There’s always some debate amongst Finns about what the Three Ss of ‘Finnishness’ are. Some will say Sibelius, the nation’s great composer, many will say sisu, the word for guts or determination. Others point to the salty liquorice, salmiakki, while a few say Suomi, meaning the land itself. But no matter who you ask they will always include sauna in their list.
Of course, Finns aren’t the only people in favour of stripping off and steaming up. Russians have the banya, Japanese have the onsen, Turks have the hammam, but it is only the Finns who define themselves so strongly by getting naked with each other. The first time I met a friend of mine’s new boyfriend he said ‘We must go to a sauna!’ in a way that made me wonder if he was the right boyfriend for her.
But for Finns it’s a regular ritual. Some manage it daily, but most opt for a couple of times a week, depending on how handy a sauna is. Some apartment buildings have them, most hotels do and there are a few public saunas for when you’re far from home. Last night I went to a typical public sauna.
You get the key or door code from reception, much like a hotel. Except as soon as you open the door everyone is naked. All shapes and sizes, all sweaty. One guy is so enormous his belly is covering him better than any towel. I get undressed quickly to avoid looking like the odd man out. It’s customary to shower first, but while I’m showering the small wooden sauna filled up. It’s a blokey thing to go to the sauna with a few mates. Some guys eat chips and drink beer, and there are a few half-finished cans strategically positioned around shower area.
But in the sauna it’s all sacred. It’s crowded when I get in with older guys crowding the upper levels. The greatest heat rises so the higher you are the bigger man you are. Speaking of which, most men adopt a tight leg crossing for modesty. I have a towel wrapped around me which is frowned upon. There’s a specialized towel that you use to insulate yourself against the heat of the wooden seat, sometimes it’s a disposable paper/plastic sheet, some people prefer to bring their own. The guys in the top row mumble a word I recognize as tourist, probably because I’ve bought a towel rather than the special seat-towel. They cackle and pour more water on the coals. This generates a blast of heat, which blows past me because I’m on the lower seat. Even still these guys like it volcanic.
The world first heard about the health-giving properties of the sauna when the Finns had their own sauna at the Paris Olympics in 1924 with record-breaking Finnish runner, Paavo Nurmi, said to train in a sauna. People began to speculate that his regular saunas attributed to his flexibility, strong heart and even good skin. After a day of scurrying around town updating maps in the rain, it’s mostly just the warmth that appeals to me. The older guys begin to shuffle out and reclaim their beers as they shower.
Hot sauna gossip topic: CSI - I hear the word ten times as someone tries to retrace an episode they missed.
Finnish words you might like to use to name your children: Exhausted calling your kids Braydion or Kalypso, why not try the Finnish word Kirjasto? Surely this would make a great name for a brainy kid, easily abbreviate to Kirja, but actually meaning library.
Worst attempt at graffiti: Left at Ekenas train station in black texta hip hop aficionado scribbled “Gangsters’s is cool” and yet “Im player”.