Pa­nen sauna kütte (I will heat up the sauna)

The Baltic Times - - ESTONIAN COMMENTARY - Thea Karin

“The prin­ci­ple of the sauna is sim­ple. One room is heated up to the point where wa­ter in the bucket starts boil­ing. Then naked peo­ple climb onto a special wooden plat­form and wait. From time to time, they throw boil­ing wa­ter on the stove and whip them­selves with birch branches. Af­ter an hour or so, the sauna go­ers are so heated up that they can quite calmly walk around naked in freez­ing weather, or even take a dip in icy wa­ter. They feel cold only a few days later…“This is how Rohke De­be­lakk in Hi­lar­i­ous Es­to­ni­ans de­scribes one of the main char­ac­ter­is­tics of Es­to­nian life­style.

It does not mat­ter whether Es­to­nia holds the Pres­i­dency in the EU Coun­cil, or whether the coun­try cel­e­brates a hol­i­day like the ap­proach­ing centennial fes­tiv­i­ties of the procla­ma­tion of the coun­try’s in­de­pen­dence - the sauna has a special role in Es­to­nian life.

It is even part of the Folk Fes­ti­vals like the Vil­jandi Folk - there is a sauna area near the stage and, be­tween lis­ten­ing to Mali songs and le­gends, or rock by the band Met­satoll, or the Nikn Suns, Es­to­ni­ans jump into the sauna.

As Finland is cel­e­brat­ing its hun­dredth an­niver­sary since the procla­ma­tion of in­de­pen­dence al­ready this year, the Viru Folk, ded­i­cated to the event, will see Finns and Es­to­ni­ans plung­ing in saunas. To­gether! The unity be­tween the two na­tions just can­not be more pro­nounced.

A vil­lage in Kasmu in the Na­ture Park La­he­maa has gone fur­ther in wor­ship­ping the sauna - they opened the first-ever Sauna street, where even the most ex­pe­ri­enced steam-bathing en­thu­si­asts can get ex­cited by the numer­ous saunas on the street be­fore dip­ping into the cold waves of the Baltic Sea. On the small beach, half-naked peo­ple choose among the dif­fer­ent saunas brought there by the Kad­rina Sauna Club, which is con­sid­ered the best and the most fa­mous sauna or­gan­i­sa­tion in all of Es­to­nia. The uniquely shaped sauna boat or the Bar­rel sauna and the Bar­rel bath in the Paris Hol­i­day Vil­lage are full of peo­ple the whole day. And then here comes a sauna truck, a big Soviet-type colour­ful truck with cosy wooden sauna rooms in­side it is ready to drive any­where in Es­to­nia for a party to be thrown.

One of the most pop­u­lar saunas, how­ever, is of course, the Jarva-jaani Old Equip­ment Shel­ter’s fire-truck sauna – one of the most leg­endary mo­bile saunas in Es­to­nia - ev­ery Es­to­nian has to see it once in his or her life­time.

Why is the sauna so im­por­tant in the life of Es­to­nia?

Well, it is about the com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It takes peo­ple usu­ally quite a while to warm up for a con­ver­sa­tion. Hav­ing cre­ated Skype for oth­ers and amid the vast op­por­tu­ni­ties of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Es­to­ni­ans so­cialise less, and this is where the sauna comes in. When sit­ting naked to­gether in a dark wooden room, the most so­cia­ble thing to do is to “take the heat“and en­joy the good com­pany sur­rounded by na­ture – there is noth­ing more re­fresh­ing and in­vig­o­rat­ing than this 800-year old tra­di­tion.

Es­to­ni­ans have even pre­served the most an­cient tra­di­tion of sauna, the smoke sauna, which is the most Es­to­nian way of us­ing the sauna in the coun­try. Ru­ral saunas have no chim­neys, so the smoke cir­cu­lates dur­ing the heat­ing process. The last smoke is let out through the door or a hole in the wall. It is also viewed as the most ro­man­tic sauna – peo­ple wash in the dark, the only light comes from a can­dle glim­mer­ing on a small win­dow. For new­com­ers to the Es­to­nian sauna, the ex­pe­ri­ence of whip­ping may be per­haps bet­ter de­scribed in the vo­cab­u­lary as “whisk­ing” or “gen­tle beat­ing“, a healthy ex­fo­li­a­tion with birch or ju­niper twigs for even a stronger ex­pe­ri­ence.

The smoke sauna of Vo­ru­maa in south­ern Es­to­nia is in­cluded in the UNESCO Cul­tural Her­itage. The Es­to­nian win­ter capital, Otepaa, has even played host to the World`s big­gest sauna marathon. I feel that the sauna will play an im­por­tant role in the centennial cel­e­bra­tions!

Be­ing an art his­to­rian by ed­u­ca­tion, some­times while sit­ting in the sauna, my thoughts, I feel, go to the glam­orous baroque cas­tles, for ex­am­ple, in Ver­sailles, France, where special tools were cre­ated for no­ble peo­ple to scratch the dirt from their bod­ies and hun­dreds of litres of per­fume were poured over their clothes to quench the pu­trid stench. At the same time, Es­to­nian farm­ers were sit­ting in small heated rooms, re­lax­ing, get­ting clean and us­ing this ev­ery­day lux­ury with­out con­sid­er­ing it any lux­ury. The wel­com­ing phrase while vis­it­ing friends or the grand­par­ents in the coun­try­side were -and still are - “pa­nen sauna kütte” (I will heat up the sauna). This means noth­ing else but en­joy­ing time to­gether, churn­ing out some good thoughts, eat­ing, drink­ing, and catch­ing up with the news. There is noth­ing bet­ter af­ter a long day than to rub your­self with a mix­ture of honey and salt and en­joy „leil“, a hot steam emerg­ing when wa­ter is thrown on the stove stones. Find­ing an equiv­a­lent ex­pres­sion in any other lan­guage for „leil” can be a tough task. In re­al­ity, it means bathing in hot steam, us­ing birch twigs for whisk­ing. The twigs, at the same time, can be used for a gen­tle mas­sage and add a nice aroma to the air. Leil has many ben­e­fits, do­ing its magic by ex­pand­ing your bronchi and sink­ing you into a re­laxed feel­ing. There is also a pop­u­lar Es­to­nian say­ing: One hour af­ter the sauna, women look the most beau­ti­ful ever.

Sim­ply speak­ing, Es­to­ni­ans can­not live with­out saunas. On Sauna street in Kasmu, one of the mu­sic bands used their tent sauna dur­ing the in­ter­mis­sions and watched the sun­set in the heat, while some Fin­nish mu­sic bands were adding a cul­tural sound. The sauna tent is an im­por­tant el­e­ment of their tour­ing that can’t be missed.

Cer­tainly, there are more things unit­ing Es­to­ni­ans and Finns than the sauna, but, no doubt, it re­mains one of the most pleas­ant events for both cen­ten­ni­als.

Now, pre­par­ing the sauna to spend some time with my friends in it and writ­ing lines, I feel con­fi­dent that Es­to­nia’s na­tional affin­ity with the sauna will con­tinue for maybe the next 800 years and will def­i­nitely be an en­joy­able and the most mar­vel­lous! - ac­tiv­ity for vis­i­tors when they come to par­tic­i­pate in the cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions in 2018!

Thea Karin is an Es­to­nian art his­to­rian and jour­nal­ist

Thea Karin

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