I am sitting naked on a small wooden rack at the top of some imposingly steep cement steps in a darkened bunker. The stranger sitting next to me, also naked, is beating my back with a handful of frozen birch branches. The skin on my face is on fire as an enormous blast of hot steam envelopes the two of us, and others nearby.
A surreal nightmare?
This is a fairly typical scene during Christmas Eve in Finland, the most popular day of the year at Kotiharjun Sauna, Helsinki’s only public sauna with a traditional wood-fired furnace.
I don’t understand a word of Finnish, but what I have come to realize is that each time the door to this Dickensian inferno opens, yet another naked woman will appear and she will shout something up to the unclothed Nordic goddesses around me that sounds like, “Hallu wat ko min umm canta loosa loh hee kar meh?”
[The correct spelling is probably more like “Haluatko minun kääntyä löysä lohikäärmeen?” which I think must mean, “Do you want me to turn lose the dragon?]
To which comes a chorus of replies: “Kyllä kiitos, emme voi saada tarpeeksi, että kuuma lohikäärme hengitys,” which apparently means something like, “Yes please, we can’t get enough of that hot dragon breath,” because each naked newcomer will then reach up toward the top of the enormous furnace glowering in the corner of the bunker and yank down on a lever releasing a tsunami of skin-scorching steam so dense it momentarily obliterates my ability to see the dozens of other naked bodies assembled in various states of quiet submission around me.
What I think of as dragon’s breath, the Finns actually call löyly – originally meaning spirit of life, but these days interpreted as ‘a cloud of sauna steam’ puffed out to purify the body and calm the mind.
This is how many Finns begin their Christmas Eve celebrations – which tells you a lot about the Finnish practice of physical and mental cleansing, and the Finns themselves.
The relationship between Finns and their saunas goes back more than one thousand years.
In addition to purifying the mind, ‘taking sauna,’ as they say here, has been credited with driving out diseases. Back in the day, women gave birth in saunas. And there are even claims that unhappy love affairs have been settled with love spells cast in an enveloping blast of löyly.
The ratio of saunas to Finns these days is one sauna for every 2.75 people. There are more saunas than cars in Finland. Which makes it kind of hard to avoid. But then, why would you want to?
Most public saunas disappeared with the introduction of shared saunas within apartment buildings, but Kotiharjun Sauna still operates daily. Built in 1928 in the heart of Helsinki’s Kallio district, the old workers neighborhood, it doesn’t appear to have changed much during its 90 years of existence.
There are separate saunas for the men and women, vintage wooden lockers in the dressing & relaxing room, and a cooler of chilled drinks as you come in the door. It is not a luxury spa, but it is so much more fascinating for its spareness and authenticity. And it is the only public sauna in Helsinki that is heated with wood.
Today, there’s a free drink on the house for everyone just because it is Christmas Eve. I help myself to a Finnish beer, which I sip on in the locker room draped in a towel between visits to the sauna as I glance through the photos in a Finnish magazine about (what else?) saunas. The hardier souls, male and female, lounge atop a stone wall on the sidewalk outside the sauna, basking in the below-freezing temperatures.
I came here with my son, Leif, who is studying in Finland. Swapping tales on our walk home, it turns out that he and I both inadvertently broke several rules of sauna etiquette.
The main culprit was the vihta, the bundle of fresh birch branches you ‘gently’ whip yourself (or others) with. (It may sound like an odd thing to do, but my skin did feel quite lovely and tingly afterwards.)
Breach #1: Unable to ask any questions in Finnish, and not wishing to disturb the meditative state of those around me, I grabbed a ‘used’ bunch of somewhat wilted branches abandoned on a windowsill, not realizing I could purchase a fresh vihta from the freezer downstairs as I came in. Breach #2: I dipped my branches into another woman’s bucket of water (collective quiet gasp) when I should have gotten my own. Breach #3 Leif simply picked up someone else’s branches (while still in use) in order to flail his own legs and back. Fortunately, the Finns are a good-natured lot and everyone was very tolerant of our beginners’ mistakes.
Eager for another round of Finnish style of physical and mental cleansing, my son and I return a few days later for a pre-flight sauna the afternoon of my departure from Helsinki.
The woman behind the check-in counter smiles.
“Weren’t you here a few days ago?” she asks, seemingly pleased to see us again. Contrary to stereotype, she is eager to talk and explain the Finnish people and culture to us.
“Were you surprised at how talkative the men are in the sauna?” she asks my son about his Christmas Eve experience.
Leif nods. It was a surprise, given the reputation Finns have for being shy and recalcitrant, keeping space between themselves and others at the tram stops, preferring to look down at their shoes rather than make eye contact or small talk.
“The sauna is the only place Finnish men talk,” she says laughing. “And it’s because they don’t have their wives and girlfriends talking to them, telling them what to say and what to think!”
It is said that in Finland, more important decisions get made in saunas than in regular meetings. According to Visit Finland’s website, taking sauna together offers the opportunity for special bonding experiences – which have nothing to do with sex.
Leif and I get our departure cues mixed up. As I come down the stairs, dressed and ready to go, Leif comes out of the men’s locker room wearing nothing but his towel and heads out to join other semi-naked people drinking beer on the sidewalk outside in the freezing air.
As he turns to leave, I notice a stray birch leaf on his shoulder.
[art: Russian Venus in banya by Boris Kustodiev]