I’ve always been a big fan of the sauna. A good sauna can relax you, clear your head, and make your skin look great. And all of this for a mere fifteen minutes of sweating. Not a bad deal, when you think of it. I would love to go to a sauna right now, but I’m busy trying to unpack music books, learn how to pronounce unbefristige-Aufenthaltserlaubnis, and teach my son how to say danke to the cheese lady at the local market.
In Germany saunas are for naked people only. Bathing suits are verboten. Fine. But I’m an American woman. I’m fond of Lycra tank suits in dark colors, preferably with invisible lace-covered support panels. These days I worry that my six-pack looks more like a one-pack. A naked debut in public should be left to those on the prettier side of middle age.
One of the great things about moving to a foreign country is getting a chance to discover just how brainwashed we are by our own customs and traditions. After just a few months in this country, I can see the German catalog of odd customs is just as wacky as its American counterpart. The trick, I suppose, is to figure out which American habits to toss and which German habits to adopt. Maybe the sauna would be a good place to start.
With this in mind I set off for the sauna. My husband stays home with our toddler son, who yells on my way out the door, “Get NAKEY, Mommy.”
I enter the Sülztal Family Sauna—an oasis of tranquility tucked into a corner of meadow next to the Autobahn. I pay my fee for a day pass, tuck my hang-ups in the locker with my underpants, put on a bathrobe, and step through the heavy wooden door into a room filled with fountains, pools, and sunlight streaming through generous windows. There are men everywhere. Old men. Young men. Naked men. Water, water everywhere and not a gal in sight. I thought this was supposed to be a family place.
I try not to stare, really I do, but I’ve got a front-row seat at the Penis Parade, and it’s a spectacle I’ve never seen before. These guys have other remarkable features, I’m sure, but all I see are penises. Fat ones, skinny ones, dangling and dazzling, the long and the short of it. Who knew there were so many varieties? And look! That penis marching toward the waterfall? It’s wearing a little hat.
Flip, flop, flip, flop. The sound of the naked men’s pool shoes flapping on the tile floor slaps me back to reality.
“Brauchen Sie Hilfe?” says a middle-aged man with a friendly penis. I mean smile. I have no idea what he’s saying. In addition to my lack of German-language skills, I am also suffering from hysterical deafness.
I put on my very best face, the one I once wore when asking for assistance at the Chanel counter at Saks Fifth Avenue, cinch the belt on my bathrobe, look him in the penis, I mean eye, and say, “I am lost. Where is the door? You know. Door. Go outside.” I am speaking in a very loud American Indian voice, the one I use when I think I’m talking to non-English speakers. I sound like Tonto.
“You are standing right next to it,” he says, in perfect English. “Here, allow me.” He is a gentleman with no pants on. He opens the door and I step through.
Germans love fresh air, even when they’re naked and the temperature is cold enough to stun a polar bear. I walk through the garden, shivering. I sneeze. This is ridiculous. I’m at a place that specializes in heat, and I’m out here freezing my ass off.
Hey, look at that guy there. The one with the blond penis, I mean hair. Well, that too. He looks like Sting.
I follow Sting because he looks like he knows where he’s going. He jumps into a pool, and I continue on the circular path until I’m back at the entrance to the main building. I spot the steam room and peer through the glass door. Two women. No men. This I can handle.
I look over my shoulder to make sure no one is staring, remove my bathrobe, yank open the door, and enter the steam room. The two naked ladies acknowledge me with a hearty “Guten Morgen.” In Germany, when you enter a bakery, the waiting room of the doctor’s office, or a sauna full of buck-naked people, you are required by some mysterious code to shout out a greeting. Then you sit down and completely ignore everybody until it is time to leave, at which point you walk to the door and shout out a spirited goodbye. This custom can be particularly daunting for a naked foreigner.
“Guten Morgen!” I yell back at them. Silence. I sit. I wait. The steam hisses and covers us in a translucent fog. The mist airbrushes my stomach wrinkles and the voices in my head are quiet. It’s peaceful in here, a rain forest without the forest. Okay, maybe it’s a tad too warm. Just a tad, but I’m coping.
The two other women stand and stretch. Before leaving, they turn on a hose and spray off the bench for the next guests. What a nice country, I think.
“Auf Wiedersehen,” they shout.
“Auf Wiedersehen,” I respond. I’m one of the crowd now. No one would ever guess I’m American. I’m just another naked Frau out for a steam.
It feels so luxurious, so decadent, being in this huge steam room all by myself. But warm. Very warm. Some might say hot. Boiling hot. Oh my God. Time to get out of here. I teeter toward the exit. Just as I reach the door, two barrel-chested men barge into the steam room.
“Guten Morgen!” they shout.
“Guten Morgen!” I say. Now what? If I remain standing I’m fully exposed.
I sit down. I cross my arms and my legs, hiding my private parts by turning myself into a human pretzel. I’m sweating like a Schwein. If I don’t get out of here soon I’ll faint. Drat. Worse than having these two guys see me naked in a steam bath would be to wake up in a German Krankenwagon with nothing on. Or what if I die from the heat and end up in the Nakey Morgue with a coroner making snide comments about my lack of muscle tone?
Just as I’m about to flee, I remember that I’m obliged to spray off the damn bench. I grab the hose and turn on the faucet. The hose flies out of my hands and sprays one of the men in the face with cold water. He yells. The hose—which has a life of its own—writhes on the mosaic tiles like a snake in an Indiana Jones movie. I hit the floor and crawl around—buck-naked—wrestling with the hose as it jerks up and down.
So much for dignity.
Sorry sorry sorry. I slide back toward the faucet. As I turn off the water I hear the men muttering something about foreigners. There goes the neighborhood, I imagine them saying.
I do not spray off my seat, and I do not shout a cheerful “auf Wiedersehen” as I drag myself out the door. I lean against the cool tiles of the shower area, gulping at the fresh air. For just a second, I forget that I’m naked. I notice my skin is as soft as a baby’s behind. A middle-aged baby, but I’ll take it.
I learn to love my neighborhood sauna. I experience one minor setback when I turn on the automatic “back massager” in the outdoor cold-water swimming pool. It unleashes a powerful stream of water that catapults me like a nude Scud missile to the other side of the pool, right in front of the folks having lunch on the terrace. By the way, when the weather is warm, many of the diners are also naked. I haven’t yet mustered up the courage for nakey dining. Somehow drinking a cup of hot coffee while topless doesn’t seem like the wisest choice.
My husband now enjoys the sauna as much as I do. He has become an expert in the Sauna Step-over Technique, a tricky procedure that involves lifting one’s leg and stepping over other naked people. Without the benefit of a bathing suit, or, at the very least, underpants, this can be difficult to master while maintaining a sense of decorum. Years will pass before I’m brave enough to attempt a step-over—I learn to look for a person with closed eyes, step lively, and try not to cough.
I’m at home in the German sauna now, even though, deep down inside, I still feel slightly embarrassed—and very American—when I enter the land of the unclothed. I’ve stopped staring at penises, chasing hoses, and flinging myself across swimming pools. I don’t know why the naked sauna was such a big deal for me in the first place. No one stares, no one cares, because naked, we all look pretty much the same—vulnerable, fragile, and flawed. Every so often I run into one of the gorgeous people, a Sting look-alike or a supermodel or a champion figure skater. We avoid eye contact and sit together and sweat. German or American, we all carry the weight of our nakedness, light as a feather, heavy as the past. Maybe it’s a burden worth sharing.
“Get nakey, Mommy!”
Yes. Why not?