THERE CAME A POINT during this year’s European Sauna Marathon, which was held in and around Otepää and had about 900 participants, that I had to turn to my teammate Allan and ask him an uncomfortable question.
We were standing outside the maasaun overlooking a frozen pond that, fortunately, did not have a welcoming ice hole awaiting one of our team members. I was the first team member to go into the ice hole at the Kekkonen Sauna at the start of the day in Kääriku. We weren’t permitted entry into the sauna until one of us went in. Down I went, down the ladder, thrusting myself into the chill water until it covered my shoulders. I came out blinking and cursing, feeling like I had just been baptized. But baptized by what I wondered? Tradition? Stupidity?
At the maasaun, we stood about with the other teams. Four grown men from Germany dressed in matching lederhosen and sauna hats. We saw their truck — which had a German flag painted on the side — at most of the saunas. There was a Mexican team, too, with sombreros, and a Danish team with Viking helmets and the red and white Danish flag, supposedly gifted to their countrymen during a siege of Tallinn in the 13th century. Yet it was the Estonian teams that were by far, the most varied and bizarre.
Some came in Spider-Man pajamas, others wore what looked to be their grandmothers’ bath robes. One team wore matching silver helmets, another wore fluorescent wigs and little else. There was a man in a full-body pig costume. I think I saw a man dressed up like a sheep at the indiaanlastesaun — a sauna located in a giant tee pee in the hills outside Otepää — but I am not sure. It was really smoky in there. There were the female teams dressed in bikinis with glittery tassels, like exotic dancers from space. They gathered around a karaoke machine at one point to sing along to the Estonian classic, “Viska Leili.”
Viska leili! Küll on mõnus, soe, ja hea! Viska leili! Viska leili!
This song was originally called “In the Navy,” and recorded by The Village People, a (mostly) gay disco group in 1978. Yet somehow the Estonians took a song about gay sailors and turned it into an anthem for tossing water onto the hot stones of the sauna. That’s not all they tossed on the rocks. At one sauna, marathon participants apparently ran out of water. Someone had peed on the rocks instead. We called this one the pissisaun.
Outside, dudes named Juss and and Janar were skating around on a frozen tiik in nothing but their swim suits and drinking beer. “Hey, Juss, would you throw me another can?”
That’s why I had to ask my uncomfortable question at the maasaun.
“Allan,” I said. “Did you ever think that the Estonians are a little, you know …” I put a finger to my temple and twisted it back and forth.
“What?” he asked. Allan’s Estonian himself, tall, big, and blonde with decades of sauna experience, especially at his country house’s sauna, which he insists is the very best.
“You know, when a man marries his sister and they have a kid. What do you call it?”
“What? Hmm. I don’t think we have a word for that in Estonian,” Allan replied.
“Oh well,” I pushed my freezing hands deeper into my wet pockets and thought of another way to present my question. “Have you ever thought that you Estonians are a bit crazy?”
Allan just laughed. “Not so much up in North Estonia,” he said. “But down here in South Estonia,” he cast an eye at some of the other, strangely dressed sauna goers and sighed. “The people down here are a little cuckoo, yeah.”