I'm in Helsinki, surveying the city from its fanciest rooftop restaurant. The setting sun glints off both the Neoclassical Lutheran Cathedral and the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church. I should be pondering how East meets West here in Europe's north. But my attention is stolen by a more intimate scene on the rooftop below me.
It's six bankers wrapped in white towels enjoying a sauna. In all great office buildings — whether banks, insurance companies, or research institutes — a rooftop sauna is an essential part of the design. Free snacks and drinks at the sauna after work is an almost expected perk. One big fat guy was so pink from the heat that — with his white towel wrapped around his waist — he looked like a striped pool ball.
As a tourist, I'm not welcome with the bankers on the rooftop. And the few remaining public saunas in Helsinki seem to be in the gritty neighborhoods. That's because, with the affluence here, most people have them in their homes or cabins. Rough working-class neighborhoods are most likely to have a public sauna. So, to learn about the sauna in today's Finland, I got on the subway and headed for the scruffy Sörnäinen district and my destination — Kotiharjun Sauna. My first sight made it clear that this place was not for tourists. Outside, a vertical neon sign in simple red letters read: SAUNA. Under it, a gang of Finnish guys wrapped only in small towels and drinking beer filled a clutter of white plastic chairs — expertly relaxing.
As there wasn't a word of English anywhere, I relied on the young attendant at the window for instructions. He explained the process: pay 7 euros, grab a tower, strip, stow everything in an old wooden locker, wear the key like a bracelet, shower, enter the sauna...and reeeeelax. "Was it mixed?" "No, there's a parallel world upstairs for women." "What about getting a scrub?" Pointing to an aproned woman, he said, "Talk directly with her...6 euros extra."
The sauna was far from the sleek, cedar pre-fab den of steam I expected. Six crude concrete steps with dark wooden railings and rustic walls created a barn-like amphitheater of steam and heat. A huge iron door closed off the wood stove (as it was busy burning its cubic meter of wood a day). The third step was all the heat I could take. Everyone else was on the top level — for maximum steam and heat. Taking in my towel, I wondered if it was used for hygiene or modesty. Once inside, the answer was clear...neither.
People look more timeless and ethnic when naked with hair wet and stringy. The entire scene was three colors: gray concrete, dark wood, and ruddy flesh. There was virtually no indication of what century we were in. I fantasized I was in the 1700s. From the faces, it was perfectly clear: this was Finland...and these were tough working-class guys. Each had a tin bucket between his legs — to use to splash cool water on his face.
I asked about birch twigs. By slapping your skin with these, you enhance your circulation. The roughed-up leaves emit a refreshing birch aroma as well as chlorophyll, which opens the sinuses. But the bin of birch twigs sat on the bottom concrete step, unused.
Part two of a good sauna is the scrub down. The woman in the apron — looking like a Stalin-era Soviet tractor driver — was dousing one guy who sat on the plastic chair looking like a lifeless Viking gumby. I asked "Me next?" She welcomed me to her table. Wearing a white and green vertical striped house dress under her tough apron, she scrubs men one at a time all day long. Sitting on the table, I ask "up or down?" She pushes me down...belly up...and says "This is perfect. I wash you twice." Lying naked as a fish on the plastic sheet...I felt like a salmon on a cleaning table ready for gutting. With sudsy mitts she works me over. She hoses me off...which makes me feel even more like a salmon. It's extremely relaxing. (It would be entirely relaxing but for my anxiety that I might show how much I'm enjoying the experience.) From deep in my scalp to between my toes, she washes me twice.
Stepping back out into that gritty Helsinki neighborhood, I’m clean, relaxed, and assured that — for bankers, laborers, and tourists — the sauna is alive and well in the Finnish culture.