Suomi for the overloaded senses
I mentioned before that Finland is a sensory experience – it is a culture that must be felt. What I am really referring to when I say that is the sauna. Experiencing the true Finnish sauna is to experience Finland. Here, the sauna is more than a hot room – it is a way of life.
First let’s set the perfect scene. Let’s put an old wood-heated sauna on the shores of a beautiful lake. Put it on the eastern shore, facing west, so you always get lovely sunset views. Then make sure it is quite far from all the other homes so you can feel like this beautiful scene was made for you and you alone.
Yeah, this will do.
The experience begins about an hour before the first loyly* ever hits the hot stones; that’s how long it takes for the wood-burning sauna stove to heat the air in the small log-room to a toasty temperature. Luckily this frees up some time to fetch buckets of water from the creek behind the sauna – you’ll need it a bit later for washing off as there is no running water. You’ll also want to add some water to the metal cavity that wraps around the stove to heat it up.
Then you wait while the fire burns. Play a few games of Sequence perhaps. Add more firewood. Play a few more games of Sequence. Try not to kill your husband even though he keeps beating you AND IS CLEARLY CHEATING. Add more firewood.
Once the sauna reaches a good temperature it is time to strip down. And I mean all the way down – do not dare bring a bathing suit into a sauna.
You carefully climb to the top wooden seat as your eyes gradually adjust to the dim light. You settle in, resting your elbows on your knees and throw the first loyly. A wall of steamy heat furiously hisses up from the stones. Wait a few seconds now – the heat first climbs to the ceiling and then turns to fill whatever space it can. It takes longer than you might think it should to reach you, but it finally does. Oh it definitely does.
Your head drops down, your eyes squint. You start to breathe through your mouth as the heat stings the thin flesh of your nostrils.
A few more loyly’s and your brain starts to catch up with the intense heat around you. Suddenly the thought of the freezing-cold lake outside – the one you could barely dip your toes into earlier – sounds amazing. You climb down and head for the lake.
But you weren’t fast enough; the evening air cools your body before you reach the water. You wuss out. You settle for a few sips of your drink on the patio instead to cool off while taking in the gorgeous sunset. Resist the urge to take yet another photo of it.
The next time in the sauna, you push a little further. You keep throwing on more loyly until the thought of the lake is just too much to handle and then you throw one more. Even the walls are sweating now.**
Then you run – and really RUN this time.
Turns out running into a freezing cold lake when you have just been baking in a room of about 80+ degrees (that’s 176 fahrenheit) is the best therapy on the face of the earth. You simply cannot stop to think. About anything. If you do, you’ll never make it in that water. It’s really a beautiful life lesson for us over-thinkers – leap before you look.
And so you run – the cold water splashing around you, the little lake fish fluttering out of your way, the sand squishing between your toes – you just run. Your mind has no choice but to go blank against this assault on your senses.
At this time of year, all you can really do is take a few quick strokes before the water starts squeezing out your breath. You turn around and start to head back, but not before dipping your full head in the water to give your hair a thorough rinse – the story in Finland goes that lake water makes your hair soft. I’ll believe it – how could it not?
When you step out of the water, every inch of your skin tingles in the evening air. Just beneath that layer of cool water, your skin is still pulsing with the heat of the sauna. You let them battle it out as you sip your drink on the patio, feeling the water drip down your skin, one drop at a time.
It’s pretty fucking amazing.
* Loyly is a Finnish word for the act of throwing water onto the sauna stove.
** Literally. The wooden walls of the sauna sweat out terva – or tar – over years of heat.