You know how, in Northern Ireland, you’d maybe call round to a friend’s house, lie back on the sofa and have a coffee and a chat? It’s just What We Do. I’m sure I’ll discover that every culture has its own variation of this: social bonding, spending time with friends, relaxing and unwinding.
In Estonia, they choose to do this by taking all their clothes off and sitting together in a cupboard-like room in a pool of their own sweat, their skin burning, struggling to breathe in temperatures of over 80°C, occasionally going out to stand beneath a stream of icy-cold water before going back in to fry some more.
I can’t quite get my head around it, although, believe me, I am trying my best to understand. I have been informed that sitting in a sauna can do just as much good as actual physical exercise. This makes no sense to me. I cannot for the life of me fathom why anyone would choose to suffocate in inhuman temperatures over, say, going for a nice walk in a sunshine-filled park. But that’s just my humble opinion. ‘Practical’ benefits aside, in this neck of the woods sitting in a sauna is a cultural experience in its own right. In Estonia, Finland and Russia, every house has its own sauna. It’s a social thing – an ancient custom, if you will.
I am now seriously well-versed in Sauna Etiquette, you know. I know, for example, that it is bad manners to keep coming in and out of the sauna, because the repeated opening and closing of the door spoils the temperature for other sauna users. I know that it is customary to pour water – or better yet, beer – on the coals, which produces a cloud of steam and raises the temperature to even more intolerable levels. I know that these people take their saunas very seriously. (Apparently, there’s even an old saying in Finnish: saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa – ‘you should behave in the sauna as in a church’!)
The customs vary from country to country, but the Finns (the original sauna-meisters) are by far the wackiest. According to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge), they are particularly fond of “the tradition of beating fellow sauna-goers with leafy, wet birch bunches (vihta)”. I am quite thankful not to have experienced this bonding experience, delightful as it sounds. However, the sentence that caused me most distress was this one: “During wintertime, Finns often run outdoors for either ice swimming or, in the absence of lake, just to roll around in the snow naked and then go back inside.” Good grief.
Yes, I was thinking to myself the other night as I emerged from the sauna, gasping for air, and plunged my burning, sweating, confused body into a cold shower, sending it into uncontrollable spasms of shock and pain – I was thinking You know what would make this even more fun? If it would just start snowing outside so that I could go and roll around naked in it for a while.
I may not understand, but I am firmly embracing these unfamiliar customs as I come across them. I fear the wrath of the Saunatonttu (a little gnome believed to live in the sauna, who punishes improper or disrespectful treatment of it) otherwise. And anyway, I like anything that can back up its health benefits claims with a statement like: “Jos ei viina, terva tai sauna auta, tauti on kuolemaksi.”
“If booze, tar, or the sauna won’t help, the illness is fatal.”