In September, I made my first trip to Scandinavia when I took the train throughout Finland, hitting Helsinki, Lapland and a few other towns. In a way, though, it seemed quite familiar; the result of growing up in Minnesota. All throughout my trip, people kept mistaking me for a native Finn, even though I never mastered a single word of the complicated language (I attribute the mistake to my hair).
One of the many things that I found fascinating about Finland was the country’s love affair with the sauna (or SOW-na, as they pronounced it). They’re everywhere! And I mean everywhere; even the smallest apartments often have a sauna inside. The Finns are not an exuberant people, but the ones we met lit up with glee when they talked about saunas. Apparently there are 2 million saunas in this country of 5 million – enough for everyone to get their sweat on whenever and wherever they want.
This love affair with hot steam has been well documented over the years. During World War II, Finnish battalions built their own saunas, and even today, Finnish soldiers on peacekeeping missions put saunas together. Women used to give birth in saunas, which were known as a clean and sterile place.
I can never take more than 20 minutes in a sauna, but for Finns, the sauna ritual can go on for hours, as people soak up the steam until they can’t take it anymore, then plunge themselves in cold water to cool down. During the winter, sitting in the snow is a popular way to decrease body temperature quickly.
We got up close and personal with saunas when the bus that took us around Lapland had an actual sauna inside (it was creatively named…the Saunabus). I think the owner was a little disappointed that we weren’t more excited about this marvel; he told us that when Finns see the bus, they race out to take photos of it and clamor for tours. We did try it after a chilly rafting trip; the heat did feel nice.
I felt like I never quite got Finnish sauna etiquette. I’m probably your typical American prude, in that I have no interest in walking around naked around strangers. Most of the hotel saunas specifically forbid swimsuits, so I clutched my towel in the sweltering heat. The Finnish women – so shy on the trains or talking in public! – had no such modesty. Full monty ruled the day. Men and women usually sauna separately.
Being a global spa aficionado, I wish we had a chance to do a full Finnish sauna where you hit yourself with birch branches to relax muscles and improve circulation. Our bus driver also told us about smoke saunas, where rooms without chimneys are heated for hours before people enter. These are considered a better class of sauna than your typical electrical one; I’d love to experience it sometime – even if I’d only last a few minutes.
Thanks to The Eurail Group, which sponsored my trip to Finland.