Saunas are everywhere, even inside the smallest city apartments, at health clubs, pools, summer cottages, hotel rooms..There are electric saunas, smoke saunas, barrel saunas, sauna boats, balcony saunas, smart saunas, anything you can imagine, but the favorite sauna for the Finns is the traditional wood-heated fireplace sauna where water is thrown on the rocks to create a soft steam into the sauna.
The traditional Finnish sauna has a specific way it needs to be heated and there are some rather peculiar traditions and practices involved, especially weird and fascinating or even scary for a first time sauna-goer. Finns take pride in their saunas and foreigners will without exception be invited for a sauna session. The Finnish FIL's have a reputation of "testing" the foreign spouses of their daughters in the sauna to see how "manly" they are. This is of course done tongue-in-cheek, but nevertheless it's best to be prepared!
Here's a Finnish sauna guide for all the foreign son-in-laws out there!
If you are a foreign guy (even more so if you're Arab or Saudi) married to a Finnish woman, be prepared for the ultimate acid test when you land on Finnish soil. The FIL's will surely have their fingers itching to get you into the sauna to test out your manhood and compatibility with your Finnish spouse.
Do not sweat! Here is a step by step guide to survive your first sauna ordeal. By following these instructions you will prove yourself worthy of his Finnish daughter.
After landing in Finland you will immediately be taken from the airport to the summer cottage for survival camp.
Be warned that there will be no running water, plumbing or even electricity in some cases.
Remember to make polite remarks on how the grass and garden looks so well groomed and how the cottage seems so inviting (even if you feel like running back into the car and heading to the nearest hotel).
Most likely next you will be asked to heat up the sauna. You must understand that sauna is a sacred place to Finns. Finns used to give birth in sauna. DO NOT at any point, under any circumstances attempt to make fun of the sauna traditions. That will be your last joke.
To heat the sauna, you will need wood. Go and chop some up, carry it inside and place into a neat pile.
After you have got the fire going in the stove (kiuas)without burning up the whole sauna, you must fetch the water. Take the buckets and fill some with rain water and others with lake/sea water. Put rain water only in the "löyly" bowl to prevent the stove stones from going bad.
Next you will assemble the vihta. This is a 'whisk' or 'whip' made of birch tree branches. Its used to beat yourself with while sitting in the sauna. You need to gather branches from a certain kind of birch and tie it up in a bunch. If you are lucky your FIL might assist you in this. Sometimes families have ready-made dried ones you just need to soak in water to use.
When using the vihta, start by beating your back and arms, then move to your legs. Be sure to hit yourself quite hard so that the skin becomes very red. You will be surprised how nice it feels.This means your blood is now circulating really well! Do not use the vihta like a camel whip! That will cause the leaves to fly all around the sauna.
If your FIL is impressed by your self-beating skills, he may ask you to beat his back for him. This is a great honor. Do not beat him too hard even if tempted.
In the sauna you will start by throwing water on the stove (kiuas). The steam this creates is called "löyly". It is considered polite to praise the sauna and the excellence of the löyly. Try to stand the heat for at least 5 minutes then go cool off. The Finns will be throwing lots of löyly so be prepared not to chicken out too soon.
After the cold shock some people like to hang around outside chatting, having a drink and enjoying the scenery. Then the sauna bathing continues like this in cycles of hot and cold. Do at least three cycles to prove your stamina.
Don't worry if everyone sits quiet as a mouse on the benches. Mostly Finns will just sit quietly without feeling awkward. Sauna is not a place for debates or lively conversation, but rather self reflecting and silence. The children in Finland are taught "In the sauna you must be as quiet as in the church". Finns don't know how to small talk either.
After the sauna cool off with a drink and eat some delicious sausage (makkara) cooked on the sauna stove served with hot mustard. Remember to once more praise the löyly to your hosts!
Hopefully your FIL will approve your sauna performance and you will be accepted into the family! Good luck!