To Bare or Not to Bare

German, Swiss and Austrians do. Swedes generally do not. The jury is still out on Norwegians and Danes. Finns probably do. Southern Europeans? Doubt it. Americans and Brits definitely do NOT.

That is, go naked in a public sauna.

This may come as quite a shock to some of us Anglosphere members who consider going topless on an impersonal, expansive beach to be shocking enough. The idea of going Full Monty in a space the size of a closet, your neighbor close enough to see the color of his irises and the beads of sweat on his er…

No, public nudity is not a part of the American cultural repertoire.

The first experience I had with this going naked in public spa business was in Budapest. I was working in Germany and my close friend and colleague, Tracy, and I decided to take a weekend trip to Budapest. (Tracy, though half German and half British, is culturally, decidedly British.) We thought it would be a wonderful experience to visit a Hungarian bath and what better place than the historical Gellert hotel?

We arrived bright-eyed and enthusiastic, signed up for a massage (Tracy had never had one), and admission to the healing, warm spring waters in the large, marble bathing area. Having paid our entrance and massage fees, we were given a tightly wrapped bundle and sent to the women’s locker room.

The locker room was large and had a few private rooms in which to change. Tracy and I took our respective bundles and gym bags into separate rooms. (Get undressed in front of one another? American and British females? On what planet?) Moments later, we were in our swimsuits and heading to the bath for some spa feeling and healing.

Headed there, that is, until a huge, burly woman with an unfriendly face started yelling at us, pointing to our swimsuits and then jabbing her finger at the bundle that we had yet to unwrap.

Turned out that bundle contained the bathing costume that we were to wear.

That is, if we chose to wear anything at all.

And most people apparently didn’t.

At least not one other person out of the 100 mixed gender, fellow bathers we met when we entered the bath area.

Actually, ‘entered’ is not the right word. We, rather, slithered into the bath. The reason?

The bathing costume we had on would have made a wonderful addition to the wardrobe in a “Debbie does…” production (if you haven’t heard of this, let me just say that you won’t find it under the “For Family” movie section). The “costume” looked like a full-body apron that had been shrunk to a quarter of its original size. The bodice (i.e. small, square scrap of material) managed to cover one’s sternum and pretty much nothing else. The skirt (more the size of a face veil) barely (pardon the pun) afforded any frontal modesty. As for the back…well, let’s just say that there was great air circulation.

I won’t even go into detail about the sumo-wrestler women who threw us on a cement slab (no mini apron allowed for the massage) and scrubbed and hosed us down, head to toe, for our “massage.” Suffice it to say that we departed considerably less bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than when we had arrived. Tracy, a wee, tiny gal, had bruises along her spine for weeks.

(I don’t think she has had a massage since.)

Budapest was the first, but not the last, time I encountered public sauna nudity. On a ski vacation in Switzerland, let’s just say I kept my eyes firmly planted on the window in front of me to protect the modesty of my male neighbor to my left. In Austria, well…despite having “graduated” from bathing suit to towel (firmly wrapped; a hurricane couldn’t budge it from my body), I am still not relaxed about entering a room full of naked men. Suffice it to say, I never did see the inside of the beautiful sauna in our Solden hotel.

So, when the topic of sauna and nudity was stumbled upon over coffee with my friends and neighbors (one other American and two Germans), I wasn’t at all shocked when our German friends said that of course they go nude in a public sauna.

My lack of shock did not extend to our American friend who, despite being internationally well-versed, had somehow not come across the whole public nudity in sauna concept.

It appears that there is a certain sauna room etiquette expected, as well, specifically:

>    Bathing suits are out (akin to wearing a suit into your private bath)

>    Nudity is in

>    Towels are a must – preferably two, one for backside and one for feet (in other words, sweating on the benches of the sauna from any body part is frowned upon, the idea met with disgust and objection…which makes total sense…and here we Americans thought we were being all prim and proper by wearing a suit but committed a huge sin if we went towel-less).

v    Brushing off one’s sweat is not at all polite (unfortunately, some men still insist upon shaking about like wet dogs).

v    It is expected that you clean up your honey and leftover birch leaves (after the whipping) when you leave the sauna (and preferably, no honey as it’s messy). (This applies to Russia. Maybe Finland, too.)

v    While you are expected to be naked from the neck down, your head should be protected by a felt cap to avoid overheating (remember the paper hats we made in grade school?…these are just like that but made of felt…they actually work, by the way, no matter how silly they look). (Again, applies to Russia…probably Finland, too, the gurus of sauna).

So, coffee yielded more benefits than just a caffeine boost: Saunas for Dummies (i.e. Americans and Brits).

And when it came out that our German neighbor and her spouse, regular users of our compound’s sauna, extend their bare-all practice here…well…I still giggle when I think of our American friend’s British husband – also a regular user of our compound’s sauna – naively stumbling upon our German friends and neighbors a la naturel.

Luckily, to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Happy Birthday, dear Sis! And to all you ladies out there, have a great Int’l Woman’s Day!

3 thoughts on “To Bare or Not to Bare

  1. OMG I can remember it as though it were only yesterday! My massage lady kept telling me there was no meat on me! And do you remember dropping your token in the pool and we fished it out clinging on to each other with our toes ‘cos neither of us wanted to put our head under water! Good times! Tracy x

  2. Me, too! And the token, ahhh, yes, how could I forget. Thank goodness for talented toes! Remember recounting this story to Christian – the person who recommended Budapest to us in the first place!- in the cafeteria?…don’t think our audience got half what we said, we were laughing too hard. Ahhh, the good ‘ol days, eh? BTW do you have a Jessica #2? If your ears were burning earlier today it’s because I was telling my dog-walking pals about my fearless race driver friend. ; )

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