My Sauna Rite of Passage

By Robert Bushman

They set us to work immediately on our arrival from the States, in November, 1962. I and the four others accompanying me were sequestered in the dimly-lit Pihlajatie apartment in Helsinki where the task at hand was to learn Finnish, of which we had no prior exposure. Our education there consisted solely of lectures on the marvels of Finnish grammar--12 hours a day for a solid week. The faithful copying of these lectures into our notebooks was taken as sufficient demonstration of learning. All conditions were rigorously controlled: We were awakened together at the same early hour; we dressed together, ate together, prayed together, and copied into our notebooks together. The only respite was at evening time when we were chaperoned for dinner around the block to a cafeteria on the main boulevard, Mannerheimintie, only to be whisked back again to more lecture, as if for dessert. No diversions. We were, in a sense, accidental monks.

The cafeteria where we ate presented order, cleanliness and the impression of desireable food available, though it always seemed challenging to find truly satisfying food, either in taste or quantity. Despite all we could find to eat, we were always hungry. Our familiar snacks and refrigerator offerings were no longer available. It being November and the fact that we had not yet accustomed ourselves to the Finnish winter, we were also always cold. And from the residual jet lag, lack of full-night’s sleep, and the mind-numbing lectures, we were dragging with fatigue. Though we had been told several times and in various ways that we were in a special land of wonder and delight, we saw precious little of it, as our time was spent cloistered together over our daunting language task. Moreover, what we seemed to be learning was that Finnish would be impossible to learn.

I had been wondering about the wisdom of my having been sent to Finland. In my induction interview I had been asked where I would like to serve, as if I had a choice. I informed my interviewer explicitly that I would be happy to serve in any place so long as it was not cold. So there I had ended up--in the world's northernmost country, the “land of the frozen chosen” as we came to hear ad nauseum. It was clear it had been the old please-don’t-throw-me-in-the-briar-patch trick, played in unwitting reverse.

Everything there seemed uncomfortably strange: our newly bestowed identities, the stuffy new suit-uniforms we had to wear, the absence of any familiar acquaintances, the isolation from being unable to communicate with the natives, the austere housing, the dull grayness of short winter days, the cold-damp air, the spare food, the sagging beds, the unidentifiable smells, and the ubiquitous, gritty feel of the snow-packed ground under our feet. This whole milieu conspired to conjure up extreme anomie and homesickness. As I would assiduously copy some arcane point of Finnish grammar into my notebook, I well remember, forcing itself through the double-paned windows that faced in on the dark and cold courtyard of our little monastery, the haunting ring of iron streetcar wheels outside, scraping through their frozen tracks every time they rounded a corner. This mournful, dissonant ringing would echo through the gray stuccoed canyons of the neighboring apartments and became for ! me an insistent symbol and piercing reminder of the helplessness of my situation.

On the last of our six days of chain-gang labor, it was announced that our evening would be “free.” What should have been a welcomed reprieve was immediately revealed as anticlimax. Not only were we unprepared to program our own time, but trapped in our strange new environment, and with all the restrictions on our life, none of us had a clue as to what possible enjoyable use that time could be put, and we sank again into unspoken despair. It was in that hour of darkness as I lay hopelessly upon my bed, that I experienced my first epiphany.

That long-anticipated missionary experience was actually happening to me: I was seeing a light. Yes, even a vision of sorts. Into my fogged and depressed mind there gradually dawned the memory of an illuminated sign I had seen from across Mannerheimintie, shining out: “Sauna.” I had heard that the sauna was a wholesome Finnish custom, but had never experienced it. The realization of an actual sauna close at hand fully captivated my imagination. The inspiration was clear: now was the time to do the deed--that very night!

It didn’t take much persuasion to enlist a fellow novitiate, and together, armed with our newly claimed knowledge of English abstractions about Finnish grammar, we stole off across Mannerheimintie in the early dark of the evening, not knowing beforehand the things which we should do. At least we had enough sense to realize that if we were to let an experienced missionary “break us in” to the sauna, we would only be vulnerable to some silly pranks. We knew we had to go it alone and unafraid. And the adventure of it was already sufficient reward.

