With syksy (autumn) in full swing, the temperatures in Helsinki are dropping and the wind coming in off the Baltic Sea is more effective at waking you up than any cup of coffee you’ll ever have. Today’s temperature is forecast to be a ‘high’ of 8 degrees, but reportedly feels like 5.
It has become evident that with autumn days here being as chilly as the coldest days in Auckland, my ‘winter jacket’ is now my ‘autumn jacket’, as the mercury has a long way to drop yet. With no hot springs around and bath tubs very rare, I’ve had to find a new way to really warm up.
Luckily we have moved to a country where sauna culture reigns supreme. Pronounced sow-na, sauna is one of the very few Finnish words to be incorporated unchanged into the English language. Finland is home to 5.3 million people and 3.3 million saunas and we are lucky enough to have one in our apartment. You could safely say that every home and summer cottage has one and if our apartment didn’t have its own, it is highly likely there would be a communal one downstairs that we could book or use during the allocated times for men and women.
Our sauna measures just over 2m x 1.6m and is so well insulated that even when switched off the temperature sits at just below 30 degrees. It has three levels of seating and can fit 2 or 3 people quite comfortably. It is heated by an electric heater, or kiuas, that takes about 20-30 minutes to reach 80 degrees. On top of the heater sit sauna rocks and amongst them is a little Saunatonttu – or sauna elf we were given as a gift. In Finnish lore he is to be respected and will not tolerate behaviour such as eating, arguing or sleeping in the sauna. There is an old Finnish saying, “saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa,” – one should behave in the sauna as in church.
Contrary to everything we were taught as children in New Zealand, not only is it okay to throw water on the heater, it is encouraged. The steam that comes off the rocks is called loyly – a word that can be traced back to having a similar meaning to spirit, life or soul. Each sauna’s loyly is unique and it really gets the sauna experience started by instantly raising the temperature in the room.
To enhance circulation we have a long-handled brush that we can scrub ourselves with, or we take turns hitting each other with the vasta – a purpose-made bunch of birch branches bound together and available at all good sauna supply stores. There are sauna specialty shops around the place and the big name stores like Stockmann and Antilla will always have a sauna supply section within the homewares department.
We were also given a range of sauna fragrances, which we add to the water that we throw on the stones. This range includes Eukalyptus (eucalyptus), Koivu (birch), Savusauna (smoke sauna) and Terva (tar). These oils do more than just fragrance the room though – they really add to the cleansing experience and are beneficial in the same way aromatherapy or steam inhalations are. In fact, the sauna used to be where women would give birth and the dead were washed before burial, as it is often the cleanest room in the house.
There is so much more to say about sauna and sauna cutlure here in Finland and with winter approaching I’ll be doing loads of research! The heaters in our building haven’t been turned on yet so if the temperatures keep dropping and the wifi’s good enough I might have to make my next post from there!