Once upon a time there was an orphan girl who lived with an unkind family. She was the first to rise and the last to go to bed and was worked all day long and they wouldn’t even let her go and have her sauna. So she begged the moon to take her away. The moon took her along with her birch whisk and pail, and if you look closely, you can still see her in the moon.

The Moon Maiden – traditional story

Those crazy Estonians! What does it say about a culture when the worst thing you can do to someone is to deprive them of their sauna?

As far as I was concerned, I already knew what saunas were all about. A while back, a sauna was part of my weekly penance at the local leisure centre. I would go there to be less unfit by lolloping my way up and down the swimming pool until I got tired, bored or both. As a break, I would pop into the sauna until I also got tired and bored of that. There was no pleasure in it and I just didn’t get the point. I mean, if you really want to crowbar yourself into a crate with a load of other hot and sweaty people, why not catch the 07:58 to London Euston?

When I was in Estonia, I rented a place that happened to have its own private sauna. I could see that when the owner was showing me around, she felt that the most important thing for me to learn was how to get the wood burning stove in the sauna up to the right temperature. After nodding in all the right places, I was entrusted with the keys.

At first I ignored the sauna and plumped for a nice hot bath at the end of the day, but I had a nagging feeling that I was not really entering into the spirit of things.

One evening after a particularly knackering but fun day of tromping through snowy forests and ice skating, I prepped the stove and filled the pail with water.

It took a few minutes for me to ‘get it’ but finally it dawned on me and I understood what saunas were about. The inside of this sauna was very much like the one at the local swimming pool. The difference was in what was outside.

In sensory terms, a sauna is about as far removed as you can get from spending the day in the big expanse of a silent snowy forest or skating across a frozen lake.

Taoists see the world around them through yin and yang. Followers of Socrates and Hegel seek understanding and progress through dialectics. Meanwhile people up here in the north of Europe just need a pail and whisk to make sense of their day.

And what if you can’t? You could always ask the moon for help.

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