The Sauna

I've been feeling under the weather for the past few days. Mostly just nonfunctioning vocal chords, and a mild case of physical body exhaustion and soreness. I have been doing lots of sleeping and exceeding my monthly quota of movies watched.

As the temperature has suddenly dropped to minus two degrees in the past few days, I feel my tired and sore body craving some heat - an escape from the cold. Sitting through the seven hours of class I have on Mondays, my mind kept wandering to the image of the sauna that I would be visiting later in the day. 

I was first introduced to saunas during my time in Norway. As you may or may not know, Scandinavia has a big sauna culture; I would imagine due to their cold harsh climate, and because Finland claims to be the inventor of the sauna. In fact, sauna is the Finnish word for bathhouse. Throughout my five months living in Norway, I became well acquainted with the sauna culture. I fully embraced the sauna practice.

Sometimes after a day spent skiing the slopes (or the flat), us shredders would take our battered bodies for some rejuvenation in the heat. It would be the absolute best feeling after a fantastic day in the snow, to converge with all the ladies, in the steam. In Canadian culture, after a day on the hill, it would be customary to hit up the bar for a drink of two. Since the Nordic model has taxed alcohol so that a single beer at 70 Norwegian kroners (roughly 10 Canadian dollars) does not accommodate the ski bum budget. Instead, Norwegians engage in a much more wholesome post-ski activity; the sauna. Although I absolutely cherish the idea of après-ski beers in my ski boots, the sauna experience is something else. When you have rosy red cheeks and a fired-up face from a combination of windburn and the cold-to-warm contrast, that bathhouse brings you to an almost altered state of total relaxation. A feeling of pure bliss. 

Since there was a sauna exactly twenty-five paces from my apartment building in the Fantoft region of Bergen, Norway, it became a routine practice to visit the sauna after any outdoor recreation activity. While Norwegian culture promotes a very active style of living, I could not bear the idea of exercising inside a "treningssenter" when you live in a city known as The City of the Seven Mountains, and whose tourism slogan is Gateway to the fjords. Needless to say, my gym membership was only utilized under circumstances of extreme weather conditions, and of course, for access to the sauna. 

The next sauna that I had the pleasure of visiting was during my trip to Nesodden, a municipality across the Oslofjord from Norway's capital city. I was there visiting the first-cousin of my grandfather, Svein. Throughout the entire weekend, Svein gave my friend Jane and I the most authentic experience of Norwegian culture. He cooked us skrei (seasonal Norwegian cod), he fed us Aquavit (a Norwegian spirit), and he translated for us as we watched the Nordic World Ski Championships from the couches of his little red home. Perhaps the most Norwegian experience of all, however, came from his invitation for us to join his Saturday morning routine. Each and every Saturday throughout the year, members of the Svestad community meet down at the fjord - the men first, at 9am, and then the women at 10- for their weekly sauna social.

Their sauna ritual is as follows; get hot and sweaty in the sauna, quick dip in the frigid fjord, back into the steamy sauna, and repeat. The temperature shock of the fjord water not only feels unbelievable, but it also has many health benefits. Jane and I were explaining to the lovely Norwegian ladies in the sauna, that in North America, we associate swimming in cold water in February with catching an illness. The women giggled and explained to us that actually, it improves blood pressure, reduces the risk of coming down with a cold, increases exercise endurance, relieves arthritis, and can assist in treating mild depression. Some of these women perhaps in their late 70's and still swimming in fjords in February... they must be doing something right! And I can tell you, that for the rest of the day following the sauna-swim-sauna-swim sequence, I was feeling pretty incredible. Refreshed, rejuvenated, relaxed.

Jane and I after our first fjord dip! brrrrrrr
Svein was one of the visionaries behind the community sauna. He, with the help of a friend, built the sauna on the edge of the fjord. They installed a wood burning heater, and are now responsible for heading down to the sauna ahead of the others to light the fire and get the heat going. Over the years, the sauna has become a community hub for social gatherings, for chatting, storytelling, laughing and coffee drinking. It's a beautiful custom and a unique community-building activity that Svein is very proud to be a part of. Jane and I were most grateful and honoured to share the experience with the lovely community of Svestad. Although everyone seemed a bit confused as to why Svein had brought two English-speaking girls with him, they were all extremely warm and welcoming and curious about our travels.

