Finding Home in a Sauna's Unbearable Heat

I was surrounded by two dozen other people in the nude and one man in a kilt.

Welcome to Issue 6 of Place. Today we’re stepping into a space that connects people across continents: the sauna. Though sitting inside a room of unbearably hot steam then jumping in cold water may seem masochistic to some, it’s a beloved tradition that has lasted thousands of years in Scandinavia. Karis traces this tradition from the northern lakes of her native Minnesota to the winter bathing clubs in Denmark, reflecting on how an unusual sauna ritual - complete with a choreographed dance by a man in a kilt - helped her find a bit of home away from home.

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A story of two saunas

On a cold November night in Aarhus, Denmark, I found myself sitting on the bottom bench of a sauna surrounded by two dozen other people in the nude and one man in a kilt.

Jomsborg, or “the Viking Club” as it is colloquially called, is a members-only winter sea bathing club perched at the edge of Aarhus next to a hilly forest with wild garlic and gurgling creeks that lead to the sea. Its tall wooden walls intersect a long beach along the bay that lines the city’s east side, jutting 15 meters into the water. The imposing structure is private and mysterious. I biked past it for months, knowing just a few tantalizing details: Inside there were saunas, a deck from which to jump into the sea, and - for hygiene purposes they say - everyone must bathe naked. A very Danish experience, local classmates assured me.

A friend of mine was near fanatical about her membership, waxing poetic about the release of the heat and the healing shock of the subsequent plunge into the frigid water. “It’s addicting,” she breathed.

I knew what she meant to some extent, given the traces of Scandinavian culture in my native Minnesota. The Midwest was a destination for the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and Finns who immigrated to America at the turn of the 20th century, drawn by cheap farmland and the familiar comforts of the cold landscape dotted with freshwater coastline. They packed their traditions along for the move -- according to some, the Finns built their home saunas before they built their houses.

Growing up, my family spent one week per year “up North”—as we called anywhere above Minneapolis—at a Lutheran retreat center nestled next to a chain of lakes. There was a small stone sauna with a jaunty slanted tin roof next to the beach, with space for about ten people – those above six feet had to hunch to enter the door. (It was nicknamed the “Ho-Sauna” - a pun of “hosanna,” an exclamation of praise to God.) At breakfast we’d confer with whichever new friends we made that week: Is tonight a sauna night? If so, we’d start the fire in the afternoon, feeding the glowing embers with fresh wood, building layers of heat for hours so that when the sun set, the building was radiating from top to bottom.

The challenge was always to see how long you could survive on the top bench, where the heat pooled so thickly it was hard to tell what were droplets of sweat or steam on your skin. One kid – always a teenage boy – would hurl a bucket full of water at the iron stove pipe and blisteringly hot stones above the fire, releasing a sizzling cloud of steam that billowed to the top of the room. “Hands up!” someone would yell, and we’d touch the low ceiling above as the invisible heat blanketed and burned our skin, releasing another wave of perspiration reflecting the yellow glow of the room. Most broke at this point, shimmying off the wooden benches onto the sandy floor, pushing open the door and launching off the end of the nearby dock into the cold, dark lake. I remember the bracing relief, breaking the water’s smooth surface and floating on my back, thousands of stars bright above me. I’d return to our cabin to a deep dreamless sleep.

I’m sure it was a bit of subconscious homesickness that brought me to Jomsborg that night. 

The vast majority of American citizens have ancestral roots elsewhere, but many families have been in the US for enough generations that it’s difficult to have a true connection with a homeland beyond ethnicity. My paternal grandmother was born in the US and spoke halting Norwegian, but raised her kids in a time when assimilation was encouraged. They grew up monolingual, as did I. The trips up north to sauna-and-lake land were one of the hodge-podge ways my family held onto our Scandinavian traditions, along with the Norwegian wool sweater at the back of my closet and cardamom krumkakke at Christmas. I moved to Aarhus for my masters at age 26, as part of a goal to live abroad for an extended period of time in my twenties. Before arriving, I wondered if these strings of tradition would make me feel better woven into a life in Scandinavia. 

