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Nordic FAQ - 4 of 7 - FINLAND
Section - 4.6 The Finnish Sauna

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          <by Mauri Haikola>
          While the word "sauna" (in the Finnish pronounciation, the "au"
          sound is like "ou" in "loud") means different things in
          different countries, for a Finn it means an elementary part of
          everyday life. Ever since childhood, Finnish people learn to
          bathe in sauna, usually at least once a week. Yes, they do it
          naked, and yes, they go in there together with other people,
          while naked. This and other aspects of the Finnish sauna are
          discussed in the following questions and answers.
  Q1 Why is sauna something special in Finland?
          A1: Mostly because of ancient traditions. Wherever there have
          lived Finns, there have also been a sauna nearby their
          residences. In the early days of Finnish history, it was a
          small wooden hut near a lake, and people used it not only for
          cleaning themselves, but for childbirths, some medical
          operations and other duties that required a clean,
          bacteria-free environment. Today, practically all houses in
          Finland have a sauna. In urban areas, you usually have one per
          building, but even in a relatively small apartment it is not a
          rare piece of luxury these days. This being the case, Finns
          discover at an early age what a refreshing way it is to clean
          oneself both physically and mentally. The tradition is not a
          dying one either.
  Q2 What is a Finnish sauna like?
          A2: The basic parts are the stove ("kiuas"), filled with
          fist-sized stones, and the benches or platforms ("lauteet"),
          made of wood (anecdotes of metal benches in the saunas of some
          Finnish-built Russian warships are told :). There are usually
          two benches, one of which is higher (the seat) and the other
          one lower (place to rest your feet on, or another seat if you
          feel it's too hot). These are what all saunas have. The modern
          saunas have the usual shower and dressing rooms too, but the
          traditional ones near a lake or sea (usually in the vicinity of
          a summer cabin, or built in one) do not require anything but a
          stove for heating and a bench to sit down on -- you can do the
          cleaning in the lake. The stove is traditionally fuelled by
          wood, but electrically heated saunas are common due to their
          safe, easy and clean use. The average sauna has room for 3-6
          people at a time.
  Q3 How are you supposed to bathe?
          A3: There are no rules, only guidelines. Finns like their
          traditions, but do not enforce them on themselves or
          foreigners. Usually you bathe together with your family. If you
          are with friends or others that aren't family members, men and
          women take turns to bathe separately. Most public saunas are
          separate for men and women, but not all. You take your clothes
          off (this is not a rule, mind you; if someone wants to use a
          towel or bathing suite, it's not a breach of any important
          etiquette), go and sit down on the benches and relax. The air
          is not particularly humid at first (there is no visible steam),
          and when you feel like it, you throw some water on the stones
          to increase humidity. This causes the water to vaporize very
          quickly, and it makes the bathers feel a momentary breath of
          hot air in their backs. It may be uncomfortable, if the stove
          is too hot or if you use too much water, and in those cases it
          helps to step down on the lower bench, or to go out entirely.
          This is also perfectly acceptable, and first-time sauna bathers
          shouldn't feel obligated to stay in if they don't feel like it.
          The basic goal is to enjoy and relax, and sweat. After you've
          done enough of that, you go to the showers, and/or swim in the
          lake, depending on the facilities. After swimming or showering,
          you can go back to the sauna, and repeat this cycle as many
          times as you want.
  Q4 How hot is it in there?
          A4: This varies according to the bathers' wishes. Usually the
          temperature is between 60°C and 110°C, the widely-agreed-upon
          ideal temperature being somewhere around 85°degrees. Sometimes
          (after a few drinks) Finnish men engage in an unhealthy
          competition over who can stay in a hot sauna the longest time.
          This is not the way sauna is meant to be enjoyed, not to
          mention that it can be dangerous. Also, you shouldn't be drunk
          in sauna. A cold beer after sauna, however, tastes usually
          great, even a mediocre brand.
  Q5 What is a smoke sauna? How does it differ from the usual one?
          A5: A smoke sauna (savusauna) is perhaps the most traditional
          kind of sauna. There is no smoke pipe: all the smoke from the
          stove goes inside the sauna while heating. Of course, it has to
          be removed before bathing, and this is done by opening a small
          hatch on the wall. The fire on the stove must not be burning
          while bathing, but this doesn't matter, since the massive stove
          radiates plenty of heat for many hours. A smoke sauna is often
          considered the ultimate sauna experience, complete with the
          wonderful smoke odour. Smoke saunas are somewhat rare compared
          to the normal ones these days, but sauna enthusiasts praise
          them so that there still exist plenty of them.
  Q6 Do Finns really jump out naked into the snow in the middle of sauna
  bathing and roll around in winter time? Or go swimming in a frozen lake?
          A6: Some do, most don't. This is a habit that requires a
          healthy heart and a bit of courage, but it is practised, and
          there are some enthusiasts who think sauna in the winter is
          nothing without a quick swim in the snow or freezing water. Of
          course, others think this is sheer madness.
  Q7 What about sauna and sex?
          A7: Even though people are naked in sauna, Finns do not see
          anything sex-related in their sauna tradition. Of course you
          can have sex in there if you feel like it, but that is neither
          a part of any tradition nor very comfortable. Women used to
          give birth in saunas a long time ago, but the conceiving was
          done mostly elsewhere. Massage parlours and other (sometimes
          sexual) services that often come with a public sauna in the
          red-light districts of big cities are unknown phenomena in
          Finland. Going to sauna naked with all your family is not at
          all perverted, as the reader might think. Instead, the sauna
          tradition makes it natural and comfortable for children to
          learn about human body, and for parents to tell them about it.

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