Sunday, May 23, 2010

Carrie Visintainer: Naked in Sauna World

The sign on the white swinging door at the Taunus Therme spa shows three stenciled pictures:  a cell phone, a camera, and a bathing suit. Each item is circled in red paint and then crossed out. I look down. The bows on my bikini are taut, but my hands are empty. Two out of three? With the tips of my fingers, I inch the door open, fully aware that I am in Germany, where the rules are as solid as the cars.

At first I only see bare floor, and I wonder if Sauna Welt, the world of saunas, has been spontaneously evacuated. Suddenly, a wooden door bursts open, and a crowd of sweaty men clamber out. They clutch wet towels and chat in throaty phrases. One man stretches his arms over his head. I force my eyes to his face: gray mustache, rosy cheeks, dimples. He smiles, eyes roving from my bikini top, to my bottom, then back to my breasts. His buddy follows suit.

I think of the Halloween party I attended in college a few years back, when I burst through the door in a bee costume, and everyone else was wearing jeans. I cringed, red-faced, navigating beer cups and slurred murmurs in search of my friends.

Today my costume screams “I am an insecure American!” Although I want to embrace the traditional European sauna ritual, my only experience with public co-ed nudity happened last year in Colorado in a sprawling hot spring pool on a moonless night. Even then I used my towel as a shield.

I squeeze my eyes shut, and open them again. The men are still naked, and they are still staring at my breasts. I sigh. Bikini or not, there must be a rule against this? In the three months I have been in Germany, I have discovered a new rule every day. First I didn’t bring my own bag to the Supermarkt, then I filled out the wrong form for a work permit, and then my chronic, accidental rule-breaking became almost comical. But at Taunus Therme it seems utterly obvious, even to an American, that staring is verboten.

Aware that a bikini holds more power than a striped yellow T-shirt, I snicker and decide to trump these tongue-lolling men. I tighten the string around my neck and pull the cloth tight over my butt. Like a cowgirl riding bareback, I move toward them, twirling a rope of my dark hair. They cower. I glare down at their penises and toss a smile into wide eyes.

As I navigate the maze of Sauna Welt, flip-flops slapping cobblestone, I take in my surroundings. The saunas are fully indoors, yet each one is tucked into the facade of a quaint European dwelling, complete with a peaked roof, curtained windows and arched doorways.  Wrought iron lamps punctuate the winding path. In the center sits a working stone fireplace surrounded by a semi-circle of tree stump stools, inviting one to rest a minute. Fake snow adorns the mantle. I feel like Little Red Riding Hood traipsing through a Bavarian village, except that the air smells like sweat tinged with honey. And everyone is naked. Sauna Welt is a bustling neighborhood of puckered bellies, knobby knees, dimpled thighs and wiry hair sprouting from wrinkled, dangling flesh.

This nonchalant display of “every body” should make me feel comfortable, but instead I am baffled. In Germany, naked neighborhoods may be as mainstream as Mr. Rogers, but in America I can only imagine them in pornos or rare nudist colonies. I can’t help but fear an impending orgy, the air thick with flinging sweat, muffled moans and pulsing limbs.

When I told Annika, my host sister, that I wanted to try the cleansing sauna ritual at Taunus Therme, she frowned.

“Saunas are FKK,” she said.



I remembered reading something about this in my guidebook. FKK was an acronym for something like “co-ed nudity without sex.”

“This is natural in Germany,” she stated.

I forced a smile. The concept, although intriguing, bucked all of my knowledge about the biological realities of human nature.

Before I could respond, Annika’s boyfriend, Tomas, strode in from the bedroom wearing jeans and a tight T-shirt. He rolled his eyes. “Why do Americans make everything sexual?”

My mind filled with images of the half-naked, fake-breasted women that blanket virtually every American fashion magazine. Hundreds of articles describe how to look good naked and please men in bed. If you don’t have the former, you can’t accomplish the latter.

My father warned me about the realities of the male psyche before I even had breasts. “If you show too much skin,” he warned, “boys will get the wrong idea.”

All through high school I wore knee-length skirts and fully-buttoned blouses, despite the teasing of my boyfriends. But then, at our playful pre-graduation award ceremony where students are voted “Most Likely to be Successful” and” Best Sense of Humor,” I  received the “Miss Derriere” award. I was too embarrassed to tell my dad.

On Trip Advisor, there were two reviews of Taunus Therme, both from American men.“BillTraveler” from New Jersey wrote that the best part of the spa is that it is “all nude upstairs, and unisex.” You could practically see him wink and belch.

Later, as I walked through the Frankfurt red light district on my way to the train station, I remembered that prostitution is legal and thriving in Germany. How is it possible that Germans have the unique ability to shove sexual desire out of their minds in the sauna?

Despite the faux fairyland setting, I have to admit that the saunas sound enticing. They have names like Yin-Yang, Aroma, Gemstone and Feng Shui, and some of them are infused with moisture, which makes my dry skin tingle with delight. A sign on the wall describes an appealing hourly ritual called Aufgasse, the pouring of the water, where a spa employee enters the sauna, whooshes out old air with a towel, pours scented water over the stones, and then swings a towel overhead to move the hot air around.

I stop outside of the Gemstone sauna and read the bold-typed sign. The focal point of this sauna is a dazzling amethyst, designed to neutralize negative energies. Maybe this experience would fill me with enough giddy joy to quell my inhibitions?  I grab my “sweat” towel from my cubbyhole in the wall, slide the door open and spot an open space in the corner, directly in front of the amethyst.

The four other people inside the sauna are sprawled out at various angles, every orifice bathed in the positive glow of the pink gem. One woman is lying flat on her back, her enormous breasts sagging like lumpy pillows at her sides. Her arms are draped overhead. Despite the swollen beads of sweat covering her body, her mouth is curved up in bliss. Next to her, a skinny man with acne sits cross-legged, eyes roving like a lifeguard.

Each person is situated on their towel. No flesh touches the wood benches. I survey my own towel, which is only a fraction of the culturally appropriate size.

Grasping each end firmly, I stretch the cotton until it puckers in the middle. Keeping it taut, I place it neatly on the bench and attempt to hold it steady as I wiggle my body onto it, legs tucked close to my chest, until I am pretty sure I am within the confines of the rectangle. When I look down, I see that my toes are poking onto the wood, but it’s the best I can do. I glance around. The lifeguard’s eyes poke the flesh of my thighs, and then rest on the large woman’s belly. I try to keep Annika’s words in mind. Maybe he is simply admiring feminine beauty.

Sweat beads on my forehead, and I wipe it away with the back of my hand. I check the clock on the wall: 11:10. Annika said to stay in the sauna for ten minutes, take a cold shower and rest for twenty minutes. Then repeat the cycle three times.

By 11:14 my bikini is soaking wet and sagging off my hips and shoulders. Waves of sweat pour off my forehead, stinging my eyes. Even my toes are sweating, leaving wet circles on the wood. I think of hot places:  Texas, Costa Rica, hell. This sauna seems hotter than all three combined. The sparse cloth of my bikini feels like a sticky cocoon, and I resist the urge to scratch and pull at the strings. I glare at the clock. The big hand is an arthritic finger inching forward, and I want to shove it along.

I count to sixty in my head as slow as I can, and then I curse the clock, peel my towel from the bench and stumble out of the sauna and into the tiled shower room. There is one other woman inside. Her blonde hair is splayed out over the rolls of her back, water pouring over her face. I turn the knob. Icy water pours down, and I pant and squeal, heart racing. Germans are masochists.  Defeated, I tug the bows of my bikini and let it fall to the ground.

I wander out of the shower in a light-headed daze, stumble toward my cubby hole, and grab my much-larger bath towel, wrapping it around me. Nearby is a quiet corner with chaise lounge chairs. I ease myself into a chair. A man in a blue robe is lying next to me, reading a magazine.

My skin is tingling, and my vision is slightly blurry. I breathe deeply, letting the chair support the full weight of my head, abdomen, thighs and feet. Suddenly, I feel like I am floating among billowy clouds. My fingers are feathers. I half-dream about fresh berries and chocolate. I realize the full benefit of the cleanse.

