HELSINKI, FINLAND — 'You won't need a bathing suit. It's perfectly natural to be naked among the same gender in the sauna,"says my guide, Ritva, a self-confessed "sauna fanatic."As, she confirms, are most Finns.
Sauna is deeply rooted in the Finnish way of life.There are 5 million people in Finland and 2 million saunas.Saunas are often built near water, and with Finland's Baltic Sea and 180,000 lakes as a backdrop, they are not hard to find.Hotels have them.Private homes.Summer cottages.Individual apartments.Even passenger and cargo ships.Seventy percent of Finnish children have their first sauna before age 1;95 percent before they're 2.
As we wind our way down the long, private drive to Helsinki's Sauna Society on a September day, I am unprepared for the idyllic setting: the towering birch trees, the gentle lapping of the sea.Typically, only members come here.But visitors to Finland are welcome. Most simply don't know about it.
Inside, I wrap myself in a plush blue towel and head off to door No. 4 - one of the smoke saunas, highly praised by sauna connoisseurs as being "most authentic."All of the society's saunas are wood burning.Fist-size stones line the stove, and ladles of water are splashed onto them to increase the humidity.The smoke saunas, however, have no chimneys, just a small vent in the ceiling - leaving the room blackened.
I open the door quickly.The heat nearly knocks me over.The women laugh, hastily ushering me in.As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see five silhouettes.Three sit upright; two lounge lazily on the top deck.As if sensing my apprehension, they speak directly to me, in English.
"It's very natural in Finland to take a sauna," says one woman, consolingly."We grow up with it."
"Years ago, before World War II, babies were birthed here," says an elderly woman from the corner. "It was the only place that had heat in the winter."
For a moment the conversation halts.It's quiet, and my skin prickles from the intense warmth.I feel safe and comfortable, and casually loosen the towel, still bound tightly to my chest.
"I come to relax," says the young woman next to me.
One of the women rises and splashes water onto the stones.The heat intensifies. I wrap in a towel and quickly slip out, as does the elderly woman from the corner. "Will you be dipping?"
She smiles, motioning for me to follow.In bare feet, we pad softly outside and down a long wooden plank toward the sea.
"This is what makes sauna so special," the woman says pointing to the sea."You miss something when you can't go outside, take a swim, sit, and think."
In one swift motion, her towel drops, and she is submerged in the sea."Will you be coming in?" she inquires.
I dip my toe in and shake my head.It's freezing.
"Actually the water is pretty warm.In winter, it's much colder, and we go through a hole in the ice.It's so beautiful a feeling when you come up out of the cold water, really quite lovely. Shall we go back?"
This time I head for door No. 1."Get yourself really hot," the elderly woman advises."And try the sea."
I do as I'm told. When I can't bear even the thought of more heat, I return to the sea.
This time, Kikka, who's been a member of the Sauna Society for 32 years, is my cheerleader. "Go quickly," she urges me. "Don't think about it."
I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and splash!Warm flesh melds to frigid sea, and I scream - a high-pitched, liberating scream.
Soon a cadence develops, a rhythm of sauna and swim; swim and sauna. Then it's time to go. As I'm making my way toward the shower, Ritva reappears.
"Do you want to try the scrub lady?"
Ah, the sauna finale.I had heard of it.
"It's wonderful," a woman says, emerging from the private washroom.
But my liberation is quickly vanishing, and I am once again shy.
Clutching my towel tightly, I peek timidly around the corner.A grandmotherly woman, with thick waist and burly arms, stands there. Her hair is swept into a tight bun, and her feet are planted squarely in heavy, oxford shoes.In her hands, she wields a giant wooden scrub brush and oversized bar of soap.
I imagine her by the side of the river - grinding clothing to washboard in powerful, circular motions.I think of my skin - silky smooth from the recent rounds of hot-sauna, cold-Baltic treatments.
I'm sure that this scrub-down is as natural and normal a part of Finnish life as eating or sleeping or even sauna-ing.
But I shake my head.
Maybe next time.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society