The sauna is a national institution in Finland. It’s an ancient custom, a sacred room. A remedy for body and mind.
“Sauna” is a Finnish word. There’s a sauna in the Finnish Parliament. You’d better know your sauna etiquette before you enter.
Though I had been in saunas before, I only began to look into their philosophy while studying in Denmark, where people are also fond of the heat chambers (though not as much). I became good friends with Elli, a Finnish student at Roskilde, and we had a lot of chats about her country’s traditions.
Finland used to hold the World Sauna Championships, until a tragic incident led to their discontinuation in 2010. Elli told me that a Russian man and a Finnish man were the finalists that year, and that the Russian had dropped dead. The Finn was the defending five-time winner, and won again this time, but not without a trip to the hospital. They had sat for six minutes literally roasting in 110C heat, The Guardian reported.
I was surprised that sauna endurance could have become such a sport, or such a prominent proof of manhood in that culture. Then I started to realize how central saunas are for Finns’ daily life.
Everyone my friend knew had one, no matter how small their apartment. It’s both a private and a bonding experience. She told me that children, parents and in-laws would sit in saunas naked together – which is unthinkable in my own family. We’re even too shy to shower or change in front of strangers of the same sex in a locker room.
The sauna also serves an important social function for Finnish male buddies.
More men than women in Finland had been struggling with unemployment and depression, unsure of their place in society, Elli said. But Finnish men tend to be quiet in public – it is in the saunas that many of them open up. They need to let it all out somewhere, and they do it sitting in an “oven” naked and vulnerable with other dudes.
A German, an Australian and I, all of us women, got a chance to learn more about that during a film festival in Copenhagen. Along with Elli, we had an immersive experience watching a documentary about Finnish men in saunas – on a screen set up inside a sauna. The heat was off during the movie, of course, but turned back on after the screening.
I had planned to stay, have a dip in icy water, and then immediately run into the sauna to further the immersive experience. I gave up the bikini I’d brought to my Australian friend, and totally chickened out. She took the chance, though.
But that evening stuck with me, along with the film itself. It was called Steam of Life. I hadn’t known what to expect from it; had gone more for the sake of doing something new with my international friends, in our new environment. In fact, my year in Denmark was punctuated with these wonderfully strange events.
I ended up enthralled by the film. I remember lots of uncensored skin and copious crying, something you wouldn’t expect from men onscreen – some of them massively built. The filmmakers managed to become as intimate as an observer can with those men.
As film spectator, you’re privy to some of their deepest secrets and emotions, and almost feel like you’re sitting in the sauna with them too.
You even get to witness a little bit of their lives outside the saunas, and perhaps understand a little why they feel the way they do. However, what I remember the most from when the camera pans out in Steam of Life is the panorama of saunas in Finland that it reveals. People have saunas wherever they can have them. In their houses, yes, but also in their cars, even in phone booths.
I got a taste of sauna culture first-hand when I visited Finland a couple of years later.
Elli showed me the sauna they’d managed to fit into her apartment’s bathroom in Tampere, but we didn’t go in, busy with sightseeing. She and her now-husband then took me to a tiny island where her family had built a summer cottage. We ate freshly caught fish, went boating on the river, and finally did some saunaing. She whacked me on the back with a frond, which is also part of the experience and supposed to be good for you. She ran and jumped in the cold water.
This time, I took the plunge as well.
Even though we may not have access to a Finnish sauna and all its magic at the moment, we can still enjoy it – and suffer through it – vicariously through the men from Steam of Life. I may revisit the film if nostalgia speaks loud enough.