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How a German sauna taught a prudish American to relax at the sight of naked flesh

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How a German sauna taught a prudish American to relax at the sight of naked flesh
Photo: DPA
17:10 CEST+02:00
When American writer Jessica Guzik arrived in Berlin, she wanted to rid herself of her American neuroses. But was the sight of people tarring themselves in salt a step too far?

“I have an idea for your book,” my friend texted.

“Go on…”

“It involves naked people. Like properly.”

“I’m listening.”

“Have you been to a German sauna?”

I gulped. I had just moved to Berlin from the U.S., and I was still adjusting to Germany’s relaxed attitude towards public nudity.

In the U.S., our clothes, regulations, police, movies, and Netflix reinforce the idea that nudity is illicit. Getting naked is something you do behind closed doors or in front of a webcam for money. American nudity is inherently sexual; there is no interpretation of the unclothed human form but as an invitation for sex.

In Germany, the naked body in and of itself is inert. Nipples are mum, thighs are mute, and it’s all quiet on the buttocks front. This is true regardless of how small, big, wide, narrow, light, dark, or hairy one’s body. There’s no message to glean by the sight of flesh alone. To the extent that the naked body communicates anything, it depends entirely on circumstance.

SEE ALSO: The dos and don'ts of public nudity in Germany

If I wanted to blow past my American neuroses, I knew I had to go to a sauna. Still, I was nervous. I agreed to go, but I sought to learn everything about the situation I was walking into. I texted my friend: What should I pack? Who will be there? How much natural light will there be? When, exactly, do I get naked? Will there be a cue, like a whistle?

My friend did his best to calm me down and we eventually met up at Liquidrom, a Berlin spa with several saunas and a dark saltwater pool.

For all my anxiety, I blushed to learn just how chill Liquidrom was. People of all shapes and sizes ambled down the Liquidrom’s long hallways, nonplussed by their state of undress. When I saw a man eating couscous in his bathrobe - which sounds like the beginning of a Dr. Seuss book - I knew everything was going to be okay.

We headed towards the saunas for something called an Aufguss. My friend then signalled that it was time to get naked, so I took off my bikini bottom in one swift motion, like a Bandaid. I did the same with my top. Then I pretended I wasn’t naked. Have you ever played hide-and-seek with a toddler? They cover their eyes and think they’re hiding. After all, if they can’t see you, why should you be able to see them? Using that same reasoning - which is to say, no reasoning - I averted my eyes from the naked bodies around me. If I didn’t look at them, some part of me believed they wouldn’t look at me.

Photo: DPA

The sauna was small, dark, and hot, like a cross between a ski cabin, a romantic restaurant, and an oven. In the middle of the sauna a boxy radiator topped with hot stones clicked and cracked. I sat against the wall, thigh-by-sweaty-thigh with the other Aufguss participants.

The Aufguss began when the guide - let’s call him Saunameister - closed the door and said something I didn’t understand in a calm and soothing voice. My friend filled me in: We were to sit in the sauna for five minutes, go outside for a salt rub, return to the sauna for another five minutes, and then rinse off.

From a bamboo bucket, Saunameister ladled water onto the stones on the radiator. They hissed and steamed. Then he took a damp towel and, holding it by two corners, fanned literal heat waves into our faces. The best part was the soundtrack of grumbles and groans as the men in the sauna vocalized their suffering.

Saunameister then opened the door and picked up another bamboo bucket. We followed. Outside, we cupped our hands to receive ladlefuls of snowy salt. I salted up my naked body like an oversized entrecôte. In a few minutes, we all looked like we had been rolling around on white sand beaches.

Saunameister then guided us back into the sauna, where we resumed our positions, and he closed the door. Again came the bamboo bucket of water, the ladle, the hissing rocks, the groaning. Again the flapping towel. As I shut my eyes against the bursts of heat, I monitored my own body. I felt condensation form on my skin; I tasted the salt of sweat when I licked my lips; I felt my insides warm and cool in alternating waves as my body self-regulated its temperature. My body, the one I was so anxious about a few minutes ago, became an object of meditation, even an object of appreciation. It was doing everything it could to keep me alive in the extreme environment I had subjected it to.

Finally Saunameister opened the door and gave a sing-song-y “Alsooooo!” Everyone headed to the shower. When I dried off, my skin smelled like eucalyptus and baby oil. In my blissed out, post-Aufguss state, my hang-ups about nudity seemed overblown.

Nobody at Liquidrom was there to judge me, nor was I at Liquidrom to judge anyone else. Everyone was there for the same reason: to relax. And, in the end, I was able to relax too.

This piece was excerpted and edited from Let’s Take Berlin, a book about expat life in Berlin by Jessica Guzik

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