26 April 2007

The Estonian Sauna Visit

As promised here is the story of my visit to the sauna in Tallinn, Estonia. Everyone I’ve told it to so far has enjoyed it, I think you’ll get a laugh or two out of it as well.

I planned to stay in
Tallinn for only two days, then I was to board a ferry and cross the Baltic Sea for Finland. Therefore, my time in the city and the country would be fast paced. I had read and heard before that the saunas in Estonia are a unique and interesting experience. Furthermore, they offer insight into the authentic local culture because of their long tradition and the fact that few foreigners ever visit one. For a traveler seeking exactly that, a route not taken by the average tourist, I knew where I was heading the first afternoon on the day I arrived in the city.

Before leaving the hostel I decided to take my contacts out and wear my glasses because my eyes had that tired feeling from a night of tough sleep.

I reached the doors of the public Kalma Sauna at around five o’clock. I walked inside and to the attendant at the front desk.

After paying for entrance I asked the English-speaking man what one normally does in the sauna here. Of course I knew the general idea of sitting and relaxing in the heat but I thought maybe there were some customs or differences I should be aware of before going into the changing rooms. The man gave me a puzzled look and asked if this was my first time to visit a sauna. I had been in one once or twice back in America to see what it was like, but not for a prolonged visit. I thought it to best to answer no.

After his light hearted laugh the man explained to me what I already knew. He told me that it’s a hot room and that I simply sit in it and relax. Again, I wanted to really hear about the local customs, but I brushed aside this misunderstanding and followed him to the door of the changing room. At the entrance he paused and turned to me, “Watch the other men and do what they do.”

The man pushed the door open and I walked into the changing room; I very quickly wondered into what I had gotten myself. This dressing room was more of a lounge with some storage lockers for clothes. In the center were some black leather chairs and couches. In one corner was a bar selling drinks, snacks, and other small items for the sauna. The room was full of men standing or sitting and talking with one another. Most were middle aged but others had white hair and aged faces, and still a few more looked about my age. Some stood at the bar and ordered drinks, while others reclined in the leather chairs and sipped on their beer. Everyone, except the bar tender, was completely naked.

Let me be clear when I saw they were naked. That doesn’t mean they had a towel wrapped around them and covering their nether regions. That means they stood, sat, talked, and drank with every inch of their skin exposed for all to see. Shocking to say the least for me.

I made a bee line to another door way and found another dressing room with only a handful of men in it. Here I considered my options. I had brought swim trunks with me to wear in the sauna, thinking that was the expectation, but I now knew that if I wore anything I would stand out like a naked guy would on the side of the street. It’s not often one finds himself in a situation where he’s in the minority for wearing clothes. I held the trunks in my hand for a few seconds and arrived at my decision. I threw them on top of the rest of my clothes in the locker, locked it, and walked away with a towel wrapped around my waste.

I found a door to the nearest room that I assumed was the sauna and walked into thick steam. My glasses instantly became useless and I pushed them up on my head. I took a seat on a tiled bench and could see another flesh tone human form at the other end of the room. Slurp. Flurp. These noises caught my attention as they come from the direction of the other body. Through the steam and my nearsightedness I could make out the person’s arms moving over their skin. My imagination began to wander and I considered if I should leave the person in private. I then realized they were sweeping the sweat and condensing steam off their body. The body rose and to my relief a man walked past me and out the door.

I allowed for a few minutes to pass then I decided the time had come to find the true sauna. I left the steam room and went back through my dressing room and the original one. I came to another room lined with open showers; no sense in installing privacy walls or doors. At the end of this room rose a three foot tall pool, to the left of this was a wooden door. That had to be the sauna.

Approaching the door I could feel the heat radiating off from it and pulled it toward me. The sauna room had five tiers of wooden bench seating facing a large heater covered in stones. Alone in the room, I took my towel off and laid it down on the warm wood of the third tier and sat down. Very soon sweat began to gradually flow out from my pores, but the heat was relaxing and a pleasure to my travel weary muscles. The door opened and I was no longer alone.

A middle-aged man in the buff closed the door behind him and took a seat opposite me on the same level of seating. With my fog free glasses I curiously observed a small cone shaped hat covering his hair and the bundle of birch branches he had carried into the room and placed over his lap. A minute passed and my nostrils sensed the thick menthol-like aroma seeping from the birch branches.

Ah, it must a therapeutic thing, I thought to myself. The aroma probably clears up his sinuses.

At that, the man grabbed the branches with his left hand and stood up on the bench. He raised his arm into the air and violently brought it back down through the air. Threewp! The dried branches and leaves struck his bare flesh. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen, but then he repeated his actions, and again, and again. He whipped every inch of his body except his face and his privates with the branches. I couldn’t take it and had to look away from the man, not because of how painful it looked, but because laughter wanted to erupt from my mouth. Then five more men with cone hats on their heads and birch branches in hand entered the room.

In under a minute the room was a flurry of birch branches flying through the air and colliding with hairy chests, arms, and legs. It looked as if all of the men were under attack by a hive of angry bees and they were trying their best to swat them away. I quickly wrapped my towel back around me and bolted to the door. Outside the room I went to one of the shower stalls and pushed in the knob. The running water cooled me down and the noise helped cover the sound of my laughter.

