A Night at the Sauna

By Kourosh Taheri-Golvarzi

Sauna (c) by comedy_nose

Sauna (c) by comedy_nose

Sauna is the heart, blood, life and soul of Finland and the great Finnish culture. It is, at once, a form of hygiene, a relaxing social gathering after a long day’s work, a meeting point of business negotiation, a gathering of intellectual and philosophical discussion and a house of refuge from winter life in the far north.

For at least one season out of the year, icy winds can be harsh, sub-zero temperatures most unforgiving and sunlight is almost rare enough to be legal currency, and Finns have long ago responded with this simple yet genius center of social activity and basic hygiene. I’ve had the honour of experiencing the sauna as a travel writer in Finland, and it would be an insult for me not to document my experience.

It had scarcely been a week upon my arrival in Helsinki in December that a friend of mine living in town got the invitation for both of us to visit a company sauna at a friend’s work with coworkers and friends. He told me it would include contemplative philosopher fellows, Rock and Roll ladies, a stellar view of the city and a king’s cache of alcohol, adding at the end that I was welcome to join if I “want to; no pressure.” I honestly wish I’d had the luxury of stepping outside myself for the opportunity to witness the look on my own face. I couldn’t refuse.

Against the opaque winter sky, the office building didn’t look like much of anything from the outside, seemingly a massive brown cardboard box with sprinkled with dark rectangles. The office area that led to the sauna was surprisingly warm, considering that the doors and windows were open to the snow-covered balcony and the wind. Having been raised in Los Angeles, I would have been quite accustomed to the sauna’s heat, though being a native-born Canadian, I should hypothetically have some grit for the cold afterward.

I was a little (irrationally) afraid that I would freeze, as the last time I’d been to a sauna was while I was living in Hungary. Even then, I’d gone once, and I was in the 80° sauna (for any Americans reading, that’s 176°F) where all the Hungarians and tourists would never enter, leaving me and a group of Finnish backpackers alone to enjoy the heat. I hoped I would stay warm here, and upon being received to the sauna by philosophical men, Rock and Roll women, stacks of alcohol and the blasting of Heavy Metal, I certainly felt right at home.

Before going into the sauna (completely naked), we all had to shower, clean and soap off, and not dry ourselves. When I’d asked my fellow why we did this if we were just going to sweat anyway, he said that to go into the sauna dry would be unimaginable and would feel “really strange.” I accepted it as cultural tradition, as since Finns have mastered the sauna long, long ago, by now, they clearly know what they’re doing.

After showering, we’d have to take a square disposable cloth (made specifically for sauna) and then go inside, where I felt like I was entering a shrine or a temple of some ancient Pagan creation. There was a stove to heat the room, two levels of benches with the higher being the hotter of the two, no windows, and the entire structure made of tightly-fitted wooden beams, occupied by naked, well-educated Finns almost welcoming me back to a home I never knew I had.

I was the only one there who’d brought water inside with me, and amidst the conversations on philosophy, science, politics, religion, music, food and whatever else came up, I had to keep drinking quickly because my water along with the ceramic cup it was in kept overheating. We’d continually come in and out of the sauna for showers and rest (I more than they) and I could actually feel the difference between the heat inside and the regular room temperature cause shifting in my insides.

Seeing that at the time, we were high up in a corporate office and not in the woods near a frozen river, at one point, my friend had challenged me to fall (naked) into the snow on the balcony with him. I thought it was crazy, and dared him to do it first, to which he agreed, on the condition that I follow suit next round. I never realized that falling naked into a pile of snow can actually feel painful, but the feeling after going back in was like I’d had a shower directly for my spirit. At the risk of cliché, I can honestly say that there’s really nothing quite like it.

As the night slowed to a close, we relocated from the sauna to the main office lounge area, each taking turns playing Finnish Heavy Metal on a certain website that rhymes with “yew-tube,” drinking more vodka and beer, sharing more conversation and enjoying the post-sauna glow. The time had come to call it a night. We all got dressed, left the building and went down to the street level to the bus stop, and went our separate ways. It really was quite a warm welcome to Finland, in so many ways.

This article is a guest post by Kourosh Taheri-Golvarzi.

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