Big floppy breasts hanging in your face. The flicker of the light of the fire and the chill of lake water on your body and the suspicion a snail might be hanging off your dick. But you just don’t care because the heat has sapped all your ability to think critically. At this point, you don’t think at all, only breathe. You might as well be a snail or a tree. And trees are all you smell; the sweet aroma of hot wood and hot leaves and then the pain of the steam on your ears, eyelids, lungs, and fingernails. The undulating blasts of the hot air come on strong. Pain, pleasure, curiosity, birch water. These are all things that remind me of the sauna.
In Estonia, the sauna is a cultural institution that teeters on the tight rope of logic and insanity. In winter, saunas make perfect sense. Like some sort of primitive math, the coldest of cold exteriors plus the hottest of hot interiors equals something resembling normal body temperature. In summer, though, saunas make no sense at all. No normal person would even consider a sauna in the summertime. He or she would just go to the beach. Try selling sauna equipment in Rio de Janeiro, see how successful you are. If it’s already hot outside, why get even hotter?
So if summertime saunas make no sense, then why do the supposedly rational Estonians relish them so?
I posed this question to my friend Jüri, but he couldn’t come up with a reasonable answer, even though he’s a highly-regarded professor. His eyes bulged when I asked him one June evening, “Why do Estonians take saunas in the summertime?”
In response, total silence. Jüri was truly perplexed. He stared at his feet like he usually does when asked for his wisdom, searching the floorboards for answers. At one point, I was afraid his brain would just malfunction and his eyes would sort of fall out of the sockets. Jüri thought and thought and did shots of handsa and thought some more. In the end, all my Estonian host could say was that summer is the best time to sauna, it is THE time to sauna, and that’s why people sauna in summer. And I have to agree with him, summer it is the best time to sauna.
It seems that sometimes the things that make no sense make the most sense of all.
That was after my family and Jüri’s family had congregated in his smoke sauna in the sea-like fields of Setomaa. At first, I thought it was going to be a segregated sauna. Most saunas I’ve been in Estonia have been segregated, so that women can discuss knitting and men can discuss car repair during their respective time allotments. So when Jüri’s wife Janika and children and my wife and our children arrived after Jüri and I had been sweating and steaming for a good hour, I started to put my clothes back on. Jüri was swimming in a nearby lake and waved to the ladies as they entered the sauna. But when he got out, rather than getting dressed too, Jüri brazenly reentered the sauna, wearing nothing except a stray leaf or snail.
“Hey, you can’t go in there, my wife is naked in there!” I thought in protest. But the fact that my wife was in there didn’t seem to bother Jüri at all. Like some kind of ancient man, Jüri thought that grunting and sweating next to some other guy’s wife in a dark hot room was appropriate. At first, I was confounded, but I quickly decided that two could play at the sauna game.
“If that guy gets to sauna with my wife,” I told myself, quickly dropping my trousers, “then I get to sauna with his!”
God, naked people are SO boring. With our clothes on, we all look rather intriguing, so it’s such a disappointment to see that two other naked adults look basically the same as everyone else. This is a luxury that only I and those who have enjoyed a mixed sauna know because in the US, you usually don’t get naked with your hosts after you eat dinner. Usually you sit around and complain about things with your clothes on. Then you shake hands or, if you’ve had a drink or two, hug and go home and watch TV.
Naked men look the most ridiculous. What do women see in us? We look like hairless apes carrying around a banana in front. Women are better but not much. Attractive when clothed, the child-rearing nature of the woman’s body is most apparent in the nude. If men are hairless apes, then women are dainty cows. Their vast, udder-like breasts, alluring when restrained by colorful bikinis and braziers, are mostly unexciting when they are floating on the surface of a snail and leach-infested pond in the south of Estonia. In that context, nudity is all part of the scenery.
I thought these and other deep thoughts in the sooty smoke sauna where the smoke off the fire has rendered everything in its grasp black as space. I also pondered the carcinogenic properties of the smoke sauna, but one cannot openly criticize such a sacred place as being unhealthy, because the sauna an institution with near religious significance in Estonia. One must not question its hidden power. One must simply obey and follow its unspoken rules.
In the smoke sauna that night, small children tossed ladles of water on the hot stones, dangerously close to the source of the heat. A few times I implored the youth to stay away from the treacherous red rocks, but was silenced by my naked guests who scoffed at my American paranoia. “Neeme is a good boy, a tubli poiss. He knows exactly what he’s doing,” said Janika of her ladle-happy, three-year-old son. “He takes a sauna every day, you know.”
Later, fully clothed, we sat around an old wooden table, drinking a strangely sweet concoction called “birch juice.” I guzzled mine from an old ceramic cup that looked as if it had only been washed one time in 1968. The clear, mild “juice” was refreshing, but did not stay the questions gurgling around in my steam-shocked, foggy mind. “But if Estonians feel so comfortable getting naked in front of one another,” I asked Jüri, “then why do they even wear clothes at all?”
This time Jüri sort of snorted and rolled his eyes. Then, with a small smile on his lips he said, “Justin, maybe you should just shut up and drink your birch juice.”
I tilted the cup back and drank deep.