As late as in the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a bathhouse on every farmstead – or, rather, in the remotest corner of each farmstead, as this small building was used by the household not just for “swatting” (i.e., washing), but also to allow a woman to give birth in peace and quiet, undisturbed by anyone. When progress brought hot water and a bathtub into Latvian homes, it seemed that the sauna had lost its use, but soon enough it had to be admitted that a sponge and a piece of soap are not enough to feel cleansed. There is a need for the special bath rituals that purify not only the skin but also the spirit.
Baths vary: classic, wood-fired stoves where heat is maintained with stones, electrical saunas or saunas where the heap of stones serves more as an adornment. In the countryside, it is sometimes possible to come across the ancient “black bathhouse”, where the stones are piled up in the middle of the steam room, but the fire has to be made underneath the stones which causes the entire room to be covered in soot.
Latvians, like Russians, prefer the so-called wet baths, where water is ladled over the hot rocks to “raise the spirits” (the stones are sprinkled with hot water to produce vapour and make the air humid) and besoms are used for swatting oneself (the heated, sweaty body is rhythmically swatted with bunches of various tree branches tied together, with the leaves still on). The ideal temperature is considered to be 86 degrees centigrade, yet the body must first get used to that kind of heat. That is why beginners and older people can enjoy the sauna at a much lower temperature. There are some men who firmly believe that there is no point in bathing below 100 degrees – if you have the toughness gained through experience, a thick cap on your head and mitts on your hands to prevent your fingers from burning, nobody can keep you from doing it.
The only thing you cannot do without in a sauna is the possibility to cool down rapidly – ideally, you should have a cool pond, a pool or at least a powerful shower at hand. The sudden contrast between the heat and the cold, which exercises blood vessels, thus toughening the body and making the skin more flexible is precisely the highly-valued effect of the sauna.
Of course, equally important for health and well-being is the sweating, getting rid of dead skin cells, the massage a swatting besom can provide in combination with aromatherapy (in the hot and humid air the besoms have an almost intoxicating scent), and the various beauty treatments that are part of the joy of bathing. In order to go into the sauna, a few preparations need to be made. First of all, you will need a sauna, of course – building one requires a serious investment, as a bathhouse is not merely a washroom with swatting beds and a pile of rocks; it should also include a recreation room, showers and a cool-down pool or even a pond.
If you have all that, the swatting ritual requires besoms, which have to be prepared in the summer for the entire year. Birch, oak, linden and juniper twig besoms are the most popular, but real bath masters add a whole variety of plants into their swatting bunches: for the healing properties as much as for the scent and energy. In summer, freshly bound besoms are used for bathing, in winter, dried besoms are soaked beforehand. The swatting can be done by oneself, but it is great to have a friendly sauna companion or an experienced bath master do it for you, who is privy to all the mysteries of slapping, intermittent fanning and serious whacking. But to get to the spanking, you must first sit in the sauna a couple of times in order to heat up and then cool down again outside the steam room – in other words, the body has to get used to such an extreme treatment, gradually and with good sense. But how do you know that you are hot enough to move on to the besoms?
They say that a good indicator of that is sweat dripping off the tip of your nose while sitting on the bench… As soon as you have been swatted once and jumped into the pond, rest a little and move on to the beauty treatments! Scour yourself with a store-bought or homemade scrub (Latvian women know how to make it from the most unthinkable products and combinations), apply clay facial masks, slap on some honey, rub on some cream, lotion, scented oil…
Do everything and anything that makes you feel clean and tender like a baby – or do nothing at all, just wrap yourself in a towel, sit and enjoy the moment. Yet the bathhouse has another important role to play in the life of a Latvian. You go into the sauna only with people that are close to you: they are not necessarily always relatives, but they are people whom you like and trust, because how else are you going to climb naked on to a bench with them? Therefore, if a Latvian has invited you to a sauna, you can be sure that he or she trusts you. Of course, if you are shy, you can bring your swimming trunks, but you will notice soon enough that artificial fibres do not want to stay on purified flesh for too long.