18 December 2006

The Mysterious Rites of Sauna, part three

In part one of this trilogy, I reported that the sauna in my kerrostalo is on a thermostat set at 80 degrees Celsius—176 degrees Fahrenheit. (Since then, someone has raised it to 85.) I said that I thought the sauna had helped me recover from a serious head cold. I also confessed that I don’t really know what to do with myself in there. What I didn’t quite say was that some serious waves of loneliness—the only ones I’ve experienced here, really—have swept over me in that Nordic caldarium.

In part two, I said that I had learned to attend to the rites of sauna for their own sake, and not as a means of spiritual transcendence, and that from now on I would be content to let sauna theology take care of itself. I have been enjoying my sauna ever since I adopted this Episcopalian attitude.

I thought I was ready for part three, which coincided with a visit from a friend from the States. George and I go way back—to the fall of 1965, to be exact. He was my teacher in college, and I asked him to serve as the outside reviewer for a student project I had been supervising over here. In addition to being smart and well read, George is an unusually curious and amiable human being, which is why he’s good at asking questions and offering constructive criticism. It’s also one of the reasons he enjoys travel. He talks to strangers. He is a fellow-traveler of the Finnish Sauna Society, and he actually has a sauna in his basement. In fact, he had written to me earlier to explain that sauna was a social occasion, not a set of rituals. You can see why I was eager to sit at his feet, so to speak.

We had a very nice dinner at my favorite Russian place, Zakuska. Then we repaired to the Holiday Inn across the street from Oulu’s Lutheran Cathedral (see the September 26, 2006 post, “Yikes?”). We headed straight for the sauna, where we stripped and stood under the shower for a minute so we’d have some moisture to contribute to the atmosphere right away.

The sauna in my block of flats is nice. You walk up two steps and sit on an elevated bench, across the aisle from the stove. There is a little railing that you can put your feet on, but mostly you just have to face forward with your feet flat on the floor, and that gets a little uncomfortable after awhile. When it’s time to pour some water over the rocks to generate some holy löyly, you have to get up and negotiate the stairs—not that easy when you’re a little woozy. If you had company, you’d be sitting side-by-side, which is okay, but ideally, there would be the possibility of some eye contact. But basically, as I have said, the sauna in my kerrostalo is almost all right.

The sauna in the Holiday Inn is infinitely better. It’s an in-the-round affair. The stove sits in the middle, down below the circular bench. You don’t have to stare straight ahead at a wooden wall. You can make eye contact with the man next to you, or across the way. Then too, there’s a railing that somehow invites you to prop your feet up and lean back. Plus, you can summon the löyly without having to get up. This is a vastly superior design, not only because the seating is more comfortable, but mainly because it facilitates socializing.

But if you can’t stand the heat, you should get out of the sauna, to quote good ol’ Harry Trumalainen. It seemed awfully hot in there right from the get-go. At one point George checked the thermometer: 106 degrees Celsius. That, brothers and sisters, is 223 degrees Fahrenheit. Jaysus, it was hot in there.

After awhile, a young Pakistani fellow joined us. George engaged him in conversation right away. We learned that he works in Oulu’s haitekki sector, and he seemed like an amiable chap. I could tell that the two of them were going to bond. Meanwhile, I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I lasted maybe twenty minutes, start to finish, before bailing out. The real rites of sauna are social, and I’m just not gregarious enough. “Know thyself,” someone once said.

It occurred to me later that at the very least I could have asked our Pakistani mate to take a picture of George and me—a G-rated one to decorate the blog, natch—but I didn’t even think to do that. I wonder, what is the boiling point of digital cameras? Does anybody know?


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