how the sauna was invented--to mitigate the harshness of their
lives. The sauna, with its almost supernatural ability to give
warmth, cheer and health became integral to their hard lives.
I hitched a ride to Helsinki, my nose pressed against the frosted
window as I watched the small wood sauna huts adjoining the houses.
At the sight of a smoke-enveloped hut with a farmer chopping wood
alongside, I almost jumped out of the car. My driver just smiled
at my enthusiasm and said matter-of-factly, "That's the way saunas
are heated on the farms. The old way is really best. The scent
of freshly burned birch lingers in the sauna." Just what I needed,
to defrost my thin-blooded California body.
Helsinki rose noisily from the quiet wooded countryside. Horns
honking, cars careening on the slushy streets. Then I began to
spot the public saunas, their distinctive signs. The moment I
hopped out of the car, my hand pulled five marks ($2) from my
pocket and I rushed through my first Finnish sauna door, vowing
to take a sauna every day in Helsinki.
I found a small apartment on Makelanrinne Street and lived there
for nine months. The building had its own sauna free to its tenants.
Every Tuesday and Saturday men and children would gather in the
electrically heated sauna, and warm foil-wrapped meat on the hot
stones for dinner. (Women took their sauna an hour earlier.) This
was the ideal time to meet the neighborly Finns and socialize.
During the winter, most Finns hole up in the warmth of their homes
and are difficult to meet. Here I was, holed up and sweating right
along with them. "You came all the way from America to study our
baths?" was a common ice-breaker. "Sure," I'd answer, "why not?"
A long stare usually followed, then, "You Americans . .. Here,
study some of this good Finnish beer." Then the conversation was
off and running.
When I wasn't bathing in my apartment, I braved Helsinki streets
to sample the public saunas. Most of these were heated by birch
logs. Smoke bathes the city with a delectable scent, evoking images
of medieval days. All public saunas provide an array of paraphernalia:
a vihta (birch twigs collected in midsummer and frozen or dried
for winter use) to whisk the skin; scented soaps and shampoos;
loofas for scrubbing the skin. Best of all is a woman dressed
in white who, for a small fee, will scrub a bather. A man's uneasiness
being naked in the presence of these fully dressed women is quickly
lost in the luxury of the scrub.
One day I found a public swimming pool, pulled on a swim suit
and hustled out to the pool. I was poised to plunge in when a
burly lifeguard whistled and shouted: "Hey, have you had your
sauna yet?" A faux pas for me, as I remembered my days as a lifeguard
in the States when I often scolded kids for not showering before
a swim. Now I learned how much more pleasant a sauna is than a
The pool side sauna also felt great after a bruising game of water
polo, relaxing my sore and battered muscles. I then learned that
all Finnish athletic complexes have saunas--sport and sauna are
inseparable in Finland. Also, many companies provide a sauna for
their employees right after work.
As if a sauna at home, work and play weren't enough, the Finns
have developed portable saunas to carry on camping trips. On hikes
through the forests, I saw portables, standard equipment for the
Boy Scouts. The unequipped hiker often builds a makeshift sauna
from any material at hand--plastic, bark, canoes, skiffs. I later
saw improvised saunas with the Finnish United Nations troops on
front-line duty in Cyprus.
After enjoying a number of different saunas, from the wood-heated
to the gas and electric heated ones, I felt I had become a connoisseur.
I found good saunas and bad saunas (yes, even in Finland). I cultivated
my preferences. Like a cheap wine whose flavor is enhanced by
good company, my fondest memories come from times I was alongside
good Finn friends, regardless of the sauna itself.
Although traditional birch log saunas can be dangerous and ecologically
unsound in the city, their fragrance and soft even heat makes
them preferable to the electric or gas. Public saunas are usually
lined with tile, being so easy to keep clean, but I prefer the
natural aesthetics of those lined with wood. Normally, public
saunas have a lower temperature and higher humidity which appeals
to those with reluctant sweat.
My favorite sauna is the smoke sauna, the savusauna, the oldest
and most enduring sauna in Finland. The savusauna was conceived
long before the discovery of electricity or bottled gas. It is
little more than a pile of rocks in a small log cabin. There is
no chimney, for smoke fills the room and eventually escapes through
cracks in the roof and walls. It takes a good day's work to prepare
this sauna properly and heat the hundreds of rocks and thick log
walls. There are no short cuts. Wood must be chopped, the fire
must be extinguished and smoke purged from the room.
It was my pleasure to sweat in several savusaunas, ranging from
the sophisticated model at the Finnish Sauna Society, complete
with showers, dressing rooms and no responsibilities, to the rustic
Whether I hung my clothes in a tree or on a coat hanger, I was
never disappointed by a savusauna. Their sooted walls emanate
the savory smells of wood, earth and camaraderie. Steam reaches
out from the rocks like friendly hands, dispensing their heat.
The bather warms evenly, everywhere at once. With my senses warm
and smiling, my mind easily drifted into revery. That was followed
by a few minutes of invigorating swatting with the vihta, then
a dash to a plunge hole in a frozen lake or a brisk, tingling
dip, I never felt more clean and vibrant.
* I've been informed by Mr. Harri Koponen of Finland that as
of 1998 there are 2.0 million cars (0.39 per capita) and 1.6
million saunas (0.31+ per capita). in Finland. Thanks for the
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