What is it with the gay saunas in Sydney?


WORDS Onni Hirvonen

Being an international student in Australia is not as easy as it sounds. One must be familiar with the wonderful sunshine, endless happiness, and relaxing beach life under the watchful eyes of the Bondi Rescue personnel? Bah, lies all. Although, here I must admit that even though I am an international student from Finland, I do not really know that much about the usual hardships of international students. Of course I had to take my language tests as anyone else. And yes, I had to apply for a student visa and I can assure you that the occasional casual job comes in handy while contemplating how to balance spending between bread and entertainment.

However, unlike most of the international students, I have visited the international students’ office only once – and that was by accident. Luckily the nice people in there directed me to the right place and thus if you have anything troubling your mind about the bureaucratic side of being an international student, I sincerely recommend you to go and have a chat with the office folk. Up to the point it has served its function perfectly and I have nothing but positive comments to say about it.

So, getting to Macquarie with a degree under my belt and my mind set to have a cultural adventure while doing some research might have saved me from some of the hardships that an international undergraduate might face. However, I think there is one thing that we all have to confront with: the change of cultural surroundings and the loss of touch with one’s own roots. Facing a foreign culture is always a challenge in itself; but staying in those unfamiliar surroundings means that one also loses the comfort and the security of the familiar culture that once used to provide us with meaning and content.

This brings me back to the title. As anyone worth their salt knows, Finnish culture centres around the institution of sauna. In the past, people were born in a sauna; through their lives they bathed and cleansed themselves in a sauna; and at the end of their lives, they died in a sauna. Although those days are gone, being a Finn, one cannot imagine a better way to have a relaxing evening than to get into a hot sauna, preferably with some good mates, and chat about life and times while sipping a cold beverage.

This is such an experience that I wished to share it with my new local friends. Surely, even though Australia is not known for its saunas, it cannot be that difficult to find a decent Scandinavian-style sauna in Sydney, right? After all, there are almost as many people in this one city as there are in Finland. Well, ‘sauna’ and ‘Sydney’ combined in a Google search provided me with a list of gay saunas. Not really what I was looking for but that at least explains some of my friends’ puzzlement and hesitance when I enthusiastically told them about the long nights that I have spent sweating with my old pals. I am pretty sure that the experience of purifying heat and honesty is not the same as the one acquired through free lubricant and complementary condoms.

This example reminds us of the cultural differences and the possible challenges, but also of the possibilities that all the international students have to face. The relative safety of the past cultural home is challenged but this challenge provides us with the chance to reflect on what is good and worth holding onto in our past practices. At the same time, one is forced to open her/his eyes to the new interpretations of a lived life, and either embrace them or gracefully decline. I, for one, might still prefer my Scandinavian conception of proper sauna etiquette, but I still encourage every international student, instead of stubbornly holding on to what was good in the past, to keep their eyes and minds open for the possibilities that facing a different way of life provides for us.