It's no secret that the Finns love their saunas, but I didn't realise how embedded in the culture it was until I visited Finland myself. I was lucky enough to have a friend living in Helsinki and, along with a group of her friends, we drove out to a family cabin in the woods where I was shown an authentic Finnish sauna experience.
After leaving the outskirts of the city, the landscape acquired more hills and trees and we turned onto a forest track. We bounced along the bumpy road, the bars of reception on our phones slowly diminishing, and eventually rolled up to the dark red cabin, nestled discreetly between the lush pines. Down a slope and through the trees, the reflections of a clear blue lake sparkled and a peaceful silence glazed everything with an irrepressible calm.
The sauna process began with filling the traditional wood fire oven with kindling and logs. Setting the fire, we left it to build in strength, checking on its process periodically and coaxing heat from the wooden blocks. Once the sun began to set and the temperature of the little sauna room was sufficiently high, we got changed and I braced myself for this new experience I was about to encounter.
The first moment after we sloshed a ladleful of water onto the hot granite rocks will be hard to forget. The thick hot air that descends and envelops you has an almost corporeal presence, invading the entire space with its density. It's at the same time oppressive and blissfully pleasant. The warmth smothers you in it's embrace and the assault on your physicality strips away the false sense of existential security that our modernised world provides; you are reminded that you're a material being, vulnerable to the elements. All you can do is surrender to the heat as you fuse with it. Quicker than you thought possible, your entire body becomes slick with sweat as the atmosphere gently but forcefully draws all the moisture from you.
When you can't take the heat any longer, it's time to go from one extreme to the next.
We emerged from the little hut and padded along the wharf that jutted out into the lake. I was aware of the chill on the air, but the protective corona of heat that my body had aquired radiated outwards. Into to the lake we plunged, overcoming my instinct to recoil from its icy surface. The pendular experience of hot to cold ripples through the surface of your skin like fire. For a while, your core is still a crucible of warmth, contrasting so acutely with the chilly water that, where the two sides meet, you no longer perceive temperature at all. Eventually however, the cold triumphs and creeps through your defences, at which point it's back to the sauna room.
Three or four rounds of this later and we were back in the cottage, contentedly sprawled on the couches, warm, drowsy and happy. I learnt that the Finns have a word that encapsulates this particular state: Raukea.