Cultural experiences and funny musings by two twenty-somethings living abroad
Sauna a la Sparta
Dissertations, essays, exams. Work, work, work. I needed a holiday. So, for a few days last week, I decided to make another visit to Munich again for the first time since I finished my year abroad in August, staying at my friend’s who is still there doing his Bachelor degree. It was great to be back again in Munich, if only for a few days, and much went on in those few days. The main story though involves the one time I decided to go to a public sauna, one of the few things that I surprisingly didn’t do whilst I was on my year abroad.
The original plan with my friend, Markus, was simply to use the saunas and have a nice soak at the oft-frequented “Südbad”, a modern public swimming centre with a heated outdoor pool, which would have been a very nice way to relax after dealing with snow and -10º temperatures. Upon arrival however, we discover that it was ladies-only night in the saunas and the boiler that is used for heating the outdoor pool broke down, meaning we actually had to roll around in snow first before being able to appreciate the supposedly warm water (as a bit of a heart-warmer for the Brits who think that Germany is all about efficiency and organisation, the boiler wasn’t the only thing in Munich that broke down: every other U-bahn broke down every day I was there and an entire flight’s luggage was delivered to completely the wrong part of the airport 20 minutes late). Ultimately, we decided the pool was just unbearable and got out.
Markus found out, however, that another swimming centre not far from where we were also had a heated outdoor pool as well as a sauna to go with it. So, we hopped onto one of the few U-bahns that hadn’t broken down and rode the short journey to “Nordbad”. Compared with its much more modern brother “Südbad”, “Nordbad” had a much more Spartan feel to it with an age demographic to match. My walk through the lobby to the reception desk was flanked by pillars and nude statues on both sides and the sound of my boots hitting the marble floor echoed right through the reception lobby. I don’t think there are many more seemingly imposing ways of going to a reception desk to ask for a simple swim and sauna.
This is where the fun begins. Being the typically prudish Brit who giggles and turns red whenever someone says “bums” or “willies”, I was surprised when arriving at the changing rooms to discover that not only were the changing rooms unisex, there were no cubicles to get changed in either. I had forgotten one of the many things that Germans are known for: embracing nudity. Men and women, left, right and centre, were stripping off into dressing gowns or towels to cover themselves briefly until reaching the saunas themselves, where they simply did away with anything they had left on. Being a party pooper, I decided to quickly change into my swimming shorts and began to make my way to the saunas. Unfortunately, the sauna attendant doesn’t like party poopers who don’t do as the Romans do when in Rome (or rather as the Spartans do in Sparta) and insisted that I stripped right down if I wanted to use the saunas. It was either that or turn right back and use the swimming pools. In the end, I decided to do the former: take off the shorts and go into the saunas.
After I walk through yet another pre-sauna lobby in a now very self-conscious way (given that the Germans also have a tendency to stare), I eventually reach a sauna and sit myself on one of the benches alongside many other nude sweaters. I stayed in for a few minutes sweating it out before I realise the sauna starts getting more and more crowded. It turns out that in just a few moments, a sauna attendant is about to come in to splash some water over the coals to get more steam going. Everyone comes into the sauna trying to find a place to sit, waiting in a very patient manner for the sauna attendant to come in and do his magic. Eventually, he comes in and everyone is chattering away with each other in excitement. He splashes water over the coals, steam goes into the air and starts to disperse around the sauna. “Ahh, das ist super” I hear many a content nudist say whilst they take in the steam and begin to relax. The sauna attendant then, as if this whole process were a ritual, starts pacing the length of the sauna, swinging a towel around to move the steam about. After doing this for a couple of minutes, he then starts whipping the towel around the room, worryingly getting another person in the sauna excited by asking the sauna attendant to “whip him with his towel”. A few minutes later, now that he was also sweating like mad, the sauna attendant finishes swinging his towel around, the ritual ends and he receives a rapturous applause from the many nudists who surround him. After scolding a guy who kissed his girlfriend in the sauna because it was not “upstanding and proper”, he then leaves with a number of nudists following him, who had only come to be there for the re-steaming of the sauna, and the sauna is relatively empty again. Finding the whole experience somewhat bizarre, I too decide to leave, jump in a plunge pool, change back into my swimming shorts and head over to the pools, where I felt decidedly more comfortable.
So, if you ever find yourself in a sauna in Germany, you now know what to expect! The whole experience probably wouldn’t have been so weird if the age demographic wasn’t so old and if the gender balance didn’t weigh so heavily towards men. Nonetheless, it is something I may do again if I ever found myself in Germany again, it is something to get used to after all. Perhaps next time I should stick to Südbad, where the atmosphere isn’t so Spartan, the age demographic is supposedly much younger and where the gender balance is a lot more equal. Ah well, there’s always next time, although that could be in another 5 months time!