How to Helsinki: Sauna, That Scary-Hot Room Full of Naked

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Eppu here. Sauna is among the most well-known things about Finland abroad. Incidentally, sauna might also be the most commonly known Finnish word in English (although kalsarikännit seems to be making some inroads lately). Here is a short introduction to sauna I hope will be helpful to newbies.

Flickr johanjeijon Sauna ROI Midnight 2010
Sauna, Rovaniemi, on July 2, 2010, midnight sun; by johanjeijon
  • At its core, sauna bathing is exactly that: a form of cleaning yourself thoroughly. (Think extreme showering, of sorts.) Early saunas were typically small huts with benches along one wall, a wood stove (kiuas) in one corner, and a place for washing with pails of water in another. Modern saunas at pools or public baths (uimahalli) are right next to the showers, and in private homes they are attached to a full bathroom.
  • After an initial, quick shower, bathers sit down on the bench of their choice (high, middle, or low) and wait. If too cool, you can move up a bench and/or toss a ladle of water onto the stove for a burst of steam (löyly). If too hot, you can move to a lower bench, splash yourself with water with the ladle, or step into the shower room for a moment (or drink water, take a shower, go swim). In fact, dividing your sauna bathing into several consecutive short trips to cool off and then returning to the heat makes the experience more enjoyable. A final, good wash head to toe, fresh clothes, and a glass of water afterwards will feel heavenly.
  • Yes, you are indeed supposed to feel hot in sauna. Really hot. The point is to get the sweat flowing—that’s the main thing that’ll make you feel fresh and clean afterwards. However, you shouldn’t feel dizzy or bad; that’s not normal. Don’t be shy about stepping out for a moment before returning. Also note that anything metallic worn on the body (like glasses or jewellery) might get hot and feel uncomfortable.
  • Some people combine alcohol with sauna bathing (typically, a beer or two afterwards instead of water), but I find I get dehydrated enough to want to stick with non-alcoholic drinks. A little something savory can feel good to replenish the salt you’ve just sweated out, though.
  • There is some paraphernalia involved. The two absolutely essential ones are a bucket of water and a ladle, and they are included by default. If desided, you can bring a bottle of water to drink, a sauna whisk (vihta or vasta), a sauna hat, and a bathrobe (to cool off in after the final wash but before changing into fresh clothes). A small cotton or linen towel as a sit-upon (pefletti) can also be a good idea. (Note that some public saunas may require a sit-upon and rent or sell disposable ones to those who don’t bring a personal one.)
Sauna Whisks for Sale
Sauna whisks for sale at a Finnish market square (kauppatori) in 2004
  • There are no time limits or minimum stay to “do sauna right”—you stay as long as you feel like. I know people for whom sauna bathing is an hours-long ritual, whereas I’m a fairly speedy bather myself. (Note, however, that if you’re paying for sauna access, like at hotels and pools, they typically do limit your bathing time.)
  • Sauna bathing can take many forms depending on the composition and mood of the group. It can be silent and meditative, or active and chatty, or anything inbetween. It can be a private affair with each bather in their own thoughts, or part of a stag or hen night. It can be a part of families’ weekend routine, or it can be enjoyed by a solitary business traveler in a hotel in the middle of the week.
  • That said, even the more taciturn Finns can open up in sauna. Because we’re all literally reduced to our bare essentials, sauna is seen as a great equalizer and an easier environment to talk to strange people, especially Intimidating Foreigners (thank you, Arttu, for the wonderfully self-deprecating phrase).
  • And yes, you really are expected to go in completely nude. This is perfectly normal in Finland. In fact, bathing suits that have been used in chlorinated pools may release toxic gases in the heat and are therefore usually prohibited in public saunas.
  • It’s typical for a family to bathe all together, but not necessarily outside the home, nor necessarily after the kids hit puberty. Public saunas may be either segregated or co-ed, or there may be shifts set aside for women and men separately.
  • Note that, as with any place where people appear in a state of undress, there are strict social codes in place. Imagine going to the beach with your family—you wouldn’t want to be stared at, followed, intruded on, touched, or have your physicality commented on. It’s the same while sauna bathing.
  • A note about co-ed saunas specifically: Co-ed bathing tends to skew towards the younger and/or student populations, but it’s not universal. Not all Finns are comfortable with co-ed saunas, and there’s nothing odd about that. It’s perfectly fine to skip a co-ed sauna. Breaches of conduct (lewd comments or gestures), while rare, can happen. Again, think of a beach: it’s not likely that someone misbehaves, but since it is a public setting no-one can guarantee that everyone behaves 100% of the time.
  • You can have a sauna year-round, and we Finns do. (Erik and I can personally testify how lovely it is to have a sauna after hand-shoveling a foot of snow from the driveway!) However, sauna bathing in the nightless night of summer is special, especially at a cottage with added dips into a lake, river, or the sea. Since Finnish natural waters can stay rather cool even in summer, it’s typical to make several visits (sauna, water, sauna, water, etc.) before washing up. And grill some sausages for a salty after-sauna snack.

