Finnish sauna

You’re Not Finnish-ed till You’ve Had a Sauna

by Lynn Colwell
Lynn Colwell

Whoever came up with the decree, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” has obviously never found themselves sitting by a roaring wood-fired furnace in a Finnish sauna, slapping wet birch leaves on their arms while sweating enough water and salt to supply the French army for a year.

Not that it wasn’t fun –

in the way that planning a formal dinner party for 75 and shopping six days straight because you keep forgetting things like your cell phone (twice) and wallet (once), and making all the food including appetizers in the shape of the Eiffel Tower and Abraham Lincoln and sewing 12 matching table cloths from fabric that cost approximately as much as a new car, and collecting wild flowers (to which you are highly allergic) for centerpieces, then placing them one by one in hand-painted jars alongside hand-dipped candles (both made by you) and creating original games with prizes you fashion from buttons and burlap and silver glitter that remains in your carpet until the day you die, and washing dishes and napkins by hand because the dish washer breaks the day of the party, all of which is so expensive (including the dish washer repair), that you have to create a GoFundMe page to finance the whole shebang–might be considered fun.

We were in Finland visiting friends of 50+ years. Now that I think about it, fear of sauna was probably why we had avoided the country for so long.

Now, I am not going to say that having a sauna was the worst experience of my life and not just because I know our hosts will read this and I want to remain on speaking terms with them. It wasn’t. I wouldn’t even say it qualifies for the top 20, which include having my first baby when I had no idea it was going to hurt, slamming four fingers in a car door, getting stabbed with a pitch fork, being showered with boiling apple sauce from an exploding pressure cooker and others to gruesome to mention.

No, the sauna actually was hmmm….how can I put this? An experience!

I’m glad I did it. I really am.

And here to prove it are the pluses:

  1. Those birch leaves on the branches I hit myself with, smelled delicious. The scars will heal.
  2. When we finished, my pores were like open windows. I mean they were OPEN! I am absolutely positive that is good for me. (I’m fairly sure my cellulite, and perhaps a few organs, leaked out).
  3. After I completed part two of the sauna experience, i.e. submerging myself into an icy lake up to my neck (our hosts apologized for the lack of snow in which to roll), I broke my personal record for jumping straight up into the air.
  4. In the end, we celebrated our victory over heat and cold with wonderfully salty sausages and beer (or in my case, water).
  5. I survived.

While Finnish saunas are moist and hot, the Finn’s sense of humor is dry and cool. This text convo between two friends that I found on Expat Finland, is a great example:

“Yesterday marked 21 years since I arrived in Finland.”

“Did you celebrate with beer and sausage?”

“No, I’ve become Finnish. I told no one. I sat in the dark in silence and thought about herrings.”

“That’s the spirit.”

Sidebar: Facts about saunas

  1. The word is pronounced SOW (as in COW)-na, not SAW-na as we generally say it.
  2. It is estimated there are two million saunas in Finland, almost one for every two people in the country.
  3. Hotels, businesses, apartment houses and the home of the country’s president all have saunas.
  4. Yes, naked is the dress code.
  5. There is no sauna police (although there is a Finnish Sauna Society). You are allowed to stay in as long as you want and enjoy the routine of boiling and freezing as many times as you like. If you are about to faint even five minutes in, it is perfectly acceptable to say “Time’s up.” No one will call you a “nynny” (sissy)–at least to your face.


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