Monday, January 16, 2012

The Saudi Son-In-Laws Guide To Surviving The Sauna Test

Sauna..for most people the sauna might sound like a luxury, a special treat or something very exotic. For us Finns the sauna is a part of normal everyday life. It's a necessity, not a luxury. For the five million inhabitants of Finland, there are over 2 million saunas! That makes for almost a sauna per household ratio.

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.
Upon arrival act calm and ask where the outhouse is (you might need this information sooner than later).
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.
This would not be the best moment to be lighting a fireplace for the first time. You will need to know at least the basics on how to get the fire going without getting smoke into the sauna. There is something called a smoke sauna, but that is too hardcore for you.

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.
Remember to keep checking the temperature of the sauna, you are aiming for 70-80C, not 100C. Heating up to 150C will NOT impress your FIL. That will burn down the sauna. You will need to add wood about every half hour.

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.
You might be asked would you like a men's sauna or a family sauna. Men's sauna means you bathe with the men of the family, naked. Family sauna means you bathe with your wife and children, also naked. Don't freak out about the nudity, it's a perfectly natural thing and Finns won't look "there". Easiest for you would be family sauna, but if you do end up with the men, you can always use a towel to cover when you go outside for a cooling and swim.

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.
If you are next to a water source, you will need to go for a swim (even if the water is only 15c). That is seen as manly and give you high points in the eyes of your FIL (and maybe your wife). Extra points come from a spectacular jump accompanied by a magnificent roar.
If you don't at least dip yourself in the water (not just the tip of your toes but entire body), you will fail the sauna test. Thank your lucky stars you didn't come in the winter time when you would be required to roll around in the snow or dip into the frozen lake! The cold water stimulates the blood circulation and afterward you will feel like a hero because of the endorphines running through the body.

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.
When you're finished wash yourself with birch tree soap. Mix hot and cold water from the large barrels in your washing basin. Rinse off with rain water.

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!


Anonymous said...

Great and informative story. I think it truly reflects the meaning of "from one extreme to the other." Loved it.

Anonymous said...

Very funny! Sounds like a great experience! The pic of the dog jumping into the water is nice!

JHENNIE said...

I've seen this ritual many times on T.V and I;ve always admired people's bravery doing it.
honestly I'd chicken out, it's so tough.

miolann said...

I'm glad I'm not a foreign son-in-law, only a Finnish woman. I couldn't survive the sauna experience you described :D

The last pic is so cute! Have you taken it yourself? I could have it hung on my sauna changing room wall.

Almost a Muslimah said...

oh my goodness! this post got me in stitches :D i can't do sauna, 30sec is the maximum I lasted lol

Layla said...

Ann-Thank you! My husband "survived" with flying colors. He is actually more of a loyly person than me :)

Layla said...

Alice-thanks! That's our dog, he loves swimming! (and sauna)

Layla said...

JHENNIE-Do you mean the swimming part or the actual sauna bathing and throwing of the water part? For my husband the swimming part was the toughest!

Layla said...

Miolann-lol me too :) Yes all the pics are mine, they're from our summer cottage sauna and that's my daughter bathing in the bucket.

Layla said...

Almost a Muslimah-LOL too funny! Not even a 40c steam room?

Anonymous said...

The last picture is awesome! :)))

- EvilEyeLola

S in NYC said...

What a sweet, funny post! Makes me miss Suomi and our kesämökki so much. I LOVE the last pic, it's the cutest thing I've ever seen. Wishing you and your family all the best for the New Year :)

Ildi said...

I do love sauna! When I get a chance i go to use it. I like its effect so much. I became so calm, peaceful & muslces relaxed.:) But to swim in cold water after coming out uhhhh never tired... yet. :)

I love the pictures. Is it your own one? How much is the temperature in your daughter's tub?

Layla said...

EVilEyeLola-thanks! I love it too she is so cute in there!

Layla said...

S in NYC-thank you and wish you an awesome 2012 :) I miss the summer cottage too!

Layla said...

Ildi-You must try the swimming, even if it seems like you are going to freeze, the feeling you get AFTER is amazing! Your body produces adrenalin and endorfins so you feel really good and refreshed :)

Geoff said...

I spent a year of my life in love with a Finnish Girl, after reading that I don't know if I'm glad it didn't work out or not. Her family was in the States, but made many trips home. Nice writing. Great pictures!

Satu VW said...

Heh, I think your guide is very much applicable to other nationalities as well (e.g British son-in-laws), I wish I had given as good guidance to my husband on his first "mökki" visit! :)

Layla said...

Geoff-thanks! I think you can be glad :)

Layla said...

Satu VW-Yes you're right! Goes for all foreign son-in-laws :) Would your husband have passed this test?