Backstory: I took a sauna and Finnished it

I join a group of Finns to explore the allure of the hot seat.

Jaana Savukoski is so Finnish that one of her relatives was born in a sauna. Jaana herself was raised in the Finnish quarter of this former New England textile town. She and her family lived in an old wood tenement until, when Jaana was 14, her mother bought her first home. "We've got a house now," Jaana remembers her mother saying. "Now we can build a sauna."

Today, Fitchburg's mills have grown quieter. So has the sound of Finnish echoing through the old neighborhoods. Newer immigrant groups live in the tenements, and the Finnish meeting hall around the corner rents its space to outsiders. But on this Saturday evening, in keeping with the weekly tradition, smoke can still be seen rising from small shacks behind some homes, including the Savukoski's.

The family has invited my wife and me to experience an authentic sauna. Not counting a few experiences in gyms and the odd Holiday Inn – and Finns most certainly do not – we are sauna newbies. Our initiation, beginning with a frigid dash across the lawn in bathing suits, reveals a tradition that has bound together a family and bequeathed a cultural identity to a new generation. It also offers insight into why more than 15,000 manufactured saunas are now sold in the US each year – to far more than a few hardy Scandinavian descendants.

"There's a reverential feel about the sauna," says Yvonne Lockwood, author of a sociological study of the sauna and a third-generation Finnish-American. "It's thought to be kind of – not spiritual – but it's a place you go to mend, to recuperate."

***

The Savukoskis' sauna lies in a cabin on the edge of a rushing stream. Inside, two wood fires are burning, one in a sitting-room fireplace, and the other in a stove that Jaana's husband, Sauli, has been feeding for more than an hour. The stove, which juts into the sauna room through a wall, is heating a nest of stones like dragon's eggs.

Sauli ushers me inside. I sit on the upper deck of two birch benches, despite learning – too late, it turns out – it's hotter there. The other men, Sauli, his son Danny, and son-in-law Mike Gary, fill the rest of the seats. (The women take their sauna in a second shift.) The door closes and the darkness and heat envelop us. Danny takes a large wooden dipper and splashes a cupful of water onto the stones. The rocks come to life, sizzling furiously. In the dark, I don't notice the puff of steam. But suddenly, I feel it. The bottoms of my nostrils burn as I breathe in. It's a reminder of my rookie mistake: sitting on the top bench.

Still, it does help me learn a valuable lesson in Finnish vocabulary. Danny says the "ow" you want to blurt out as your nose turns into a solar flare is the key to pronouncing sauna. It's "sow na," not "saw na." "That's one pet peeve for Finns, if you pronounce it wrong," he says.

At the moment, I'm more worried about fainting than phonetics. Sweat trickles down me like raindrops on a windowpane. Mercifully, Danny lays off the dipper a few minutes later and picks up a birch bough. He wets the dried leaves and proceeds to flog Mike – then me – with it. This is not a hostile act. The Finns and other sauna purists do this to scrape off dead skin and release a fragrant smell.

I need some perfuming. A little over 10 minutes has passed and the sweat isn't dribbling down my chest any more. It is the Penobscot River.

The conversation helps take my mind off the temperature, now hovering around 160 degrees F. Sauli talks about how he grew up without running water in the small Finnish town of Pyhäjoki. A twice-a-week sauna stood in for a hot bath.

Moments later, as my face reddens and my stamina wanes, Danny suggests we leave. But I still have one more test to prove that I have sisu (fortitude) – the cooling-off ritual. Some people simply take a shower after a sauna. Others in the Frost Belt roll in the snow or jump in a benumbing lake. The Savukoskis head for the brook behind the shack.

In the late autumn twilight, Danny, Mike, and I scramble down a stone-step embankment, and peer into the granite pools. (My wife, presciently, decides not to participate in this.) I swear I see the boulders shivering. The plunge is more shocking than I had bargained for. I gasp. It feels like I have fallen over backward in a chair. Down a flight of stairs (I've done that before, too).

But it is also refreshing and invigorating. I've earned my stripes – and lived to tell about it.

As it turns out, almost everyone has a story about their first sauna test. Mike, who is married to Danny's sister Sinikka, recalls feeling some trepidation. When their courtship reached a certain point of seriousness, Sinikka told him he'd have to take a sauna with Sauli and Danny.

"My first thought was, 'Do I have to go naked?' " he says. Finnish-American families often go in the sauna nude, but unlike Finns back home, they generally don't with newcomers. Mike, a 28-year-old teacher, was spared that experience. Yet he still had to cope with being the "new boy in the family." Once he got in the sauna, though, his worries vanished. "You relax," he says.

Fine, but did he pass the test? Danny, a 24-year-old cancer researcher, smirks. "I think that was a – yeah, OK, I'll say it was a pass," he says.

The three of us bound up the path and join the others by a fire in the sitting room. I leaf through Danny's guest book filled with messages from sauna parties he threw in high school and college. "It was good, clean fun – no pun intended," he says.

Jaana concurs. "They'd hang around. We knew where they were, and we knew they weren't out drinking and getting in trouble," she says.

Cranberry juice was the drink of choice. "They'd come back with bloodshot eyes from saunaing too much, and everybody would be like, 'Man, you look like you had a hard night,' " Danny says. "And they'd say, 'Yeah, man, too much of the sauna.' "

***

We repeat the cycle another time: sauna, river, relax. The fire crackles and the river gurgles below. Some cultures – urban America not among them – have perfected the art of slowing down life for a few hours. "It's just a nice bonding experience," says Sinikka. "It's never a fast thing. You go down there and you sit and you chat, and you chat some more."

She credits the crisp nights spent sweating in a tongue-and-groove pine box with bringing the family closer to together. There's something about the privateness and primalness of the experience that breaks down inhibitions. "In the sauna, there's nothing else to do but talk," she says. "We talk about everything in there. And we still do."

Still, family members don't take as many saunas with friends as they used to. Everyone seems busier these days. The neighborhood has changed, too. Sauli tells the story of a guy who bought a house in the area that had a sauna in the basement. The buyer didn't know what the "extra room" was.

Sinikka has moved out, but Danny still lives at home and keeps the sauna fires burning. Friends remark on the beauty of the place. They understand why he stays. "I have one thing that's kept me here," he says.

Yeah, his mom pipes up, laughing: "It wasn't us, it was the sauna."

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