Sex, Drugs, and Public Health

November 4, 2013

The Sauna

Filed under: Uncategorized — cbmosher @ 6:00 am

Flashback: Tiina in 2006 as we drove thru a Seattle snowstorm:

T: Have you ever had a sauna?

me: Yep

T: What temperature?

me: I don’t recall – maybe 120 degrees

T: Oh, that’s nothing! Why, in Estonia, we – – –

So now I’m in Estonia. The itinerary for the Reunion reads:

16:00 hours  Women’s Sauna

17:00  Men’s Sauna

18:00  Dinner

While the women stroll, draped only in towels, toward the little raw wood shack with its smoking chimney, located at the edge of the woods, the men cling to their beer bottles, talking. They speak briefly, distractedly, in either slow and comfortable Estonian or in bravely assembled English words, attempting to construct them in some coherent order.

Five o’clock comes while a hulking 250-pound bald guy with tattooed arms uses these words on me:

“Rein Ilja”  (pointing to his name tag), “drive” (holding an imaginary steering wheel), “truck” (his voice much deeper).

I nod, smile, give thumbs up, and say “good, good.”

A long quiet pause.

“Men’s sauna?” I pose as a question by giving the second word a higher frequency and pointing toward his wristwatch.

“SAUNA!” he breaks into a broad smile and stands more erect.

Then he slumps, shakes his head, and nods toward the smoking shed. “Women,” he shrugs.


At 5:45 we are told the sauna is ours. The last woman strolls, pink, barefoot, and glistening, over the grass toward her room. My Estonian giant darts, like some cross-country runner, toward the sauna shack. I strip and follow him in. It’s already very hot. I look for a thermometer on the wall, but that is, apparently, an unnecessary luxury here.

In the near darkness, he has found the water scoop, and begun washing down the benches with giant swings of his arm, releasing violent splashes. He scoops up a new ladleful even before the previous tidal wave has degenerated into dripping.

He turns to look at me as I observe his ritual. Sweat pours from his bald head like a waterfall in front of his eyes. A big smile illuminates the dark, hot space.

“SAUNA!” he repeats.

When the benches are washed, he scrambles onto the top bench, and folds his legs under him, Buddha-like, still clinging to the scoop.

I usually begin on the second step, then, after some acclimation, move up to the hotter top bench. But, as other men come in, including a Swede and an Englishman still in his underwear, they all go directly to the top bench. I take a shallow breath (so as not to singe my lungs) and move up.

Sweat pours from me, cleansing (the Estonians believe) illness from my body that U.S. Alternative Health freaks visualize as “toxins.” If I want, there are birch branches in a bucket with which to thrash myself, improving circulation. I close my eyes and slow down, meditate, for as long as my obsessive pattern will allow. Fifteen seconds or so.

The Estonian Buddha moves within the scalding shadows. He scoops water from a bucket bubbling adjacent to the wood stove, and tosses it onto the rocks that surround the chimney. A loud and angry hiss sizzles water into instant steam.

I know what’s coming.

The steam will immediately raise the heat index by 10 to 20 degrees, taking your breath away, making your skin feel seared. If I can grip the bench tightly, breathe very shallowly, and get thru the next four or five minutes, the sauna will drop back to its dry heat situation. Eventually, in my experience, someone will splash more water onto the rocks and repeat the surge of steam, but until then –

Buddha throws another scoopful on. Sizzle. Bubble. Gasp.


He beams his big smile at me. This time he doesn’t need to say The Word.

Splash. Hiss.

“I need a snowbank,” I say to the Swede and the Englishman on the bench beside me.

We all dart for the door, trying to look like we’re not darting.

On the side of the sauna shed, a bucket is suspended on a platform seven feet up. A garden hose runs constantly, filling it. A handle is attached. I stand under it, take a deep breath, and pull.

Ice water envelops my red and sweating skin. I mutter something incoherent, meant to sound masculine. You know, like a fart.

Some of the Estonians are outside now, opening beer bottles and re-hydrating. They drape themselves with towels, and nod at us approvingly.


Inside again, Buddha is still perched within the corona of the fire, feeding water onto the stove. His hulking nakedness glitters with sweat. He beams with pure joy.

I have found the thermometer.

The Sauna II

Next day is Saturday. The Estonian giant sits alone at a picnic table, flipping thru photo albums, as do two small clumps of people at other benches.

No other activities occurring, I sit and grab an album, curious to see if I can match photos of two and three year-old faces photographed at the beginning of WW II with those of the aging adults around me.

After a few minutes, he pushes his album across the table, beneath my eyes.

“Me,” he points at a small boy in a snapshot, wearing his Sunday best.

“Who?” I ask about the little girl at his side.

“Tia,” he identifies the now smiling blonde woman, mother of two 30ish blonde girls circulating with her at the reunion.

“Who your father?” I ask.

He flipped to another page. Pointed. “Ivar.”

“One of the twins?” I hoped he’d know, by now, the English word for the identical brothers, but just in case, I hold up two fingers. I won’t use the English word “Siberia,” although it locates them geographically under the Soviet domination of the 1940’s.

He nods. His smile is more subdued than I’d seen yesterday. I return to my photo album, leaving him to his.

I hear a sniff. I look up.

Within his meaty face – which Hollywood could use for a Russian hit man – a tear glistens in his right eye.

He blinks, pushes back on his bench, and walks away from the books. I hear one more sniff as his barefooted body heads toward the beer.


Do I talk to him more? Do I give him space?


A trio of towel-wrapped, red-skinned women emerges from the smoking shed, and one of them points to me, indicating ‘men’s turn.’

I chase after the crying Buddha. “Rein,” I ask, “sauna?”

“SAUNA!” he erupts. He wheels, and I scamper after him.

The Sauna III

In a modern spa hotel outside Võvu, we go to the sauna room. It’s actually a large solarium with five indoor swimming pools, each a different temperature (labeled in centigrade) two saunas, and a steam room.

The saunas have glass doors for light, are heated with electric, thermostat-controlled heaters, and are also labeled with their temperatures.

First sauna, 70 degrees. It’s hot, instantly sweat-inducing, but just right for me. Splash. Sizzle. Gasp. Water is released onto the rocks automatically, from a gleaming stainless steel pipe.

The Steam room sweats us up, too, but at a much lower temp (50 centigrade; 122 Fahrenheit). It recognizes that moist heat is harder to tolerate.

Warm pool is 42 C, equal to 108 F. OK for a while, but not refreshing. There’s no bucket of cold water here to upend on your head.

I decide to do the hotter sauna, then the cooler pool.  Second sauna is 90 degrees. I open the door, and get a blast in the face. Breathing is painfully hot down in the lungs. I can only do the lower bench. And only for three or four minutes. I touch the top of my head with my hand; my hair is so hot it almost burns my palm. My Estonian acquaintance remains in there after I leave for the pool, which is a welcome balm to my capillary-dilated skin.  Before he joins me, I calculate the Fahrenheit equivalent in sauna # 2.

194 degrees.

He wades into the pool. I think I hear him sizzle as he submerges.

“What is the hottest sauna you ever used?” I am curious.

“Vhen I am a student,” he smiles at recalled youthful abandon, “it is 130 degrees.”


“Yes, of course.”

As my brain calculates to Fahrenheit, my eyes widen in obvious disbelief.

“I stay, vone minute, only” he shrugs apologetically.”


Blog at

%d bloggers like this: