Above: Just behind Finnish Embassy Spokesman Kari Mokko and the winding staircase is a door leading downstairs to the sauna. Below: A beet concoction.
I knew I was in for a unusual evening when the mustachioed dark suited man at the door of the Finnish Embassy greeted me with an emphatic “Welcome to Finland!” It was hearty, solid. He was going way out there with the Fantasy Finland experience.
Three things I knew going in:
1. There would be a Finnish buffet.
2. At some point in the evening we would enjoy a sauna. Towels would be provided. It would not be co-ed.
3. A Tweeting stranger warned that Kari Mokko, the Embassy Press Secretary and Spokesman, usually goes sans towel.
The first person I met? Indeed, Mokko. He has longish well-layered hair. A groomed mustache/goatee. He’s a former Finnish TV broadcaster, so unapologetic about his looks and not overly concerned with seeing pictures taken of him. He’s dead serious about his sauna experience. But amusing, too. “I haven’t lost a single person yet,” he says of the 195-degree sauna. “Americans are very brave.” The whole ordeal is called a “Sauna Society” and some 300 journos, White House, State Department and Capitol Hill aides and lobbyists attend monthly gatherings. “I’m the benevolent dictator of the Society,” Mokko says. “It’s a pretty decent achievement. A great way to network.” The journalists belong to outlets ranging from CNN, AP and NYT to WaPo, Reuters, NBC, CNN, CBS, and Bloomberg. Any scribe can belong, really. You just have to want to belong. We’re just at cocktails, so Mokko is still clothed. Only men at the party will eventually see him disrobe. “Some people don’t do it au natural,” he says. “I always do it. It’s too hot with the towel.”
But he knows this is all kind of off-kilter for Washington. He explains saunas in Finland are common. “Five million people,” he says. “Two million saunas.” Most homes or apartments come with a sauna.
One thing’s for certain, he won’t be out-Alpha-maled. Beet.tv’s Andy Plesser is here to help organize the journo-sauna evening. When it’s time to say a few words, Plesser pipes up first, but Mokko interrupts and lays down the gauntlet: “I get to speak first. It is my building.” (He’s sorta joking but point made.) Plesser, at the time, joked, “He doesn’t know what the hell I’m doing here.” Later Plesser wins the off-the-wall comment of the evening award when, during dinner, he stands, smiles and announces, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s time to get naked.”
Ladies first. The men will eat while the women use the sauna. After leading three female party guests to the sauna changing room, Mokko points to beige and white patterned square cloths that resemble place settings and says straight-faced, “These are butt linen.” He shows us the towels, the showers and points to the entrance of the sauna. He bids us farewell and shuts the door.
We all wrap ourselves in towels.
The sauna is warm, but not overpowering. Relaxation factor: high. Soon enough, Washington stresses melt away and the air feels soft, restorative and soothing. Time flies when you’re in a sauna with strangers. One woman lifts her arms high into the air. (There’s no easy way to say this, but there are balls of hair under her arms. Samantha in “Sex in the City” the movie comes to mind: “Jesus honey, wax much?” I look away.)
Once the female sauna-goers are out and in the dining room eating roasted beets, beef and beet salad, the men soon retire to the sauna. Come to find out, none wore towels. Weirdness factor: heightened but not impossible. Suffice it to say, just like cold swimming pools and bubble wrap, shrinkage happens.
Who showed up? Find out…