One of the most common complaints I hear from Finnish people after they visit the US is the following: “I went to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York, and it was a big waste of time and money. We paid $70 for tickets, then just sat in the hot bleacher seats for 4 hours, got sunburned, and watched a boring game where nothing happened. The food and beer was stupidly expensive. I have no idea why Americans like baseball…”
The thing is, they are absolutely correct. Whenever non-Americans ask me what they should do during their upcoming trips to the States, I never recommend going to a Major League Baseball game, despite being a fan of the sport myself (Go Tigers!). The reason is that without proper context or a historical connection to the game, you’re missing the most important elements.
To me, going to a Detroit Tigers game is about sitting in the left field seats with your friends while the warm summer sun slides below the city skyline. It’s about connecting with your community and collectively cheering for the same thing, regardless of the differences in political or religious beliefs you have with the guy sitting two seats down. It’s about watching your team rally in the 8th inning, and then remembering all the exciting games you played as a kid in your local city league… the taste of sunflower seeds and bubble gum, the chirping of crickets coming out at dusk, the fireflies starting to light up in a nearby baseball diamond where the lights are already shut off, and the sound of the ball hitting the bat and the resulting cheers of parents from the bleachers.
But a Finnish tourist in the US (or anyone else who didn’t grow up Stateside) generally won’t have that context or connection to the sport, so it’s completely understandable that spending the money and time to get sunburned while watching a slow-paced game would seem like a bad idea.
But now, dear Finnish people, I encourage you to consider your own favorite pastime (sauna!), in this same light. There’s nothing more iconic about Finland than the sauna. But that said, besides a few nearby cultures (Swedish, Russian, German, etc), the rest of the world seems to not really get it. Over the years, dozens of non-Finns have asked me questions such as: What’s the big deal with saunas in Finland? So it’s just a hot room? Are you really naked… is it a sexual thing?
If you’ve lived in Finland for a significant portion of your life, you almost certainly understand that it’s much more than just a hot room. To me at least, sauna is:
- about finding peace of mind and hitting the reset button on your brain and body after a crazy week at work
- it’s about building relationships with new friends, and strengthening relationships with old ones. One of the best ways to do this is by taking sauna with them on a Saturday afternoon while sweating out your hangovers from the night before.
- it’s about watching the sun kiss the horizon at midnight through the birch trees during juhannus (midsummer weekend), while you sit in a towel outside and just appreciate life and summer
- it’s about experiencing near-complete silence, with only the sounds of wood crackling, birds chirping, and the occasional hiss of löyly steam
- it’s about celebrating your close friend at his bachelor party, and the best way to do so is to pack 14 sweaty drunk and singing guys into a small hot steamy shed, with everyone singing silly songs and drumming the walls and laughing and being stupid for 5 hours straight
Maybe the greatest thing, especially in this modern world where screens and media continuously barrage our senses, the sauna is a place that forces us to disconnect from all of that noise, and instead spend some time looking inward. Generally we try to distract ourselves with whatever topical thing gives us an escape from boredom, or helps us to ignore our uncertainties and worries, but the sauna steam and heat forces us to leave the laptops and smartphones outside. This in turn forces us to look inward and tackle these deeper existential questions more directly. With the advent of the mokkula (plug in USB wifi hotspots), even the peace and quiet of the countryside mökki (Finnish summer cottage) is under assault. The sauna is the last refuge of internal reflection, so hopefully we can keep electronics outside of the sauna for at least a bit longer.
My point is that the story of sauna and why it’s so important has nothing to do with heat or nudity, and it’s such a shame that those things take center stage in the conversation about sauna between Finland and the outside world. Rather, the conversation should focus on human experience, the things in our brains and hearts, and human connections we experience while sitting in that sacred space.
But I get it… it’s really difficult to express these deep but intangible things in a short conversation, or in a video clip when promoting Finland and Finnish culture. The best effort I’ve ever seen is in this Visit Finland ad, which isn’t about sauna in particular, but does a good job of capturing the atmosphere of Finnish summer, both in the city and at the countryside mökki. But we should at least try to do a bit better, perhaps by explaining it through the theme of human experience.
Regardless, Finns don’t need to love baseball, and Americans and other foreigners don’t need to love sauna. But perhaps the takeaway is that next time we wonder why a people loves something that seems silly from the outside, it might be worth digging a little deeper in order to see what’s going on. You might just discover the deeper pleasures in life and appreciate things a bit more. My first couple times in the sauna made me think, “It’s just a hot room… what’s the big deal?” I’m so glad I was wrong.