We’re all stripped down, we’re all butt naked and that’s when I see the man sauntering over. Now I’m not given to prudishness but I have to say something like,
“What the hell is he doing here?”
“It’s ok. He’s blind and he’s the local masseur.”
My first sauna experience at Yrjönkatu Swimming Pool during ladies’ hours.
We enter this very hot room and they whip out a birch whisk, slapping me all over with the branches that let out this strange lovely smell.
“These Finns are crazy,” I think to myself, “suckers for punishment and really into flagelation.”
I learn my first Finnish phrase that night,
“Saanko heitä löylyä?” i.e. “Can I make steam by throwing even more water on the sauna rocks and heating this sweat box to unbreathable levels.”
And then the washing lady. Egged on by my sauna buddies I pay a small fee and the 65 year-old superwoman orders me to lie down and washes me with such force and vehemence that it turns out to be more of a massage than anything else.
Now for a swim in the cool water where bathing suits are not required kit. Post-sauna requires a light snack and even a glass of sparkling wine goes down really well but most Finns would disagree. It’s the sauna beer that does the trick for them. Whichever way, we’re all sitting around in the café area of this remarkable bath house architecture preserved since 1928. When I walk outside into the freezing Finnish winter, I feel a strange sensation. Warmth. And not only that but a sense of relief and calm that I’ve forgotten about if ever I’ve felt it at all.
There are more saunas in Finland than cars, 3 million at last count. But that wouldn’t stop the Finns from coming up with new ideas for the most innovative. The telephone booth obviously doesn’t cut it, neither does the ski lift at Ylläs, nor the yurt floating on Töölö Bay. In the meanwhile, while they’re racking their brains, we have plenty of opportunities in Helsinki to enjoy the benefits of heat, steam, cold followed by beer. Kulttuurisauna (€15) on the shoreline of Merihaka, offers you that body shocking experience of warming up and then dipping yourself in the ice cold Baltic Sea. Now there’s a jolt to the ole ticker but they say the benefits are enormous, even anti-ageing. The classic old-fashioned Kotiharju Sauna (€12) in Kallio prides itself on being the biggest wood-burning sauna in Finland. The original furniture has been kept even the lockers reminiscent of art deco. Arla Sauna is cosy and cute and slightly cheaper than the others at €10 a go for as long as you like.
Sauna is a great stress reliever and cure for all kinds of ills, both mental and physical. But it’s also a political and economic hot spot, please excuse the pun. President Kekkonen was well versed in the effects of sauna, so much so that he was known to keep his political guests in the heat until an agreement had been reached. The ‘Cold War’ didn’t stand a chance in the Kekkonen sauna. Our Russian neighbours were like putty in his hands after a good, long session. Even Khrushchev enjoyed his host’s hospitality until 5 am culminating in him agreeing to Finland opening up its trade doors to the West.
President Ahtisaari followed in his predecessors footsteps using the sauna as a cooling down method for hot headed opponents determined not to agree with one another. Talk, meet, sauna, more talk, and the problem seems to well, disappear like steam.
President Halonen, a woman and oh dear, the past seems to point at sauna diplomacy reserved for her male counterparts only. But fortunately enough, the Finnish parliament now boasts a majority of female MP’s making it possible for her to have company whenever a serious issue needs to be thrashed out.
Reams of stories have been written about it and with good reason since its role in the culture is so embedded and covers the whole lifecycle from giving birth to preparing food to hammering out deals. Ultimately, however, and this is the best part, turning a women into the most beautiful she will ever be as she emerges from this simple ritual of sweating, whipping herself and plunging into ice cold water or snow. Or so they say….