Finland has five million people and over two million saunas. “The Finns are crazy about saunas,” other Scandinavians have told me. Sauna defines Finland. Sauna is one of the few Finnish words to make it into English. (In fact, it may be the only word.) So when in Finland you should have a sauna.
So Kari, my friend, and I after a walk of about five miles around the convoluted Helsinki shoreline arrive at the brand new sauna made entirely of wood. After a shower and wearing borrowed trunks (don’t you go naked in the true sauna?) I enter the smoke house. The temperature is about 80 degrees centigrade. My glasses not only steam up but the metal on them eventually becomes so hot it’s painful to touch them. An assistant explains to me how to pour water onto the hot stones. When my glasses eventually clear I see that the whole of the inside of the smoke sauna is black—with the smoke. The assistant tells me that this is the only public smoke sauna in Helsinki. Many Finns, he tells me, have never been in smoke sauna. His message is that I’m privileged. Later he tells me that a true smoke house would be expected to burn down after six or seven years. “When we heat up the sauna it gets up to 160 degrees Centigrade. Just above that temperature the ceiling ignites.”
I’m beginning to think that I won’t be able to stand the heat much more when I realise that I’m expected to climb the wooden stairs that take me up about six feet to a gallery where I can sit on the wooden bench that runs round the sauna. I climb up the stairs, and it immediately it’s hotter. I sit as still as I can on the bench, and then a pregnant woman arrives. She asks if she can put some water on the stones. Of course, I say. She pours on the water, and I realise why she’s asked when a blast of even hotter air hits me. “It’s softer,” she says. “I’m near my limit,” I think. Then Kari arrives. We sit for another minute or two, and I begin to long for the cold of the Baltic.
We walk outside onto the wooden platform and descend the steps to the sea. The water is green, and the sky overcast. I climb down the steps, and, although it’s 13-14 degrees Centigrade, it’s not as cold as I feared, perhaps because I’ve just been literally baked. I fall back off the steps into the sea, remembering jumping into the 40 Foot in Dublin in October and not being able to breathe, my chest in a vice. This was cold but better. I swam a few strokes and put my head underwater. “Wow,” I thought, “I’m swimming in the Baltic Sea at 60 degrees North at the end of September.”
We climbed out, and it felt good. We returned to the smoke sauna, and this time it was more tolerable even when more water was thrown onto the stones. Others were there. Mostly people are silent. The Finns pride themselves on their capacity for silence. After about 10 minutes we go back into the sea, swimming further and for longer. I’m adapting, perhaps even turning into a Finn.
This time we go into the more traditional sauna. Initially it seems almost cold until somebody opens the cover over the stones and pours in water. He leaves the cover open, and the temperature rises rapidly. Back outside, before I go back into the sea I see that I’m a boiled pink. Not unattractive, I think. Back into the sea for still longer, then one more spell in the traditional sauna before a last swim in the sea, thinking that I could almost stay in the sae this time.
Once I’ve showered and used the delicious smoky shampoo, I dress, walk outside, and feel marvellous. There is some of the pleasure that comes from stopping beating your head against a brick wall, but it’s much more than that. I understand at least something of why Finns love sauna.