An Englishman in a sauna

When Finns first tell you about sauna, they’ll normally reassure you of a couple of things.  Firstly it’s just for relaxation and bathing, and secondly it’s completely normal to be naked in a hot (75C +) confined space with other strangers.  The ways to spot a non-Finn in a sauna, other than poor language skills, is that they don’t believe either of these facts and they will normally be the first one to leave; ie – no Finn will leave the sauna before a non-Finn.

After you ..

To clarify the last point, it’s not an issue of, “No, please after you, I insist.”, it seems to be more that no self-respecting Finn will leave before all the foreigners have been driven out through pain or heat exhaustion.  Whilst at home the sauna is honestly for relaxation and bathing, if the sauna is held in even a mildly celebratory context, even the most genteel of Finns will exhibit their competitive side.

Recently, at a sabbatical leaving-do for a friend, I found myself in the sauna with some of the guys.  They took the time and effort to try to teach me a sauna song, the only words of which I can remember are “kaalisoppa” – cabbage soup.  Mainly because the chorus seems to be: “Kaalisoppa, kaalisoppa, hei, hei!”.  On “hei” a good mug of water / löyly is thrown on the sauna stones.   I did mention at some point that it was getting a little hot now.  The Finns kindly reminded me, “Well, you’ve long enough been in Vinlant, so  you should able to hantul it by now!” – “Hei, Hei!”  In all fairness, I had already be in a good few minutes before they arrived.  Since it did seem that they were settling in for a long haul, I squeezed out before I melted.  No sooner had I hit the shower, the guys started to leave too!  Refer, dear reader, to the opening paragraphs.

Case in point: Once I was at Oittaa with my brother-in-law for a sauna followed by a very quick lap of an ice hole (avantouinti).  We showered before the sauna which a took few minutes and when we got into the sauna found an old raisin of a guy.  He must have been there a while, at least he was in there when we went to the shower in the adjoining area.  Having two foreigners enter the sauna invoked “sauna rule #1 – don’t leave before them”.  The thermometer read 100c and he must have been cooked, but threw löyly like a pro until we left.  Then he left a few minutes after.  Maybe he was hardcore after all.

Sauna whisk in bucket

Another weird sauna thing is the whisk.  For example, during a sauna with one of my closest friends, he proceeded to near take the skin off my back with the “whisk”.  The whisk is basically a good handful of long silver birch twigs bound together.  In the sauna atmosphere, löyly, they also release oils.  They idea is that you kinda “whap” them against your skin and they ex-foliate, stimulate blood flow and the oils treat your skin.  Basically a good idea, but it does sting a bit if administered too vigorously.  Happy times!

Last one out

The inspiration to write this blog comes from the men’s sauna at New Wine / Himos this year.  Initially I think I kinda notched up most all marks; poor language skills, not believing for moment that it’s natural to be in a small hot box with other naked men and also being the first one to leave.  Having said that, I did make sure that I saw some of the guys enter and leave before me – a matter of pride, you might say.


The weird thing is that when being offered sauna, my immediate reaction is politely decline and then back peddle a little later because I remember that once in the sauna, it is its’ own little world.  The smoke sauna which had been booked for us was a generous 12 seater, with smoke blackened walls.   The dimly lit heat of place and the soft löyly from the bed of stones over the stove have an almost lackadaisical effect.  The rough wood and odd angles of the walls and roof mute voices and serves only to enhance the effect.

To leave this place and enter to cool of the late evening, walk bare foot down the wooden jetty and plunge head first into the lake .. it just doesn’t get any better.  It’s like the first pull of cool beer after a long hot dusty day.

And then the sauna spews out a stream of sweaty naked Finns, diving head first over me.  Honestly, I had no idea where to look.  Then the hassle of leaving the lake with my too clingy swimming trunks, and then too inflated after trying to loosen them, made me determined to go native for the next round.  The problem, as gentlemen may testify in closed company is that upon leaving cool water “things” are a little shrunken.

Not the best thing to be going through your mind as you walk back and realise that everyone else is dressed.


The picture of the sauna bathers was from a stamp collection celebrating the Finnish sauna tradition.

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