Brotherhood of Sweat and the (in)discreet charm of Finnish saunas

January 23, 2010

Getting ready for the sauna in Oulu

Being locked up with 18 gloriously sweaty naked and almost naked male journalists and one city mayor, roasting inside a dark sizzling timber cubicle nestled on the edge of a river in the heart of eerie silence was not exactly the activity I envisaged when we arrived in Oulu.

 Usually, places that are less than 200 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, and where wilderness reigns supreme, are most likely to provide some quiet peace of mind and long trekking trails, maybe some polar bears. But Oulu, and in addition to the towering trees, endless woods and enchanting calm, offers charcoal saunas with intense steam, sizzling heat and benumbing swims in icy waters. 

The city, 600 kilometres north of Helsinki, and with 110,000 residents, at first glance seemed more like a dollhouse that had nothing to do with anything evil outside its boundaries.  From a small trading post known for wood tar and salmon, it has developed into an innovation centre, the high-tech ground for Nokia, a world leader in mobile communications, and the home of about 25 percent of Finland’s hi-tech jobs. 

Yet in its quiet but inexorable progress towards advanced technology, Oulu has preserved its cultural identity and the world’s most developed technologies have not altered its inhabitants’ respect of the deep-rooted traditions and intense cultural distinctiveness. Today, it successfully combines the world of high-tech with old ways of life, linking tradition with cyberspace. 

It is deep love for these traditions that kept our Finnish friend Risto Uimonen talking so reverently about saunas. What he saw in them was at that time a mystery that we as mere mortals could only guess. But the more I listened to him, the more certain I became that he was born in one of the many dotting Oulu, his hometown. I knew that saunas accompanied Finns from the cradle to the crave, but I was not sure whether for us it would be pleasure or torture. 

Risto seemed to read my mind. Obviously, the only way to form an opinion was to test one. 

“You guys should try a genuine Finnish sauna. There is a deferential feel about the sauna. But it is not really in the spiritual sense. It is rather the feeling you get about a place where you can relax and recuperate. There, you can really mend,” Risto, the editor-in-chief of Kaleva, the world’s largest newspaper in the Arctic Circle region, said as we were driven to the most famous sauna in his city. 

Our group of journalists came from cities in Latin America, Europe, Middle East and Asia, but we have had no real experience in an authentic sauna or “sawna” as Risto has suggested so that we will have the right pronunciation. 

So when some of us, high on famous journalists’ ego trips, mentioned that we were familiar with saunas because they were just another version of hotel and club gyms, Risto was genuinely shocked. 

Even the attempt to compare saunas with hammams, Turkish baths, did not please Risto and he said that we, as sauna newbies, should wait until we live the experience to make any sort of judgment. 

So, with great anticipation, we braced ourselves for the “memorable time” we would spend at Pehkolanlampi, the City of Oulu Guest House, 20 kilometres west of the centre, on the banks of the Sanginjoki River. 

As sauna newbies, our initiation began with a short history of the saunas and their significance to Finnish families. Thanks to Matti Pennanen, the mayor of Oulu, we got helpful insights into the customs that have been kept alive for centuries and we slowly got ready to help in perpetuating the tradition. Excitement swelled up inside us and we looked forward to the vertiginous twist that would make us sit together inside the timber cubicle. 

The Pehkolanlampi has two saunas. One hotter than the other. We entered the first one. Eighteen journalists, the mayor of Oulu and Risto, our friend and guide. Each of us has covered lots of stories, tragic and joyous, dramatic and cheerful. But a Finnish sauna experience was definitely a first. 

Risto ushered us in and our eyes slowly got accustomed to the darkness. We felt our way to the decks of the “lauteet”, the two birch benches. Those who chose the upper deck would later learn that they made a rookie mistake since it was much hotter there. We felt the heat and saw that it emanated from a nest of stones sitting like a dragon’s eggs in a corner. The door is now shut and darkness and heat envelop us, sparking a wave of delightful jokes and savoury comments. 

We distinguish, more than we see, Risto, the Master of the Ceremony, holding a large wooden dipper. Enjoying every second of the experience, he splashes cupfuls of water from a handy bucket onto the “kiuaskivet”, the glowing hot stones, causing them to release a powerful jolt of “Löyly”, intensely steamy heat that instantly burns our nostrils. 

The Mayor was certainly happy and he could rightly boast that he was the world’s only city head who could lock up 18 vociferous journalists from various nationalities in a small box and torture them physically without incurring any form of protest. 

Risto, seeing that those who had fair skin had turned as pink as can be, suggested that we move to the second sauna and ceremoniously ushered us in. The charcoal has been burning for more than five hours and the experience would be exhilarating, he pledged. 

The steamy heat was more intense and its combination with humidity soon reached unbearable peaks. We endured it all stoically, and tried to keep our minds off the pore-opening and chest-challenging steam by indulging into more jokes. We were grateful when Risto laid off the ladle and the respite gave us time to breathe. But it was too good to last. Risto generously grabbed a fresh birch twig and nonchalantly whipped the journalist sitting next to him on the back. We lapsed into an eerie silence to make sense of this unexpected behaviour, but it eventually dawned on us that it was not an act of hostility as Risto soon passed the dried leaves on to another journalist so that he too could flog his neighbour and create an intricate patter of welts on his back. For sauna purists, the whipping removed dead skin cells off the body, kept the skin soft and released a fragrant smell. 

After a few prolonged minutes when our bodies reddened, our stamina waned and our fortitude weakened and there was no way for us to stand the heat any longer, Risto threw the door open and suggested that we go to the river. 

Outside, it was cold and dark. But Risto led the way and we followed him. It was the moment of truth for most of us. The river was incredibly cold and, with only a faint light intensifying the creepy feeling inexorably overpowering us, diving in the benumbing waters would be a suicide. 

But the situation demanded that we jump into the water. If one journalist did it, then the others had to do it as well. Ego, national pride, virility challenge, whatever it may be called, history commanded that all of us plunge into the freezing water and splash around, be it for fleeting seconds. 

In the moonless night, we tentatively took the plunge, almost one at a time, shivering as our bodies entered the waters. It was icy, and in our frantic endeavours to overcome our trepidation, we forced ourselves to conjure up feelings that the water of the river was something refreshing and reinvigorating. We wanted the coveted stripes in heroism and we earned them. We were could now relax. 

After a long warriors’ respite, we headed back to the main relaxation lounge where large bowls of fresh salmon were waiting for us. Mayor Pennanen said that the Pehkolanlampi salmon soup eating record was 14 bowls. Despite our best efforts to take on new Finnish challenges, the bravest of us could not manage to gulp more than two bowls. Even though the salmon was wonderfully palatable.



About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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