I don’t think it’s a big surprise to any American reading this blog that Europeans, and more specific to the point – Germans - have a higher level of comfort with public nudity than us States-side folks. From my perspective, there are few occasions that more clearly demonstrate this point than the legendary German sauna.
Ahhh the German sauna – what a marvel it is to this American eye. Recognized as a cultural mainstay, the sauna experience appears driven by almost ritualistic-like behavior among many a German-believer. Interestingly enough, the long-held notions connected to the healing properties of a “good ole’ sweat” have even found fans among those within the medical community who are known to encourage a restorative visit to assist in all that may ail you.
So it was that the day came that I too was indoctrinated into the German sauna as part of a wildly disastrous ski junket during my first year living in Europe. As I stumbled from the slopes, convinced that immediate medical attention was required, V led me to believe that a 30-minute session at the on-site sauna was a quick remedy for what appeared to me to be a ruptured spleen. Incapable of making thoughtful medical decisions on my own behalf, I agreed to partake but soon understood that my commitment to the sauna came with a trigger warning…
“Just so you know its unisex,” said V.
“Whatever, I don't care. I have been in unisex saunas in the States,” as I began to change into shorts and a tank top.
"You need to understand, everyone inside will be naked."
“Naked and unisex? Well you know full well that I will not be going in there without my clothes on. And I gotta tell you, it sounds to me like a perfect breeding ground for predatory behavior… lots of peering and peeking.”
“First of all, you are not allowed to stare at people.”
Allowed? How misguided in his thinking could my husband possibly be, as I knew for a fact that I would be giving everyone in there a heavy side-eye stare. Do you not know me, I thought?
“And the naked thing,” he added, “this is not an option, you are not allowed to wear clothes in there.”
Listen, I am all about cultural immersion but I gotta tell you, my very ingrained American-brain was having none of this. V’s promise that towels would be provided eased my apprehension and so it was that I entered the sauna wrapped up tightly and holding on with a death-like grip I thought not possible with the mere human hand. As he opened the door, we were ceremoniously greeted by a woman sitting with her legs propped up and open in a position I can only equate to one in the process of giving birth. I looked over at V and said loudly enough that I hoped she heard, “WTF?”
“Uhhh I agree, it’s odd she’s sitting like that but stop staring,” V hissed.
“Stop starring? I am not the one making sure that everyone who rolls in here gets a first-hand accounting on where babies come from.”
V quickly clamped down on my hand and escorted me to a section of the bench where he tried in vain to block my view thinking (mistakenly) that it would stop my rolling commentary on the virtues of crossing one's legs.
As I settled down into the overall sauna experience and started eye-balling the rest of the hot box’s dwellers, it was refreshing to note that they came in all shapes and sizes - unapologetic in their own personal nakedness and without judgment from the rest of the sauna’s inhabitants. As my time in the sauna ticked by, in looking down at my own strategically covered self, I must admit I began to feel a bit on the “overdressed” side and while I willed the blossoming European in me to throw caution into the wind and do as the Germans do, I quickly recognized that my ever-so American ways remained unwaveringly intact - as did my towel.