Sabine Buchwald: Sweating in front of the Parliament
  • Sweating for Europe  © Caroline Lessire
9 May 2017

Caroline Lessire ©

During Sweating for Europe Members of the European Parliament come closer to citizens than perhaps ever before. In a relaxing sauna atmosphere they discuss Brexit and the future of Europe – a conjointly organized event to celebrate Finland’s independence, which was achieved 100 years ago.


Finishing off the day in a sauna is an essential part of the savoir vivre in Finland, just like a relaxing siesta in summery Spain or a collective Weißwurst meal in southern Germany. Spending time together, engaging in conversation, and perhaps at the same time grasping some new ideas – all of this encourages a positive togetherness. Isn’t Europe now more than ever in the need of such solidarity? Finland, far up in the northern corner of the European Union, celebrates its 100th birthday this year, and at the same time its independence from Russian tsardom. “Together” is the motto of the worldwide celebrations, a motto that wishes to express looking at the past and towards the future – together.


A truly European project

Brussels, where the strings of the EU converge, certainly sees plenty of events. However, the comforting sausage eating and sweating in the context of international comprehension that took place 24-27 April 2017 in front of the European Parliament and cultural center Bozar had probably not been seen in this form in the city before. It was essentially all about community – and about Europe.

With the call to sweat for Europe, the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux, together with the Goethe-Institut, Alliance Française, EUNIC Brussels, Portuguese Instituto Camões, FIT Freie Internationale Tankstelle, the Finnish Sauna Society, Bozar and, invited people to enjoy the heat and to debate in a mobile sauna.

Both the 751 MEPs, but also everybody who was up for this collective experience, were invited to join. A barbeque (which traditionally completes the sauna relaxation in Finland) and singing bowl sounds from musician Tatu Rönkkö were spreading a significant, unbent party atmosphere.

“Europe is facing a lot of challenges these days. To develop a fresh look at the problems, an unexpected context can work wonders. So why not send MEPs into the sauna?”, thought Susanne Höhn, director of the Goethe-Institut of south-western Europe and co-initiator of the project.

The representatives were contacted personally weeks prior to the event. Some of them perhaps threw away the letter, shrugging. Finnish MEPs, however, were immediately elated by this unusual offer. In the end, some of their colleagues from for example Germany, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom were convinced to participate. Political attitudes did not matter here.

00 SFE Day 1 Sauna MEP 2 C.Lessire

Change in the concrete jungle

During the first night, Aleksi Malmberg, director of the Finnish Cultural Institute, emphasized in his short opening speech: “Everyone is the same [in the sauna]”. And smirking Heidi Hautala, Finnish MEP of the Green Party, proclaimed herself as a conservative: “I love the tradition of sauna. Tradition means to be conservative. Well, I am conservative”.

Conservative maybe, unpretentious certainly. When Hautala, with wet hair, red cheeks and a towel over her bathing suit let her body evaporate outdoors and for the entire world to see, she declared several times: “We [the Finnish women] don’t care about make up”. She and the other sauna goers were a refreshing change in the scenery of Brussels’ concrete jungle in front of the European Parliament.

Changing cabins and a small shower, colourful sunbeds and about one dozen trees in buckets shielded the event location from busy Place du Luxembourg. Thus, one felt well cared for, like being part of a community. A few curious Parliament visitors, however, dared to approach, taking selfies in front of the delicate springtime greens contrasted by the deep red varnish of the old fire truck, inside of which the sauna is built. German artist Dida Zende bought the vehicle years ago at the Lake Constance and converted it into a sauna in 2012 in Helsinki. A maximum of 10 people can sweat at the same time. A stove on the inside heats to around 100 degrees Celsius. Only the thirst of the sauna guests is left to be quenched, with mineral water or beer.

00 SFE Day 1 Ambiance Outside Day C.Lessire

Communication at eye level

Dida Zende needed 17 hours to drive to Brussels from Berlin-Mitte, where the mobile sauna is normally parked at his Freie internationale Tankstelle (“Free Petrol Station”, translator’s note), an alternative art location. In 2014, when Finland was guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, he and the sauna were invited to poetry slam events. His experience after all these years: “As soon as people are relaxed, communication gets easier”.

As the benches inside the fire truck are not arranged in the traditional cascaded way, the perspiring sauna goers actually meet at eye level. MEP Jo Leinen (S&D) was astonished as he left the fire truck with a glowing hue on his face: “Sauna clears the head”. This comes as no surprise to Aleksi Malmberg, as he knows this feeling since childhood. There are about 2 million saunas in Finland, a country with less than 5.5 million inhabitants. He says: “Sauna melts fear and builds trust.  It is a strong symbol of washing away the burdens of a hard day, in order to be ready for new things and fresh ideas”.

No strict sauna rules

What exactly was debated in the hours in and around the sauna in Brussels cannot be rendered in its entirety. Maybe words uttered in a shielded atmosphere should indeed not be brought outside such a context. Only this much: Paul Dujardin, the director of Bozar, and Susanne Höhn had a lively discussion about Finnish film director Aki Kaurismäki’s films. Lucy Anderson, British MEP (Labour), stressed her horror about imminent Brexit, but reckoned that the referendum was not yet the end. Europe’s political climate was discussed and keen sauna goer Aleksi Malmberg was asked over and over again about sauna rules in Finland, which are not as strict as for example in Germany. To enhance blood circulation, Finnish people whisk each other with birch twigs that have been soaked in hot water. But fixed sauna bath (löyly) times or showering rituals are not welcome among the Nordic EU neighbours. The only rule: “Close the door“, declares Mikko Fritze, finnophile director of the Goethe-Institut in Amsterdam, who led the discussion in the sauna, as well as afterwards in the Parlamentarium panel discussion.

31 SFE Day 3 Part I C.Lessire

In white bathrobes

Mikko Fritze and the politicians sat in white bathrobes in between birch forest wallpaper and the public, bringing to mind sanatorium guests. The Brussels dress codes were left in the changing room, it was only about statements. Lucy Anderson, for example, promised to “work for Europe until the last possible second”, and Finnish MEP Merja Kyllönen (NGL – Nordic Green Left) regretted the alienation of the politicians from the people, and that “for many years everyone was listening just to the [capitalistic] market”. At Sweating for Europe, she might have been as close to the people as hardly ever before in Brussels. Precisely because the sauna was also open for the public, which was a well-used opportunity.

At the end, Aleksi Malmberg sums up: “Sweating for Europe was a true cooperative initiative. The Finnish Cultural Institute wanted to celebrate the Finland100 anniversary year by actually doing good things together with our dear neighbors around Europe, and I am thankful for that experience”. Susanne Höhn enthused about the “very friendly cooperation with the Finns”.


Pictures from day one here

Pictures from day two here

ictures from day three here (BOZAR)

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Sabine Buchwald

Freelance web editor for the Goethe-Institut Brüssel. Sabine Buchwald is born in Munich in the South of Germany, is a freelance journalist who writes for the Goethe-Institut Brüssel and German Newspapers. She has been living in several countries such as England, Thailand, Indonesia, Spain, Australia, Switzerland and Belgium. She loves to travel, but she never made it up to Finland. After the sauna experience in Brussels now she desperately wants to go there. 

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