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SAUNA

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

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?

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

“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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LIVING IN GERMANY

REVEALED: The most commonly asked questions about Germans and Germany

Ever wondered what the world is asking about Germany and the Germans? We looked at Google’s most searched results to find out – and help clear some of these queries up.

Oktoberfest
Hasan Salihamidzic, the sports director of FC Bayern, arrives with his wife at Oktoberfest in full traditional dress. Photo: picture alliance/dpa |

According to popular searches, Germany is the go-to place for good coffee and bread (although only if you like the hard kind) and the place to avoid if what you’re looking for is good food, good internet connection and low taxes. Of course, this is subjective; some people will travel long stretches to get a fresh, hot pretzel or a juicy Bratwurst, while others will take a hard pass.

When it comes to the question on the bad Internet – there is some truth to this. German is known for being behind other rich nations when it comes to connectivity. And from personal experience, the internet connection can seem a little medieval. The incoming German coalition government has, however, vowed to improve internet connectivity as part of their plans to modernise the country.

There are also frequent questions on learning the German language, and people pointing out that it is hard and complicated. This is probably due to the long compound words and its extensive grammar rules, however, as both English and German are Germanic languages with similar words in common, it’s not impossible to learn as an English-speaker.

Here’s a look at some of those questions…

Why is German called Deutsch? Whereas ‘German’ comes from the Latin, ‘Deutsch’ instead derives itself from the Indo-European root “þeudō”, meaning “people”. This slowly became “Deutsch” as we know it today. It can be a bit confusing to English-speakers, who are right to think it sounds a little more like “Dutch”, however the two languages do have the same roots which may explain it.

And why is Germany so boring? Again, probably a generalisation, especially given that Germany has a landmass of over 350,000 km² with areas ranging from high rise, industrial cities to traditional old town villages and even mountain ranges, so you’re sure to find a place that doesn’t bore you to tears.

Perhaps it is a question that comes from the stereotype that Germans are obsessed with strict about rules, organised and analytical. Or that they have no sense of humour – all of these things being not the most exciting traits. 

Either way, from my experience I can confirm that, even though there is truth to German society enjoying order and rules, the vast majority of people are not boring, and I’m sure if you come to Germany you’ll meet many interesting, funny and exciting people. 

READ ALSO: 12 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Germany

When it comes to the German weather, most people assume a cold and cloudy climate, however this isn’t entirely true. While the autumn and winter, especially in the north, comes with grey skies and sub-zero temperatures, Germany can have some beautiful summers, with temperatures frequently rising above 30C in some places.

Unsurprisingly, the power and wealth of the German nation is mentioned – Germany is the largest economy in Europe after all, with a GDP of 3.8 trillion dollars. This could be due to strong industry sectors in the country, including vehicle constructions (I was a little surprised to find no questions posed on German cars), chemical and electrical industry and engineering. There are also many strong economic cities in Germany, most notably Munich, Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg.

READ ALSO: Eight unique words and phrases that tell us something about Germany

Smart and tall?

Why are Germans so tall? They are indeed taller than many other nations, with the average German measuring a good 172.87cm (or 5 feet 8.06 inches), however this may be a question better posed to the Dutch, who make up the tallest people in the world.

Why are Germans so smart? While this is again a generalisation – as individuals have different levels of intelligence in all countries – this question may stem from Germany’s free higher education system or their seemingly efficient work ethic. Plus there does seem to be some scientific research behind this question, with a study done in 2006 finding that Germans had the highest IQ in Europe.

So, while many of the questions posed about Germany and Germans on Google stem from stereotypes, we can confirm that some aren’t entirely made up. If you’re looking to debunk some frequently asked questions about France and the French, check out this article by our sister site HERE.

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