For a Finnish Soldier, Home Is His Sauna

L I P L J A N, Yugoslavia, Aug. 31, 2000 -- After a hard day’s peacekeeping in Kosovo’s sweltering summer heat, there is nothing a Finnish soldier likes better than to take off his clothes — and enjoy even more sweltering heat.

For Finns, the sauna is a way of life and an important part of any military camp, even in Kosovo, where summer temperatures top 100 degrees, which most northern Europeans find more than hot enough already.

The Finns have built some 20 saunas at their bases here for their 800 soldiers. Officers believe the sauna has an important social function and can help beat stress in tense environments such as postwar Kosovo.

“It’s a form of social communication in Finland,” Col. Matti Ponteva explained in baking sunshine outside a pinewood sauna, an incongruous feature among the gray prefabricated huts of a Finnish camp in Lipljan, central Kosovo.

The colonel, head of mental health research for the Finnish armed forces, says the relaxing environment of the sauna is ideal for debriefing after tense situations such as coming under fire or finding dead bodies.

“A team or squad goes in together, all of those who were involved in the critical situation, that’s the place where they discuss it.”

Cooling Off

Ideally, a stint in the sauna, where the average temperature is 175 degrees and can go much higher, should be followed by a dip in a pool of cool water. The Finns are used to foreigners being baffled by why anyone would want to go from one temperature extreme to another in this way.

“It’s pleasant to do so,” the colonel said simply.

Finns are also accustomed to sniggering among some nationalities at the fact they think nothing of going naked into the sauna, even with complete strangers.

“We don’t think it’s a big deal,” said Capt. Jarmo Hyrynkangas, the camp’s dentist, as he enjoyed a pre-sauna drink in the soldiers’ bar, a large building decked out as a giant log cabin, complete with fake dark wood across its walls.

As for any suggestion that the mixture of hot temperatures and nudity must lead to steamy goings-on between the sexes, the Finns are equally dismissive.

For one thing, Finnish saunas are generally not mixed. For another, “it’s so hot that if you have any fantasy you’re better to do it in some other place. It’s too hot for that,” assured Lt. Mikko Niiles, a Finnish press officer.

Sauna Etiquette

Inside the sauna, Niiles chats as a group of foreign journalists try to come to terms with the heat. Another Finnish officer on the pine benches ladles water onto a burning hot stove with obvious pleasure.

The soldiers speak in praise of the sauna and recall the sauna diplomacy reputedly practiced by one Finnish statesman, who turned up the heat in a sauna meeting with a Soviet president to make sure Helsinki’s point of view was understood.

They also offer a word of warning to the naked journalists planning to use the pool next to the sauna: The women’s toilets used by local interpreters have a view onto the pool. But this does not seem to worry the Finnish soldiers.

Niiles says going to the sauna is a traditional way of “getting washed and getting relaxed.” The high temperature and humidity opens the skin’s pores to let dirt escape and allows blood to flow more quickly around the body.

Finnish peacekeepers visit the sauna almost every day. Troops from other nations with a sauna culture such as Norway and Sweden have also visited the camp to take advantage of the facilities, but locals have been more cautious.

The soldiers have heard tell that a group of interpreters who went into the sauna with a reconnaissance patrol found it a bit too hot to handle.

The precise origins of saunas are something of a mystery, Niiles said. They were used centuries ago by both American Indians and Scandinavians, but the Finns are the undisputed modern kings of the sauna and they are proud of it.

“We can’t tell for sure if the Finns invented the sauna but we can say that the Finns are the nationality which uses the sauna most in the world,” Niiles declared.

Finland has around 2 million saunas for its population of 5 million. And when soldiers arrive to set up camp in a foreign location, constructing the sauna is a top priority.

“The first building, after the tents and so on, is usually the sauna,” Niiles said.