Once upon a German sauna …
[Photo courtesy of EBM Photography: thanks Emma!]
As a volunteer Angel with the American charity Soldiers’ Angels I regularly write letters and cards to the troops to help take their minds off deployment and to attempt (in my quirky British manner) to entertain them. If I can make them smile or laugh that’s a great result so I often include funny stories. This is one of my favourites and definitely gets big smiles and laughs so I thought I would share it with you today 😉 Enjoy!
Around the cold winter months here in East Germany I like to head to the sauna for some rest and relaxation plus it’s amazing for your immune system and skin. I don’t like the heat on a permanent basis, I’m from the UK so a steady average all-year-round temperature of 12 degrees is just dandy and I’m not a sun worshiper like my fellow Germans here but diving into a 95 degree sauna for a few hours now and then is blissfully revitalizing.
However, the sauna and I … well, it wasn’t a straight forward love at first experience kind of thing. More like a massive culture shock that after the first experience took me a year to get over before I found the courage to try again.
I didn’t know anyone when I first got to Chemnitz in September 2006, I was 22 and had enrolled on the British Council teaching programme. I had just spectacularly failed my German degree, the school in Germany said they’d still love to have me and didn’t mind I was an evicted student so I decided to just move to Germany and see where life would take me. Kind of wing it. Through the British Council programme I met other teaching assistants here from all universities and countries. There were four of us in Chemnitz, three British girls and an American guy and we hung out together over the 9-month placement.
The three of us had been to Oktoberfest in Munich for a day trip slash over-night crazy beer-fuelled drunken train trip and we had taken several other outings and wanted to experience everything German and see as much as possible within the 9 months we had here. Well, one beautiful sunny Autumn day in October Nina suggested that we try going to a German sauna. The others however, were not so keen on the sauna idea. The sauna isn’t really a huge deal or ‘thing’ in the UK and it didn’t seem that exciting to the others. Nevertheless, Nina had heard much of sauna culture here in Germany, particularly East Germany and wanted to go. She looked at me, eyebrows raised in that hope of fellow comradery backing her up and me being me, up for trying new things, said “sure let’s go.” So I let Nina pick a day, time and location.
We decided to go to the main Stadtbad (city pool) sauna and meet after school ended around 2pm in the middle of the week. We figured it would be the quietest time to go. We arrived and paid our entrance fee which was surprisingly really cheap! We also noticed that they had 2 hours sessions, 3.5 hours and 5 hour sessions too. We thought 2 hours would be ample enough for the first trip but seriously, we wondered why anyone would need 5 hours in a sauna? Hard core!
So all paid and ready to start we headed towards the female changing rooms popping the plastic coins into the turnstyle machine.
Now before we go further, I should probably give you a slight overview of British saunas so you understand our perspective more and can see how our experience was so, well … definitely different. In the UK or at least in my village where I’m from, saunas are really not that popular. They are usually these little wooden boxes tucked away in changing rooms in gyms and you can probably fit about 5 people maximum. Saunas in the gyms are not exciting. You are also not allowed to be naked and need to wear bathing suits (no naked bodies on the wood please) and need a towel around you too (no dripping bodily fluids onto the wood either) and you sit there for 5 mins after a shower and relax. So to us, the 2 hour session we paid for, we thought we would be bored but Nina’s colleagues at her school assured her that we really would like the sauna and it is different to British saunas.
And it was.
So continuing with the story …
Chatting away and full of anticipation we entered the female changing room. We changed our shoes and put on our flip flops as the first sign instructed (no outdoor footwear beyond post 1) and then continued into the changing rooms but as we looked ahead we were suddenly and most abruptly brought to a halt. There, in front of us, in his full birthday suit was a rather old guy who smiles a warm wrinkly smile, greets us with a hello and ambles past. Not a towel or maple leaf in sight to cover any part of his modesty.
