Sibelius, sauna, and sisu

When I was a small boy living in Finland, my teacher told my class that despite Finnish being a small language with only about five million speakers, there were, in fact, two words that the rest of the world had adopted from us: sauna, and sisu.

For emphasis, that story was then followed by another one about Finnish UN soldiers in the Middle East, and how the first thing they did at their post was to build a sauna.

(For sisu, and sauna, see here.)


Loving the sauna is for the Finns what playing hockey is for the Canadians. We like to think we have a special talent for it.

And like a Canadian father who takes his children to the rink as soon as they can walk, I, too, secretly wanted to see how my kids would handle the sauna. I wasn’t very hopeful, because it took them about three and a half weeks to realize we had one, and whenever we’ve visited my mother in Finland, the new version of a small Finnish boy – albeit half-Swedish – used her sauna mostly as a set that would turn into a prison, or a museum, whatever was needed.

But, rejoice! Last week, my son – with his three-year-old little sister in tow, as always – surprised me by joining me in the sauna, happily jumping in. They sat side by side, as low as possible, with my son taking charge of throwing water onto the stove.

At first, I was just happy to see them there. Oh, they were Finns, true Finns, after all. My old joke was true: they weren’t half-Finnish, half-Swedish, they were twice as good: both Finnish and Swedish.

And even when they ran outside naked, I stayed back in the sauna, smiling, thinking how, when you came down it, they were, in fact, acting even more Finnish that I was.

But after their seventh cooling off trip in the backyard, in three minutes, I decided to lure them back in, and keep them there for a while by telling them a story.

The best kind of story, too. The ones that start, “when I was a small boy.”

And I told them the story about a small boy who was into clubs. How he had a club for about every book and comic book he read – and he read a lot. And how he was always the only member of his clubs, except this one club.

Back in the 1970s, all comic books available then – Tarzan, the Phantom – had reader clubs, and they encouraged readers to start their own sub-clubs with their friends.

The Finnish version of a Woody Woodpecker comic book, “Nakke Nakuttaja”, did that, too, and having already started my own Tarzan club, the Phantom club, Tex Willer club, Pecos Bill club, and Fury (the Black Beauty, the horse) club, I didn’t hesitate to start another one. And to that one, I managed to recruit a couple of members: my mom and dad.

This is when the daughter ran out again, but the son was hooked on my story.

My Woody Woodpecker club was called Sauna-Naket (Sauna-Nakkes, plural), and we had our meetings every Wednesday during our weekly sauna, in the basement of our apartment building. I was the chairman, and treasurer, and the one in charge of the graphic profile of the club, including the membership cards.

I could see how my son started to design the membership cards in his head. He threw some water on the stove, and ran out. Five seconds later, he opened the door and said: “Can’t we have our own club now?”

“Sure,” I said.

“But we’re going to need membership cards, and a logo. You can be member number one, your sister number two, and I’ll be member number three,” I added.

Still, for the rest of the night, he called me “chairman”. Somehow, he also misheard the name of my original club, so that instead of “Sauna-Naket”, our new club is called “Saunanakit”, or “sauna sausages”.

The last thing the son did last night was to create a symbol for the club. It turned out to be Niilo Nakki, (Sam the Sausage), a smiling little sausage.

This morning, I woke up to the announcement of a Niilo Nakki festival, members only. I got my membership card, after I had filled in my name, age, and a fingerprint.

Tonight, we had our first meeting, including the cooking of sausages (not Niilo) on the stove, just like the original Sauna-Naket did. We also had a little Finland quiz and my son earned his first Saunanakit bronze medal, with bronze wings, nailing five of the five questions.

Afterwards, when we sat at the kitchen table, with the steamy sausages and bottles of pop in front of use, my toothless son looked up and said.

“Dad, we can make this a tradition. We can cook sausages in the sauna, and then drink soda, every Saturday,” he said.

“Absolutely,” I said.

And we took our sausages, lifted them, and like a couple of guys clinking beer bottles, we made a sausage salute.

3 thoughts on “Sibelius, sauna, and sisu

  1. R: Thanks! That would be something!

    J: As far as Ikea Sunday is concerned … I thought Sauna-Nakit only had three members… :)

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