IN LIKE A FINN
Michael Gebicki discovers the delights of a smoke sauna but escapes a beating with birch twigs
IF you go to Finland, you will not escape the sauna. When I arrive at Lentiira Holiday Village and the son of the owner, Petri Heikkenen, says to me, ‘‘ You will go to sauna tonight’’, there is no point arguing.
This is something special, too: it’s a smoke sauna, the wood-fired version. The fire is lit in midafternoon and when the wood has burned down the doors are opened to release the smoke, and the sauna is ready for action.
Once upon a time all saunas were smoke saunas, and the Finns hold the tradition in high esteem.
All the Finns I speak to use the word smooth to differentiate the heat of the smoke sauna from the more abrupt heat of the electric model, and I must defer to their connoisseurship in this regard.
The smoke sauna has a tendency spontaneously combust.
After several years, the dry wood and intense heat proves a fatal combination. This particular one burst into flames only a couple of days before my arrival. It was rescued before serious damage was done, but the frame around the door is blackened.
The procedure is the same as in any other sauna. Shower, sit, sweat, cool off, then do it all over again.
When I enter there are already five naked middle-aged gentlemen parked on the benches. The rich, tarry smell is supposedly therapeutic, and just one of several advantages of the smoke sauna.
When things really get steamy in the sauna, the Finns lash one another with birch branches. The effect is wonderfully rejuvenating for the skin, or so I am told, although I see no evidence of flagellation.
One of my fellow perspirees has served time in the Finnish army as part of the UN peacekeeping force in Sinai. The temperature is incredible. ‘‘ Fifty degrees sometimes,’’ he tells me. And what was the first thing these Finnish soldiers built? A sauna, naturally.
After about 20 minutes I reach a satisfying level of meltdown, so I head out, pink and steaming, and plunge into the lake at the front door. The water is shockingly cold. At the height of summer, Heikkenen tells me, the water temperature may go as high as 18C. On a mild night in early June, it’s freezing. I breaststroke out about 10m and by the time I get back my whole body aches, the way your head feels when you eat ice cream too quickly.
I dry off and join the men at the front of the sauna and sit around swigging beer in a comradely way.
It’s 11pm and a gentle twilight has just settled. At this time of the year the sun doesn’t dip much below the horizon in these latitudes, and night amounts to barely an hour of shadow.
Out of deference to my lack of agility with the language, the conversation switches easily into English. The Finnish language appears impenetrable to anyone not born to it. In a whole week in Finland, I manage to master only one word: kittos , or thank you. Foreigners do study Finnish, but death usually intervenes before they get far.
Fortunately, all Finns speak at least one other language and the most popular choice these days is English.
It’s almost midnight by the time we dress. I feel wonderfully clean, healthy and tired.
Heikkenen is pleased, too. He has a twinkle in his eye. ‘‘ Tomorrow we can try you with the birch,’’ he says, patting me on the back.
Tomorrow I am leaving early. But I don’t want to spoil it for him. I nod and keep quiet.