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Arts and Identity, Europe

Steam of Life: The Finnish Identity

by Anna Einola (ICD Program Coordinator)

One of the most common associations, when talking about Finnish people, is the sauna. It is a room, either inside an apartment or a separate building (preferably next to a lake) which is heated up to 100 Celsius degrees (or more, if you are a professional) by a stove covered with hot rocks. This stove is used to form steam inside the room by throwing water on the rocks, intensified by the scent of tar, birch leaves or as the newest trend allows, with scented oils. The birch leaves are gathered as a twig, which is also sometimes used to hit yourself: this makes the blood flow faster and makes your body cleanse itself even faster. It cleans your body both inside and out, as the heat makes your body to sweat and to reduce the impurities in your blood system. The health benefits are also studied, as it is proved to lower the blood pressure and to relax your muscles. It also plays an important part in the Finnish politics, as there are even stories how the Finnish politicians were able to regain the détente with Soviet Union after the 2nd World War by taking the Soviet deputies to sauna for hours and hours of discussions. For other nations sauna could mean an occasional visit to a spa, but for Finland it is an important and prevalent part of the daily lives, having built a sauna per every third person. It is a vital part of Finnish society and civilization.

For me sauna has been such a certain part of life that I didn’t even realize its importance until I moved abroad. The only thing I constantly miss from my daily life there is the sauna. Sauna for us is so much more than a hot room: it is a place for both socializing and spending time with your close ones, but also a place for meditation and cleansing both your body and soul. Especially for the Finnish men sauna is the place to bond. Even the Finnish women didn’t understand this until the release of a Finnish documentary called Miesten Vuoro, distributed in English as ‘Steam of Life’. The movie is a collection of stories from the Finnish men, shared only in the secluded serenity of sauna. These stories tell us a different tale of the Finnish men, who are traditionally seen as the quiet, strong and emotionless.

The documentary was submitted to represent Finland in the Oscars in 2010. Even though this movie represents the Finnish sauna culture and reveals the sincere connection to nature which Finnish people have by showing the men naked during the whole film, it hasn’t received a broad audience. However, to really connect to the Finnish mentality of straight forward humor, deep thinking and tranquility, this movie is the one to see.

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We are the Blogsphere Team of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. We are the interactive part of the web resources of ICD. We spread culture and mutual understanding among cultures through blogs.

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The London Art as Cultural Diplomacy ConferenceAugust 21st, 2013

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