Sauna Anxiety: An American Traveler’s Crisis

Heading to Europe this winter? It’s time to talk about nudity.

Sauna Anxiety: An American Traveler’s Crisis

Germany: land of fairytale castles, Christmas markets, and relaxed, sweaty, naked people

Photo by Jeremy Saum

I think I speak for all Americans when I say, “Dear Europe, if you have a sauna, please indicate how clothing-optional it is by using large, graphic, NSFW posters.” Only when it’s that obvious will we be able to accept that we really are expected to be completely naked. And it would help avoid exchanges like the one I had yesterday with the well-meaning woman at the front desk of the Hotel Oberstdorf, a lovely little spot in the German Alps, a couple hours’ drive from Munich.

Me: “And in the sauna, we don’t wear clothes?”

Well-meaning woman: “The sauna? It’s open. At 9 o’clock it closes.”

Thus I was left to confront my Sauna Anxiety (SA). On the one hand, the desire to engage in this relaxing local ritual. On the other hand, and all the rest of my body parts . . . absolutely nothing? My kingdom for a graphic poster.

I hadn’t brought a bathing suit anyway, so in that sense, the decision was already made. If I was going, I was going all in. I had spent the day wandering Bavaria in the December cold along with a group of journalists and bloggers from around the world. I had a two-hour window before dinner. And as I returned to my room, I saw two of our group heading to the spa and they couldn’t understand why I wasn’t already on my way. I was going.

I got to my room, got naked, wrapped myself in the terry cloth bathrobe provided by the hotel, and squeezed my feet into the little disposable slippers that came with the robe. Here we go.

In the hall, I met a blogger from Poland who was also headed to the sauna. He, too, admitted he wasn’t sure how it worked. Wait. Did Europeans also suffer from SA? I felt better already.

We entered the spa and asked the cheerful young woman at the reception desk where we should start. She smiled a genuine smile and said, “Just go ahead and look,” and with a wave of her arm directed us through another door. On the right, robes hung on wooden hooks on dark, wood walls that led to an opening. Ah, first stop: the showers. It was an open, tiled space with four shower heads sticking out of the walls.

They were co-ed showers. Don’t ask me how I figured this out. When you’re an experienced traveler, you develop an intuition about these things. Although it might have been the naked woman standing there taking a shower.

Well, there was no turning back now. Off went the towel, on went the water, and down the drain went my inhibitions. Scrubbed clean, I wrapped my towel around my waist and headed back out to the main space. I had been so focused on figuring out where to go that I hadn’t noticed how busy it was. Most of my spa experiences have taken place in hushed, cavelike spaces where you encounter at most a couple of other people, and you’re guided by whispering staff members through the process. This room was quiet, too, and warmly lit, but there were people everywhere. Off to our left there was a row of a dozen chaise lounges, nearly every one of which was occupied by a robed guest napping or reading or snuggling with a partner. To our right, three doors opened and closed at unpredictable intervals as men and women in various stages of undress emerged in various stages of flushed sweatiness.

Turns out there were three sauna rooms. The little signs on the wall were in German, but there were numbers, temperatures in Celsius that I converted into “hot,” “hotter,” and “hottest.” I started with hot.

How hot is hot? Hot enough to bake bread. How do I know this? Because the hotel bakes its bread in the oven that also heats its first sauna room. The receptionist had touted it as a special treat. Every day at 4, she said, the baker puts the bread in the oven, and you can sit there and bake right along with it. I was glad I’d already tasted the wide range of delicious breads at breakfast, because if I thought too hard about it baking in the vicinity of a bunch of naked people, I might not have had much of an appetite for it. Sadly, I was too late for the baking session. And without the bread, the first sauna room didn’t have much to recommend it. It was too brightly lit, the chairs were uncomfortable, and, as I discovered, it was not hot enough for my taste. Plus, there were three people in there already, and they were all in their swimming suits. Just when I thought I had the nudity thing sorted out. But maybe they looked at me in my towel and had similar feelings of doubt and fear? Sauna Anxiety: It might be an epidemic.

For all of these reasons, I quickly moved on to the second room. I opened the door. It was dark, but not dark enough that I couldn’t see a woman wrapped in a towel, three naked women, and a naked man of grandfatherly age sitting on benches along the wall, a black stove in the center of the room. I ducked through the doorway and stepped on something crunchy. Pine boughs covered the floor, and their scent immediately made me feel like I’d entered the warm, quiet core of the Spirit of Christmas. This was more like it. I took two steps to cross the little room and sat on the bench next to naked grandfather, towel still wrapped around my waist. I kept my gaze downward, where I noticed that I was the only one wearing slippers. If there’s anything to help break the awkwardness of sitting naked with several strangers, it’s sharing a chuckle over the large-footed American who is so clueless as to wear his slippers into the sauna. I tucked the slippers behind me.

I did my best to relax. Deep breaths of Christmas. Eyes mostly closed. And after a few minutes, thoughts about how uncomfortable my butt was. Somehow I’d managed to sit down in such a way that a fold in the towel was digging into my rear end. At that moment I realized that despite the shower, I hadn’t yet gotten over my SA. I had to fight to keep from laughing at myself, sitting there thinking: “I need to fix my towel. Should I just take it off? What if I adjust it but leave it on? But then what if I need to adjust it again? Would that be weird? I’ll just take it off. Now?” If I could be so stressed about this, maybe I needed the sauna more than I’d realized. Finally, I decided, OK, that’s enough. I loosened the towel, smoothed it out, and sat back down next to naked grandpa, now my brother in complete nudity.

The pine-scented heat was complete. Uniform. All encompassing. I could feel my SA melting away, slowly dripping down my temples.

I could have roasted my chestnuts in Christmasland forever, but now that I was liberated, I wanted to see if I could handle the hottest. This room was more foggy than dark and had two stairsteps of benches, occupied by three members of our group: a guy from Israel and a guy and a woman from Poland, all naked or partially covered by their towels. You’ve just arrived for the show, the Israeli said. I had no idea what that could mean, but in my relaxed state, I was ready for anything. It turned out the “show” was the slow-motion action of a mechanism that lowered a basket of hot rocks into a vat of water. It was rather hypnotic. The three saunas were like a tiny, low-key theme park: Breadland, Christmasland, and Robotland.

A Spanish guy from our group entered, wearing his bathing suit. The Polish guy said jokingly, “No textiles allowed.” Thus began a discussion of national habits. The Spanish don’t do sauna nudity, apparently. The Polish woman claimed that even in Finland—Sauna Central—nudity isn’t always required, at least in the public saunas. But everyone agreed that the Germans will basically look for any excuse to get naked: a trip to the beach or swimming pool, a sauna session, obviously, and, for all I know, a busy day in the kitchen.

And where were we? Germany. I was living like a local.

Once I’d had enough heat, I wrapped myself in my towel and headed to the outdoor pool. The air was cold, but I eased into water that was surprisingly, pleasantly warm. Steam rose into a night sky lit by stars that I, as a city dweller, hadn’t seen in years. Scrubbed clean, having dropped any thread of a cloud, the heavens shined, beautiful and naked.

>>Next: The Hawaiian Town the Volcano Goddess Spared

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