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.
What’s discussed in a sauna stays in the sauna, but it is safe to say that in Finnish culture the sauna is a place where people relax and unburden themselves, talking openly and candidly about whatever comes up. Little is off-limits.
Alas, it is not the sort of place a reporter can practically take a notepad and pen, let alone a tape recorder.
After 15 minutes of intense heat -- when the Finns were just getting comfortable and the journalists were about to pass out -- it was time for a break. A shower and a dip in a jacuzzi were followed by another chilled glass of Belgian beer.
It was the evening before an EU finance ministers’ meeting, with budget reform and the debt crisis on the agenda, so inevitably Katainen was pressed for his views on a range of hot issues. A smooth, career politician even at the age of 38, a relaxed Katainen was thorough and expansive in his replies.
Soon a second round in the sauna was proposed and we returned to the hothouse, with more water liberally ladled onto the stones and the temperature soaring well above 80 degrees.
Another restorative glass of ice-cold beer followed and we heard tales of just how far Finns will go for hot steam -- apparently the first thing Finnish troops deployed on a U.N. mission to Eritrea did was build a sauna, clearly not satisfied with the 40-degree (105 Fahrenheit) ambient temperature outside.
Later, over dinner of Janssonin Kiusaus -- a Swedish-Finnish casserole of potatoes, onions, pickled fish and cream, otherwise known as sauna food -- the conversation was as much about sport (Finns are avid football fans) as it was about high finance.
By the end of the evening it is fair to say that the Finns had won a few converts to their super-heated yet relaxed way of mixing business and pleasure.
And the next morning, as the European Union’s 27 finance ministers arrived for their meeting, Katainen looked remarkably fresh among them -- no doubt reinvigorated by the benefits a good hot sauna can bring.
Editing by Steve Addison