Originally published in the Next Stop newsletter. Subscribe!
By all accounts in Liehittäjä, Sweden, sauna is as Finnish as it gets. But we were just 12 kilometers from the Tornio river border between Sweden and Finland––a border that’s relatively new in the grand scheme of things. Plus my sauna boss, Henry Huuva, grew up with a Finnish mother, though he more outwardly seems to embrace his Sámi heritage through his father. Sámi, too, have a sauna cultural tradition.
Perhaps that explains why Henry loves him some sauna––it’s embedded in him from two cultural touch points.
In any event, sauna was never really my jam. I did the Japanese equivalent, onsen, some years ago. It was fine. A lot more scrubbing was involved than I expected, but it was fine. Nothing I’d rip my clothes off to do again.
Henry’s wife, Pia, showed me to my cabin when we arrived at their Huuva Hideaway––an immersive Sámi cultural experience with rural lodging. The shower doubled as a sauna.
“Great,” I thought. “I can give it another shot on my own.”
And I did. Before taking a shower, I fired up the sauna, texting Pia for instructions after I inevitably turned some knob incorrectly. I essentially set it up so that it would be hot in several hours time instead of a few minutes.
Again, it was fine. After I had enough, It shut it down, showered up, and walked over to the Huuva home for dinner. At the end of the meal, Henry stood up and started to walk towards the kitchen.
“Are you going to join for sauna?” he asked. Or at least, I thought he asked before he continued. “That wasn’t a question.” I detected a wry, sadistic grin punctuating that sentence, but I could, perhaps, be building things up in my head.
It was settled. I was going to sauna again, but this time with about five other men in very close proximity. This is where some Europeans make fun of Americans for being overly body conscious or just uncomfortable with nudity. I will say that I’ve cared less and less about it over the years. Is that maturity or six years of living in Germany? Probably a combination of the two. What I don’t love is the close proximity. You have your sweat, I have mine, and never the twain shall meet. Ideally.
I’m fairly certain at this point that I gotta get buck naked with these guys. But just in case I’m wrong, I go back to my cabin and slip into some swim shorts and a tech tee. I then meet everyone at a small, wooden sauna at the edge of the lake. Henry’s already humble bragged that they have 22 saunas on their property, one for every person who lives in the area. This one is wood-fired, so he throws some logs in to a furnace outside of the sauna itself and starts with the roasting. But before that, he casually rips off his clothes and heads in. Others follow suit and get into their, well, birthday suit.
At this point, I figure that I’d look like a colossal dick, no pun intended, if I bail. And the assumption would be that nudity makes me uncomfortable when in reality, not to sound like a broken record, it’s the proximity to the next pair of swampy butt cheeks that makes me feel a little iffy. I mean, the worst of COVID wasn’t that long ago. We learned that distance can be life saving. Do we really want to simmering in the same swamp?
I guess so.
Confident that this isn’t a practical joke, I rip off my shorts, drop them on a bench, and head into the sauna.
As I feared, there was only space to go at it cheek to cheek––no Fred Astaire and no dancing. Thankfully, this is simply how everyone ends their day. So my discomfort quickly washes away as we slip into conversation. I almost didn’t notice the massive sweaty butt stains left on the wood when we stood up.
Henry, for his part, is a sadist. It’s confirmed. He gleefully drops ladles full of water over the hot coals like a robot with only one setting, unleashing a storm of steam that ripped the sweat from my body. This was an initiation.
How long can you last, stranger?
I have no doubts Henry could outlast me with ease. My goal is simply not to be the first one out. So I wait patiently––listening, nodding, biding my time until someone, anyone leaves. Fortunately for my cause, a couple of the younger guys get up and head out to jump into the lake. My only fear is that this is next on the hazing itinerary. But Henry, the Godfather of sorts around here, declines and so I have an out––one I happily take.
Instead, I just have to grab a beer and head back in for round two.