...it is generally advisable to do as the Estonians do. I will certainly continue to follow that maxim come the first dark, cold, snowy day, when I take layering advice from the various tall blonde people who live on my street.
So when I woke up sick this morning, I decided to heed the advice of the Estonian general I met at the Ambassador's house last week, and fire up our sauna for the first time. [Note to people considering the Foreign Service as a career: it can sometimes be delightfully surprising.] We have a proper, full-sized sauna, with a little dressing area and separate shower. I stretched out in the 52 degree dry heat (what is that in Fahrenheit? a million? Five years abroad, and these things still baffle me) and relaxed. I am sad to report I am still sick, but it was a very pleasant experience, and I'm sure it will be a common response to the cold wet days we are about to endure for months on end.
Said general also confirmed what I had heard to be true: Estonian children of course frequent sauna as well. Boy entered for a mere moment out of curiosity, declared it too hot, and stood outside the glass door, crying because he thought I was going to get burned, despite his father's and my calm assurances. I love the passionate, illogical devotion of little children.
Estonians and Finns use the sauna to socialize, of course, with family/co-workers/total strangers beating each other's backs with various be-leaved branches. I skipped that part. The sauna was also a birthing room, for the obvious advantages of heat and hot, sterile water. It was a morgue, a respectful and cherished place to place your loved one. There are sauna competitions, with naked Scandinavians competing to see how hot they can stand a sauna before someone dies. Pretty hot, I hear. Some locals have figured out how to make portable saunas with barrels and suspenders--the perfect perch for cheering on a heated cross-country skiing race. The Estonians could best be termed "a-religious." They are nominally Lutheran, but only thanks to years of German influence. But native Estonian culture is not at all a-spiritual. There's a relationship with the forest, especially, and the sea, with boulders and animals. And there is undoubtedly a strong connection with the sauna. I may never share that same innate love, but I'm happy to participate it in it (without the foliage, thank you).