FEATURE — Birds fly south for the winter. The clever squirrels in the children’s book “Those Darn Squirrels Fly South” manage to do it too, although in an elaborate contraption. As one must do when one is a squirrel and not a bird.
Good thing those squirrels are basically geniuses.
Even Old Man Fookwire, the grouchy anti-hero of the book, succumbs to the pull south if only because he misses those annoying squirrels. Even if it takes him a ridiculous amount of time to actually get south, considering he won’t drive faster than 12 miles per hour the entire way down the Eastern Seaboard to Florida.
But not me. I have no wings, no clever contraption and, sadly, no squirrels to follow.
What I do have is a life tethered to the cold and snow, for now. I mean, my three boys aren’t getting themselves up for school before the sun even peaks over the mountain tops, the frost the only thing anxious to start a new day.
Neither are the snowy carpools going to drive themselves. Nor are the walks going to shovel themselves – that’s what the boys are for (and I just told you they’d forever be ignoring their bed vibrating and deafening alarms without me).
So, instead of flying south like the birds, the squirrels, Fookwire and even my two 80-something-year-old aunts who leave for St. George this week, I’ll resign myself to cinnamon tea and dreaming of warm things.
Warm places. Warm foods. Warm People. And warm cultural traditions.
I’m thinking of you, Finnish saunas and Japanese onsens.
Yes, I know these aren’t exactly my warm cultural traditions. But that’s the great thing about visiting new places and seeing new things: you learn a thing or two.
If the Japanese and Finns do nothing else in this world besides inventing saunas and onsens, they’d still be utterly brilliant. These things are just that good.
What else can you say about something that effectively combats the two trickiest things about winter – the cold and the loneliness – without having to go all the way to Florida? Because, again, not all of us can fly south.
Until recently, I wasn’t familiar with either of these magic makers. Sure, I’d been to the steam room at the gym, but that felt more like just another sweaty layer of a workout and less about transforming the gloom of winter. And it stunk like old gym socks.
Then, I experienced real public saunas in Finland last November. Where daylight only graced the landscape six hours a day and cold invaded everything. There, the saunas were bustling and steamy. But they were also steeped in ritual and reverence.
And generations of people.
Women. Men. Boys. Girls. Grandfathers. Grandmothers. Wrinkled bodies. Taught bodies. Skinny bodies. Plump Bodies.
All toweled. All sweating. All gathered together. First to wash, then to steam, and finally to dip in the frigid Baltic Sea. And then to repeat.
And then, I experienced real public Japanese onsens (baths) last month in the mountains north of Nagano. Where the rice paddies lay dormant and the wet air chilled bone deep. There, the baths were bustling and steamy. But, again, they were also steeped in ritual and reverence.
And, again, generations of people.
Old. Young. Middle-aged. Black hair. Silver hair. No hair. Wrinkles. Cellulite. Sagging. Rail-thin.
All together by gender.
First, to wash. Then, to slip into the pools of piping hot natural hot spring water, and finally to soak, careful to “not put other people to a trouble,” as one sign told us.
The real beauty about the saunas and onsens isn’t that they’re housed in interesting, foreign places (although that’s always fun). The real beauty is that they’re communal activities – steamy, warm and soul soothing.
And they can be replicated almost anywhere.
With water and a gathering a people. Ready to warm their bodies. Ready to warm their souls. Ready to shed the insular winter.
Despite not being able to go south for it. Take that, you genius squirrels.
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