by Anna Patton
I’d done pretty well, considering that for health-obsessed Germans, going for a sauna is like going for a coffee, only better for you. A friend was sitting next to a German girl on a train once. They got chatting, and just like that, she invited him to a sauna. (He accepted.)
To us prudish Anglo-Saxons, nothing sounds more horrific than sweating in an enclosed space with a bunch of strangers (or worse still, with friends). But after two years in Germany, the readiness of people around me to bare all got me wondering. Might there be something seductive in stripping off? Could my reservations be stopping me from understanding what makes Berliners tick?
So, when I found myself in the awkward position of having already agreed to meet a friend in a place called “Liquidrom”, I swallowed my protests. Liquidrom, you see, turned out to be not some trendy bar, as I had thought, but a “wellness centre”. And wellness might sound pleasant but it’s really just German for “naked sauna” – a fancy one, granted – but a sweatbox nonetheless.
So it is that I find myself in a room the size of my bathroom with about 12 naked strangers, one naked friend, and one pot-bellied, stern-looking sauna man (he gets to wear shorts and flip-flops). Having stumbled in red-faced a few minutes late for the hourly “sauna Aufguss”, I’ve missed Sauna Man’s introduction and have no idea what he’s doing there, why we’re all looking at him, and what he’s planning to do with that towel.
I feel like I’ve stepped onto the set of some slapstick German movie and I get a sudden flashback of a dark comedy, Im Schwitzkasten, I saw a few years ago, where a man is found dead in a sauna. Once Sauna Man gets going, an untimely end doesn’t seem entirely unlikely here.
We’re sitting in rows of tiered seating as if we’re in tiny theatre. Which, in a way, we are. There’s a kind of furnace with hot stones, and aromatic liquid is poured over the stones, causing a loud hiss and a wave of steam. As the steam rises, Sauna Man raises the towel high above his head, looking his victim in the eye, and then whips it down, the rolls of fat round his tummy shuddering as he releases hot steam full-belt into each person’s face.
We cower under the heat, but do not budge. People are aahing and breathing heavily. No one looks at each other, we just watch Sauna Man with an almost religious reverence.
If I faint, I wonder, and fall onto the floor, would someone pick me up? Probably Sauna Man steps over bodies all the time when they crumple to the floor.
Luckily, we’re allowed out for a few minutes – the interval, as it were. We congregate in the shower area and suddenly it doesn’t seem too strange to be standing around stark naked, as we await the summons to return for the second act. The mortification and sheer panic so familiar from those nightmares where you find yourself naked in front of a roomful of strangers doesn’t materialise, strangely. We’re all in this together.
Ten minutes later and we’re showered off and wrapped up in fluffy white bathrobes. Now that the ritual punishment is over, I can actually enjoy working on my “wellness”. Outside, there is a small hot tub, surrounded by sun loungers; inside, a bar serving fresh fruit salads and herbal teas (and beer – wellness apparently includes alcohol). There are smells of lotions and freshly washed hair and the sound of occasional feet flip-flopping upon the wooden floor. Watching the autumn sky darken, we relax on loungers with a smoothie, and muse over the understated Anglo-German cultural divide that surfaces above all in our attitudes to nudity. “I like to think of it as proof of civilisation at its most advanced”, my friend is saying. Looking around at my wonderfully calm, soothing surroundings, I wonder if he might be right. I feel happily drowsy – and quite proud at having survived my first naked sauna experience. Perhaps I could get used to this.
“Oh”, says my friend. “It’s nearly 9 o’clock. Coming?”
“It’s every hour – time for the next session.”
My heart sinks. Civilisation my arse.