Kathy West Explains How to Sauna the Finnish Way

If you can't stand the heat -- get in the kitchen. On Thursday, June 13, at 6 p.m. at the Lounge at Crescent Ballroom, Chow Bella writers are warming up for summer with "Fried," an evening of true stories. Admission is free; food and drink will be available for sale.

Today: Kathy Tomas West explains how to sauna the Finnish way.

Ana caught me off guard. In the hall, at a church I was visiting for the first time with my brand-new husband. Ana had heard that he once lived in Finland. And she snagged us after the service to invite us to sauna that weekend.

You need to know, we are authentic, she said. We sauna the Finnish way.

My husband smiled and nodded. He understood. My face must have shown that I did not, because she moved in close and spoke softly. So softly that no other churchgoers in the hall could hear. You know -- in the nude. She stepped back and announced with a vast smile and lovely accent: We are family, no?

I tried to smile like it was the most normal thing I'd heard that afternoon.

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As a child, I covered up: I wore shorts a size too big, I never changed into PJs in my friends' presence at slumber parties, and I closed my eyes nearly all five minutes of dressing for middle-school gym. Even in language, Little Kathy was prim. I had hated the word body. It seemed to disrobe everyone in a room. Whenever I got sick and my mother asked where my body hurt, I shuddered and gave vague answers.


For three days, I noticed myself -- in the shower, after exercise, every time I passed a mirror. I repainted chipped polish on my toenails. I spread bronzer over freckles on my winter calves. All that nervous week, I pictured myself in a muggy wooden gazebo, conversing with crowds of strangers, wearing nothing but my body, as if I were comfortable in it.

My husband had told me that men and women took turns in the sauna. Unless they're family, he had said, in which case, they all just go in together. We were family, no?


Friday night. My husband couldn't wait to eat makkara, asked me to please, stop vacuuming and organizing drawers and alphabetizing our bookshelves, and just put on my shoes. On our way out, I stuck a hopeful swimsuit in my purse.

Ana read my mind when we arrived: You did not bring a swimsuit, I hope? Someone tried that once. I said, Of course not.

Down carpeted stairs to the basement, Ana showed me towels stacked in the bathroom. Down the hall, Ana and two other women -- all decades older than me -- shed shirts and unzipped jeans without ceremony. I took off my shoes.

After they hurried to the sauna, I stripped, wrapped a towel tight, and followed. The sauna was paneled in dark wood, veiled in steam, with two wide levels to sit on. I climbed to the top, near the low ceiling. After five minutes of waiting, I concluded that we were not-family enough that the girls had the sauna to themselves.

I will admit that I noticed bodies that the women themselves seemed unconcerned about, glancing at rolls and lines they didn't cover or turn away from me. I had planned to suck in my stomach the entire time. But when they started talking, I forgot to. These women scooped me up -- this nervous, inhibited, newlywed -- and fitted me into their conversation of art, teaching, parenting, and creativity. I unwrapped my towel. We sat together in the thick air, uncovering our lives, as if all normal people spent their Friday evenings this way -- sitting nude together in a wood-paneled room, discussing struggles and good books, while ladles of water sizzled on steaming rocks.


After the men's turn, 11 of us sat (clothed) around a table and ate more food than possible: rye potato bread with homemade mustard, roasted eggplant, makkara, cardamom cake. Then we sang a round of the song, "I'm an Old Cowhand" -- which is not Finnish, but is Ana's family tradition.

Ana's sons leapt in a barefoot dance so lively the room shook. Two friends swayed on the piano bench. Another laughed, open-mouthed, from a chair. My husband tapped his toe and leaned in to read the lyrics. Clean-skinned and happy, I wished I could invite the whole world to sauna -- to sit and sweat and tell the truth, to let down our guard, to become family enough to sing together, "I'm an Old Cowhand," without any of us worrying about the tune.

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Kathy West