Svestad's sauna community enjoying some coffee after the sauna
The third and final sauna I visited during my Nordic adventure was during my fieldcourse in Latvia and Estonia. It was the last night of our two-week course where roughly thirty students from Iceland, Finland, Norway, Latvia and Estonia got together to learn about the impact of second-home ownership on local communities throughout the Baltics. After visiting Riga, Tallinn, Tartu, Häädemeeste, and back to Tartu, we spent our last night in Otepää. As the "Winter Sports Capital of Estonia", we naturally stayed in a beautiful log-cabin style ski resort. So after a long day of finishing up our final reports, we spent the evening engaging in the Finnish students' activity of choice... of course, the sauna. 

lakeside sauna in Oteppää, Estonia
As a true Finnish sauna experience, this was even crazier than I could have imagined. For starters, the sauna was hotter than any I'd ever been in before. Secondly, the Finnish drink beer before, during, and after using the sauna. And thirdly, because the beer fridge - just outside of the sauna - was fully stocked, courtesy of the Finnish professors facilitating this field course. For some reason, in Canada, I think that might not fly.

This sauna, as you can see in the picture, was set in the most beautiful location. Isolated from the rest of the resort, overlooking a lake and surrounded by luscious forest. Beautiful setting indeed; but what was even more beautiful was the fact that we were sharing precious moments in the sauna with people who just two weeks prior had been total strangers, but who now shared such a strong connection. 

Inside the bathhouse was a "sauna master" who was performing sauna treatments for anyone interested. After a few warm up rounds, alternating in and out of the sauna, you lie down with your front-side against the wooden benches of the sauna, and the treatment can begin. The sauna master begins by taking birch branches, drizzled with hot water and some sort of natural therapeutic oil, and gently beating them against your lower calves. Slowly and methodically, he moves up your legs to the lower back, and eventually reaching your shoulders. All the while, the temperature of the sauna is getting increasingly hotter and the beating is getting progressively harder. At the moment when you think your body can't take a single extra degree of heat or any harder smacks of the birch branches; that's when the sauna master will take you outside to the lake. The journey there is surreal... your body is so lethargic that it's hard to believe your legs are carrying you. The sauna master spots for you as you gently lower yourself into the lake using the ladder. Your body is so hot that you don't even mind the contrasting temperatures. Energy is rushing through your body and your mind. The next step in the treatment is to lie on your back - outside of the sauna - in total stillness to fully absorb and embrace the benefits of the treatment. In this phase, you begin to feel a complex array of emotions. It was an experience that I'll never forget.

And of course, in good Finnish style, we finish it all off by lounging around in our bathing suits or towels drinking beer. Across the room from me sat Ilka, the big-bellied Finnish man who organized this field course, a few beers deep, in his speedo, and doing his hearty, contagious laugh. I looked around the room - within the walls of this log cabin on the lake - and listened to Finnish, Icelandic, Estonian, and Latvian. I watched as the professors tried to open beers with a spoon, with no success. I saw friends of two-weeks sharing laughs, giving massages, running out to the lake to catch a glimpse of the double rainbow. It was one of those moments where I couldn't quite fathom how everything had fallen so perfectly into place that I was sitting right there in that very moment. Overwhelmed with gratitude and awed by the world, all I could do was sit there in my towel, lake-water beading off my skin, beer in my hand; and just smile.

Double Rainbow magic. 

So as I sat in the sauna tonight, in the pool-house of the Dalpex, I was reminded of all these beautiful memories and unforgettable experiences. Once again, the sauna lead me to an overwhelming sense of gratitude for where the past year has taken me. There are moments where I think back to Bergen, and I feel a strong yearning to be back there right now. I miss it. I miss the people. I miss the mountains. I miss hearing Norsk on the train each morning. I miss my cross-country skis and the DNT cabins. But then I am brought back to the sauna - and the sauna in Fantoft, and Svestad, and Otepää - and I remember that travel is a transient thing; it can't last forever. But the memories you create while on your adventure, that is what you can keep forever. Travelling changes you. You will carry little pieces of the places you visit with you wherever you go. 


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