"Wait a minute!" I said. "You can't come in here. There are naked men in here!"

             "You first," she said.
             I am not a sauna man. I have never been a sauna man. But when you're in Finland, you go to the sauna. Finland has five million citizens and one sauna for every four people. You figure it out.

             The sauna there is such a cultural imperative that once a week Finnish government ministers have a meeting in one. They pan roast until tender and then adjourn to an adjacent room to conduct affairs of state. When they reach an impasse it's back to the oven until the obstinacy has been sweated out, and so it goes for a considerable length of time.

             Finland has hundreds of thousands of lakes, most of them wrapped in forests of spruce and pine and birch. On the shores you see little red houses or dark log cabins with thick chimneys. This is because the        sauna ritual requires not only par-boiling but quick freezing and how better than to jump in a lake in a country where it is winter most of the time.

             My feeling is that if God had wanted us to alternately fry and freeze He would have constructed us differently, or at least made us all Finns. But He didn't and I'm not, so when I discovered that saunas          were a feature of my tour to Finland and that my group expected me to partake, I was less than thrilled.

             Because I'd tried it. I'd been around when it became de rigeur for every self-respecting health club to install a rustic wooden airtight chamber in a corner of their gleaming white-tiled dressing rooms. I'd settled my posterior on red hot slats and gasped fiery inhalations from the genuine imitation sauna stove. And I hated it. As I knew every one else did in spite of their claims to the contrary. Who could like anything so flagrantly nasty?

             So why was I the only one with dread in his heart as we drove to the lakeside near the provincial town of Kokkola? It was 7 P.M. and felt like mid-afternoon. It should have been dusk but the sun hovered        well above the horizon and showed no intention of setting. For this was the land of the midnite sun. Another Finnish perversity.

             We pulled up at a neat little cottage perched on a gentle slope that descended to the lake. Off to the right a small dock poked into water flat and unruffled as the surrounding countryside, flat as F inland itself. Inside, a little buffet had been set up and plenty of booze to wash it down, from big bottles of beer to such esoteric local delights as cloudberry liqueur.

             Our host declared the protocol: women into the changing room and then the sauna while the men talked man talk, had a snack, and got mildly lubricated. Women done, it would be our turn, and finally we     would all gather for the post mortem. Finland is Lutheran. The sexes don't sauna ensemble.

             So off the women went, giving me an opportunity to imbibe a little anesthetic before going into the operating room. I must say it was rather pleasant. While we waited for what seemed an unconscionably         long time, we ate and drank and lounged by a huge bay window that looked over the tranquil lake and deep green forest. I suppose this was the Finnish equivalent of a cocktail party back home, but without the obligatory smart talk and sexual inuendo. Not bad for starters.

             Eventually we heard some happy feminine voices and saw several toweled bodies trotting to the end of the pier. After a bit of hesitation the towels were dropped and a succession of pearly backs and buns slid into the cold black water. They emerged - rather quickly -  toweled up, and ran back while I waited for them to appear and tell us how awful it was. And waited, and waited. They were doing it again!

             Finally they entered, clothed all in long terry pullovers and lying through their teeth about how invigorating, how refreshing, how...


             Anxious to be done with it, I deposited my clothes in the changing room and plunged headlong into the furnace. Surprisingly, it was not too awful. First of all it wasn't overly hot. When I sat down the skin didn't instantly peel off my buttocks.  Tiers of wooden benches rose on both sides of a simple, attractive room - an exact copy of the health club saunas of my recollection - and on the floor sat a square container topped by a layer of rocks.

             Our host entered and immediately ladled quantities of water onto the rocks which gave off a wave of invisible, volcanic heat that curled every hair on my body. I scuttled from my perch on the top to the lowest level where the temperature was slightly less hellish while the toxins leapt from my pores.

             After an eternity and a half, we applied the towels and staggered outside. At the end of the dock, too dazed to think, I shed my wrapping and took the plunge. Of course this was summer and by Finnish          standards the water was warm, which is to say it took several seconds before I began to go numb. I paddled through a thicket of lake grass back to the ladder and climbed into the cool evening air.

             Where, wonder of wonders, a strange warmth began suffusing my body. Insulated from within, the sharp exterior chill felt like a revitalizing caress. I stood admiring the lake and the forest surround with a new appreciation, a new clarity of vision. This was very nice.

             In our own terry robes we joined the women. I ate, I drank, I chatted. I watched the sun make a heroic effort to touch the horizon, all the time feeling the most loose-jointed physical ease I can ever          remember experiencing. And suddenly it was midnight. If there is such a thing as an overnight convert, I was it.

             And so we saunaed our way across Finland. We motor-boated through squalls to try a smoke sauna on an island in the Baltic Sea. We went to an opera festival where the sauna was in a beach house on the     shore. And at the end, we went to Helsinki where the sauna was in our hotel.

             It was there that I was sitting when the door sprung open and a woman stood sillouetted in the frame, gazing impassively at our naked bodies.

             "Wait a minute!" I said. "You can't come in here. There are naked men in here!"

             "You first," she said.

             I looked at my friends who modestly averted their eyes. I looked at the woman. "Botticelli," I thought. Not because of his Venus but because of his name, "little barrel."

             "This is nonsense," I said to myself. "I don't have to go with her."

             But what does a naked American do when confronted by an elderly woman with eyes of steel and a body like John Belluchi's?

             He does what he's told.

             She motioned me to lie face down on a table set against the wall. Instantly a hose of warm water played over my body followed by a dousing of slippery liquid soap. Then I felt a rough hand scraping my        back with all the delicacy of an electric sander. She had put on a mitt made of loufa, a bark-like material, and was working with a vengeance on removing the top several layers of my skin.

             With broad careless sweeps she massaged me from top to bottom, missing nothing along the way. When she got to my feet she gave the soles a swipe that made me jump like a frog in a physics lab. Then she made her way back up, just to ensure that no part of me was left unabused.

             When she got to my shoulders she worked them over with her iron fists until the tension that had been harboring there had no choice but to give in and flee in terror. With an inaudible sigh my entire          body capitulated. Every muscle said uncle and I lay plastered to the table not caring if I ever moved again.

             "Turn over," she said.

             Oh no, I thought, please let me stay like this forever, but there was something in her voice that wasn't to be denied. Figuring that what I couldn't see wouldn't hurt me, I shut my eyes tight and rolled          over on my back. The woman began swabbing me up and down with the same reckless abandon, a matter that caused me no little concern, but by now I was an acquiescent jelly, the proverbial putty in her hands. My
body was a vibrant tingle and nerveless puddle both, impossible but true. To feel like this I would have followed her anywhere.

             I opened my eyes and gazed hopefully, soulfully into hers. In my weakened state she seemed to float over me like a Rubenesque, slightly mature, angel. Was it my imagination or did she seem to look at me with just a suggestion of tenderness, of real caring?

             In answer she rested her loufaed right hand on my shoulder.

             "Okay, baby," she said. "You're done."