Sunday, June 29, 2014

Whisk-ers* — the first sauna accessory

The right tools make work easier. Apps give us so many options. Seasonings sharpen the taste of foods. Earrings and other jewelry sparkle up a persons image. Flowers add much to the landscaping around a home.

Its true for saunas too — accessories can improve the experience. I wrote about sauna scents in an April post, my first comment in an occasional series.

But the real first accessory is the time-honored birch-leaf whisk-er, known in Finland as a vihta or vasta (depending on which part of Finland you lived in). While that tradition never got passed on in my family, it’s important, for some people anyway

So, Ill be exploring the use of whisks in the next several posts — from mentions in historical documents to tips for use and how to make one (with a possible video!). I plan to try it out as well, though I’m apprehensive (to say the least)

* By now you know whisk-ers are not chin stubble. Nor do I mean whisk-ey or other alcoholic beverages.


Buy a copy of Some Like It Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories from the publisher North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota, or from local booksellers. 

For a personally inscribed copy, send $20 (which includes tax and shipping costs) to: Nikki Rajala, P.O. Box 372, Rockville, Minnesota 56369.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

FinnFest 2014 in Minneapolis

Coming soon: FinnFest 2014 is coming to Minneapolis, Minnesota. This year’s theme — “the 150th Anniversary of the Start of Modern Finnish Immigration to North America.” It’ll be at Hyatt Regency Hotel and Conference Center, from August 4-10.

Pre-conference days feature forums, a genealogy workshop and a guided tour to Cokato, Minnesota (the longest continuous Finnish-American community in North America) and special FinnFest seating at a Twins baseball game August 5.

August 7-10 feature lectures on a wide variety of topics, panel discussions, music from folk to classical (mingled with world, jazz, pop and rock). Shop at the tori, for Finnish arts, crafts, books and specialties.

Special art exhibits Minneapolis Institute of Arts, American Swedish Institute and Textile Center. Special expeditions — a river cruise, the tour of Cokato, the Twins game.

Tickets were priced to include families so children ages 16 and under are free, and Saturday and Sunday are Family Days. For adults, tickets are $35 for one day, $60 for any two days, $80 for all four days. Sounds like a great deal — so get your tickets early.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Celebrate your inner Viking* — this weekend

Visit the Midwest Viking Festival and Scandanavian Hjemkomst Festival at the Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N in Moorhead, Minnesota. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 27-28.

photo by Bill Vossler
This weekend celebrates Nordic cultures from ancient times to today. Visitors get two festivals for the price of one (adults $10, children under 12 free), with living history demonstrations outside and contemporary music, food and vendors inside.

I loved everything costumed dancers and musicians (in half a dozen locations!), displays, artworks, presentations and nifty things to buy, tasty Scandinavian delicacies — but get there early because the food could run out.

*Vikings came from many Norse cultures. At this festival, you could become Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian and/or Swedish (cultures listed alphabetically).


Thursday, June 19, 2014

And the winner is...

So ends my series on “war and peace in the sauna.” I liked learning how, during all kinds of wars” over the centuries, the saunas heat encourages a different kind of thinking and a way to release resentments.

My sister recalled a story about a heated political discussion: Our parents asked a Finnish friend how they determined a winner.”

He just said, “Oh I don’t know — we just see who can sit on the top bench the longest.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

It's Father's Day

Happy Father's Day!

My dad shared many things with us, one being the joy of sauna.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Saunas help U.N. peacekeepers

Following World War II, Finland reorganized its military forces. Since the 1950s, some from Finland serve as peacekeepers for the United Nations and NATO in many crisis areas around the world. And, in those hot spots, they bring something even hotter with them — saunas.

Mobile sauna used in Bosnia in 1977.
In fact, the Finnish troops build saunas saunas at every base they occupy — Sinai in 1956, Lebanon since 1982, Bosnia since 1996, Kosovo in 1999, Congo in 2006, Uganda, Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan — in over 30 operations world-wide.

They bring building materials with them, in case they’re not available locally. In addition they have developed other ways for their soldiers to sauna — a dismountable timber-sauna and a prefab or mobile sauna on a truck (with a water tank for cooling plunges afterwards), according to Secretary-General Urpo Rannansuu, Finnish Ministry of Defence, Information Section.

The idea has many plusses, he said. Saunas provide a taste of home, a chance to rejuvenate, a way to relax, strengthen esprit de corps. They know a round in a sauna helps let off steam. So first they organize their saunas and then figure out how to appease the fighting parties.

Sauna built for battalion commander in Lebanon.
Mikkel Aaland, the author of Sweat, wrote of taking saunas with Finnish troops who were serving in Cyprus. Though the temperature during the day was about 110 degrees, the outdoor air felt refreshing in comparison to the sauna’s intense heat. The company commander told Aaland that the “Finn’s ambition was to build a single sauna for both Turks and Greeks.” When the two warring factions could find a way to relax together and sort out a peaceable solution, the Finns would be free to return home.