Nina and I frozen in disbelief (did we just see a naked dude?!) did not say hello (how rude of us!) and thinking the same thing, we dashed back out to the entrance and checked the sign. Yep. Female changing. We exchanged confused glances and then thought, maybe that old guy went into the wrong changing room and no one had the heart to tell him. OK. So we cautiously crept back in taking a wide berth avoiding eye contact with his crown jewels in all their exposed glory. We figured we would take the furthest, darkest corner away from him and then change in the loos just to make sure he didn’t see us naked. So we gathered our things, slipped into our swimming costumes and then secured everything away in the lockers taking our towels and heading out to the main sauna area as directed by the signs.
It was quiet, we didn’t see anyone in the showers nor anyone else for that matter and we realised the place was really quite spacious. We went straight on, took a right then a left and then as we approached the main atrium we started to hear low whispers and voices and mutually thought, ahh there are some people here.
We walked out into the atrium and then just stopped dead in our tracks. Yep. Definitely not alone! Mouths wide open, jaw hitting the floor, eyes popping out of our heads and the first thing we said was a unanimous, “fuck!”
Not only was the sauna heaving full with what one could consider a coach load full of old people on a day outing, but everyone was completely and utterly stark naked AND it was mixed. Men and women together. Yup. Coed sauna baby.
Oh holy fucking mother of God!!! (Sorry, Jesus.)
The entire atrium full of pink and red birthday suits went silent and stared at us in that, “can we help you?” tone. We literally couldn’t do anything but look at all the naked boobs, butts, penises and vaginas staring back at us! We looked at each other and just uttered, “oh my fucking God!”
My heartbeat was racing a million beats per second and I swear the entire atrium could have heard it! Sweaty palms and brow, dry mouth, speechless, panic setting in …
(keep calm for God’s sake Charlie, do not faint here with just naked people to bring you around!)
I hastily scanned the place, anti-clockwise to our right was a resting room (where there were sun loungers with blankets and the room is regulated to a warm temperature so you can go to sleep there if you want or just lie down) further up there was the ice room where you can plunge into a huge pool of ice water or rub ice all over your body from the ice/ slushy machine and the windows and doors are all glass so everyone gets a glorious view of your backside trying to climb the ladder up and down into the ice pool. Snaking around the atrium were several other rooms, all sauna rooms at different temperatures and with different herbal infusions in them and to the left was a large steam area with seats and buckets of ice water to douse yourself with. Then there were showers and hanging baskets filled with ice water so you could pull the cord and freezing water would plunge down over you. Behind us there was a communal area with tables, chairs and vending machines if you fancied a snack and there were plastic chairs everywhere adorning the edge of the atrium to sit down and rest on. Far to the right and beyond the resting room was a door leading outside where there was a private garden with hammocks and sun loungers for people to lie outside naked cooling off and right in the centre of the atrium was a wallowing pool where naked men and women were bobbing up and down and chilling out. I was trying not to look at floating boobs and penises but do you know how funny that looks?!
Nina and I were approached by a fully dressed male janitor. In a rather gruff strong Saxonian accent he told us to remove our swim suits or leave, pointing to a sign on the wall that stated, “No bathing suits allowed.”
We were beetroot. Nope, not just light pink blushing, we were full on bright red! We just wanted the ground to open up and swallow us.
In a defensive tone Nina retorted in her best German with very British accent, “but we are British. We don’t want to take off our swim suits!”
People were smirking and raising eyebrows in the background.
Then an older gent stalked up to us, trying to keep our eyes above his neck and thinking, “do not look down, do not look at his meat and two veg, eyes up top, up top” he commented, “girls, look by wearing your suits, you make it seem that it is unnatural and shameful to be naked and you insult our culture. You have the same bodies as the other women here and we all know what men and women look like naked. You shouldn’t be ashamed of how you look nor embarrassed and embrace what nature gave you. It’s just natural.”
Then another guy piped up from our right side echoing that it is natural and we shouldn’t be worried about what our bodies look like.