Finally: It’s not weird to be apprehensive by the thought of a hot room full of naked strangers. However, sauna is a wonderful, relaxing, and cleansing experience, and may just be worth overcoming those doubts. YMMV, naturally. If you’re sauna-curious but extremely shy, a hotel room or an apartment with a private sauna (yes, both are a thing in Finland!) are a possibility.

But don’t take just my word for it. Below are links to non-Finnish sauna bathers’ thoughts. (Note: Some apply specifically to Ropecon, the largest Finnish role-playing con, and therefore to the younger end of the geeky / nerdy circles in Finland.)

Two bonus links: a post from Visit Finland that combines useful info with a delightful lack of marketing-speech: Enjoy Urban Sauna Culture in Helsinki; also, “Sauna Time,” a comic from Scandinavia and the World with a humorous take on the difference between Finnish and Scandinavian sauna bathing.

And a note from Erik: For my fellow non-Finns who haven’t experienced sauna before, you may have your doubts about the whole thing. I certainly did before I tried it. Here’s what I knew about sauna before meeting Eppu and visiting Finland: 1) it’s damp and really, really, really hot; 2) you sweat a lot. Both these things are, of course, true. Now, my previous experiences with damp, hot environments and sweat were not good ones: humid summer days, over-heated pools, gym classes in un-air-conditioned spaces, etc. The thought that someone would voluntarily subject themselves to those kinds of conditions sounded very strange to me.

Here’s what I learned, though: sauna is different. In sauna, the damp heat and sweat feels good. It relaxes your muscles and quiets your mind. It gives you the all-over relaxing warmth of a hot bath, but no part of your body has to stick out in the cold air. You only stay in as long as it feels good: if it starts feeling bad, you just step out and cool down. And as soon as you’re done, you shower away all the sweat. There’s no feeling of clean quite like the clean of being fresh from the sauna.

Of course, your experience may be different. You may try sauna and decide you don’t like it, which is perfectly fine, but don’t be scared to give it a try.

Images: Sauna by johanleijon (CC BY-SA 2.0); Sauna whisks for sale by Eppu Jensen

This post has been edited to add resources.

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

Quotes: [People Are] Not Isolated or Sensationalized Exceptions

“[…] I wanted to write about people who were seen as freaks, who had been broken out of the Acceptable Mainstream Mold, because […] those are the more interesting characters to show. But I didn’t want to punish them for it.

“And I didn’t want that punishment to be seen as what was valuable about them. […]

“But it wasn’t until the Devil’s West books that I faced head-on what had been simmering […]. I wanted to show those characters as part of the society that created them, not isolated or sensationalized exceptions. More, I wanted to show them as active parts of that society.”

