There are different kinds of saunas. There are the regular electric saunas you can find in every other appartment in Finland. There are the fancy Sun sauna home spas, like the one we built into our house with my ex. There are the public saunas in gyms and swimming halls, with that distinc smell of humid hot wood and sweat combined. There are the shared saunas of appartment buildings when the appartments don’t have saunas. There are the “savusaunas”, smoke saunas, where the walls are black with soot and the air tastes like smoke. And then there are the “mökkisaunas”, the saunas with wood burning stove (mökki is a cottage, summeplace).
Some people love the savusauna. I don’t, really. I love the classic, preferably a bit old, mökkisauna. The smell of the burning wood, without the sting of the smoke. The gentle heat from the wood stove, the kiuas, so much sweeter than in the electric saunas ever. The rugged rustique of the old wood panel walls. The kind of sauna people have at their summer places. The kind of sauna you can find in an old house like this one we live in now. The kind where you can expect to find birche leaves on the floor after some back slapping with a “vihta” – a bunch of birch branches – in early summer time.
I’ve experienced them all in my life. I guess most Finns have. I used to think the sauna at our summer place was the best one on this earth, and probably it is. With my ex, we tried to make the sauna experience fancy with the special soapstone electric kiuas, fancy rounded sauna benches, romantic led lights, fake stone walls and smoked glass wall between the sauna and shower room. It was nice, very nice. Given the choice, I’d still pick the one we have now, any day. I love the countryside feeling of this house, of our sauna.
There are as many different sauna-goers as there are people in this country. Some go to sauna every day. Others once or twice a week (probably the most common thing). Some only at mökki, others use only public saunas. Some don’t like sauna, some can’t live without it. The one thing that is common, though, is that everybody goes to sauna naked. Ok, in public saunas, even the Finns sometimes tend to get a bit shy and try to use a towel or their swimming suit, but that is actually forbidden.
Finns have sauna evenings with friends, in company gatherings, with family only, alone, on Saturday, at Juhannus, Christmas or any given holiday and when ever. Sauna is part of the culture, part of social gatherings, part of celebrations. And the experience is always a bit different. The whole event is different depending on the kind of sauna you are going to, the people you are going to sauna with, the occasion.
Finnish sauna is not lukewarm. Finns affectionately call it the Swedish sauna if the temperature is below 70 degrees C (160F). Most commonly the temperature in a proper Finnish sauna is 80-90C (176-194F). And then we throw water on the rocks on the stove to make the air sizzle. The Finnish sauna rocks can handle that, they don’t crack.
Our sauna evenings with my husband are something special every time. The girls used to join us, but no anymore. We used to take the dogs to the sauna with us, but since they really don’t like it, we don’t anymore. So it is just me and my loved one, in our country style old wood sauna, with a sausage pan hanging over the stove.
It all starts with cleaning the sauna and shower room. The floor always has some wood chips and dirt from the previous sauna evening and it’s good to hose it down anyway. The wood basket needs to be filled, the ashes taken out. Then my husband starts the kiuas, adds wood, sees that it keeps going and heats up the sauna nicely, and places some sausages on the sausage pan. While he’s tending to the sauna, I take the dogs out and take care of other stuff so that our sauna evening can be un-hurried and end in relaxing on the bed, drifting off to sleep, sauna-fresh.
When sauna is ready, we get into our birthday suits, take some drinks and mustard with us and go to sauna. Sometimes we just take a couple cans of beer and cider (in Europe, cider is a fermented drink, beer strenght, made of apples or pears), sometimes we prepare a tray with an ice bucket, some frozen soapstone glass holders and a bottle or two of cider.
We hop into sauna, with our drinks, and pour some scented water in our special soapstone kiuas stones with holes to hold water. This way, in addition to getting an instant blast of hot humidity, we also get a steady drizzle going, when the water boils in those stones, spewing out like from a fountain. The sausages are done too by the time sauna is ready, so we munch on some while enjoying the heat of the sauna.
When the heat gets too much to take any more, it’s time to go to the shower. The only thing I’m missing in out home currently is a door downstairs, by the sauna, so that you could step outside to the cool winter air or sweet summer night while taking a break from sauna. As we don’t have that door – once I did open the garage door and go out but that seems a bit too much ado – shower room it is. Shower, hair washing, back scrubbing, sitting around with drinks in our hands, enjoying the calm and the company of each other, in the soft light of some led lights and a candle.
We go back and forth, taking our time in sauna and the shower room. For an hour, two even. And when we’re ready come out, the sauna is not hot anymore and we are ready to relax in bed and have a good night’s sleep, maybe after a smoke (well, husband smokes, I don’t) under a starlit sky, if the weather is nice. Our home is next to small forest, stepping out into the darkness is almost like at mökki <3