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At Finnish Embassy, the heat is on

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010; A01

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?" a bewildered Mokko replied when asked about the Yiddish word for steam room. He stood up, sans towel, to ladle some more water onto the sauna's rocks. "Shwi? What?"

Despite his unfamiliarity with the term, Mokko, the embassy's press secretary, is running a monthly Power Schvitz for the policy staffers behind Washington's power players -- and the journalists who cover them.

The Diplomatic Finnish Sauna Society of D.C. counts among its 150 members the operatives who make Washington spin: Capitol Hill staffers, public-policy wonks, lobbyists, administration officials -- 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 currently working for Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. "Mostly you just talk about how damn hot it is."

The society's founder and gatekeeper, Mokko is a 43-year-old Tampere native, with a trimmed goatee and chiseled cheekbones. On hiatus as the anchor of "Silminnäkijä," or Eyewitness, 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, Mokko said, for Finland's "predictable" reputation and low international profile. "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, which Mokko maintains, expounds that the society's 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." Conant, for example, offered that the sauna society inspired him to visit Helsinki last summer.

Mokko says his great ambition is to host Vice President Biden, who lives directly across Massachusetts Avenue, but in the meantime 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. There's also Rick Dunham, the Hearst Newspapers bureau chief, who hasn't shown up since building his own 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 on a Friday evening, as a 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.

Eve Conant, a Newsweek correspondent (no relation to Alex), and Deborah Horan, a former war correspondent who is now a government analyst, 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 Väinämöinen doing battle in the national Finnish epic "The Kalevala," the three clinked wine glasses and compared sauna notes.

Conant, who reported from Moscow for a decade, said she was familiar with Russian saunas, which use steam. Mokko, dressed in a blue blazer and purple shirt, protested: "That is a Finnish sauna -- not a Russian sauna."

Melissa Merz, a principal at the public affairs firm Podesta Group, arrived with her husband, Robert Mackey, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and historian hired by the government to declassify documents. The group then grew to include Lynne Weil, the communications director for the House Foreign Affairs Committee; her husband, Nils Bruzelius, an executive editor at the Environmental Working Group; and Christine Mangi, a spokeswoman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) at the Senate Republican Conference.

"There's a client I'd love for you to meet," Merz pitched to a fellow guest, as Weil credited the sauna with creating "harmony in Washington" and advised everyone to "watch your alcohol intake before going in." Mackey talked excitedly about archival finds ("He's very excited because he saw J. Edgar Hoover's signature today," his wife said), and Mangi assured the society newcomers, "Your skin will feel wonderful for days."

A short time later, Mark Landler, the New York Times diplomatic correspondent, arrived with his wife, Angela Tung, a lawyer who wore a made-in-Finland Marimekko dress. Wall Street Journal correspondent Jay Solomon and Block, the AIPAC spokesman, followed. 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 at a party 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 down three flights of stairs, past a sign on a door that read "Varoitus. Lattia Liukas!" (Warning, Floor Is Slippery!). The basement was decorated with brightly patterned Marimekko pillows on wooden furniture, photos of fair-skinned Finns stretching on rock beaches and a projector beaming Wolf Blitzer's "The Situation Room" onto the wall. A bottle of Finlandia vodka awaited guests on a bar across from a buffet of red gravlax and white trout, shrimp and Finnish meatballs.

Following the usual rules, the women disappeared down a short hallway and into the sauna, leaving the men to fill their plates and wait their turn.

Merz emerged from the sauna after only 10 minutes or so.

"She's out already?" Bruzelius said, looking up from his smoked salmon mousse.

"I lasted seven seconds longer this time!" said Merz, whose face had turned the color of gravlax.

Mangi came out four minutes later with wet hair and glowing skin.

"It's a lot hotter in there than last time!" she said.

Horan followed, and, after rehydrating, wondered, "Should we go check on them? Has anyone checked?"

When all the women had emptied out of the sauna, the men rotated into a changing room where piles of kulho (pots) and haude (grills) sat under shelves of folded towels. The society members disrobed under wooden pegs, shed their glasses, grabbed towels and brown pelfetti (sauna seat mats), and snatched beverages from an aluminum 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 embassy sauna in 1994.) Its walls are built from Virginia pine logs, and its benches are made from boards of African obechi wood. ("It's cool to sit on," Lindstrom explained in a phone interview.) 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 löyly ("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 aluminum tops of the beer cans scorched their lips, and the surface swigs grew warm. 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. Mokko, whose bare legs dangled beside the water pot, splashed the rocks and caused another gust of steam.

"I might jump in the shower real quick," Block said. Bruzelius, who had an appointment to undergo medical testing for sleep apnea that evening, followed. ("He slept great!" Weil, Bruzelius's wife, later reported.) Landler, Mackey and Mokko succumbed soon after. Solomon was the last to leave, about 25 minutes after entering, and emerged from the changing room with the same peaceful look as his fellow sauna society members.

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

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