I have been living in Estonia for about ten years now. I came here, to the town of Tallinn, at the age of 21, drawn by the urge to escape a middle-class American life full of Starbucks, SUVs and genetically altered cabbages. After 10 years, Estonia and I have developed something of a love-hate relationship. Certain things I love: the dairy products that only stay fresh for a day or two; the flowing language with its long vowels and rolling rís; the cheap booze and the quiet yet forthright Estonians to drink it with. Other things I hate: misogynistic men (Estonia has a charming proverb that goes something like Ďif thereís a woman in the boat, the boat will sinkí); the belief that every illness, from dandruff to cancer, is caused by Ďdraftsí; and the omnipresent saunas.
I cannot emphasize enough what the sauna means to Estonian society. These people turn their noses up at a shower but will embrace with heartfelt love the idea of washing yourself in what is, essentially, a crematorium.
Most people associate saunas with red-cheeked, bare-assed, ice-hole-diving Finns; but Estonians have just as strong a self-steaming tradition as the Finns, if not stronger. Rural Estonians couldn't even begin to contemplate another way of
bathing. Honest, poor, country people have been bathing in saunas and birching themselves raw for hundreds of years, and there are public saunas dotted all around Tallinnís charming, cobble-stoned Old Town.
Itís really too bad they're all brothels.
Estonia has become a very hedonistic society. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Estonians have embraced an 'anything goes' attitude. Chronic alcoholism is accepted with a chuckle. And since we don't have film or pop stars, our celebrities consist of the mafia. Open our society magazine ĎKroonikaí and splashed across the pages you'll see underworld figures cavorting around town. Drugs are winked about. Tax evasion is your national duty. And prostitution is indulged like a favorite child. Hence the brothels,
I wouldn't step foot in a public sauna here to save my life. They are dirty and seedy and always contain a stained leather couch that one wouldn't want to sit on without going over it with a blowtorch and wire wool. Luckily, I don't have to use the public saunas anymore. I have my own.
I bought an apartment here in Tallinn about a year ago. A mark of a swanky apartment here is that it contains a sauna. People take what should be a broom closet for storing the things you would prefer to hide from public view and put in electric saunas instead. It wasn't exactly a selling point for me but I loved the apartment. So I moved in and forgot that it existed.
I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship with an Estonian rock-star. If you, kind reader, are sniggering at this term you are right to do so. But thatís a whole different story.
I found a lover, my first in a long, long time. He was quite silly, with an intellect that rivaled my catís. He would wax on about the amazing healing powers of trance music and startle me with impromptu kung-fu moves. But he seemed like a good idea at the time. We acknowledged that we were attracted to each other and he called me one evening and invited himself over. "And why don't you heat up that sauna of yours, baby," he murmured. Unfortunately, he meant this literally. I was hoping to have time to shave my legs, do my make-up, etc, but instead I had drag out the litter-box, mops and logs for the fire-place that I never use, then try to figure out how to turn the damn thing on. He arrived, gave me a sexy look and a peck on the cheek, and then brushed past me to check the sauna. It was still room temperature. "I guess it just takes a little time to warm up," I shrugged. So we sat in my kitchen, drinking wine and trying to make conversation. I felt like whistling and drumming my fingers on the table.
Frankly, for me, the idea of having sex in a sauna is even worse than sitting in a sauna. You can't stretch out, itís HOT and if you make the wrong move, you might be rushed to the hospital with third-degree burns in a sensitive area. But he seemed very keen, so we waited a couple of hours. It never did warm up. Instead, he put on some trance music and we made do with the bed. He left early in the morning with another peck on the cheek and some stern advice to get my sauna fixed.
I never did. Is there such a thing as a sauna repairman? It was just too much of a bother. He came over two more times and the scenario repeated itself. When he left after the last tryst with a look of deep disappointment on his face, I knew it was over.
The sauna is said to be in the hearts and souls of Estonians. I guess itís in another place as well. I'm now considering having mine taken out and putting in a hot tub instead. I'm still an American at heart, I suppose.