– Author Laura Anne Gilman

Author Laura Anne Gilman talking about how anger (at sensationalizing attitudes and at one novel in particular) has directed her creative work; specifically, to show charcters outside the accepted American norm not as outsiders but insiders.

Gilman, Laura Anne. “The One Book That Piqued My Creative Fury”. Tor.com.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Cold

Keira Knightley performing “how not to dress in the snow,” from King Arthur via IMDb
Keira Knightley as “how not to dress in the snow,” from King Arthur via IMDb

It’s cold outside, at least hereabouts where we are, which always sends my thoughts to the depiction of cold weather and the people who have to cope with it in the media I enjoy. The experience of serious cold weather is one that’s hard to convey to someone who hasn’t lived with it, so perhaps it’s no surprise that there while some books, movies, and tv shows get it right, others really don’t.

If you want to get it right in your stories, here are a few things to know about the effects of cold and how to deal with them in pre-modern settings:

Exposed skin is bad. Very bad. Especially skin with lots of blood vessels close to the surface like heads, necks, ears, noses, cheeks, hands, and feet. That’s how you lose heat, and if you lose too much heat, you can start losing body parts, too. If you find yourself out in the cold unexpectedly, the first thing you should do is cover up as much skin as you can.

John Snow realizing he knows nothing about dressing for the cold, from Game of Thrones via IMDb
John Snow realizing he knows nothing about dressing for the cold, from Game of Thrones via IMDb

Layers are good. Layering clothing creates air pockets, which is what keeps heat in. Metal provides poor insulation. Leather and cloth are better. Any cloth will do, but wool is particularly good. Fur is excellent, but if you’re wearing fur for warmth (rather than as a fashion statement), you want the fur on the inside where it can trap air more effectively, not the outside catching snow. For body parts that you can’t cover with clothing, such as your face, a layer of hair or grease will help, but not nearly as much as proper clothing.

Frostbite is VERY bad. Frostbite is not “Ah, it’s a little chilly, I think I’ll stick my hands in my pockets to warm them up.” Frostbite is when ice crystals form inside your body and kill your cells. It is treatable if caught in time, but it’s serious. This is how people lose fingers, toes, even limbs to the cold. Less serious than frostbite is frostnip, when the body pulls blood away from exposed skin. Frostnip is treatable just by warming up, but do not rub! Rubbing frostnipped or frostbitten skin can cause damage to tissues made fragile by the cold.

Dangerous cold doesn’t always feel cold. The experience of frostbite and frostnip doesn’t necessarily feel cold. The affected area may actually feel hot or just numb. This is the result of nerve cells shutting down or dying. In extreme cases, some people suffering hypothermia will start taking off their clothes because they feel overheated, even though they are literally dying of cold. Alcohol increases blood flow to the skin and extremities which makes you feel warmer (and can be useful when you’ve come in out of the cold into warmer surroundings), but can be dangerous when you’re still exposed to cold temperatures.

People are mammals. That means, in addition to some other fun features, we make our own heat. That heat comes from the same place the rest of our energy comes from: food. Cold makes you hungry. Eating keeps you warm.

Cold makes you go. Your body responds to cold by pulling blood away from the extremities into the core. Your kidneys respond to all that blood rushing around by going into overdrive trying to purge excess fluid from your system, leading to a full bladder.

These are all things to remember as you write about characters braving the harsh winter weather. I’ll leave the last word, though, to Magnar of Finn:

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Making A Proper 1420

Here’s a look at how we made yesterday’s A Proper 1420.

The menu

  • Boiled chicken dinner
  • Poppy seed-cakes

erikchef1There’s few ways of cooking more traditional than boiling. You can put vegetables and meat all in one big pot and boil until cooked through. Everything comes out piping hot and full of flavor. It’s simple and satisfying.

Dinner12

Our dinner this month is based on an old staple of New England cookery, the boiled dinner of corned beef or ham and root vegetables. I’ve substituted chicken for the meat and used what seemed like suitably Hobbitish vegetables: onions, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage.

