By Ruth Elaine Jutila Chamberlin

Observer columnist

“In 1924, when the Finnish National Airlines (FINNAIR) first began operations, pilots flying Junker F-13 monoplanes over the white-blanketed countryside of their homeland often became confused about where to land. Wearing fur-lined helmets, goggles, and with scarves fluttering in the wind, they would swoop low over a farm field and shout, ‘Where is Finland?’”

Eloise Engel and Lauri Paaninen paint that scene in “The Winter War: The Soviet Attack on Finland, 1939-40,” referencing the Finns’ historic struggle for recognition. A proud, stubborn people, the Finns had long yearned for firm borders. During 700 years under Sweden and 100 years under Russia, 12 major wars between Sweden and Russia were fought on Finnish soil. Border disputes abounded. After Finland declared sovereignty in 1917, the Russians challenged the shared 800-mile border, including simultaneous pushes in 1939-40. The Finns lost land in the Winter War, but they kept their nation. Finnish sisu — guts, or, as Engel and Paananen put it, “downright cussedness” — has been tested often by the Finns’ much larger neighbor.

Finland’s cold war president, Urho Kekkonen, used “sauna diplomacy” to ease tensions with the Soviets (so the legend goes). When Nikita Kruschev traveled to Finland for Kekkonen’s 60th birthday, the two went to sauna. They came out at 5 a.m. with this statement: “The Soviet government expresses its preparedness to support Finland’s desire to integrate and cooperate with the West.”

Americans knew little about Finland until after World War I, but when Finland paid its war debt, the only nation to do so, Finns drew admiration for their honesty. Finland’s Ambassador to the U. S., Kirsti Kauppi, marking Finland’s Centennial, used the same word, honesty, to describe Finns. Seated in a cold sauna with other Finnish dignitaries, fully dressed, on January 14, 2017, she launched the 12,000-mile U. S. journey of the Traveling Sauna — a plank-benched, heated-rocks, water-splashed, 175-degree, steam-slammed sauna on wheels, complete with wood-burning stove, changing room, shower, front porch for cooling off. Ambassador Kauppi christened the Traveling Sauna “Sisu,” saying sauna is “connected to the core of Finnishness … transparency, genuineness, honesty, peace, quiet.” The others concurred. “If I feel too much stress, I like to go to sauna.” “Sauna is something I don’t want to live without.” “We can be babies there.”

Finland has 5.5 million residents, 2 million cars … and 3 million saunas! Until recently, babies were born in Finnish saunas, illnesses cured, the dead washed before burial. In the Kalevala, the “ethnic memory” of the Finns, Lemminkainen, the wild adventurer, demands the sauna be heated, to strengthen him for battle. The virgin Marjatta, future mother of the Great One, rushes from farm to farm to find a hot sauna in which to give birth. Louhi, the grandma warrior, taunts the deflated hero, Väinämöinen, asking if he needs help getting safely back to his home meadows and “even to your very sauna?”

Trying to find Kalevala-era sauna pictures … That foggy one? That’s like Uncle Leonard’s sauna! We girls, six cousins, sat on towels on burning hot benches, threw water on red-hot rocks, endured the slap of steam (went flat on the concrete floor if we got too hot), breathed through cold-water washcloths, swatted ourselves with cedar boughs (a scent that lasts a lifetime), scrubbed up, dumped our bathwater (metal pails, handles clanking) on our heads, rinsed, stepped into the changing room, dried, dressed, stood on a rag rug, peered into the tiny mirror (steam y due to our heat), and saw exactly who we were — Finn girls.

And that stool is like Uncle Ed’s! The one he made is right here, next to another Finn item, a rug I braided Mom’s way, from strips of outworn clothes.

Two years ago, Uncle Leonard’s daughter Lenore, a genealogy buff, gave Burt a monumental gift. He knew nothing about his lost mother, Kathleen, except her disappearance. Lenore found Kathleen’s high school yearbook, photos of a willowy, graceful actress and leader who looked like Burt, notes about her gentleness. Lenore — child of the sauna, member of a sturdy Finnish clan — had traced a connection for my man with no clan. She connected him with his mother.

Three daughters — Sherry Noel, Anna, Katie — and I spent a year in Finland on a Fulbright grant, warmed by the Finns’ kindness, fine schools, inventiveness, common sense, design. In the dark of winter, children made lacy ice lanterns and set them on terraces. Sparkles, airbursts! Cars got plugged into overnight heaters to prevent freezing; commuters hopped up and down at bus stops, also to prevent freezing. Year around, we bathed in our apartment building’s sauna.

At Midsummer, we took a sauna with female relatives in Rantasalmi, my father’s birthplace — in Eastern Finland, near Karelia, site of Kalevala songs and cradle of the old Finn church. We stayed with distant cousins — artists, farmers, teachers, home chefs — and met shy, Finn-speaking great-aunties. (I spoke no Finnish, or garbled what I tried. We gestured and smiled a lot with the great-aunties. I share language woes with my Finnish immigrant forebears, who built saunas often before building houses and joked about their own English. Non-Finn, first time taking a sauna: “Whew! It’s hot! I’m perspiring!” Finn: “Ya, and sveating, too!”) We saw tall-flowered front yards, like Grandma Jutila’s in Clatskanie! We saw her husband’s initials carved in stone on the Rantasalmi farm. We heard a cuckoo … (Ah! Another teaser. Next time.)

Independence Day, December 6, 1986, in Helsinki. On a frigid night, Finns held torches in Senate Square, flames whopping, and a men’s chorus sang on the cathedral steps — Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia.” The cold warped the sound and made wow-wows in the microphones. But the emotion came through.

Happy Centennial to Finns everywhere!

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