I think to myself, well you would say that Mr. Pervy. Nina and I are the youngest by about 30 years with toned skin and firm bouncing breasts and everyone else is slightly wrinkled, saggy and sporting a more fuller look in their pubic regions quite true to the German stereotype.
With a look of sheer panic on our faces and clearly being outnumbered and not likely to win this one, Nina spluttered that we will be right back. She dragged me hastily to the changing rooms to confer, leaving the other sauna visitors smirking and quietly resuming conversations.
“What the fuck are we going to do?” said Nina. Our hearts racing, our experience so far not exactly relaxing as we had envisaged. She then struck up such courage that I was in awe of her bravery and consequently inspired too! She proudly stated, “I’ll be damned if the Germans are going to beat us. We are British and when in Rome, do as the Romans do. We are going in …. but we are wearing our towels and not taking them off and we will just try a couple of rooms.”
So back into the loos we wriggled out of our swim suits (just in case a naked guy walked past us) and wrapped our towels around us holding them tightly like our lives depended on them and we braved the walk of embarrassing shame back again to the atrium. With our eyes firmly fixed on the floor (Nina muttering, “don’t look at all the cocks and vaginas, don’t make eye contact) we avoided the faces of the other visitors and dived into the first room we saw.
As our eyes adjusted to the low lighting; a stark contrast to the atrium halogens, we realized just how humungous this sauna room was with its 5 rows of wooden banks and benches squaring the room easily accommodating 30 people. Men and women sprawled naked, some with legs wide open and others sitting or lying, chatting and muttering quietly to each other. We took the nearest spot on the bottom bench directly in front of us and tried not to think of the cock that was totally staring at the back of our heads. We looked at the floor and tried to breathe out and relax. It was crazy hot. The 95 degree sauna. The hottest one. Nothing like jumping in the deep end without warming up! Nina whispered, “so what do we do now?” I softly replied we should try to relax but neither of us could. Our hearts were racing, we were tense beyond belief, really scared thinking this might actually be some orgy gang bang type place and this was soooo out of our comfort zones, like off the frickin’ radar and ultimately, we are British. Prudish. We just don’t do nudity. It was also fucking boiling in there. We don’t do this hot either.
Then a younger guy energetically plopped down on the bench next to us. He glanced at us both and smiled a cheeky smile followed by stretching his legs wide apart whilst simultaneously letting his towel fall open. Almost as if he were presenting his prize genitalia for us to admire in true nature-documentary style and says, “hey ladies” with a wink.
Nina and I whispered a polite yet shy, reserved, don’t fucking touch us, hello and stared hard at the floor. Then of all things, he started chatting to us asking where we are from and how he clocked us when we walked in observing straight away that we obviously aren’t Germans. He continued saying how cute we are and how he would love to take us out for coffee and show us around. Oh. My. God!
People were quiet around us just eavesdropping.
Nina looked at me, she was closest to him and with wide scared eyes was telepathically telling me she wants to get out of there and I need to rescue her. Instantly I looked straight at him and got all defensive, “hey dude this is so inappropriate. We are naked and you are hitting on us!” Nina grabbed my hand, yanked me up and said in English, “let’s just get the fuck outa here Charlie!” We held our towels, walked as fast as we could almost breaking into a run and headed back to the changing rooms. Past the ice room where we saw men and women rubbing each other with ice (hope they were couples!) and past the wallowing pool with floating boobs and penises, past the naked men chatting away on plastic chairs and out past the showers where both men and women were showering together. We grabbed our clothes from the lockers, didn’t even consider showering and changed quickly in the loos again. We put on our shoes and ran out of that place like it was on fire. Our faces certainly felt on fire.
Once outside we realised we had lasted about 20 minutes and it certainly wasn’t relaxing. Nina professed with rapid breaths that we were not to tell a soul about this but by the evening we had met up with the other two (Hannah and Patrick) and we were reciting the story and laughing our asses off and Hannah and Patrick were freaked out big time and relieved they hadn’t gone with us.
