...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

It's as hot as a sauna in here!

So, I haven't been blogging for a couple of weeks now thanks to the fact that I'm cramming (thought I was over with "hell weeks" after finishing my BA. Damn wrong!). My work isn't exactly done yet, but I'm taking the chance to relax by taking on another form of writing, i.e. blogging, which I find to be a fun way to waste my time and reload creativity.

The other thing that's keeping me going with schoolwork is the fact that we're soon going away for a short vacation, once all my work is done. Week 8 (three weeks from now) is the so-called "sports holidays" in Sweden. Supposedly, people can go skiing then, but since there's no snow right now on this part of the country, we're instead going on a Finland cruise. More about that later. In the meantime, I thought of writing about something distinctly Finnish in preparation for our trip: the sauna.

And here's what it looks like! Since heat goes up, it's warmest on the top ledge and gradually cooler as you move down. I heard that Kricke the cat actually likes it down there.

If you've ever passed by that particularly seedy massage parlor in Quezon avenue (or similar) by car or jeepney, you would have probably had the impression that the sauna is something Swedish, because it shares the same sign as "Swedish massage" (whatever that is, is still a mystery). Actually though, it originated from the neighboring country, "sauna" actually being a Finnish word. Here, it's called a bastu, but is nevertheless a common part of the culture that you can even conjugate it into a verb: to basta (to be at the sauna). So far, it's the only place I've been to where people voluntarily sit down in unusual heat and don't even bother to wipe the sweat off their faces. Temperatures here even beat desert proportions, meaning that people happily sit down at, well, about 60-80 degrees C.

Obviously, I took this picture when the sauna wasn't on. Still, note that the thermometer takes up to 140 degrees! Crazy!

In modern saunas (as the one above), the temperature is regulated by a gauge that is connected to the electric heat source, a box full of metal convolutions that turn red, similar to oven toaster coils. There are other varieties of heat sources as well though, ranging from very traditional wood-burning saunas, to the somewhat rustic pile of heated stones. By throwing water on the stones (or on a groove on the electric heat source), you can increase the humidity inside the sauna, really making sense of the idiom that hot and humid Manila days "feel like being in a sauna". Not that I knew this back then; no one in their right minds go to a sauna when it already "feels like a sauna" outdoors.

In the original Finnish sauna though – the one pictured is the modern one with an electric heater – they say that it wasn't actually steam that filled the room, but smoke and ash, which was both antiseptic and according to some sites I've visited, "smelled relaxing" (Manila "sauna heat" though is, I assure you, neither antiseptic, nor nice-smelling!). They also say that since the saunas had access to water and was the most sterile part of the house in the old days, it was there that women gave birth. I have no idea if this is true, but Wikipedia reckons that this is what makes saunas a kind of "revered" place in the Finnish culture. Also, it was a place where sexes and genders – and actually, class – were said not to exist, where it was completely natural to sit with your whole family with only your birthday suit on (It figures, if you were born there too).

Well, modern conventions require one to wear a towel around oneself when going to a public sauna – at least so I've gathered, since I've only been in the sauna in Mats' and Margareta's home. I think that this is at least partly for hygienic reasons though, because in the swim hall – where shower rooms and saunas are segregated between men and women – I shower with other women in cubicles without doors ("the onus is on you not to look," as I read in a book on Swedish culture) but they still wear towels in the sauna anyway. Besides, even if the sauna were co-ed (a term which Marcus thinks is funny, because not even school washrooms are segregated between the sexes), when you're sitting in 80 degree heat, I doubt if sex will be the first thing on your mind or if you'll be able to think of any other nuances for the word "hot".

There's no exact time for how long one should stay in the sauna – it usually depends on how uncomfortable you get. Then it's just a matter of going out and cooling down and maybe taking a drink before going back in again. Afterwards, you end by taking a shower, because obviously you'll have been very sweaty by then. On a cold winter day, taking a sauna really ups your tolerance for the cold, and besides, if you believe in all that "sweating is good for you" stuff, then it's healthy as well (it's not recommended if you have high blood pressure though).

There are two other things very Finnish about the sauna, which I want to mention here. You see, the Finnish has always had the reputation for being "tough" folk, at least from Swedish eyes. And what better way to exemplify why they are so, than pointing to the Finnish sauna-endurance contests, where the last man out wins (and not in sissy 80-degree heat either!). They also have a traditional (surely heart-unfriendly) practice of sitting in the sauna and then swimming in frozen lakes alternately. No wonder they have high rates of heart disease there! But speaking of being "tough" and enduring pain, there's also some bit of masochism involved in some sauna practices. People who want to cleanse themselves in the sauna sometimes whack themselves with birch twigs (björkris in Swedish), which are said to have antiseptic properties but are also known to be stingy, and are therefore used for flogging (birch twigs are still a symbol of Lent here, because I guess it symbolizes a lot of suffering...) I'll give the birch a pass though, thank you.


Blogger aka Cheryl said...

for some reason i find this entry so funneee. i don't know why, hahaha.

can't wait for ur trip!

2:39 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

JOY! It's Jackie from philo. Mind if I add you as a link on my blog? Tee hee.

5:18 AM

Blogger Petri said...

Swedes really don't get the "twig"-thing. You should have asked a finn :)

You are supposed to collect new branches. The twigs are still pretty soft and the new leaves contain lots of the fatty acids that work as soap.

A pretty popular wildlife trick is to crush fresh birch leaves in a plastic bag with water: You get weak watery soap.

The point is (besides the nice smell) that your skin gets really hot if you hit it repeatedly. This was supposed to kill lice and fleas.

My father (who once won a competition in a finnish army sauna for sixty men) keeps a small birch in his greenhouse. That way he gets fresch birch twigs for several extra months each year.

10:29 AM

Blogger Ahoy! said...

Cheryl: Haha, I didn't expect comments to arrive so fast. Must be a "hot" topic. :-D Okay, corny!

Jackie: I recently deleted my friends-links bar, but I'm thinking of putting it up again and adding you as well (your old blog is dead!) By the way, I recently met a Japanese student who I swear looks exactly like you! I tried so hard not to call her "Jackie" by mistake.

Petri: So, you're out from your lurker mode now just because I talked about saunas :-) Just kidding. I'll remember your trick when I find myself lost in Kolmården or something. By the way, would you have any idea if we should speak Swedish or English in Helsinki?

Cool that you guys dropped by!

12:06 PM


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