We got into Helsinki at 4pm yesterday, as the sun was going down and the temperatures were dropping from frigid to the sub-zeroes. The wind was doing its whipping and the hotel bar was populated with people who didn’t look out of place wearing large, chunky sweaters. Plus, the hotel had one of the things I was most excited about seeing in Finland: a real sauna. I decided to stay in.
I changed and headed to the basement, but when I got there it was the usual type of hotel sauna, a little larger perhaps, and currently populated by two Catalonians. The sauna was lackluster, its heat regulated by thermostat to insure nobody died and no fun was had. I picked up enough of the conversation between the Catalonians to learn that Andalusian women are the most beautiful in the world.
After supper with the Swell Season folks I did a little research and found the experience I was looking for: Sauna Kotiharju Oy. It was across town, and apparently the only traditional wood-burning sauna in city limits. It’s been going for 80 years and there were a few descriptions in English that made it look promising. I decided to go the next afternoon before soundcheck.
I suffer from bus-lag, meaning that in the middle of a bus tour the sudden switch from a rolling, rocking cradle bunk to a stationary hotel bed always keeps me awake. I fell asleep for a few hours and then spent the next four in my room asking myself large life questions in the darkness. This morning, however, I dragged myself out of bed, down to breakfast and then, wondering whether it was a good idea to go to a sauna when I was so tired and bed looked so good. I wavered.
But I’m in Helsinki! How could I not go out there? I jumped in a cab and the cab driver whisked me across town through icy streets to the techno beat of a song with the worst lyrics I have ever heard.
So come back
I totally miss you
You can call me
In dreams I see your face
No one else can take your place…
My favorite line was “I totally miss you.”
The taxi driver dropped me at the entrance to Sauna Kotiharju Oy, just as it opened. I told the man behind the desk that it was my first time in a Finnish sauna, and he told me not to worry and just head in…
I’ve come prepared for all eventualities. I have my swim trunks, a tee-shirt, a towel from the hotel and two beers (which I’m told is what one drinks in the locker room between sauna sessions). It turns out the only thing I really needed to bring is the beer and even that is sold behind the counter.
The lockers are wooden and have definitely been here since the sauna opened 80 years ago. Perhaps it’s the Finnish language, which is totally incomprehensible to me, or perhaps it’s the sense that this place is as steeped in tradition as it is in steam, but I have become suddenly bashful and aware that whatever it is I may be doing is probably the wrong thing to do. The only thing to do in such circumstances is to charge ahead and wait for someone to tell you you’re doing it wrong. So I charge ahead, or rather, take off my clothes and step into the darkness of the sauna.
The first thought to jump into my head is, “So this is where they keep the wizards.” The men who are already there are old, some of them very, very old. The oldest ones, quite skinny and with long beards, are seated on the top level of a 90 square foot room. To the left as I enter, the wood-fired furnace blazes away. I am aware instantly of two things; first, that the sauna isn’t that hot. Not the kind of hot I was expecting, anyway. The second thing I realize is that there is a definite and established hierarchy to the assembly. Not knowing a word of Finnish, naked and about thirty years younger than any other man in the room, I elect to sit on the third step down. “Apprentice level” I think to myself. I close my eyes and listen to the fire burning, to the old men talking (probably not about Andalusian women) and feel proud of myself for finding this place. After a few minutes some more guys come in, and I use this commotion to quietly move up one more level. It’s definitely warmer here, but still not the kind of withering heat I expected. I’m enjoying myself, though. A man comes and starts talking to me. He’s about seventy. I tell him I’m sorry, but I don’t understand him, and he turns around and begins to sit where I’m sitting. This is complicated and made quite a bit more awkward by the fact that we’re both naked. I scoot to the right just in time, and I realize I’ve probably been sitting in the seat this guy has been sitting in every Saturday for twenty years.
It’s getting hot now, but what the Hell? I’ve been standing my ground, and I’ve been watching how everything works. The oldest guy, the one sitting high up in the hottest section, occasionally says something and one of the other guys gets down, and lifts a lever on the furnace. Water can be heard gushing down onto the hot rocks that sit on a grill above the fire. The whole furnace looks like a scaled down model of a sooty Parisian row-house. Then the guy climbs back up until it’s time for someone to climb back down and add more steam. When someone leaves the sauna they give a good blast of steam to heat up the air that might come in the open door to the showers. I’m watching all of this, and I’m starting to sweat, so I decide to climb up another level, to the top row.
I stand up and duck quickly back down. The heat up there is almost viscous. It’s not like air anymore, so much as a burning liquid. My hair feels like a burning badger pelt. I can feel the eyes of these old guys on me. They know I’m a tourist and they’re watching me carefully to see what else I’m going to do wrong. They’re probably also not expecting me to be able to cut it sitting up there with them. Feeling I have something to prove, I duck down like someone approaching a helicopter, and slide carefully up onto the top ledge, sweating freely and now unconcerned with anything but the all-consuming temperature and humidity.
I make it about ten minutes up there, and then, when the old guy calls out, I use it as an excuse to get down. I pull the lever as I’ve seen the others do, until the old man calls out. Then I leave and head to the showers. After the par-boiling I’ve just gotten, I’m in no mind to do things by half now. The shower is frigid and I jump under. It is so cold that I feel my joints squeaking.
I head to the locker room for a beer. It’s 1:30 in the afternoon, but this is the way it’s done. I pop it open and sit in my towel looking at magazine pictures of Finnish people doing outlandish things like jumping in the ocean with icebergs. The beer tastes delicious, crisp and cold. My body has no idea what’s going on, so at least this part is familiar. I drink it and then, like an old hand at all this, I fill up a bucket with cold water and head back into the sauna. This time I don’t mess around. I take my seat up near the top and I cook for another ten minutes. Then the beer kicks in. Wow. I’ve been told that sauna is healthy for you, so whether the spinning in the room is normal or not, I know that whatever the effects of the sauna are, it’s definitely doing something for me. I stick it out another five minutes and then hit the showers again.
I’m in the dressing room now and the Swell Season are sound checking. I am in the grips of the kind of relaxed lethargy that one gets from ecstatic or traumatic experiences, and feel as if I’ve been violently wrung out and set to dry on a radiator. The set tonight may be slightly more lugubrious thanks to my trip into Sauna Kotiharju Oy, but it was totally, totally worth it.