On a recent trip to Helsinki, I was fretting about my glaring lack of language skills. How, I wondered, was I ever going to pronounce all those really long words with so many vowels and umlauts?
Turns out, nearly everyone in Finland speaks English. And even better, I’ve known the most important Finnish word since I was four.
Yes, I’m talking about the word “sauna,” a Finnish word that has made its way into more than 100 languages. Except in Finland, it’s far more than a word–it’s a point of national pride, a weekly ritual practiced by 99 percent of the population.
There are more saunas than cars in Finland and, unlike the rest of us who view a hop in the sauna as a luxury, the Finns consider their weekly sauna as a necessity, right up there with food, rye bread and vodka.
Here are thirteen more things you probably don’t know about Finnish saunas:
1. Any business worth its credit rating has its own company sauna. Even Parliament House has its own sauna chambers, as does the Finnair lounge in the Helsinki airport., the Pyhasalmi zinc and copper mine (it’s 4600 feet underground, making it the deepest sauna in the world), most passenger and cargo ships and every home, summer cottage and apartment building.
2. A popular Finnish television talk show that ran for years featured two hosts in a sauna chatting up celebrities and government officials. Even former president Tarja Halonen (the Conan O’Brien look-alike) was interviewed wearing nothing but a towel.
3. When Finns travel abroad, the sauna goes, too. Those serving in the UN Peace Corps are well-known for the tent saunas they build at every base. And every Finnish diplomatic and consular mission around the world has its own sauna, as does the Finnish Church in London.
4. Speaking of churches, the sauna is considered an equally sacred place. Swearing, controversial topics and sex (although it’s a faux pas to wear clothes in a sauna) are strictly verboten.
5. During the Cold War, Finnish President Urho Kekkonen, who was born in a sauna, held political negotiations in his sauna at Tamminiemi. In fact, soon after Khrushchev attended Kekkonen’s 60th birthday party, where he sat for many hours in Kekkonen’s private wooden sauna, the Soviet government issued a communiqué expressing support for Finland’s intention to cooperate with the West.
6. American actor Danny Kaye, in Helsinki as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, was made a Knight of the Sauna Order by the Finnish Sauna Society. It’s a cultural association with more than 4000 members that publishes papers, organizes seminars and symposiums, supports scientific research and, of course, maintains a sauna for its members.
7. Jatkankamppa, a log cabin sauna in Finland’s Lakes District, can hold 60 people. It is is thought to be the world’s largest.
8. Teuva, a town in western Finland, hosts a mobile sauna rally every year. Dozens of wacky saunas built into telephone booths, farm equipment, old cars and even on the back of a bike are displayed.
9. In Finnish folklore, there’s a sauna-elf. It’s called a saunatonttu and is rumored to perform magic.
10. Saunas are not just used for bathing. In olden days, they were also used for drying flax, preparing malts and curing meat. There’s a famous Finnish proverb, “Build the sauna. Then the house.”
11. Another well-known proverb says a sauna without a birch whisk is like food without salt. Yes, the Finns lightly beat themselves with young birch twigs that allegedly raises blood circulation and speeds up the sweating process.
12. For years, saunas were lauded as the poor man’s pharmacy. Studies now show that sauna visits may aid in everything from rheumatoid pain and heart disease to stress and chronic fatigue.
13. If you plead “saunanjalkeinen,” which means you’re just out of the sauna and completely relaxed, you can get out of most anything.