15 September 2006

The Mysterious Rites of Sauna, Part One

My landlord asked me many months ago whether I wanted to have a weekly sauna appointment. I said sure. I was assigned to Saturdays, 5:00 to 6:00.

I didn’t think much about it until after I returned from an urban history conference in Stockholm. I came back with a miserable head cold and just wanted to burrow in and recover.

After a few days my landlord came over to show me around my block of flats, or kerrostalo. The sauna, which is in the basement, was locked because it is open only on weekends. He explained that the appointments are overlapping, which means that I would have the sauna from 5:00 to 5:30, and one of two adjacent showers and changing rooms—I was assigned to room A—until 6:00. After he left it occurred to me that because mine was the first appointment of the day, there might be some set-up duties I’d be expected to perform. I needn’t have worried.

When my time came I went downstairs and stripped in the changing room. Naked except for my apartment key, which I wear around my neck at all times, I walked through the shower area and into the sauna, where the thermometer already registered 75° Celsius; that’s 167° Fahrenheit. The custodian evidently had stoked up the fire and set out a bucket of water and a ladle for creating steam. There is a special word, löyly, for steam generated in a sauna, about which the locals can get quite misty-eyed. Then, he or she—this is one of those moments when the writer longs for that unisex Finnish pronoun, hän—discretely vanished.

The sauna in my basement is made of wood to simulate the real thing, which would be the sauna at one’s summer house on the lake, if one were a Finn. The only difference is that out there at the lake you’d throw logs in the stove, whereas at Koskitie 35, electric power is used to heat up a pile of rocks.

I sat down and started to sweat. I am not particularly good at entertaining myself in such circumstances. It was too dark to read. I wondered if my cell phone or CD player would work down there. I threw water on the rocks to create löyly. I sat in that sauna for what seemed like an eternity, thinking about what I ought to be thinking about. At one point I accidentally touched my house key and literally burned my hand. That’s when I opted for a bracing, luke-cold shower, which reminded me of the pending visit of a friend from the States whose idea of sauna involves racing outside to roll in a snow bank. In the absence of a practicing cardiologist, I think I’ll pass on that.

When I returned the temperature inside was 80° Celsius, 176° Fahrenheit. I sat and sweated and pondered for another eternity. In due course, I took another shower, a long one this time, changed back into my clothes, and returned to my flat. It was only 5:40.

I drank six glasses of water, prepared a little dinner for myself, opened a bottle of cheap red wine, and reflected on my experience, which was not at all unpleasant, but far from transcendental. As a card-carrying humanist, I am more intrigued by the cultural construction of sauna than the event itself. It occurs to me that it probably is not a coincidence that sauna management in my kerrostalo is orchestrated in such a way as to entail no face-to-face interaction of any kind. If sauna suddenly were to catch on in the United States, I strongly suspect that it would involve joining a private club with HDTV and full beverage service. In Italy, one would likely have to visit the monastery next door between 3:30 and 5:00 on Thursday afternoon, ring the third doorbell from the left, and ask Brother Dominick for the key. And none of that would be written down.

By the time I had finished my dinner I felt like walking into town. I was about half-way there before it dawned on me that my head cold was gone. Next week I’ll try to last until 5:45.