Full steam ahead | Monocle

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Dappled light from high windows bathes the wooden boards of the sauna inside the Finnish ambassador’s residence in Warsaw. The Polish parliament may be nearby but the heated world of politics feels entire countries away. Since moving from Helsinki in 2014, ambassador Hanna Lehtinen has made the sauna her sanctuary – a familiar ritual in a foreign land.

Completed in 1975, the residence, which adjoins the embassy, was designed by Finnish architect Eric Adlercreutz who had previously worked with Alvar Aalto. With its straight lines, panelling and brass fixtures it is smart but also channels Nordic cosiness. A wooden staircase leads down to the sauna and swimming pool. With its fireplace and furniture by Artek (including Aalto’s famous tea trolley), the sauna area offers a convivial refuge. “When the residence was built, the diplomats lived a more isolated life,” says Lehtinen in reference to the Cold War, when Warsaw was a much greyer city. “The sauna was a place for them to relax.”

Even more than that, it was a piece of home: Finland has more than three million saunas for a population of 5.5 million. “The sauna is one of the basic cornerstones of Finnish culture,” says Lehtinen. She starts her day with a swim and two or three times a week she fires up the sauna. “In the past, saunas were almost sacred. Women would give birth in them and families cooked there,” she says. In decades past they were also the setting for what Lehtinen calls “sauna diplomacy”. “It was where confidential discussions were held and deals were made.”

After joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the early 1980s, she recalls having to wait for hours for her male colleagues to emerge from the sauna. “Diplomacy is much more gender balanced now,” she adds, pointing to how many of Finland’s ambassadors are women. Lehtinen’s own career has focused on European affairs, with postings in Brussels and work on Finland’s accession negotiations before it joined the EU in 1995. She sees parallels with Poland’s European trajectory. “Things have happened so quickly here,” she says of the changes in the country since the fall of communism in 1989. “There is such dynamism; a hunger to develop.”

As Lehtinen prepares to move on from her post in late August, the residence’s sauna will become her successor’s to enjoy. They’d do well to heed her advice on how to make the most of it: “There are absolutely no rules; this is a place to relax,” she says. “Listen to your body and mind.”

The CV:

1982 Graduates with a master’s in economics
1983 Joins the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland
1996 Joins Finland’s Permanent Representation to the EU
2007 Moves to the Department for Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
2014 Appointed ambassador of Finland to Poland

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