Finnish Saunas: The Naked Truth
By Dave Fox
I was sweating profusely in the 88 degree heat. That’s 88 Celsius — 190 Fahrenheit. But it wasn’t the heat in the sauna that was making me uncomfortable. What was making me uncomfortable was sitting there alone, screamingly naked in a public place, not sure if I was supposed to be naked in this public place.
I’m not one of those prudish Americans who’s terrified of being seen naked in public — as long as everyone else is going about their nakedness without paying me any attention. But sometimes in Europe, it’s hard to know the rules.
It had been a dreary, drizzly day in Helsinki. Rather than eating waffles in the rain at the outdoor market, I went back early to the Silja Line ship that would take me to Stockholm overnight. For less than 40 US dollars, I could have a one-hour massage and 90 minutes in the ship’s spa.
A lot of people have the wrong idea about so-called “Swedish massages.” They don’t feel good while you’re having one, and they’re too intense to be done by petite Scandinavian cuties named Inga. But they are effective in beating your tension into submission.
For 55 minutes, a burly Finnish man induced more pain on my back than I knew could be induced using only two thumbs. The first time I screamed, he muttered, “Yes, your muscles are very tight.” The second time, he offered to lighten up, which he did for all of 30 seconds. But I breathed into the pain and let my muscles buckle under the pressure. I walked out feeling blissfully mellow –- albeit a little bruised.
There were four other activities: soak in the whirlpool, sit in the steam room, take a sauna, or drink beer. Never mind that beer is not usually recommended while participating in other dehydrating activities. This was Finland, and drinking beer is how Finns replace their fluids after a night with a vodka bottle.
The whirlpool had room for about 10 people — potentially strangers sitting close together, so swimming suits made sense here. The steam room right next to the whirlpool also looked like a keep-yourself-covered kind of a place. I checked with the attendant to be sure. She nodded. Then she handed me a key to the locker room and sauna. That’s when my confusion began.
My other sauna experiences have always been uncovered. Scandinavians don’t have the hang-ups about nudity that Americans do. On warm, sunny days, I’ve seen people strip completely naked in city parks. In public saunas, I’ve encountered separate rooms for men and women. But here, there was no sign on the door to indicate that. I was the only person in the room so far, with no way to know when someone else might walk in. I dreaded the thought of an innocent Finnish granny entering as I sat in an inappropriate state of undress, and having a heart attack at the sight of Dave, the Naked American Pervert.
The only scenario worse than that, was being a clothed American in a place where one was not supposed to be clothed. I imagined the comments on the boat later that evening: “Hey Toivo, there goes the American who wore the swimsuit in the sauna! I wonder what he has to hide!”
I couldn’t ask the attendant. I had already asked her about the steam room. She’d think I was obsessed. I wished someone else would come in — anyone — so I could observe and figure out the protocol. I couldn’t get the image of the dead granny on the sauna floor out of my head. I decided to keep my suit on.
The purpose of a sauna is to sweat every drop of water out of your body, then shock yourself with a quick, cold shower. Repeat the process as many times as you can stand it until your blood screams through your veins at the speed of light. The sauna’s interior is all wood. In the corner is a heater with rocks on top. Scoop water out of a nearby bucket onto the rocks and a wall of steam hits you like dragon’s breath.
After 10 minutes of sweating, I decided a swimming suit in a 190 degree room was ridiculous. I showered and went in for round two with only a towel around me.
The towel covered me down to the middle of my calves. It was far too warm. No, this was definitely a place where one was to be naked. I untucked the towel from around my waste and assumed a discrete posture.
I sat. I sweated. I worried. I couldn’t stop thinking about the granny.
I finally decided I needed to leave. The sauna was too stressful. I knew the rules elsewhere in the spa.
From the whirlpool, I watched the locker room door but no one went in. After 20 minutes of bubbles, I was bored. I headed for the Turkish bath, which was delightful — steamy and herb-scented. I relaxed and sighed and looked up at the ceiling. That’s when I spotted the steam valves. They creeped me out. They made me think of Nazi gas chambers. I got up and left.
I wanted to go back into the sauna, but I was determined not to until I knew the rules. There was only one activity left while I waited. Beer.
I sat at the bar and sipped slowly, never taking my eyes off the locker room door. Finally, just as I was about to give up and leave, success! A married couple walked in. They paid at the counter, rented swimsuits, and were sent to change — in separate rooms. So there were separate saunas. And if they were separating a married couple, it was certainly so naked strangers of the opposite sex would not be squished together in close quarters. I had the rules figured out now -– I thought.
I swigged my last gulp of beer and strolled confidently for the locker room. There was the man who had just paid. It was the only time in my life I have been happy to see a hairy, flabby, naked man. He nodded. I nodded. He headed for the shower. I undressed and headed for the sauna.
I opened the door a crack and peeked inside. I slammed the door in horror. There were two men inside. And they were wearing swimming suits!
I didn’t get it. If we were supposed to wear swimsuits, why did they bother with separate rooms for men and women? And why was Hairy Flabby Naked Man showering right outside without anything on? I went back to my locker and resuited.
As I entered, one of the men inside moved over to make room for me. I thanked him in Norwegian. He answered in Swedish, but his accent was something else. He was as foreign as I was. What did he know?
I sighed. Hairy Flabby Naked Man was about to walk, fully exposed, into a room full of foreigners. He was going to feel awkward dangling before us. But with three of us and one of him, I wondered if he’d feel intimidated enough to cover himself.
When he entered wearing a black Speedo, I gave up. All I knew for sure was that Hairy Flabby Naked Man looked far more offensive in a skimpy black Speedo than he did au naturelle.
I sweated and showered a couple of times. One by one, my sauna mates left until I was alone again. Then, out in the showers, I could hear a group of about six rowdy, drunken Finns. I was too sober to be around rowdy drunken Finns, clothed or not. And my 90 minutes were just about up. I went up to my cabin, undressed one last time, and showered in blissful privacy.
© Copyright 2003 Lonely Planet. This article appears in the book, Rite of Passage: Tales of Backpacking ‘Round Europe, and is used here with the publisher’s permission.