The Finnish Obsession with Sweating

In the sauna, the physique asserts itself: important, unavoidable, a fleshy reality of being. In the Finnish custom—the unique, Finns will argue—you’re bare, sitting close to a wood-burning range in two-hundred-degree warmth, in a construction the scale of a backyard shed, pouring water on scorching stones for a scalding hit of löyly, sauna steam, like some heat-seeking junkie. Stay lengthy sufficient, and the thoughts could clear, the physique could soften; then löyly! Enlightenment.

Illustration by Tom Bachtell

Risto Sivula, a Finn from north of Helsinki who now lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, has, for the previous eight months, been driving across the nation with a conveyable sauna connected to the again of his pickup truck. “We have about fourteen thousand miles on it so far, and about nine hundred and fifty people have taken a sauna.”

On a latest Sunday, Sivula parked the sauna (red-painted wooden, with white-trimmed home windows) in a yellow-cab lot close to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, in Red Hook. He wore shorts and a T-shirt that learn “Finland 100,” the official slogan of the hundredth anniversary of Finland’s independence from Russia. “We knew there was a lot of chatter amongst Finns in America that we will be celebrating the centennial,” he mentioned. “So we came up with this idea. If you think about Finland, what’s the one thing that comes to mind? A sauna. Can you name anything else that’s recognizably Finnish?”

Meatballs? “Swedish,” Sivula mentioned. “There are actually a lot of Finnish things, even in your home. Those scissors that have orange handles? Fiskars? That’s a Finnish brand.” Also, graphic paper cups; Nokia cell telephones; varied cruise ships; Kone, one of many world’s largest elevator corporations; and a patented technique for smelting copper. “Finnish companies don’t really advertise being from Finland,” Sivula mentioned. He lowered his voice. “Not like our neighbor to the west. IKEA everybody knows is Swedish. H&M: Swedish. Volvo: Swedish. Finns like to say, ‘We got a nice paper cup for you!’ ” He set free a booming snigger.

It’s a query of branding, he mentioned. For Finland, he went on, “you would have to first define the brand: What is it? Is it ‘pure nature’? Is it the one hundred and eighty-eight thousand lakes we have?” He paused. “If you put Minnesota and Iowa together, that’s about the size of Finland, and about the shape of it, too. And the Arctic Circle goes in about two-thirds up.”

To the sauna (“sow-na,” as Finns will let you know), then. In Red Hook, two dozen folks in swimsuits have been lined up. Mari Lipponen, a Finnish-American, had simply emerged. “What Americans don’t get about saunas is it’s a relaxing, almost spiritual experience,” she mentioned. “My father was born in the sauna. In 1933, it was the cleanest place on the farm.”

“It was a place for birth and death,” Anu Leinonen, a Finn who moved to New York two years in the past, mentioned. “We had a President in the seventies and eighties who used to lead his political meetings in the sauna. Putin would understand the sauna. If Trump wants any hints on how to deal with the Russians, we can advise.”

Sivula quoted a preferred statistic: “Finland is a country of five and a half million people. We have three million cars over there, and we have two million saunas.” (Finland as soon as promoted a sauna emoji as a part of a patriotic collection.) “You can cook in there,” he mentioned. “We used to make sausages all the time.”

Finnish saunas are laborious to return by in New York City. “So we have tried to be very creative,” Saku Nousiainen, who got here to the United States from Finland on a Fulbright scholarship to check jazz, mentioned. He ticked off the town’s different so-called saunas, which he sometimes patronizes: Mermaid Spa, in Coney Island; the East Village Russian baths; the Wall Street banya, on Fulton Street.

Paula Wegman and Jackie Aude M., two non-Finnish Brooklynites of their thirties, hope to launch a cellular sauna startup in Bushwick and Ridgewood, referred to as HotBox. They have been launched to the Finnish observe by a good friend. “You feel amazing, like you could hit the sack and have the greatest slumber you’ve ever had,” Wegman mentioned. “New Yorkers work hard, they play hard, but where do they relax?”

“It’s probably the truest sense of community,” Aude M. mentioned. “Just going in there super vulnerable, sweating your ass off, and really connecting.”

Inside the cellular sauna, the temperature approached 100 and eighty levels. Sami Marttinen, a transplanted Finn, bent over a bucket of water with a ladle. “Some water?” he requested. “Heat?”

Noora Erkkilä, a Finn who works on the United Nations, mentioned, “Yeah, last round.”

Marttinen poured water on the rocks; the steam that burst forth was blistering. A novice admitted {that a} Swedish iteration hadn’t been as scorching.

“Ah, Swedish people, they don’t know what they’re doing,” Erkkilä mentioned.

“They’re trying very hard, but still,” Marttinen mentioned. ♦


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