A sweaty solution to the Baltic winter blues

  • 2009-09-17
  • By Philip Birzulis

CLEAN FUN: The sauna maintains its traditional role in modern life.

RIGA - By all accounts, the economic troubles threaten to make the next few months even colder than usual in this part of the world. Fortunately, there is one fiery local tradition that is sure to ease the chill, physical and spiritual.

From the Romans to the Japanese, many cultures have kept clean using steam baths. But nowhere is this practice as deeply rooted as in northeastern Europe, where the climate has traditionally made other forms of ablution inconvenient. And although Baltic plumbing has recovered from Soviet decrepitude and hot water is mostly available on demand, the habit of going to the pirtis in Lithuania, pirts in Latvia or saun in Estonia remains strong.

It should be said from the outset that a Baltic sauna is not the same as one of the electric contraptions that microwave-weary health nuts at fitness centers the world over. For starters, a proper sauna should be wood fired, to produce a subtle heat and aroma, with hot rocks that give off steam when water is thrown on them. When done right, the result is deeply cleansing for the body and relaxing for the mind.

There are purists who say that the best saunas are deep in the countryside by a lake, untouched by humans since the last Ice Age. I have enjoyed wonderful rural saunas, and concur that there is nothing in the world that beats rolling around in virgin snowdrifts to cool down. But a few years ago, friends introduced me to sauna-going in Riga, and these weekly visits have become a vital ritual in my Latvian life, a way of literally stripping away stress and tension. The venue is in the cellar of an unassuming prewar apartment block on the outskirts of central Riga. The owner, Valdis, is a contemporary renaissance man, a school principal, driving instructor, Reki masseur and sauna master, all rolled into one. He does the latter for the love, not the money, and a stream of people, from neighborhood old ladies to businessmen, Latvians, Russians and Roma, gather to sweat it all out.

The issue of whether men and women bathe together is resolved differently in every sauna, but at Valdis's, everyone pitches in together. There is no denying that the business is charged with a degree of sexuality. But like nude sunbathers who do not feel the need to have an orgy upon sighting exposed flesh, everyone respects each other. And no matter how beautiful the bodies may be, people who visit saunas regularly are generally a pleasure to be around. In general, Latvians are not a sunny lot, to put it mildly, with international surveys routinely ranking them as one of the world's unhappiest nations. For many, the right to free speech is interpreted as a license to moan endlessly about health problems; do not attempt to bring rationality into someone's lament about how their ingrown toenails were caused by an unexpected draft of wind, if you know what's good for you.

I've often thought this national hypochondria is caused by a lack of control, both collectively due to centuries of foreign rule, and individually as people are swept along by remorseless change in every aspect of life. Through the very act of doing something constructive, sauna people are triumphant over this defeatism. At the very least, they have some very creative remedies. Salt, honey and even coffee grounds are smeared onto the flesh to stimulate greater sweating and give the skin a tonic. Herbal teas are imbibed. Then there are the beatings. Not in a sadomasochistic way, but using bunches of birch, oak or even nettles or hemp presoaked in warm water to vigorously massage the pores, from head to toe.

In earlier times, saunas were the focal point of every rural community. Conceiving children was a time-honored aspect of Saturday night bathing, and nine months later the babies were also delivered in the sauna as it was the most hygienic place around. At the other end of life's journey, bodies were laid out in them prior to burial.

In the wild early capitalism of the1990's, saunas assumed the status of the smoke-filled room, with mobsters, businessmen and politicians (often indistinguishable) forging alliances in a haze of vodka, bimbos and steam. Today, many people are rediscovering the sauna as a wholesome and inexpensive way of unwinding. And it is my contention that Latvia as a whole should harness the positive energy of the sauna to find a way out of the morass in which it finds itself.

In the United States, so-called "town hall meetings" have emerged lately as a way of bringing the rulers and the ruled together. Latvia needs to institute a similar practice, but one that is in tune with the local way of life and traditions. Imagine delegations of government ministers visiting communities around the country for a sauna. By removing clothing, all badges of rank and wealth would be removed and people could talk in a relaxed, egalitarian atmosphere.

The concept could easily be extended to other groups that don't always see eye to eye, such as bosses and their workers. Saunas are a tradition in both Latvian and Russian culture, and members of the respective communities could let their leafy switches do the talking instead of their tongues, the cause of so much rancor. The gay community and its religious critics could expose and overcome their differences (without any hanky-panky, of course.)

Naturally, some things should remain state secrets and there is probably no need to see the prime minister naked. But symbolically, the sauna could be the perfect way for the nation to let it all
hang out.