Sauna is one of the few Finnish words to make it into colloquial English, and the sauna is one of Finland’s most recognizable icons. In Finland, a country with 5 million inhabitants, there are over 2 million saunas. Therefore, the sauna was a natural choice as a mobile Finnish cultural ambassador to the United States. Ahead of the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence on December 6, 2017, two men—Risto Sivula and Jouko Sipilä—spent an entire year traveling the US with a mobile sauna in tow. Sivula even quit his job in the packaging industry in Minnesota to take charge of the project, which received funds from 20 private sponsors and a grant from the Finnish embassy. The Finnish ambassador herself, Kirsti Kauppi, showed great interest in the project and followed it closely. The sauna was named Sisu, after a Finnish concept of grit and resilience without a direct equivalent in English. This was certainly an apt name for the mobile sauna that traversed the country from coast to coast, traveling more than 20,000 miles in total.
Back in Finland, celebrations have been ongoing throughout the year for the centennial—events have been organized across the country, and various products have featured a “Finland 100” logo. Aside from celebrating a major milestone in the country’s history, the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence has also provided an opportunity to reflect on what Finland is today. Overall, most Finns agree on what the major events in the country’s history are, and the focus has therefore been on the present and the near future. What should Finland be now that Nokia is a shadow of its former self, and what else besides its excellent school system can propel it into the future? Perhaps solutions to some of these issues can be worked out in a sauna.
The sauna has a central place in Finnish cultural and social life, and is a place where people are allowed to relax in an intimate setting and talk about life; it is to Finland what pubs are to England. But books like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” suggest that there may be a lack of such spaces in the US today. Increasingly, Americans withdraw into their own private spaces rather than venture into communal ones, which erodes trust, social capital, and people’s sense of belonging.
Most Americans have little knowledge of what a sauna is, but people have nonetheless come out in droves to visit Sisu and learn about sauna culture. During the course of the Sisu project, the sauna has been used by more than 1,400 people and was seen by more than 100,000 visitors. The response from visitors has been overwhelmingly positive, which Sivula chalks up to—among other things—the fact that the mobile sauna has used a wood-burning stove that gives a more pleasant experience compared to the electric stoves usually found in the US. Sivula thinks it has been an entertaining and memorable experience, giving him a chance to meet and interact with the Finnish diaspora and visit many diverse communities across the US. Furthermore, the sauna being a distinct oddity in the US landscape, Sivula and Sipilä had the pleasure of appearing on morning TV shows across the country, as well as appear in blogs and magazines.
The Sisu mobile sauna on the road. Photo: Travelingsauna
Although Sivula does not own a sauna in the US yet, he would like to eventually get one. He thoroughly enjoyed the project and found it an easy way to get into conversations with strangers. Sivula considers the Sisu project a huge success and is happy with the choice he made a year ago. However, when asked if he would do it again, he laughed and confidently replied “No!” Although it was an enjoyable and rewarding experience, it was hard work and certainly a one-off adventure for him.
In countries like America, where people feel an increasing sense of isolation and alienation, perhaps Finnish saunas can offer one example—however small and simple–of how to bring people together. At least the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs seems to think so. The sauna is an integral part of Finnish diplomacy, and most Finnish embassies are equipped with one. Over the years, these saunas have been places for nurturing relationships with local decision-makers. Former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Pertti Torstila has encouraged other countries to use saunas as tools for building friendships and negotiating deals. Although the Sisu project was a one-time occurrence for a once-in-a-lifetime milestone, sauna diplomacy is here to stay.