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SAUNA

Undressing at a Berlin sauna wasn’t the moment of liberation I’d hoped for

A visit to a Berlin sauna for a hen party challenges a prudish Brit’s boundaries on baring all in public.

Undressing at a Berlin sauna wasn’t the moment of liberation I’d hoped for
Photo: DPA

To my own surprise, I was disappointed to discover that my first hen party experience in Germany would be a classy affair.

Instead of indulging in strippers and inadvisable amounts of booze, we were going to Vabali, one of Berlin’s premium spas. While some might have found this a refreshing take on the famously debauched rite of passage, I wasn’t so enthusiastic.

In Germany, a trip to a spa usually involves some compulsory nudity – a prospect this Brit wasn’t all that comfortable with.

From spas to swimming pools, at parks and on the beach, Germany’s Freikörperkultur (FKK), or free body culture, is a far cry from the prudish outlook towards baring all back in Old Blighty.

Rooted in the country’s history and still widespread today, public nudity enjoys a long-held acceptance in Germany. It isn’t strange to find people sunbathing topless in the local park. Do the same in the UK and you may find yourself receiving a brisk tap on the shoulder, with warnings that the children in the vicinity might – God forbid –  see you.  

The hen do wasn’t my first brush with Germany’s relaxed outlook. As a child holidaying in Bavaria, I remember the trauma induced by the swimming pool changing rooms, where I rigidly refused to make eye contact with any of those bizarre naked people. My mum tried to put me at ease. “Nobody’s looking! This is normal – they just…aren’t fussy like that!” she had insisted in vain.

Now that I’m a fully-fledged adult, the spa trip felt like a timely opportunity to readdress the nudity question, and maybe even to understand what the Germans were on to. Having experienced moments of body dysmorphic disorder in my late teens, I suspected that the experience of being naked in public could be either cathartic or catastrophic. It was nerve-wracking, and I found myself pining for the considerably less stressful strippers-and-booze hen party alternative.

I wish I could say that unrobing by the pool for the first time that day was the moment of powerful liberation I never knew I was waiting for. But in reality, it was painfully awkward. Similar to my childhood experience of Bavarian changing rooms, I almost broke my neck in a bid to look absolutely anywhere except, accidentally, at somebody else’s genitalia.

Something about being naked in public felt so unnatural. For at least the first hour, the self-consciousness and fear of being looked at overrode what was meant to be a pleasant experience of being in the plush environment of Vabali. People wandered through the rooms freely without so much as their locker wristbands, but I was still reluctant to part with my robe.

Then we headed to the saunas. During the ten-minute sessions, there were around twenty of us packed into a tiny room in soaring temperatures, without even a towel to cover our naked bodies. It was in these saunas that I began to shake off my fears and gradually came to enjoy the freedom of being naked.

Uneven breasts, cellulite, spots in odd places; all these features typically seen as unfit for public appearance were on display, and nobody was trying to hide them. Instead, people were relaxed, sprawled out, chatting with friends. Everyone enjoying the serene, therapeutic settings, clearly not giving much thought to who could see them. Witnessing this left me comfortable enough to do the same.

At first, I couldn’t shake the fact that people might be able to see the flaws which I usually had the luxury of hiding under a craftily-fitted swimsuit. But the thing is, nobody was looking. In public spots like Vabali and indeed others where nudity is customary, naked bodies aren’t objects to be leered at, to be preened or fussed over.

By the end of the day, my concerns became less about who could see my dimples and more about how I was going to survive another ten minutes in the soaring heat of these saunas. I wouldn’t say I had rid myself of all my body insecurities for good, but the experience did show me how insignificant they could become.

The weekend after the hen party, I took a day trip to Liepnitzsee, a lake slightly north of Berlin. Many spots on the shore were frequented by those in the nude, with FKK signs nailed onto the trees around us. As my boyfriend got stuck in a complicated towel manoeuvre to avoid bearing more than a hint of thigh as he changed, I couldn’t help but laugh, before shrugging off my towel and heading straight for the water – no swimming costume necessary.

SEE ALSO: The trip back home that helped me put my Berlin woes into perspective

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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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