You know how the wardrobe in “The Chronicles of Narnia” transports the Pevensies to the land of Narnia? The changing room at the Finnish sauna I visited with two friends in Saxony was something like that. Only instead of Narnia, we entered Naked-ia, or perhaps Nude-ia.
My students often ask if Americans are really as conservative or as modest as they hear. I’m never quite certain how to answer, but after visiting the sauna I think I can better answer the question — in a word, yes. We are uncomfortable with nudity and don’t allow it to be shown on TV or in magazines (obviously there are some exceptions). Being naked is shameful, improper and something that should never be done in public — unless you’re at Sauvie Island. We don’t even make exceptions for Janet Jackson, you guys. And if she isn’t entitled to the occasional freebie flash, who is?
So back to Nude-ia. My Nürnberg-dwelling friend Megan and I visited Annie in Saxony a couple of weeks ago and decided to check out a Finnish sauna in her little town. Megan and I were both sure to pack swimsuits and we headed toward the sauna with trepidation. We enjoyed the snow flurries but should have spent more time enjoying our last fleeting moments of naivete:
We arrived and explained why we were there: to get our sauna on. Did we have bathrobes? No. Had we been to a sauna before? No. The kind man at the front desk pointed out the facility’s hot spots (get it?) in hushed tones, but not a word was whispered about what we should wear or the proper order of our sauna-hopping. Dampfbad, scented sauna, super hot sauna? Sauna until you’re about to pass out and jump in the frozen outdoor pool, sweat-lodge style? We will never know.
I think we knew deep down inside that we would have to get naked, but we held on to our last bit of hope — and the sashes to our borrowed bathrobes — to take a peek outside the door of the changing room, where our worst fears were confirmed: naked people everywhere. Back to the lockers with our bathing suits, and with them the last shreds of dignity.
What ensued was a lot of confusion, awkward laughter and strategic towel placement. We never really figured out if there was a proper sequence to the art of sauna, but did learn that when in a sauna with people who are not your friends, it’s apparently only okay to communicate via gestures and facial expressions. For example, a face displaying panic and anxiety means “let’s get out of here.” A raised eyebrow and a nudge indicates “should we hop into this here hot tub or is it simply a rinsing tub and why is it so small? How can we best avoid looking out of place?” (Never found out the answer to that second query.)
We opted out of dining at the sauna’s restaurant — something about eating with actual silverware while surrounded by fellow bathrobed sauna-goers felt strange to me, but we did take advantage of the Ruheraum (roughly translated: peaceful room) and its hanging beds. There are some tiny photos of it at the sauna’s website if you are looking for a better mental image! For some reason we didn’t think it would be appropriate to take pictures inside the sauna — that would be a rookie mistake and by this point we were sauna savants.
A few days ago I was speaking to a colleague about the sauna and she recommended a few in Munich that have days specifically set aside for women. I tried to explain why it was such a strange experience for an American and ended up saying something about how we aren’t comfortable with our bodies and we are “nie nackt,” which I immediately realized translates to never nude. “Arrested Development” fans should understand why I started laughing uncontrollably at that exact moment (a character on the show is a “never nude” and wears jean shorts all of the time, even while showering).
I tend to think of Germans as being a very serious people, and as I was relaxing on the hanging bed (between watching the snow fall outside and wondering if the tassled rope dangling above my head would set off an alarm or merely turn on a reading light) I realized how very serious they can be…about relaxing. And being naked. There is a “free body movement” (Freikorperkultur, or FKK for short) in Germany that basically embraces the concept of being comfortable being naked. I hear you can find FKK-ers doing what they do best on a sunny day in the Englischer Garten. Something tells me Janet would be welcome there.