Sure, all over the US and in Western Europe, you'll have spas that say they have a "Finnish sauna". I can tell you, what you've been to is nothing like a Finnish sauna for so many reasons. For Finns, the sauna isn't some luxe activity that's part of a beauty spa . . . it's a true way of life! Every home, every larger apartment building, every gym, they're all expected to have at least a communal sauna, if not a private one. Here are the staggering statistics: 90% of Finns go to the sauna at least once a week! I was happy to be hosted to be able to experience it.
That's a funny figure, when you think of the logistics. You go into the sauna, just wrapped in a towel. During the Springtime, when greener birch branches are available, they use them to boost circulation. Friends, family, business associates, neighbors . . . they all go in together. There's a saying that people who go into saunas together come out as friends. They've used that tradition when negotiating with the Russians. And yet, the Finns consider themselves a "shy" people! That's what they all say, anyway. They're really friendly.
How did this sauna thing start? It's been going on for hundreds of years and actually was a Russian tradition. Finland was part of Russia for a while. It was the only way that people in frigid climates could get clean. Even before Louis Pasteur, ancient peoples figured out that the saunas seemed to be the cleanest and safest in the house: women had their children in saunas.
It's hard to imagine the serenity and romance of the almost-bygone era if you've only been to the ersatz "saunas". On the edge of the metro area of Helsinki is a real sauna that's from the 19th century! How's that? The owner had a sauna moved from a family farm into a tony neighborhood development. Kaurilan Sauna is just the way things were over 100 years ago . . . without electricity, wood heated. By firelight and candlelight, with homemade and towels made by the owner (!), you are transported back in time.
The main room is equipped with real silverware and china dishes, so you can bring food in. Traditionally, vegetable soup, super dark bread and cold beer is served by the sauna.
In the sauna, after soaking in as much heat as you can -- and then some -- you sponge off with a combination of hot and cold water. In the winter, people will run around the outside of the building completely starkers in the snow, come in, and then start all over again.
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