Nina, after sharing her ordeal with her fellow teachers at school, later found out that there are mixed sauna days and same sex days. Actually only one day in the week is a same sex day. Nina had picked a mixed day by accident and yes, naked coed sauna culture is huge in East Germany. We also had bad luck with the young guy too because the German teachers told her that that is inappropriate behaviour. Sauna etiquette is well … the sauna is a place of wellness where you unwind and look after your immune system and health and it and the other visitors should be treated with respect and dignity. People should be able to feel safe and relax. It isn’t skinny dipping, a place for hooking up and it shouldn’t be seen as ‘fun’ in that sense. It is holistic and serious. So guys, no hard ons please. The guy probably wanted to make us feel even more conscious and awkward having witnessed our embarrassing entrance and was just a douchebag.
We also found out that FKK (Freikörperkultur = nudism) is popular in East Germany with many parks and open air pools being nudist ones. And contrary to all the rumours, it isn’t a big orgy nor party for swingers. It really isn’t.
Anyways, after a year had passed, I met some Russian friends (ladies) through my husband Andriy who wanted to go to the Stadtbad sauna and relax. I was invited and after sharing my ‘experience’ and angst, they reassured me that same sex days were better so I braved it. And since then it’s been something I have quite wonderfully embraced and come to love. I have even been on a few mixed days too and I don’t mind now. And I’ve been to other sauna complexes where there are bars and naked guys and girls sitting on bar stools drinking and munching on snacks and just hanging out … literally!
The sauna really is a great way to unwind. It is so cheap and you can go in and out of the different sauna rooms and plunge into the ice baths and rest and your skin feels amazing afterwards. It boosts your immune system and clears impurities and is a great detox. It is the best feeling ever afterwards and you can inhale eucalyptus to ease breathing and clear your lungs (often sprayed over the coals in the sauna rooms) and you can lie naked in the garden either in summer sunshine or in winter snow and cool off. It is really cool. And being naked in front of strangers, it’s strangely liberating and I’m quite comfortable being naked and being around others naked. I have come to view the naked body completely differently now and appreciate every shape and form and see beauty in every unique body. And the scars, marks and cellulite and all the wrinkles, like trees with rings, they are proof of life, of having survived, each mark with its own story, making you the person you are. I have embraced the German mentality of openness and freeness with nudity and see us all as pieces of artwork. There is no such thing as perfection, that is a lie created by the media and fashion industries endorsed by celebrities getting liposuction and plastic surgery. We are all perfectly imperfect and beautiful, and aging, wrinkles, cellulite, all that is inevitable and part of life. You go to the sauna and see this, you see people young and old and look at your fate and future there. You see the transformation through age and if you look beyond the exterior, you’ll see happy content people who are just enjoying life as it comes. Over the years I have been frequenting the naked coed sauna, it has certainly helped me over come many body issues and relax in that sense, easing off the pressure to be beautiful and spend stupid amounts of money trying to look a certain way. And it gives me a realistic view of the human body and that men are also not like all the pin ups you see in magazines. There is just as much pressure for guys to look a certain way as much as girls.
I tend to find myself in embarrassing or uncomfortable situations from time to time because I am very inquisitive and always want to learn and know more. I’m experimental. But it is only when we get out of our comfort zones do we really learn who we are and how we react to things and that inspires change and growth. So, I would say if there are new things you want to try, just do it with an open mind and if it goes wrong, just laugh and brush it off. You’ll know either way if it’s your thing or not and it will make for a great story. On the positive side, you might actually discover things about yourself you didn’t know and uncover new things you love and in turn they might help heal you from issues you’re struggling with and change your perspective on how you see life. And that’s never a bad thing.
Stay open minded, don’t judge until you’ve tried it and have fun in everything you do!
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