My first visit to a German sauna, will likely also be my last.
J.P. (my then German fiance, now husband) loves the sauna and kept persuading me to go with him. Knowing that not only is everyone nude, but that bathing suits are not allowed (for health reasons, of all reasons) I needed some convincing. Knowing how competitive I am, he resorted to challenging me “Are you too chicken?” Eventually I gave in, I hate being called a “chicken”. Besides, I did want the whole sauna experience. But I did it on my terms – in our small hotel in Dresden, over 500km from Stuttgart, where my chances of running into anyone we knew would be extremely low.
When we entered the sauna there was only one other woman there. I was extremely relieved that we would have our space. J.P. had been chiding me with stories about how sometimes the sauna is so packed that you’re sitting skin to skin next to sweaty strangers on either side. The idea repulsed me. I like my personal space when I’m fully clothed, let alone when I’m completely naked. Although the idea is to relax and unwind, I kept my eye suspiciously on the door at all times. Ready to make a quick exit at the first sight of any character I deemed unsavory and did not wish to sweat with in the small enclosed wooden sauna. In other words, pretty much anyone who entered.
In fairness to the German sauna experience, it’s not creepy as I am making it out to be. I just feel extremely uncomfortable being naked in the presence of strangers,. It was for the same reason Why I Was Scared to Have Surgery in a German Hospital. I’m also Socially Awkward in Germany with my clothes on, so I’m guessing even more so when I’m buck naked. But despite being naked, there is nothing sexual about saunas in Germany. Staring is not acceptable behavior and will result in a strong public tongue lashing. So I’ve heard.
Germans are much more comfortable with being naked than many of us are who come from North America. On several occasions J.P. has asked me if I want to go to the sauna with him and his friends. Let me think about that for a moment….Do I want to see his friends naked? No. Do I want them to see me naked? Definitely not – the thought is completely mortifying. When I asked J.P. whether it would bother him if his friends saw me naked he responded with a rather confused “Why would it?” This surprised me because most men I know in North America definitely do not want their friends seeing their significant other naked. Being naked in Germany is not a big deal. While I appreciate and admire many German’s ability to feel comfortable with their bodies regardless of their shape (not all Germans have hard beach bodies), it’s not something I see myself embracing anytime soon, even in a hospital – Culture Shock in a German Hospital.
The other interesting thing, although perhaps not surprising thing about German saunas are all the rules. Many Germans believe that you need to stay in the sauna at least 15 minutes to get all the health benefits a sauna offers. When I started feeling faint after 5 minutes, J.P. insisted I couldn’t leave for another 10 minutes. I lasted another 2 minutes and then left – health benefits or not, I didn’t think fainting was very healthy. It’s common for Germans to spend several hours at a sauna. Alternating between the sauna, the cooling off, either by jumping in a cold pool, going outside if it’s cold outside or taking a cold shower, then relaxing and there’s a set period of time before you should go in the sauna again. I’ve forgotten what it is, along with many of the other German sauna rules, but I know there are a lot of them.
If you ever want to get into an interesting discussion ask someone from Finland, who love their saunas even more than the Germans, what they think about all the rules of a German sauna. Hint – not so much. Do this in the presence of a German who will then explain to the Finn why each of the rules is necessary. meanwhile the Finn rebuffs each of the explanations. Some of the finest entertainment I’ve had while in Germany and educational too!
I’m glad that I’ve experienced a German sauna, but I’m not sad that my first visit will likely be my last visit (never say never). Even with a bathing suit on, I don’t enjoy saunas since after a few minutes I feel like I’m going to faint. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything by not going. “Nicht für mich (not for me), but having said, a lot of people do enjoy a sauna and find it extremely relaxing.
UPDATE: It took me two years after this experience, but I have in fact gone again. Several times in fact. While I still don’t love it, the right sauna can be very relaxing! If you’re a prude like me, check out my Shy Girl’s Guide to the German Sauna for tips to make your nude sauna visit more comfortable. And while I don’t love saunas, I do love wellness hotels, especially ones that offer massages and other feel good treatments.
Have you been to a sauna in Germany?