Smoke, sweat and tears: my initiation into Estonia’s sauna sisterhood
20.11.2023 - 12:07
“We are your sauna sisters now. Tell us what you’re afraid of.” The three women I have just met eye me expectantly. “Er, I wouldn’t say I’m afraid, exactly, more apprehensive about how hot the sauna will be, and how cold the water is …”
I’m at Mooska Farm in Võru county, south-east Estonia, to try a traditional smoke sauna. The earliest written records of Estonian saunas date from the 13th century, and the country’s smoke sauna culture was added to Unesco’s cultural heritage list in 2014 (many think of Finland as the home of sauna, but its sauna culture wasn’t listed until 2020.) This year, the smoke sauna has come to international prominence thanks to Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, an astonishing documentary that won a directing award at the Sundance festival and is Estonia’s entry for the Oscars.
The film appears to document the users of a single sauna over a year. In fact, filming took place at 10 saunas over seven years – and Mooska is one of them. It takes a little effort to reach it: I took a two-hour train ride from the capital, Tallinn, to Tartu, a university city and next year’s European capital of culture. There I met Elin, who is promoting Estonia’s “year of sauna”. We drove further south-east for an hour, then stopped in a forest to prepare physically and mentally. We collected drinking water from a spring, walked through a bog (Estonia’s most ancient landscape) and climbed the country’s highest hill, Vällamägi (a mighty 304 metres) for a few moments of mindfulness in a circle of trees.
Then it was onwards to Mooska, where I met Eda, the sauna master, and Kai, who would be helping. The four of us stripped naked and stepped outside. It was the last day of October, a few degrees above freezing, but with patches of snow on the ground. The swimming pond in front of me was frozen around the edges.
I had assumed we would warm up in the sauna before thinking about the pond, but no: we were going “swimming” first. “Don’t think about it, just do it!” commanded Eda. I took deep breaths and marched down the wooden steps into the icy depths, submerging myself to the neck for four breaths, then charged back up and straight into the sauna.
I lay on the top bench and instantly started to thaw out. I felt an incredible rush: elated and teary all at once. Eda closed the door and began to chant in her Võro dialect. The temperature rose as she threw water on the hot stones (to create steam – leilin Estonian) and started to beat a drum.
The sounds and sensations were otherworldly; part of me loved it, but another part wondered how long I could stand the raging heat. I had been told I could move to a lower level if I got too hot, and leave whenever I wanted, but a combination of self-consciousness and stubbornness