What Happens in Helsinki - Episode 4: Let's Go Get Sweat


Kotiharju sauna sign in Kallio, Helsinki.  Photo by Matti Mattila 

There is only one word native to the Finnish language that has been introduced into the world vocabulary… sauna.  The sauna is everywhere in Finland, from the tiniest of cottages to hotels to corporate offices to the house of Parliament.  There are 5.4 million people living in Finland and over 2 million saunas, or at least one per household.  There are almost as many saunas in Finland as there are cars. 

Sauna is a ritual as ingrained into Finnish daily life as a morning cup of coffee.  Before modern practices became available, it was the bathing area, babies were born there, and the dead were prepared for their final rest.  There’s an old saying that if the sauna cannot cure you, nothing can.  It is as sacrosanct as the church.  It is a place to meditate and to cleanse body and soul. 

Which brings me to this latest episode of WHIH.  It all started a few weeks ago while I was reading up on our hotel in Helsinki and its amenities, including the convenient location of the saunas on the second floor.  Not one to miss an opportunity to immerse myself in a foreign culture, I ceremoniously announced to my husband that I intended to take sauna every day while on our trip.  To which he replied, “Well, there’s a sauna over at the YMCA, why aren’t you using it?”

Whoa. Waaaait a minute. Taking sauna… in Raleigh? That isn’t right, is it? Saunas are supposed to be foreign. Exotic. Finnish. Besides, I don’t know how to use one. My previous experiences with saunas have been limited to the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine accidentally groped Sidra and Kramer thought he had found the elusive Salman Rushdie.

So many questions.  What am I supposed to wear? How long do I stay? And, most importantly, why in the world would anyone, in the middle of summer in North Carolina, voluntarily choose to subject themselves to an enclosed area that’s heated to an inhumane temperature? Don’t I already do that every time I get in my car?

Curiously there isn’t a lot of demand for the sauna at my YMCA this time of year. I found a locker room attendant who kindly helped with the details. Their sauna rules are rather basic. Wear whatever is comfortable for you. Take off your jewelry. Shower first to keep the sauna surfaces clean, and always use a towel to sit on. Stay as long as you want. It’s a pretty simple place… a wooden box, benches, a stove, and a water bucket. Oh yeah, and lots and lots (and lots) of heat.

It burned my nostrils. I put my hand to the top of my head and I swore my hair was on fire. First time I touched my locker key… owwwww. I refuse to go into the sauna without it so I’ll just smartly pin it to the corner of my towel. And leaving my glasses behind? I’m Velma Dinkley without them; can’t read the clock outside or the thermometer inside. Not one to risk damage to frames and lenses, guess I’ll take a leap of faith that I’m wise enough to know I’ve overstayed my welcome.

The quiet is actually quite comforting. No noise except the stove. No iPod, no Blackberry, no loud neighbors or hysterical co-workers. No worries. The slight smoky scent of the wood is rather pleasant. The humid summer heat of North Carolina stifles and smothers you, but the dry heat of the sauna surrounds you then it envelops you. I don’t know how else to describe it. Rivers of sweat stream from every pore of your body. But it’s not like workout sweat, it’s more like a cleansing sweat. Or a detox.

Three weeks into this sauna routine and I’m an old pro now.  I can tell when the temperature is set to a comfortable 170 degrees (80°C, in Finland saunas top 100°C or over 200°F).  Like clockwork, 15 minutes in the sauna heat is just about right for me.  There’s no lake or ice hole at the YMCA to cast myself into, but I can hop into a cold shower without flinching.  Most Finns complete their burn/freeze sauna cycle a few times, and throw in a light beatdown with some birch branches for good measure.  I haven’t gone there yet (the YMCA may have issues with foliage in the locker room, or self-flagellation for that matter), but I'm definitely trying it when we get to Helsinki.  I’m actually hoping to try one of the smoke saunas where they put you in a room with no chimney and let you breathe in the soot.