What we first encountered at that fateful scene was what appeared to be a ticket window, in which sat a very large woman in a white uniform. We just stood there, back aways, gawking at the scene, wondering what the expected protocol was, trying to make some sense out of any of it. There wasn’t a single recognizable word in all the posted signs. There seemed to be a variety of pricing, but what of it? Even though the prices were in familiar numbers, their format was unsettlingly ambiguous. The very best we could muster was to push one of our fresh paper bank notes of supposed sufficient value through the window and hope for an appropriate response. The response was a question. Followed by another question. And then another. We could only stand there, looking very sheepish, and shrug dumbly. Finally the lady just smiled kindly, returned some change, and motioned us through one of the doors to one side of the window, apparently the men’s side. What a thrill to have c! ommunicated successfully and be admitted through that portal! For me, it was a passage into a new wonderland--a journey from which I have never returned.

Inside, it was clear where we were to put our clothes, and all the rest was simply doing what we saw others doing. We saw some men going into a room from which faint clouds of warm steamy air escaped, and figured it must be the room where the actual heat was, so we followed them in. They sat upon benches inside, so we sat upon the benches, but high up in the back, so as to be out of the way of excessive heat. Not wishing to say anything so as not be discovered as foreigners, we had to rely on facial expressions to semaphore our thoughts to each other, like, ‘Kinda warm in here, huh?’ and ‘How long do you hafta stay in this place?’ It was soon evident that we had gotten ourselves into some kind of Finnish macho endurance contest. Obviously, the first one to leave the room was the wimp. In order to keep up the pretense that we were not faint-hearted foreigners, we absolutely could not be the first to leave. And afterall, the others were not dying, so perhaps we would not either.

I do not remember just how long we endured. Perhaps I blanked out, but I do remember being resuscitated with a gasp as I emerged from the door, on my own. The next stage seemed obvious enough: in the wash room you find some soap, a wash bucket, a brush that was made to take tar off a floor, and scrub your skin off. Okay, just your dead skin, but it felt like the brush was going to tear off my flesh. After a few rounds of that, when we were completely purged of all toxic anything, had scrubbed ourselves well over squeaky clean, showered and cooled and rubbed and dried and dressed, we gratefully returned to our quarters in a flush glow and sank effortlessly into a deep, contented sleep.

Soon thereafter I was assigned to work with a seasoned companion in plain, provincial Joensuu, far away from the "comforts" of the capital city. It was a humble place, and I had serious apprehensions about my chances of finding anything there of interest. Though we set right to our work of calling on homes around the town, it immediately became painfully apparent how ill-equipped I was to deal with the serious cold there, with my thin overcoat, thin felt hat, thin-soled shoes, and no long underwear. On our bikes, the wind-chill was unbearable. And of course, taking gloves off outside, even for a moment, was beyond question.

At the end of our day, we retreated to an attic bedroom we had rented in a home on the outskirts of town. There was no separate heat provided for this bedroom. Apparently the heat from the rooms below was supposed to rise and warm the upstairs. It was a vain supposition. Furthermore, our bathroom was equipped with the modern convenience of cold and cold running water. This made a decision to invest in an electric razor fairly easy. Sleeping was also challenging: even tightly tucked in the fetal position under all of my three blankets, I could not escape the cold.

After a fruitless week of trudging about in the bitter cold, on the first Saturday afternoon, my companion announced that in the evening, we were to have sauna. I thought back on that special heat room of my first sauna experience in Helsinki, the place that could melt your marrow, where it was not possible for any part of you to remain cold. There, in the steamy air and unhurried bathing ritual, cares were also melted and washed away. That room now represented refuge and comfort in a way I could never have anticipated. A smile slowly spread across my face. It was at that moment when I knew with certainty that I was really going to like Finland.

Contributed by Robert Bushman -- 8/67-8/69

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