Sunday, July 15, 2012

Terveisia saunasta! (Conclusion/On the sauna)

The vocabulary we English-speakers use is diverse, varied, motley, heterogeneous and multitudinous. Even if an English speaker don't talk very good, each sentence out of his or her mouth is an artful combination of Latin, French, Old Norse, Old or Middle English, and to a lesser extent, Greek.  To that linguistic framework we attach words from most any language we find useful.  For example, if you were sitting on your futon eating a kiwi in your pajamas, you couldn't write an inane Facebook status-update without using loanwords from Japanese, Maori and Urdu, respectively.  This peculiar quality of English results from a long history of foreign domination, followed by a shorter history of dominating foreigners (which we're still enjoying today).  Yet the Finns and their language have remained distant - the Finns don't have the necessary self-esteem to conquer others, and they can't grow enough spices to be worth our time.  As such, from the many dozens of words in the Finnish language (by my count), only one enjoys common usage in English - Rapakivi granite.


Rapakivi granite is a hornblende-biotite granite containing large rounded crystals of orthoclase, and its name derives from a Finnish compound word meaning "mud rock."  It is also the topic of today's post.


Oh wait sorry, I was just reading about granite on Wikipedia.  The only Finnish word that enjoys common usage in English is sauna.  Today's post is about the Finnish sauna.




Finland is home to 5.4 million people and over 2 million saunas.  The saunas are hidden in the forest and around all the lakes; they dot the tundra and line the seashore, they're built into every home where we might have a utility room, and they're on the roofs of urban apartment blocks and student dormitories.  The presidential summer residence outside Turku has a lavish presidential sauna, and members of the Finnish parliament have members-only access to a parliamentary sauna large enough to fit an entire naked governing coalition.  There is a sauna 100 miles south and 4,724 feet down from where I am right now, at the bottom of Europe's deepest mine.  During the Cold War, president Urho Kekkonen famously welcomed Soviet leaders into his sauna, and a sauna-book at the library has extensive quotations from Kekkonen on the sauna's merits as both a bathing and political aid.  Every apartment listing in Finland has a "sauna" column in the specs.  I can see a rooftop sauna from my window as I write this.


The saunas have wood-burning stoves, electric stoves, or infrared heating elements, all of which heat rocks, onto which you throw water, in order to produce sauna steam or löyly. It's pronounced just like it looks.  The historical origins of the sauna are unclear, because the Finns abhor talking about themselves, but for at least 1000 years the average Finn has dedicated a significant portion of his or her life to the production of löyly. Today, as before, löyly is the endpoint of most Finnish dreams and aspirations.  


In the sauna-prehistory, the traditional Finnish sauna was a smoke sauna, which also burns wood, but has no chimney - they would build a fire in the morning, let it heat the rocks for many hours until the fire burned itself out, then ventilate the room before steaming.  This has gone out of favor since the advent of having an actual job.  But at the time there was no other way, and the smoke was a necessary disinfectant - smoke saunas doubled as food-storage lockers, meat smokers, and the place for childbirth.  If the modern Finn is less likely to have been born in a sauna, he or she was still probably conceived or gestated in one.


So 2 million saunas, 5.4 million Finns.  By my calculation, that means that each Finnish citizen could spend 8 hours and 58 minutes each day alone in a sauna, without any scheduling conflicts and without having to converse with one another.  If, on the other hand, they do run into one another leaving or entering the sauna, there's actually a unique Finnish expression for that - it's 8 seconds of respectful silence.

But alas, even in Finland, society has not been organized to quite that degree of numbing, mechanical perfection.  Until that day, the Finns must share the löyly with others.  But I say with only in the broadest sense - they can see each other, but that doesn't mean they have to interact.  In the sauna speech is superfluous -  through deep inhales and muttered half-words, everybody expresses the same thoughts. These include, and are limited to, "there's not enough steam," "that's a bit too much steam," or ideally, "this is the right amount of steam."  If there is any discord - say, if the Finn with the water-bucket throws too little on the stove - the Finns have an expression for that as well.  It's 8 seconds of resentful silence.  As with any linguistic subtlety, a foreigner in Finland learns to distinguish between similar silences through repeated exposure.