In all seriousness, I’ve seen some real benefits.  For one, I’ve found the extreme heat of this summer to be much more tolerable than usual.  My skin feels healthier, overall I feel a lot less achy, and I’m sleeping better.  And anything that gets me into the gym to work out on a regular basis is a Very Good Thing.  Mental benefits, I’m not sure I see any effect… yet.  But I really do think I could get used to it.

Oh, one more thing.  In Finland they often relax after sauna with a nice, cold beer.  Yeah, I really do think I could get used to it.

Interested in learning more about Finnish sauna? 

The Finnish Sauna Society reigns supreme as the authority on traditional sauna.  The Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a nice write-up on their site.  I enjoyed this article from Finnair magazine (reprinted by a fellow who has an entire website of sauna research).  And there’s a Finnish sauna flickr site (folks, I swear there’s a flickr site for everything, even the British Royal Family has one).

And while we’re on the subject of the Finns

Here’s an interesting tidbit.  Helsingin Sanomat, the largest subscription newspaper in Finland, posted a blog entry this week regarding the Canes’ unveiling of the All-Star Game banner and logo.  Check it out (you’ll need to scroll through the article to find it), and click the link to see where it leads you!  Cool, eh?  Once again Canes Country represents, even internationally!  Check the article’s right sidebar for another prominent link back here.  

The downside?  The blog entry itself is, shall we say, not so flattering.  Following is a rough translation:

The Carolina Hurricanes proudly published the (NHL’s developed) jersey logo for next winter’s All Star Game.  Carolina will host this event. 

The Canes’ logo, which looks like circling water downwards in the toilet bowl, is the ugliest logo of the NHL absolutely.  The logo of the match of stars, however, in its red color and with its constellations seems taken from the game shirt of a KHL team.  Quite the cool look actually.  It seems that Soviet Chic is an official fashion theme.

So, that being said, I did find out that the writer is HS’s NHL correspondent in Edmonton.  Yeah, Edmonton, where if you’ll recall they have no, I repeat no, Finns on their team.  It’s their own fault; after all, they swapped us Joni Pitkanen for Erik Cole, who we ended up getting back anyway.  Jealous much? 

Oh… about the trip itself! 

There isn’t a lot new to report, but here are a few odds and ends:

1.   For the AAA package travelers, final payments were due to AAA on July 28, so no backing out now!

2.  Our travel party is so large that AAA is sending at least 5 travel reps on the trip with us.  A few of the agents headed over to Helsinki this weekend to check out the hotels (we’re spread across several) and to get a general feel of the environment so they are ready for our questions and preparations.

3.  AAA is also hosting a planning meeting on Monday, August 30.  If you’re going over via their travel package you should get an invitation in the mail, don’t worry if you haven’t seen it yet as they were late getting them out.  So go ahead and mark the date.  The meeting is restricted to AAA participants because much of it will be regarding the logistics for the AAA-specific itinerary.  If you can’t go to the meeting, either because you’re not a package participant or because of a schedule conflict, let me know if you have any questions and I’ll make sure they get asked on your behalf.

4.  We’re holding strong at somewhere between 250 and 300 travelers, based on package sales plus direct ticket sales.  From what I’ve been able to gather so far, that’s probably close to double the size of the Wild’s travel group.

5.  T-shirts are coming along, thanks to folks who contributed toward the design and especially thanks to Raccoon Fink for his help getting them to a finnished product.  My plan is to have the design completed and have the t-shirts ready for show by mid-August, with orders to be placed by the end of August so they can be distributed during the preseason games.  Help is still much appreciated if you are so inclined!  And if you need a reminder, here’s what they will look like.

6.  Doug, Cyn and I have been corresponding with our Finnish blogger friends about a possible meet-up with them in Helsinki, so stay tuned for the details on dates and venues as we get closer to the trip.

7.  And as always, fun Finn trivia and interesting facts via the #WHIH hashtag on twitter.

66 days until Opening Night…  Hyvä Suomi!  Hyvä Canes!

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