Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Naked investment in life

Steam of Life, a movie from Joonas Berghäll & Mika Hotakainen, portraits the emotions of men, as told in the archetypal element of Finnish culture: the sauna. I have not seen this movie, because it has so far not yet been released, but even the trailer is compelling by itself.

With the risk of being called pretentious, and certainly not being Finnish, I can somehow relate to the theme of this movie. I am used to going to saunas since my early twenties. Of course the Dutch have no sauna tradition like countries as Finland, Sweden, Russia or Estonia. But the phenomenon spread from northern Europe south to Germany and from there to The Netherlands and other European countries. Dutch and German saunas are now almost all so called luxury wellness centers, spas if you like, compared to the basic saunas you see in the movietrailer at the end of this blog. Sauna is an enjoyable break to sooth the muscles, relax the body and mind and strengthen resistance against the common cold and flu.

Scene from Steam of Life

Eleven years ago however an extra element was added to my sauna routine. I always had a warm relation with my nephew. Actually he is a cousin’s son – but being from the same family clan so to speak, and being in the same age group as his father and uncles, I always called him 'my nephew' and he referred to me as his uncle. Because I had ruptered my achilles tendon a few weeks earlier, and I needed a literally stable person I could hold on to just in case I would fall, I asked my then just 17 year old nephew to join me in the sauna. Being a teen he was obviously reluctant to do so. And it is still a classic story: his Mom told me Wednesday around 6.00PM that my nephew would not be accompanying me. “There is absolutely no way I am going to walk around in my naked butt,” so he said to her. Fair enough, no problem. Just 24 hours later the phone rang and a very casual nephew asked “What time are we leaving actually coming Saturday?”

From this first visit on, my nephew was hooked on the sauna – and after eleven years he still is. On average once a month we make time to go to one of the saunas we have around here. Sometimes we venture further away, as far as Aachen in Germany to visit the beautiful Carolus Thermen there. And there are more on our list. Why do we like it so much? Maybe because you can shut the world out and forget everything when you are inside. No cell phones to bother you, no one looking over your shoulder. A perfect place to sit down and talk and listen to each other. Throughout the years many stories have been told, problems discussed, and confidentialities exchanged. But there is of course also plenty of time for lighthearted subjects, like discussions about cars, gossips and there are many laughs while drinking coffee, a good beer and having lunch. When young, I listened to his stories told from a teenagers perspective, without bothering him too much with my views, shaped by age and experience. I think it is so important that you listen to what a teen has to say. They tell us their lives, and about things that are important or interesting to them and they appreciate it when someone older listens. And the sauna proved just to be the perfect place for that. Literally stripped from all inhibitions, naked, sweating and close to each other – what is there left to be ashamed of?

Obviously, the nature of the conversations changed. Because the boy grew into a man, added 20 kilos to the scales over the years, married, and became a father of a girl and a boy - whos coming arrivals were confined to me before other family members knew about it, while sweating at 90 degrees Celsius. “Martin, Saturday sauna?” was often an indication for an announcement. And me? I just grew older and smiled. But the tradition remains and nobody is going to take that away. I’m still touched when I think back to what my nephew suddenly asked me, out of the blue, a couple of years ago. “We will always be doing this, right?”

Our experiences may not be so deeply emotional that it will bring us to tears, as we see in the Steam of Life trailer, but still this tradition is very special to us. I am not a father, but I say to all fathers with teensons: go to the sauna. Yes, if you are not used to it, it might feel a bit awkward since there is no covering up and both sexes use the sauna at the same time. But believe me, those reservations will be gone after a few minutes. Your reward will be that you will enjoy the best conversations with your son and create a stronger bond. And if a father is too shy to take the initiative, well, maybe be an uncle will do. I know all about that.

Related: Estonian smoke sauna tradition:

Steam of Life


  1. Here in America it's the Hot Tub, a thing from the hippie days of communal living. I've had mine for only three years, but enjoy adult company where your phone will be ruined.

    My children are not willing to disrobe and the grandchildren think it's a pool, with toys.

    John Lloyd

  2. A delightful read. I cannot wait for more. Your writing style is appealing - personal, lighthearted, but with just the right amount of authoritativeness as to perfectly straddle the line between arrogant and indecisive. That is something that is very hard to do, and that I still have yet to master. Personally I tend to sway towards the former.

    Good subject matter here as well. Very thought-provoking - I had don't think I had previously even given sauna-culture half a second's thought! Thanks for broadening my horizons a bit.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Irene, thanks!
    John, the sauna I visit most - in the village of Warmond, close to my hometown of Katwijk - used to have a great hottub in a sunny patio as well. We both loved it, but alas the owner decided to replace it with an admittedly nice pool that nobody uses.
    Max - your writing is already very good, you have great talent. And, when visiting Minnesota, you'll notice that the Scandinavian descendants there hold on to the sauna tradition too.

  4. Public saunas are available in the States, but usually only in the locker rooms of gyms. As such, they are sex-specific, not mixed. You hear very few conversations in them, as many who work out do so on their own schedules and alone.
    A fond memory that I have is having experienced my first private sauna, at the country lake home of my then-girlfriend's family in northern Minnesota, on Lake Vermillion. We got the fire stoked, then splashed the heater face with water, creating amazing amounts of steam, and then it would die down a bit and we could breathe in the cedar smell, and have a beer while chatting about life. Once we finally decided we had had enough, we would splash a massive amount of water on the heater to make it so hot we had to slam open the door, run along the lake's edge, down the boat dock, and jump into the cool lake! Ah, the memories!

  5. What you describe Allen, is what sauna is all about.

  6. I have meanwhile seen this movie. I ordered it from Amazon, with English subtitles. Fascinating movie, that just recently opened here in The Netherlands too. It gets great reviews.

  7. http://grassharp.blogspot.nl/2011/10/steam-of-life.html