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June 5th 2010
Published: June 5th 2010
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Excerpted from my book: OUR SUMMER IN ESTONIA,

If you visit a Nordic country for any amount of time, the sauna will
eventually make an appearance. All decent hotels have them. Most
homes and apartments of any style, and resorts and country cottages
would not be without one. Plus, if you spend any time in Finland, you
will encounter a sauna culture that is prevalent throughout society. The
Finnish language is acknowledged to be one of the most difficult to learn,
but most of us already speak a little. Yes, “sauna” is a Finnish word, and
the Finnish people lay claim to being the guardians of a proper sauna
culture. Any argument about the origins of the sauna is not important
to the Finns. For Finns, today, the correctly constructed Finnish Sauna,
properly used and so ubiquitous in Finland, it supports their claim to be
the leading sauna nation. And why not? In a nation of slightly over five
million people the government confirms more than 1.2 million saunas in
apartments and another eight-hundred thousand in weekend cottages,
public places, and resorts. That’s about one sauna for every 2.5 Finns. It is
even reported that the Finnish embassy in Washington, D.C. claims to be
the only embassy with a sauna. I’d say that the Finns have bragging rights
when it comes to saunas.

An important point about the sauna is the rules of conduct. First of
all, let me dispel the notion some Americans and others have about the
sauna. It is not equated to the “hot-tub,” x-rated image, perpetrated by
Hollywood, which implies that the only reason for a man and a woman to
get into hot water together is to get it on, not get the dirt off. Generally,
except for families, today, the public sauna is not unisex. Nakedness is
part of the tradition, but that has nothing to do with sex.

The culture of the sauna is embedded in the Nordic psyche and
goes back to pre-history and pagan times. Saunas are a quiet place; no
boisterous, loud behavior is tolerated. The experience is almost spiritual.
In former times the doors were made low so one entered the sauna bowed
down as in a reverent position. For some the experience is likened to
being in a womb, with one emerging reenergized as though reborn. In
ancient times they were used for giving birth and as a place for the old to
die. Consider the sauna as a place of peace, a place where one can softly,
but minimally, converse, meditate, and leave the tensions of the world
outside. The sauna was a place, again in ancient times, where one would
communicate with their ancestors. They were, of course, also the place
where one bathed and removed the grime from the hard labor of working
on the landlord’s estate.


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