The minute hand crept along and I decided it was time to reenter the sauna. I found the room full of about ten men sitting all about on the benches. This time my glasses fogged up and I pushed them back on top of my head. I took a seat and listened to the men talk to each other in Estonian. A pause in the conversation gave me the opportunity to ask if anyone spoke English.

At first no one spoke, but then a man on the opposite side of the room started talking to me. My eyes could not make out facial details or much else, only a pink body and a head covered in white hair. His voice confirmed that he was an elderly man. His English was less than decent, but it sufficed. The other men fell silent as we spoke.

“Do you like saunas?” the old man asked.

“This is my first time,” I answered to simplify the conversation, but also somewhat truthfully.

“First time?!” The man then looked around to the other men and translated. The room bursted into laughter.

Our conversation continued and as the metal on my glasses and watch began to heat up I decided to stay in the sauna at least as long as the old man. If this senior citizen could stand the heat so could I, or so I thought.

The minutes ticked by and the temperature seemed to raise higher and higher. Eventually I took off my glasses and wrist watch altogether because the metal parts were too hot to touch. The sweat collected on my brow and dripped down to the floor. We kept talking and I kept waiting. Soon the towel on which I sat became pointless and the heat flowed freely from the wooden bench to my bare skin. Next it reached the inside of my body and my mouth and throat dried; the elder carried on about some trip he took once in his life. I had already stopped paying attention somewhere back around the part about his cousin, uncle, or something in America.

I answered simply, but kept thinking in my head.

Will you ever leave? I don’t care about how you learned English anymore. Don’t you see the door right there? Hurry up, old man!

As I opened my mouth to say I was leaving the man stood up and headed to the door. I grabbed my things and rose onto my two feet. I began to step to the door when my head started to spin.

From the heat, and maybe a little from the lingering menthol odor in the room, my head swirled in a dizzy blur. I made it out the door and was going to sit down on a chair when the old man whistled to me. I turned around and he pointed to the raised pool.

I managed to make my way up the ladder and submerge neck deep into the ice cold water. I leaned against one of the side walls and let out a sigh of relief. Then an overweight man climbed up the ladder and dipped into the cooling waters with me.

It turned out that this man worked as a taxi driver and spoke broken English. As we treaded water in this five by ten foot pool filled with birch green stained water a thought occurred to me. Before coming to Germany I never would have imagined myself naked and dog paddling in a tiny pool while carrying on a conversation as casual as a Sunday afternoon with a nude stranger only a water splash away from me. I found this whole turn of events amusing.

Before leaving the sauna for the night I bought a bundle of birch branches from the bar tender with a mind set to follow the local way.

I had watched what the other men did with their branches and copied their system. First I filled a round green plastic tub with hot water from one of many faucets. After placing the dried branches into the water I put another empty tub on top to trap the steam and vapors. I let the branches soak for around five minutes before grabbing them and heading into the sauna.

I took a seat on my towel and let the branches rest in my lap. Once I could smell the vapors I stood up and started flogging myself.

After a few good swings I stopped to assess the things. My legs had light red scratches and, quite honestly, I wasn’t getting any enjoyment from this practice. I looked over at another man as he swung at himself. Perhaps I needed to put a little more force into it. I tried it again. When the wooden branches began to burn my hand I decided to walk away, and did so with my towel in one hand and the branches in the other.

I took one last shower to remove the bits of dried leaves and wood stuck on my skin, but also because my mind was slightly still preoccupied about sharing that tiny pool with that other naked man. I had no soap with me, but that didn’t prevent me from feeling cleaner afterwards.

As I walked back into my changing room and put my clothes back on I surveyed the scene around me. Many men gathered around the leather chairs and sat down for their dinner. With legs crossed or spread wide, they unwrapped packed sandwiches and poured drinks from thermoses. I suppose a lack of clothes makes napkins unnecessary. I gathered my belongings and headed for the door as the men carried on about the day’s news.

By the end of my experience I had grown comfortable enough to walk around freely exposed, but I kept my towel in hand incase of any sudden episodes of modesty.

Back out in the lobby I told the front desk attendant I had an interesting, but good time. He smiled and said he was glad to hear it. Before walking out to the street I said goodbye and promised to share the experience with my friends back home. For that he thanked me.

The Klama Sauna

1 comment:

Geoff said...

Hi there!

Nice story. I'm an Australian living in Estonia, and at first the sauna experience was also a little strange and nerve wracking for me.

Nowadays though, I think my initial reactions to sauna culture in Estonia say more about how nudity is perceived negatively in countries like America and Australia, rather than how strange the sauna experience was.

You obviously visited a public sauna, which I think might be a little bit different than what most Estonians experience and know, which is having a sauna at their own (or their friend's/relative's) 'summer cottage' in the countryside.

In case you haven't heard already, the idea behind hitting yourself with birch leaves is to improve circulation during the sauna.

Thanks for writing this. It was good to read someone else's experience of a Estonian sauna.