According to my lovely host Jaana, the Finnish have two cure-alls: saunas and vodka.
I’ve been can’t-taste-my-food-coughing-myself-to-sleep-my-nose-is-so-raw-from-blowing-it sick for a few days, and just overall exhausted from my recent transition from a life behind a computer to a life of physical labor, so a sauna in the country that practically invented saunas sounded like a dream. And it was. Pure heaven. I’m already planning my next one, complete with several rolls in the snow and some solid avantouinti (ice swimming).
But let’s talk about saunas for a second.
First of all, it’s pronounced sow-nah, not saaw-nah, so don’t look at me funny when I say it right.
Second, depending on what country you are in, a wide range of sauna etiquette is possible so I recommend checking that out before you waltz in with just your birthday suit on in Hungary. In Japan, nudity is a required part of proper sauna etiquette; so is gender separation. In France, the UK and southern Europe, nudity is expected in the segregated saunas but usually forbidden in the mixed saunas, which must be terribly confusing when Germans and Austrians visit, who hail from a land where single sex saunas are rare and nudity is the accepted general rule. And of course, pretty much anything goes in the United States since our melting pot isn’t filled with unique traditions of our own; instead we just steal everyone else’s.
Third, although allegedly there is no “right” way to take a sauna, the way to take a sauna is in the nude. I couldn’t agree more, but here’s what confuses and amuses me about the whole process, especially in country where mixed gender nudity is the norm.
Taking a sauna is not meant to be erotic, it’s not meant to be sexual. But what about a tiny heated room takes away the sexual part of being naked? Is it just the mindset? A simple understanding of the rules? Or are dudes literally too hot to get turned on by breasts inside of a sauna? Are they too busy focusing on breathing and not passing out to sneak a few peeks? Does their brain get all jumbled the second they step inside, and for a moment, do they forget everything they know and feel in the outside world?
My first true sauna experience was a few years ago with my friend and his dad. I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too. Awwwwwkwaaaard. And it kind of was. But only for me, and only in the beginning. Because this is what you do in Northern Minnesota (not coincidentally home to a large Swedish and Finnish population). My friend had taken saunas all his life, in the nude, with oodles of other people who worked at his family’s canoe outfitters up near the Boundary Waters. It wasn’t weird or awkward and no one thought twice about it. It was just part of life.
From experience, wearing swimwear does take away from the total experience and is actually quite uncomfortable. I do believe the only way to fully appreciate a sauna is in the nude. I guess I just don’t totally understand how it works in a mixed group setting. I know, I know. I’m American. And we Americans tend to be way more weird about nudity. So many little Americans are taught that nudity is bad and being in the nude is sexual and only meant for people who are married. But I wasn’t technically taught that and I certainly do not believe that, and I still can’t full comprehend it.
Because this sauna, it’s a magical room. A room where all people are accepted and there is no need to be shy or self-conscious. A room where you can drop your drawers and lose yourself in the intensity of hot air tendrils permeating your body, slowly pulling out all the evil toxins of the day. A room that requires you to leave your sexuality at the door. And to take your place next to the other genderless being on the hot bench.
I’m sorry, you’ll have to forgive me. I just simply can’t believe that genderless being I just sat next to is not enjoying and/or judging the view. Then I read something yesterday in the Finnish instructions outside the sauna that went a long way in my road to understanding:
Above all, you should be in good company, so that you can enjoy the experience in peace.
Pretty sure that is the key ingredient in any sauna recipe. Sadly, as amazing as my last sauna was, I am still sick. It might be time to try that vodka.