Everyone kept their clothes on at Kari Mokko’s farewell party, so that was kind of different.
But after four and a half years in Washington as spokesman for the Embassy of Finland, Mokko simply had too many friends to fit them all into the sauna Tuesday night.
The man who shook up the staid social life of Embassy Row with his lively sauna parties for D.C. power players is returning to Helsinki a major power player in his own right. Mokko, 45, has been tapped as director of communications for Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen.
It’s a great job — he’ll travel with the prime minister and be part of cabinet meetings — but, oh, how he’ll miss Washington.
“I found my inner extrovert” in Washington, Mokko told us. “It’s just the atmosphere here. The drive. It grabs you and doesn’t let go.” From the point of view of a foreigner, he says, “it’s surprisingly easy to break the ice here.”
Like many Beltway newcomers, Mokko was a pretty big deal back home. After years as the well-known anchor of Finnish Broadcasting’s “Eyewitness,” he decided to sign on for a stint with the embassy.
He quickly set about making friends by inviting a rotating cast of Hill staffers, journalists, policy wonks, lobbyists and agency officials for casual Friday-night dinner buffets that were punctuated by a clothes-free visit to the embassy’s basement sauna. Ladies first, men second, towels provided. We never ran into Mokko’s then-boss, Ambassador Pekka Lintu, at one of these affairs — which gave the parties a clandestine, off-the-record feel — but we’re told he approved.
The parties became so popular — especially after a 2010 Washington Post front-page story — that Mokko felt pressured to host as many as three a month to accommodate demand, he says. “Then I realized there’s a limit. It doesn’t do any good for my skin.”
The parties have prompted diplomats from other countries to mull how to boost their social profiles. “If you ask me, the embassy scene here needs new blood,” Mokko said. “Times have changed; people want different things. The younger generation doesn’t appreciate the old-school rubber-chicken dinners.”
At the embassy party Tuesday night, new Ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde vowed that “the Sauna Society will continue in one form or another.” And Mokko vowed that he will return. He and his wife, Krista Taubert, have promised their children, now 6 and 10, that they’ll vacation in their adopted country as often as possible. “I have more friends here than I have in Finland,” he said.
Read earlier: At Finnish Embassy, the heat is on, 3/18/10