We can be certain that Hobbits have chickens, since there’s no end of eggs in Bilbo’s kitchen. (H1) Pippin also complains about Gandalf guarding the palantir “like a hen on an egg.” (3.11) Potatoes, carrots, and onions are all on Sam’s wish list for a good stew (4.4) and the Gaffer scolds his son for dreaming of elves and dragons instead of cabbages and potatoes. (1.1) These ingredients all seem pretty solidly attested.

“Seed-cake” can mean any of a variety of cakes flavored with seeds, but I picked an old poppy seed-cake recipe that sounded like something Bilbo would enjoy. (H1) Poppies have long been cultivated in western Europe and elsewhere for their seeds and oil; they seem like they would be at home in the Shire.

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Dining in Middle Earth: A Proper 1420

“Altogether 1420 in the Shire was a marvellous year. […] In the Southfarthing the vines were laden, and the yield of ‘leaf’ was astonishing; and everywhere there was so much corn that at Harvest every barn was stuffed. The Northfarthing barley was so fine that the beer of 1420 malt was long remembered and became a byword. Indeed a generation later one might hear an old gaffer at an inn, after a good pint of well-earned ale, put down his mug with a sigh: ‘Ah! That was a proper fourteen-twenty, that was!’”

LotR Dinner12

We come back, at last, to the Shire, to end our year of dining in Middle Earth with a humble Hobbit dinner such as Frodo and his friends might have enjoyed after returning home from their adventures. A boiled chicken dinner makes a warm, homey meal for cold winter nights, and of course there’s beer to go with it. For dessert we have seed-cakes, an old favorite of Bilbo’s.

LotR Dinner12 Main

The table setting is sunny and cheerful, decorated with the Hobbits’ favorite colors. An unbleached linen table runner with green and yellow stripes sits over a dark green tablecloth. Green also comes on the napkins and plant pot with an ivy motif. The dinner is served on one large, hefty platter. A cloth-lined bread basket holds the small dessert seed-cakes. Fancy water glasses add another pop of greenish hues to the table.

LotR Dinner12 Dessert

Check out what’s it about in the introduction, or read the how-to!

Images by Eppu Jensen

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Making The Return of the King

Here’s a look at how we made yesterday’s The Return of the King.

Dinner11

The menu

  • Saffron seafood soup
  • Roasted pork with olives and dates
  • Sauteed spinach
  • Almond pastries

erikchef1Since we really only see Gondor in a time of war and Tolkien gives us very little detail about what daily life was like after the defeat of Sauron, it takes some imagination to come up with a proper meal for such an occasion. In creating this month’s menu, I had a specific idea in mind: a feast that would represent all the people of Gondor. Aragorn’s coronation meant a new beginning for a kingdom that had been in a long decline. It touched all of Gondor’s people and it made sense that they would all contribute something to the table.

From the fishing folk of Ethir Anduin, we get a seafood soup. This recipe uses a variety of different seafoods combined with carrots and onions. It is, at heart, food for a hardworking family making a living from the sea and small coastal gardens, but the addition of cream and saffron makes it richer, sweeter, and more luxuriant. (5.1)

From the small farmers and herders of the hill country, we have a haunch of roast pork. To reflect the southern climes of Gondor, the pork is stuffed with herbs, olives and dates. This, too, is simple food, but presented in royal style.

From the fields and gardens of Pelennor, we get sauteed spinach, flavored with garlic and ginger. This recipe is inspired by a medieval dish from the middle east which seems appropriate for the Mediterranean-ish setting of Gondor.

Finally, from the sophisticated city-dwellers of Minas Tirith itself, we end with an artful set of almond pastries representing the white tree and seven stars of Gondor.