My own initiation into the sauna ritual was surprisingly painless, aside from the steam-scaldings and the repeated birch-branch whippings (not made up, see bottom of first picture).  Whenever I would wade into some new cultural milieu in Russia, it was a minefield of rules of etiquette, archaic rituals and superstitions, all perfectly tuned to produce stress and wonder in equal measure.  So in Finland I expected the same - on the face of it, sitting naked in a tiny box with a bunch of natives would appear to be cultural immersion at its most terrifying and productive.  I thought the Finns would see through me like an autist through a Magic Eye poster, correcting every misstep and faux pas until I either cried or rapidly Finnicized.

Yet this didn't happen.  As it turns out, Finns don't seem to care much who you are, what you do, or how you speak, so long as there's enough physical space to accommodate them in the sauna.  This is a blessing for most visitors but perhaps a curse for my writing.  By extension, it may help to explain why the blog has floundered, and this is likely the last post.

The sauna is a warm, friendly, comfortable, thoroughly enjoyable facet of the culture, and the Finns would readily accept it (and often employ it) in various metaphors for the country at large.  Yet as Finland's most distinctive cultural tradition, the sauna neither offends nor challenges.  Within the country, it is beautiful but commonplace, and for visitors it is celebrated but not adopted back home. That seems to be the metaphor to me.

I'm reminded of Mark Twain's oft-quoted observation, that there's no difference between those who don't read and those who can't.  Within the sauna, for better or worse, there seems no difference between the Finns, who choose not to speak Finnish, and me, who can't.  That is, when life is at it's most Finnish, it can be hard to tell I'm in Finland.

What this says about the country has been difficult for me to parse, and even more difficult to convey in blog form.  One thing I can say is that, for the blog to peter out, without much conclusion and with weeks remaining in country, somehow seems a suitable end.  The harder I look at Finland, the less clear its outlines become.  This may in large part result from language limitations, in which case the blog will return when I do.  But I suspect there's more to it than that.  I'll post another round of pictures, because I have no shortage of beautiful landscapes and funny English,


but this may be the last essay for this trip.  Accordingly, please enjoy this collection of Finnish sunsets - click on any picture for a full-size version.  

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In this picture, you'll notice that in southern Finland the sunrises and sunsets happen at certain times, while in the North, they happen on certain dates.  I'm now in Oulu, which in this picture is the northernmost point that the sun still functions as it's supposed to.  














15 comments:

  1. Love your authenticity in this post :) And very sad if this really turns out to be the last one. After all, I've been looking forward to reading what you have to say about Oulu :)

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    Replies
    1. You Finns are lightning-fast once the blog is updated. I will definitely add more pictures, and I'll admit that I prematurely declared my Russia blog dead a few times. Time will tell.

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    2. Seconded! I'm always curious (and dread!) what visitors think of my previous home town.

      Also, thank you again for the postings.

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  2. The other one is Molotov cocktail!

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  3. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. If I bump into you in a public sauna I will give you 8 seconds of respectful silence before I take a seat.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading! There are many scenic Finland pictures to come.

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  4. I have enjoyed your blogposts too!! As I'm a big fan of Finland myself, I can totally relate to your words :D

    A mystifying country, harsh and hard on the outside, yet surprisingly soft and cuddly when you get to scratch the surface off a bit :D

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  5. Here, have some Finnish proverbs translated to English!

    http://naurunappula.com/932919/sananlaskuja-englanniksi.jpg

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  6. What, no more? And I just found you blog. I wondered what you that of the garlic festival, and the constant light?

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    Replies
    1. Blog died prematurely, my apologies! May revive it when I return to Finland, and definitely the Russia blog will continue at some point.

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  7. Awesome, yours information is very effective. the information about sauna bath heater IS TOO GOOD.
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    ReplyDelete
  8. Lots of interesting points here—first about the language, that's a good observation, and the sauna etiquette too. It's too bad that most visitors don't adopt the habit of going into saunas more often, since it's not just relaxing, it's also beneficial to your health for a variety of reasons. And your last take about their sunsets and sunrise is certainly interesting. It's fun to imagine the sun staying up all day up until the following night.

    iHealth Saunas

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  9. One of the awesome information about the Terveisia saunasta.Thanks for your great information about it.

    http://www.heaters4saunas.com/

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi, Nice site I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing. Would it be possible if I contact you through your email? Please email me back. Thanks!

    Aaron Grey
    aarongrey112 at gmail.com

    ReplyDelete