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In the Catbird Seat/Joe Kirkish

It’s all about saunas

January 12, 2012
The Daily Mining Gazette

What do men talk about as they sweat away in a sauna? According to a new Finnish movie: women, of course, but also witnessing childbirth, fatherhood, alcoholism, various other addictions, doing time in the military or in prison, marriage and family, even bonding with an orphaned bear, Santa Claus, death, love and grief. And more!

Next, what do you know about saunas? This movie could unforgettably educate you.

For a start, you are invited to take off all your clothes and go into a little room heated up to 200 degrees, where you will sit in the buff, with others perhaps, sweating away. Then you'll go out and roll in the snow or cool down in a lake. It's crazy, healthy, refreshing.

In short, it's a sauna. It might be considered an odd practice to a novice, but is actually an everyday custom elsewhere.

Saunas have existed in many cultures; the Russians have their banya, the Native Americans their sweat lodge, the Turks their hamam and the Japanese their onsen. But in Finland, it's a special custom that goes back thousands of years.

There are 2 million saunas in Finland - in summer cottages, private homes, commercial bath houses, and at public swimming pools - almost as many saunas as Americans have cars.

We are not often treated to the pleasure of soaking up the heat, getting beaten with branches (a vihta) and rubbed down by a traditional washing-lady, then, after a cool shower or romp in the snow, earning a treat of mild beer and Finnish sausage (makkara).

Three American businessmen visiting Finland decided they should experience a sauna at their hotel. A little shy, they kept their underwear on. In the middle of a good steaming, the door opened and a large Finnish lady entered the room. She simply pointed at one of the horrified men and said bluntly, "You first, underpants off!" The rest was something they were never to forget.

A vicarious way to experience a sauna would be to head for the Calumet Theatre, where the annual Club Finndigo opens Finlandia University's week of mid-winter celebration - Heikinpaiva - to see a movie that has rocked the country ever since it came out a couple of years ago.

"Steam of Life" is not only a unique eye-popper, it's also a good introduction to life in the Nordic north.

To make the film, two Finnish filmmakers explored a variety of saunas - from public bath houses to, no kidding, phone booths and even truck cabs - while sweaty men, both physically and emotionally naked, talk openly about their experiences, their ambitions, their failings, their darkest secrets and biggest fears - often with a few drinks to keep the conversations flowing. They share stories about family relationships as they reveal a unique side of their culture as well as an insight into the universal male psyche.

As one man admits, "Sometimes it's good to talk about things with others. I don't like to be alone." His sauna friend responds, "Yeah, loneliness is the worst thing." And, unabashedly, they continue.

As a bonus, the filmmakers intersperse beautiful shots of the countryside, revealing the broad variety and charm of Finland's forests, lakes and rolling hills - worth the price of admission alone.

"Steam of Life" was the winning selection at the 2010 Silverdocs Film Festival and even made a hit on PBS.

Thanks to the support of the Copper Harbor Improvement Association (CHIA), it will be shown at the Calumet Theatre on Friday the 20th at 7:15 p.m., with an optional Finnish buffet from the Kangas Caf in Hancock preceding it at 6 p.m. Cost for buffet and film is $18. The film alone is $5. A call should be made to the theatre at least a day in advance for buffet seating: 337-2610.

It's a combined experience not to be missed.

Note: Check what's going on regularly at both Houghton and Calumet libraries; watch for details on the Events page of the Gazette.



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