I’m in a tropical downpour. At first the rain is soft and warm but then it starts pelting down heavily, the rain needle-sharp and coming at me from all directions in cool streams. It stops abruptly and I step out of the curved tiled space I’m standing in and consider where I will go next in Aachen’s famous and fabulous Carolus Mineral Spa. The Tropical Shower is just the beginning, and here I am, naked in public once more.
The spa brochure tells me there are sound health reasons for requiring guests to go unbekleidert in the sauna areas. While it’s acceptable to walk around in a bathrobe and waterproof sandals, complete nudity is obligatory within the shower areas, saunas, steam rooms and in the pools. It goes on to say that for those women who prefer greater privacy, there is a very pleasant Feminarium sauna and steam room, however the majority of the spa offerings are open to both men and women together. And it’s this which makes me pause. Apart from segregated sports changing rooms, public nudity is unknown in South Africa.
But I am a visitor in a strange city, I know only the 2 friends I am staying with, Michaela and Gabriele, and the idea of being naked in front of strangers doesn’t seem all that troubling to me. In fact, looking around on this very quiet Monday afternoon, I see mostly elderly men and women, walking around quite uninhibitedly naked. Their nudity is neutral and has no sexual undertones; it all feels very unthreatening and gemütlich.
I start with the indoor saunas and select one which offers an intriguing Aufguss: Honey Unction. It starts at 4 30 and I see the time is just after. I step inside quickly and immediately 12 pairs of naked eyes swivel towards me and then narrow with disapproval. I’m late, I know it. Rapidly I find a place, lay out my towel and sit down. Looking around me, I see men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes, some on their own, some in couples. They look vulnerable in their nakedness, their skin glowing palely in the twilight mist of the sauna.
Why do they all keep staring at me like that?
Then I realise: I’m still wearing my bathrobe and I begin to appreciate that context is everything. It’s the exact opposite of those dreams when you’re at a formal business meeting and look down to see you’re in some mortifying state of undress. I only just have time to tear off my bathrobe and scrunch it into a ball behind me, when a Spa assistant enters bearing a tray. “Please put your feet on your towels,” she advises. She appears to be addressing the space above our heads but she’s really talking to me for I see I still have my rubber shoes on. Embarrassed, I shove them out of sight beneath the wooden slatted bench I’m on and pull my feet up onto my towel.
Now she hands out small containers filled with pure honey, mixed with finely crushed almond shells. The honey, she explains, has excellent skin beautifying properties and the pulverised almond shells make a wonderful skin scrub.
As soon as we’ve all smeared ourselves with honey (some of us more thoroughly than others; the grey-haired well-built man lying next to me with knees splayed apart has spent a long slow time voluptuously rubbing the honey mixture into his hairy nether region), the assistant returns with a bowl of herb scented water which she throws onto the hot sauna stones. Immediately, a delicious cloud of steam erupts and we’re all bathed for several minutes in wafts of herb-scented mist. It’s so hot, my outbreath sears my upper lip and whenever I blink, my eyeballs feel scorched. With the air hot and redolent with the sweet stickiness of honey, I close my eyes and lie back, relishing the warmth of honey melting into my skin, inhaling the steamy green fragrance of herbs and begin to fret about my shoes dissolving into a rubbery puddle beneath me.
After 15 minutes of honey-saturated bliss, I retrieve my well-baked but still recognisable shoes and emerge in search of a shower.
Outside, there’s a notice informing me of the next treatment in 30 minutes. But penis-fondler is idling around too and I decide to give Yoghurt and Tropical Fruit Unction a miss. There’s so much else still to explore and I head off outdoors.
In the Baltic Saunaland, the décor is Finnish stone and timber-cabin style and the sauna rooms are situated in pretty flower-filled gardens where the roofs have grasses and wildflowers growing on them. I decide on a sauna called Bakoven. The name suggests a particularly hot sauna but I haven’t taken into account the German penchant for literal-minded practicality. I discover it has in fact a baking oven built right inside it. The notice outside announces that in a short while Brödchen will be baked and whoever happens to be there will receive a freshly baked snack straight from the oven. It sounds delightful!
Having hung up my bathrobe (I’m learning fast), I open the door and instantly freeze – if such a thing is possible at 75°C. What I see makes every instinct scream at me to turn around and flee at once. