Sunday, March 21, 2010

Where all the cool kids are!

My local newspaper, the Concord Monitor, ran this fascinating story from the Washington Post about the sauna at the Finnish embassy in DC.

The hottest spot in D.C.
The Finnish Embassy's sauna draws the capital's movers and shakers

March 19, 2010 - 12:00 am

On a recent Friday evening in the basement of the Finnish Embassy, a half-dozen men, all sweating profusely and wrapped in white towels, turned to resident sauna authority Kari Mokko to settle a dispute.

"Kari," Josh Block, a spokesman for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, said through the vapor, " 'schvitz' isn't a Finnish term, is it?"

"Shivit?" Mokko replied, bewildered. He stood up, sans towel, to ladle more water onto the sauna's rocks. "What?"

Despite his unfamiliarity with the Yiddish word for steam room, Mokko, the embassy's press secretary, is running a monthly Power Schvitz for the policy staffers behind Washington's power players.

The 150 members of the Diplomatic Finnish Sauna Society of D.C. are the operatives who make Washington spin: Capitol Hill staffers, officials, lobbyists, wonks - and reporters eager to pick up some off-message analysis.

"You don't wear your politics on your sleeve when you are not wearing sleeves," said Alex Conant, a former RNC spokesman now working for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "Mostly you just talk about how damn hot it is."

Mokko, 43, with a trim goatee and chiseled cheekbones, is the society's founder and gatekeeper. On hiatus as the anchor of Silminnakija, a Finnish Broadcasting Co. current-affairs program, he is at home with reporters, delighting in the exchange of phone numbers, story leads and private information at the sauna. He believes networking in the nude to be an absolute moral good.

"It became a great 'I scratch your back, you scratch mine' sort of thing," he said, flatly.

The sessions began two years ago to compensate for Finland's "predictable" reputation and low international profile, said Mokko, a native of Tampere. "We don't cause problems," he explains. "We needed something to catch attention." (The Finnish ambassador lays low in his own sauna, in the official residence.)

The society's private Facebook page says the mission is to "exchange breaking D.C. news and hot scoops, create buzz and get refreshed in great company" and to "spread the word about the joys of Finnish sauna culture and other great achievements of Finns inside and outside the Capital Beltway."

Mokko says his great ambition is to host Vice President Biden, who lives directly across Massachusetts Avenue. Meanwhile he keeps the guest list small, diverse and bipartisan: "I try to be civil and benevolent." He regales guests with a barrage of Finnish sauna facts ("We have more saunas than cars," "When Finnish peacekeepers are sent to Africa, the first thing they do is build a 190-degree sauna") and argues tirelessly for the superiority of Finnish saunas over Swedish ones ("Theirs is a lot milder: 130 degrees. It's just like a hot room.").

Regulars include Christina Sevilla, deputy assistant U.S. trade representative and lead singer for the group Suspicious Package, which has played embassy events. Hearst Newspapers bureau chief Rick Dunham built a Finnish sauna in his basement last month. ("In the embassy, it's an endurance test of Americans to see how long they go before they wilt," he said. "Now I understand the science of it.")

At 6:30 last Friday evening, as the conflict between the United States and Israel over East Jerusalem housing plans came to a boil, a bartender arranged cranberry juice, water, and bottles of Dos Equis, pinot gris and cabernet sauvignon on a table.

Newsweek correspondent Eve Conant and government analyst Deborah Horan walked down a sweeping staircase.

"I'm here for the secret sauna club," Conant announced.

Surrounded by an art installation depicting the white-bearded hero Vainamoinen doing battle in the national Finnish epic The Kalevala, they clinked wine glasses with Mokko. Conant, who reported from Moscow for a decade, said she was familiar with Russian saunas, which use steam. Mokko protested, "That is a Finnish sauna, not a Russian sauna."

Others arrived: Melissa Merz, a principal at the public affairs firm Podesta Group, with her husband, Ret. Army Lt. Col. Robert Mackey, who now declassifies documents for the government. Lynne Weil, communications director for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, with her husband, Nils Bruzelius, an executive editor at the Environmental Working Group. Christine Mangi, a spokeswoman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska.

"There's a client I'd love for you to meet," Merz pitched to a guest, as Weil credited the sauna with creating "harmony in Washington" and advised everyone to "watch your alcohol intake before going in."

New York Times diplomatic correspondent Mark Landler arrived with wife Angela Tung, a lawyer. Conversation subjects included mosquitoes in Alaska and the difference between East Coast and West Coast Navy SEALs. Mangi told a story about how, the day after a sauna visit, she met a man who commented that she looked a decade younger. "I said, 'God, that sauna does amazing things for the skin,' " she said.

"So where is this sauna? Does it really exist?" Horan interrupted.

"It's hotter than the Swedish one, right?" Merz said.

"Oh, yeah," Mokko said, "double."

At 7:30, Mokko led the group to a basement decorated with bright Marimekko pillows on wooden furniture and a projector beaming Wolf Blitzer's "The Situation Room" onto the wall, while Finlandia vodka awaited with a buffet of red gravlax and white trout, shrimp and Finnish meatballs.

The women disappeared down a hallway and into the sauna as the men filled their plates and waited their turn.

When all the women were out, the men rotated into a changing room. They disrobed, grabbed towels and pelfetti (sauna seat mats), and snatched beverages from an ice bucket brimming with beer cans and water.

At first blush, the sauna does not feel so blistering. ("It's got proper airflow so you don't feel like somebody is putting a blowtorch in your face," said Erik "Erkki" Lindstrom, who built the sauna in 1994.) Its walls are built from Virginia pine; its benches from African obechi wood. ("It's cool to sit on," Lindstrom explained.) An electric heater in the corner warms 200 pounds of igneous rocks and, according to a thermometer on the wall, raises the room's temperature to about 190 degrees.

Dousing the rocks with water or, as Mokko sometimes does, beer, causes an overwhelming wave of loyly ("the steam that comes off the stones," Mokko translated), but the temperature stays the same. ("It's like an August summer in D.C.," Lindstrom said. "When you have 100 percent humidity, it's going to get bad.")

The men picked out spots on the upper benches ("Whoa!" someone yelled. "Scorch them berries!"), and the sweating started instantly. Mokko added water, the stones shushed and the men groaned. The heat slowly slackened postures, and, after some serious-sounding talk about the current American-Israeli crisis, loosened tongues. Discussion turned to Donald Rumsfeld's socks, UFOs and things that cannot be printed in a family newspaper.

Wall Street Journal correspondent Jay Solomon was the last to leave, after about 25 minutes. He had the same peaceful look as his fellow sauna society members.

"I've never seen a person exit the sauna angry," Mokko said.

No comments:

Post a Comment