Vaskiniemi, Finland — I sit on the lowest and coolest wooden bench. Ilka, an engineer, ends his description of his company's telephone exchange business, and takes to the top. He scoops up a ladle-full of water and throws it on the hot coals. The temperature, already 200 degrees F., shoots into the stratosphere. I gasp. Not Ilka.
``Let's get to the serious questions,'' he says. ``Do you think the dollar will rise or fall?''
Welcome to sauna diplomacy. Finns describe the hot bath as the ``secret'' weapon behind much of their diplomatic and business successes. Important negotiations inevitably begin and end in the heat bath. A weekly morning television program resembling the David Brinkley show is called ``Saturday Sauna.'' The Finnish parliament building includes an extension with a sauna, and the Finnish Cabinet finishes its weekly meetings - you guessed it - in the sauna, a ritual described as ``evening school.''
``It's easier to openly discuss problems'' in a sauna, insists Arto Ojala, director of the Finnish Employers' Confederation. ``You're no longer Director of the Employer's Confederation or the minister of finance. You're a naked man sitting on a wooden bench - an ordinary person.''
Sauna historians say the sauna was created by the pre-Christian Finns as the site for their pagan rites. The original sauna was a hollow in the earth. Stones were piled in one corner of the hole. On six days, one worked. On the seventh, one took a sauna to sweat out impurities.
``The Saturday sauna was for cleaning of body and mind,'' explains Juhani Perasalo, chairman of the Sauna Society. ``Sauna was used for all possible celebrations, reasonable or not.''
Women long delivered their babies in the sauna, the cleanest place on the farm. Brides were given a sauna before they went to the altar. Any feast day meant a sauna the evening before. Meat was cured there. Malt, hemp, and flax were dried in the sauna.
These traditions survived into modern days, although in modified fashion. As Finland, urbanized, electrically heated saunas were built into the basements of apartment buildings. The old-style wood-heated sauna in a wooden log hut alongside one of the nation's 70,000 lakes survived as summer and weekend retreat, although companies and ministries often use these country saunas for entertaining. Altogether, Sauna Society statistics show there are 1.3 million saunas for the 4.8 million Finns, more than one for every 4 people.
As Americans take showers, Finns take saunas, and they carry their saunas with them wherever they go. In 1638, Finns helped their then Swedish rulers found ``New Sweden'' and took their saunas to the shores of the Delaware Bay. When the British took over, the saunas disappeared as an institution but remained as a style of architecture which some sauna devotees claim evolved into the American log cabin.
When modern-day Finnish soldiers are stationed overseas, they carry the sauna idea with them. When Finnish troops were assigned to the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Sinai Desert, they built 35 huts to house saunas.
``The Israelis and the Egyptians looked at them [and] couldn't figure out what was in those strange huts,'' recalls Anneli Halonen, a Finnish diplomat formerly stationed in Tel Aviv. ``When the Finnish officer told them it was a sauna, they began laughing, `in this heat!'''
To the Finn, the sauna is no laughing matter. Finns insist it cools down tense situations. Kari Puuminen of the Bank of Finland recalls how a decade ago the Finnish economy was at a turning point. Wages were rising too fast, exports were falling, imports increasing. To head off a crisis, government leaders called together business leaders and trade union officials for a countryside meeting.
``They began the discussions at a normal negotiating table,'' Mr. Puuminen recalls. ``When the talks became bogged down, they moved to the sauna. In the sauna, they relaxed. New ideas emerged. By the end of the weekend, they had agreed on an accord to hold down wages which helped give us our last decade of economic success.''
Former President Urho Kekkonen turned such sauna meetings into full-scale diplomatic events. Mr. Kekkonen came from a rural background and led the centrist Agrarian Party. He served as president for a quarter century, putting his strong personal imprint on Finnish politics. He believed in one-on-one talks, with domestic allies and enemies and with foreign leaders; what better way than in the sauna.
``Kekkonen was really a sauna freak,'' says B.O. Johansson, director of the Confederation of Finnish Industry. ``He would meet with his best friends in the sauna. They would heat up and discuss the issues of the day, then take a break for the 6 o'clock news and return to the sauna,'' Mr. Johansson said.
Current President Mauno Koivisto is less of a sauna man. He takes saunas, of course, but prefers volleyball. Some Finns ascribe deep meaning to this preference.
``Kekkonen was a very strong personality,'' says one high-ranking Finnish diplomat, a fact emphasized by his one-on-one personal sauna encounters. ``Koivisto is more modest, and tries to give the appearance of consensus politician.''
The rise of women to positions of responsibility makes it harder to forge such high-level consensus in the sauna.
In Finland, men and women still do not bathe together unless they are members of the same family. In many families, even the older boys and girls bathe separately. So when four female ministers were included in the present government, strains were put on the post-Cabinet meeting sauna.
``The women can go take their own sauna,'' says a defiant Pertti Salolainen, minister of foreign trade. ``But its become a bit more informal, and not everyone goes.''
But the tradition lives on, despite its sexist overtones. It still is possible to see photos of foreign leaders steaming up. Not long ago, the Finnish foreign minister and his Japanese counterpart were pictured in a sauna (modestly covered with a towel) on the front page of a Helsinki paper. When US Vice-President George Bush visited Finland a few years ago, his hosts took him to the Sauna Society.
``The True Sauna will be in my memory until I die,'' a delighted Mr.Bush wrote in a thank you letter. ``What an experience!''
What exactly did Bush experience? Ilka is getting ready to show me. I have tried to answer his query about the dollar and we are both sweating profusely. ``OK, let's go,'' he says. We jump up, our skin red, and we go outside where it is only about 50 degrees. The cold Baltic Sea beckons below. We jump. Coming to the surface, I am numb.
``This is nothing,'' Ilka assures me. ``In the winter, we cut a hole in the ice and plunge in.''