There were 16 Finnish peacekeeping troops left in Cyprus in 2012 — most had been reassigned to more troubled areas of the globe. I hope they were able to use the sauna as a peaceable solution.  

Both photos are courtesy of Secretary-General Urpo Rannansuu.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Sauna Day" — a reason for a party

When I first researched for my book, Some Like it Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories,” I discovered the Finnish SaunaSociety had designated a Sauna Day on the second Saturday in June in Finland. It’s a date I hadn’t been aware of — we’d never celebrated it. 

I’m disappointed not to see listed on their current website. Maybe Sauna Day doesn’t happen there. 

But it seems like a great idea. Mark June 14 on your calendars and plan for some special löyly

How will we celebrate here? We won’t be — because we’ll be traveling.  and won’t be firing up the stove. Oh, well. Sauna scents, new towels or buckets, visitors —  all would make this day fun.

Do you have any special traditions for Sauna Day?


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sauna diplomacy

Anger cools in the sauna. Resentment fades away.”
~ from The Sauna Is by Bernhard Hillila

The truth of that couplet might have been the reason why Finland’s Urho Kekkonen (Prime Minister from 1950 to 1956 and President from 1956 to 1982) called the sauna a “great leveler,” which blurred the lines between VIPs and laborers, ministers and lumberjacks. For years, it was the ministers’ custom to gather at the prime ministers’s residence for a one-and-a half-hour weekly sauna, following their official business and formal deliberations. Kekkonen is said to have “left his guests to steam until a deal had been hammered out” (Torstila 2010). 

(Photo: From left, Soviet president Kliment Voroshilov, Communist Party chairman Nikita Khrushchev, and Finnish president Urho Kekkonen in 1960.
Kekkonen even held one-on-one sessions in the sauna with Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet leaders of the nation which had been Finland’s great enemy. 

The Economist magazine recognized the sauna as “the secret weapon of Finn diplomacy and business life.”

The tradition is called “sauna diplomacy,” with important decisions and agreements being made in the saunas. The secret is simple — heat thaws people’s differences. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

During WWII, “a good thing at a bad time”

During a visit to the U.S., an Austrian friend told us a how saunas came into her family.

The German army conscripted her father, then 19 years old, into military service in the early days of World War II and stationed his unit at Murmansk, Russia, north of the Arctic Circle on the Barents Sea.

He and other young soldiers were not used to the rough climate and fell sick. The nearby Finns befriended the young Austrians. Though they had no common language, the locals introduced them to saunas — health, warmth, cleanliness, rejuvenation, conviviality.

Because the Austrian troops were not allowed to leave their barracks every time they wanted to enjoy a sauna, they scrounged for materials — used petrol barrels, large stones and whatever wood they could  find — to build their own somewhat-makeshift saunas.

Saunas helped them survive the war and the bitter cold of Murmansk. They helped the young conscripts stay strong and healthy. In his words, “saunas were a very good thing during a very bad time.”

Has the sauna been the same for you — a good thing during a bad time?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sauna creates the problem, the solution and the reward

During the Winter War of 1939-40, a story is told about Finnish troops near the front lines (in the province of eastern Karelia), who believed that Russian troops were still reasonably distant. So a group of Finns took a long turn in a field sauna. While these men were relaxing and steaming up, Soviet troops overran the Finnish positions and the front line of battle changed. Though the soldiers didn’t realize it, the rest of their units had (wisely and hastily) retreated.

When they came outside to cool off, they discovered they had been left behind. The dugout in which they’d left their equipment had been destroyed — they were without weapons or equipment. And worse, their clothing was gone.

Then they heard the unmistakeable sound of Soviet tanks — and realized they were behind the Soviet front line. They dashed back into the sauna for a last dose of löyly and creative problem-solving.

Late that night, they sneaked out of the sauna in small groups and fled into the forest. For two days they struggled through peat bogs and thickets until they located another Finnish line — and their unit.

Their commanding officer promptly ordered a reward for the exhausted and very scratched soldiers — off to the sauna for another dose of its revitalizing properties. What got them “in trouble” helped them get out of of it and helped them recover from the ordeal as well.

(This story came from Businessman’s Guide to the Finnish Sauna, written by Arto and Terho Ovaska Paasilinna.)

Stories like this and more in Some Like It Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories, a book that delights in the breadth of information and stories about saunas. Buy a copy of Some Like It Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories from the publisher, North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota, Inc., or from local booksellers. 
For a signed copy, send $20 (which includes tax and shipping costs) to: Nikki Rajala, P.O. Box 372, Rockville, Minnesota 56369.