After twenty minutes, it is hard to think about standing up, but I want to try another round. One. Two. I roll to my side and slump out of the chair. As I move toward my cubbyhole, I remember that I am naked under my towel. My bikini is lying in a wet heap on the floor, and I cannot fathom sliding into the soggy cloth. Exchanging my bath towel for my sweat towel, I peek around the corner. The Herbal Sauna is close by, requiring little exposure.

I step out onto the winding path. Immediately, I encounter a mass of octogenarians. Their flesh hangs loosely from their angled bones, liver spots covering their bodies. One man has a huge scar on his thigh. Accidentally, my eyes graze his penis: folds of pink skin and a maze of purple blood vessels. Disgusting. I cross my arms over my chest.

The sign outside the Herbal Sauna says it improves mental clarity, but when I open the door, all I see is haze and flesh. There are nine people lining the two benches. The air smells like stale sage. Shoulders tense, I squelch my urge to run, find an open spot on the bottom bench and quickly assume my crouched position, toes facing the man next to me. He leans against the top bench, feet planted on the floor below. His nose is bulbous and he sounds like he’s snoring, but his eyes are wide open. He stares at me out of the corner of his eye.

I summon the clock for support. Nine minutes to go. It is slightly cooler on this lower bench, but the crowd is claustrophobic. Again, everyone is sprawled in various positions, and I can’t help but expect a low, sultry rhythm to spew from the hot rocks.

The man next to me shifts. His legs fall open to the sides, one hairy knee grazing my toes. I crouch tighter. He exhales and reaches an arm over the top bench, fingers touching my knee.  I slide backward. He gives me a sleepy smile, and moves his other hand to his thigh. I swear I glimpse a mass of expanding flesh...

Maybe the heat is deceiving me, but I don’t stay around to find out. I swing my legs to the ground, grab my towel and throw the door open. I find myself once again in the shower room, and this time the harsh water feels good.

Resting in the same chaise lounge chair, my heart beats fast and my arms are heavy. All I can think about is sweat swishing around on the floors of the saunas, germs multiplying, crawling up onto toes and thighs and...

I grab my belongings from the cubby hole and stride toward the locker room, where I cannot wait to put on my jeans and raincoat and trudge out into the gray afternoon. On my way I pass a juice bar. Two women are sitting on stools sipping orange liquid from glass mugs. One of the women waves her hands as she talks, earrings jingling, breasts thumping against her belly. She looks perfectly comfortable, as if she is clothed and sitting at a cafe on the plaza.

Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse a door that says Damen.

“Hmm,” I mumble, wondering why I didn’t see this before. Maybe it is simply a restroom. But as I slide through the door, I realize I missed a hidden gem. The Damen area is a collection of saunas designated just for women, complete with plush lounge chairs, a private outdoor patio and individual tanning beds decorated with ornate Asian designs. Everything is clean, bright and shiny. Why didn’t Annika tell me about this?

Dozens of women are using this area, and the only language I hear is German. Affirmed, I sit down on a chaise lounge, dropping my bag to the floor. A waif-like woman strides by, holding a blue striped towel. In the corner, two round women crouch together, giggling at something in a magazine. Next to me sits a woman in her sixties, white curls tickling freckled shoulders. She is engrossed in a novel, eyes wide, pink fingernails gripping the pages.

I smile, realizing I can finish my third round of sauna. Pushing my bag under the chair, I shed my towel and wander around freely, saying “Hallo” and “Guten Tag” to women as I pass.

As I sweat in the Venus sauna, still crammed onto my hand towel, I find that my breath comes more easily when I am not concerned about where to look or what men are thinking. I close my eyes and let the sweat drip from my chin to my toes. My mind drifts back to the FKK area. I shrug. To Annika and Tomas and all those who truly believe they can separate nudity from sex, I raise a Beck’s to you and say “Prost.”

Carrie Visintainer is a Colorado-based freelance writer.  Her essays and travel tips have appeared in the Travelers' Tales:  The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008 anthology, Cahoots magazine and Journeywoman online.  She received an M.S. in genetics from the University of Minnesota.  This piece first appeared in Melusine's Fall 2009 issue.

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