In Europe, Finland dials up the diplomatic heat

Mon Oct 4, 2010 9:15am EDT
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By Luke Baker

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Finland may not top the list of the world's power brokers, but when it comes to dealing with the big issues in international affairs, no one sweats it quite like the Finns -- literally.

Saunas are a centuries-old part of Finnish culture, used to relax with friends and family after the stresses and strain of the working day -- albeit in temperatures of 80-100 degrees Celsius (175-210 Fahrenheit) and amid intense steam.

But now the sauna is being used as a gentle extension of Finnish diplomacy, with the nation putting itself at the heart of debate in the United States and Europe by inviting political movers and shakers to share the hot-house experience.

In Washington, the Diplomatic Finnish Sauna Society -- run by the Finnish embassy -- has been going for a couple of years, drawing together lobbyists, policy-wonks, Capitol Hill staffers and assorted political players to kick around gossip and issues in the relaxed but steamy environment of an authentic sauna.

And now Finland's ambassador to the European Union, Jan Store, has hosted the first Finnish sauna society in Brussels, with all the trappings of home sauna culture, but with an easy going discussion of EU politics and finance added to the mix.

So it was that on a recent evening, a few correspondents joined Finland's finance minister, Jyrki Katainen, a handful of advisers and the ambassador in the long, low sauna house located in the leafy grounds of the ambassador's elegant residence.

Following form, the evening began with a cold beer and light conversation before the group (all men) derobed, showered and filed into the sauna, consisting of high wooden benches arranged closely around the 'kiuas' -- a traditional wood-fired stove.

The temperature was comfortably bearable to begin with, somewhere around 80 Celsius, but as the minister ladled water on to the sauna stones -- a process called heittää lylyä -- steam quickly filled the room and things rapidly heated up.   Continued...

<p>A women sits in a sauna at the Finnish Sauna Society in Helsinki August 7, 2008. REUTERS/Agnieszka Flak</p>