As I described in Alpine Sunshine my friend Alan and I spent the day getting sunburned out in the mountains. The morning on skis and the afternoon walking up to our launch site and then paragliding. For two middle-aged blokes a very tiring day. We finished up with a couple of celebratory beers and then decided to make use of the Pension’s sauna before we went out for dinner.
We were, as expected, the only ones down there and had a couple of 10 minute sessions followed by the ritual ice-cold shower and rest. There’s nothing like a sauna for making you feel deeply relaxed and clean. As this was Germany, we didn’t consider putting our swimming shorts on – Saunas are always what they call “textilfreie Zonen” – no clothing allowed.
This doesn’t mean that you wander around parading the family jewels to all and sundry – you are usually wrapped in a towel. But when you are in the actual sauna, you carefully place your towel on the bench (no sweat allowed on the wood) and sit there naked. The saunas are usually quite dark and modestly lit, so unless you make a really conscious effort to eyeball the darkest corners you can avoid being offended.
When people leave the sauna and cool off under the cold shower, then yes they are naked then but you don’t really have to look if you don’t want to. And of course the vain men that strolled slowly out of the hot sauna to the cold shower, race quickly for the towel after the ice-cold water has brought them back down to earth.
When I have English friends over and they hear that the sauna is completely naked they get very nervous and think it’s all a bit “pervy”. The funny thing is, that it is so normal here that you really don’t feel uncomfortable. The other golden rule of saunas is that the few people who really do show themselves off, have the sort of bodies you would much rather see covered by a towel anyway.
On the whole, the Germans are less prudish than the Brits. I can remember first arriving and seeing a big poster of a topless woman on a bus shelter – advertising a deodorant stick! Sure enough, she did have one arm raised and was applying the aforementioned anti-perspirant correctly. I didn’t quite understand why she needed to be topless, but it was so normal and unspectacular that nobody could really understand why I thought it was odd. And I suppose you do put deodorant on when you’ve just dried off after the shower so you may well be topless.
I notice this lack of prudishness more – especially now that I have two young daughters. The way the German censors grade films has had me sweating a couple of times. They are very relaxed about sex scenes (well, slightly erotic scenes) and I will be happily watching something I expect to be a family film and suddenly things start getting a bit awkward. Of course the kids are not phased at all, but it is a bit embarrassing for us oldies. On the other hand, the censors seem to be much stricter about violence. I suppose that’s a good thing – a relaxed and mature attitude to nudity and a strict attitude to violence.
Anyway, this was all academic last Saturday as there were only two clapped-out, white-skinned Englishmen with red faces in the sauna and fortunately for everyone involved no other guests ventured down to the “wellness area”.