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Dining in Middle Earth: The Return of the King

“Frodo gave way; and Gandalf, as if he were their esquire, knelt and girt the sword-belts about them, and then rising he circlets of silver upon their heads. And when they were arrayed they went to the great feast; and they sat at the King’s table with Gandalf, and King Eomer of Rohan […]”

LotR Dinner11

This month, we try to imagine a celebratory feast in Minas Tirith for the coronation of Aragorn. The people of Gondor had lived through war and privation, but they would surely have laid on the best they could for their new king and the return of peace. Our feast includes saffron seafood soup, roasted pork with olives and dates, sauteed spinach, and almond pastries for dessert.

LotR Dinner11 Main

Our table setting is based on a contrast of primarily white dishware and the dark tabletop. Most of the color comes from the food. The shapes of the dishware are simple, with no patterns or surface decorations. Silver cutlery, silvery candlesticks, and a white, shimmery table runner introduce a touch of luxury. A pewter cup holds mint sprigs for additional color and flavoring.

LotR Dinner11 Dessert

LotR Dinner11 Drink

Check out what’s it about in the introduction, or read the how-to!

Images by Eppu Jensen

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Making Flotsam and Jetsam

Here’s a look at how we made yesterday’s Flotsam and Jetsam.

The menu

  • Roasted ham
  • Sliced apples
  • Toast
  • Honey
  • Wine

erikchef1Merry describes the available food pretty clearly and we have stayed close to it. (3.9) The only substitution we have made is ham for salted pork. The two meats are similar, but salt pork is fattier and closer to (what Americans call) bacon. Ham is meatier and more satisfying for a meal. We added fresh sliced apples to go with the ham, reasoning that if Minas Tirith has apples in storage, Isengard’s storerooms probably had the same. (5.1) Our toast was made with bakery bread a few days old, like the Isengard bread that was “three or four days old.” (3.9)

Dinner10 w Props2

Recipes

Roasted ham with apple slices

Our ham was a small portion from a local farm and was not pre-cooked. Roasting times will depend on the size of your ham, so use a thermometer to make sure that the meat reaches a temperature of 160 F / 70 C.

Ingredients

  • Small, uncooked ham
  • 2 firm apples

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 F / 160 C.
  2. Wash and trim the ham.
  3. Lay the ham in a roasting pan with a meat thermometer stuck into the thickest portion.
  4. Roast until the temperature reaches 160 F / 70 C. Small hams may take only an hour; larger hams may require up to three hours.
  5. Core and slice the apples thin. Serve as garnish to thick slices of ham.

Dinner10 Ham Apple

 

Setting

eppucamera1 Unlike Peter Jackson’s movie, Tolkien’s version of the Isengard sequence actually includes a meal shared between the two Hobbits and Aragorn et al. It takes place indoors in a guard-house hewn out of stone. Other than the presence of “a hearth and chimney,” “a long table,” and “dishes, bowls, cups, knives and food of various sorts,” we hear few details. (3.9)

Dinner10 Toast

Finding a location for our photoshoot was a bit of a problem. You may have noticed that after the first four dinners, we’ve moved away from our initial spot; the desk we used was too narrow and too close to the wall for a good variety of setups. Since then I’ve tried several different areas of the house and even outdoors, but haven’t landed on a single place that has everything I want. Anyway. 🙂

We don’t have access to a stone structure that sounds suitably like Saruman’s guardroom. We do, however, have a room with wooden walls and a built-in bench that could stand in for a table: our sauna. We decided it was non-typical enough of an indoor space for our purposes. In the end, I decided to add two old table leaves on top of the built-in bench because I quite liked their worn surface for this purpose.

The setting in the ruins of Isengard sounds quite bare, but not ascetic. I chose therefore not to have a tablecloth, but added a simple unbleached linen napkin. In addition, I selected simple ceramic and wood dishes like the oval plate and the turned wooden tumbler. There’s a plain wooden knife for spreading butter and honey on toast, and an iron eating stick for spearing the ham and apple. On the side, one of our sushi sauce bowls masquerades as a honey dish.