I quickly realized I’m just very American. With its socialized healthcare, coalition government, lengthy bike lanes, and high levels of trust, Denmark felt as foreign to me as any other country. However, with my blonde hair and blue eyes, there was the contradictory layer of looking like I belonged. In other places I’d lived abroad – India and Morocco – my foreignness clear to locals and myself, creating non-verbal expectations for my beginner language skills and cultural queries. I had an excuse for friendly curiosity, a segue to deeper connections and daily adventures. In Aarhus, I’d get a surprised look when I responded to Danish with English, and always felt I should apologize for the confusion. I felt I should somehow grasp the language better, be able to make more friends, or have some sense of home away from home. What would my great-grandparents think seeing me fumble with the guttural pronunciation of ø? Would they be proud I tried to return to their roots or surprised at how far their journey had sent their descendants from our home?

A few months in and these unexpected questions about identity, culture and home were layering, anxious heat was rising with no apparent release. When a friend invited me along to an evening session at Jomsburg, I jumped at the chance, ready to sweat out my worries and leave them in the salty sea.

Just as in my youth, we waited until the night fell, meeting by the bike rack as the sun took its early evening dip below the horizon. The first entrance led to a private beach, but we followed a boardwalk around the perimeter to a second door that started at the water’s edge. A man in a winter jacket – it was November in Denmark after all, no more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 Celsius) outside – greeted us and gave us a brief rundown of the rules. No mobile phones or swimsuits allowed; take a dip in the sea before you go in the sauna. 

The building was U-shaped, with the short end open up to the bay, the windy weather sending rolling waves crashing directly into the sides of the pool. I caught a few droplets on arm and shivered, my usually sweater-clad skin breaking out in shocked goosebumps. I hustled into the corner sauna as soon as possible.

We were packed in the small room, not more than 4 meters wide, my already sweating thighs gingerly brushing my neighbor’s. I could feel the familiar dry heat of the burning stove, the bright smell of freshly cut wood. I tried to make eye contact and quiet small talk with my friend, not overtly glancing at the dangling, wrinkling, hairy, folded, fleshy bits usually hidden, now casually revealed.

The man in the kilt busied himself setting up a small set of speakers, dabbing a damp towel with oils. He said something to me in Danish, which I smiled and pretended to understand but clearly didn’t as he waited for the responding action that I didn’t make. My benchmate whispered that he wanted me to move up a row so I wouldn’t be in the way. “He takes up a lot of space,” I was warned. The aufgus - a sauna ritual that distributes steam and essential oils throughout the room (a more professional version of what the teenage boys would do in the Ho-Sauna) - was set to begin. 

The man in the kilt hit play on his iPhone and the chattering in the room quieted. The sound of bagpipes burst forth, while a booming voice recited something about Scottish myths and the power of the Highlands, which gave way to a thumping techno track and then to Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder”. He poured a ladle of water onto the stove and the steam clouded the room, the temperature steadily rising. He whipped the oil-scented towels overhead, filling the air with a bracing eucalyptus that entered my nose, traveled down my throat and opened my lungs, each bronchiole at alert. He proceeded with a carefully choreographed routine - the towels twirling through the air, creating a maelstrom of steam. The heat pulled at open pores; the sweat dripped harder. At the culmination of the 15 minute performance, he stood in front of each person, holding the corners of the towel and whipping with all his strength, sending a baptism of heat over our bodies.

I remember catching the view out the small horizontal window at the top of the sauna, which perfectly framed the high-rise apartment buildings and storage container cranes across the bay, tiny and twinkling in the distance. A postcard from another reality, where excess flesh, heat, sweat and men in kilts were an oddity. But instead I was here; I chose this reality. A decision to return to where my family came from and explore a life, just as they moved across an ocean over a century ago.

The performance ended. I thanked the man in the kilt with an enthusiastic tusind tak, and stepped into the cold. We walked to the edge of the deck and I looked down at the dark waves. I didn’t want to go in, but I knew I must. I leapt off the edge and plunged into the icy water, the cold like a slap to my entire body. It felt like ice was pooling in my collarbones, like glaciers melting between my legs. It stung and burned and the waves lifted me up as I made a flailing doggy paddle to the metal stairs. By the time I ascended, the air outside felt downright balmy. An equilibrium had been achieved. 

I wrapped a towel around my body and walked to the edge of the deck and looked up. The stars were as bright as they were in Minnesota, and I had somehow found a way home.

- Karis Hustad, with illustrations by Kylee Pedersen


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