LotR Dinner10

Finally, purely for mood purposes, there is a stack of extra plates in one corner and two candlesticks in the other. I used candle stubs, for Saruman doesn’t strike me as the kind of leader who makes sure their underlings have sufficient supplies handy at all times.

If I were to do this dinner setup again, I don’t think I’d have large changes to make. (Unless I could find a fancy stone room like Tolkien’s text describes.) Perhaps I’d consider adding a butter dish, but that’s about it.

Check out the introduction for more!

Images by Eppu and Erik Jensen

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Dining in Middle Earth: Flotsam and Jetsam

“’I will make you some toast. The bread is three or four days old, I am afraid.’

“Aragorn and his companions sat themselves down at one end of a long table, and the hobbits disappeared through one of the inner doors. […]

“’And you need not turn up your nose at the provender, Master Gimli,’ said Merry. ‘This is not orc-stuff, but man-food, as Treebeard calls it. Will you have wine or beer? There’s a barrel inside there – very passable. And this is first-rate salted pork. Or I can cut you some rashers of bacon and broil them, if you like. I am sorry there is no green stuff: the deliveries have been rather interrupted in the last few days! I cannot offer you anything to follow but butter and honey for your bread. Are you content?’”

 

LotR Dinner10

The Hobbits and their friends make a decent meal out of the remains of Saruman’s stocks after the destruction of Isengard. This month, we dine along with them on roasted ham with sliced apples, bread with honey, and a cup of wine.

LotR Dinner10 Plate

A simple oval plate and a turned wooden tumbler are set on a worn wood surface (old table leaves). There’s a plain wooden knife for spreading butter and honey on toast, and an iron eating stick for spearing the ham and apple. On the side, one of our sushi sauce bowls masquerades as a honey dish. A stack of extra plates in one corner and two candlesticks with candle stubs in the other help with the mood.

LotR Dinner10 w Props

Check out what’s it about in the introduction, or read the how-to!

Images by Eppu Jensen
Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Making The Courtesy of the Golden Hall

Here’s a look at how we made yesterdays The Courtesy of the Golden Hall.

The menu

  • Rye porridge
  • Braised beef
  • Roasted vegetables
  • Saffron and cream pancake
  • Apple compote

erikchef1Tolkien gives us only a few hints about the food of Rohan, but they are enough for us to flesh out the picture.

Dinner9 Main2

There are several references to meal, in the sense of coarsely ground flour. Éomer mocks Wormtongue by questioning whether anyone would trust him with a sack of meal (3.6) and Théoden warns the herald of Minas Tirith to have supplies ready for the Rohirrim when they ride to Gondor’s aid, for to travel light and fast they can carry only meal and water enough to last until they reach the battlefield. (5.3) Coarse flour makes poor bread and, significantly, bread is never mentioned in Rohan. Every other people in Middle Earth, from Hobbits to Orcs, has some kind of bread, but not the Rohirrim, which suggests they are making something else with their grain: porridge. Porridge is a staple of many northern European cultures like those that inspired the Rohirrim. The deep, earthy flavors of rye make for a very satisfying porridge to start our dinner.

The herds of Rohan are prominently mentioned, although what exactly they are herds of is never specified. (2.9, 3.2) Since cattle were highly prized across ancient northern Europe, beef seems like the right meat to serve at the royal table. Braising is an excellent way to cook large joints of meat and could be done in a cauldron over a low fire in a mead hall. Root vegetables are also a staple of northern European cuisines and make an good accompaniment to braised beef.

The saffron and cream pancake recipe comes from a Viking source and shows the extent of the trading networks the Vikings were engaged in, connecting them with the distant shores of the Mediterranean where saffron was harvested. It seems an appropriate way to honor the friendship between Rohan and Gondor to suggest that the Rohirrim had access to a few southern luxuries as well. The apple compote we serve with it is based on Anglo-Saxon recipes.

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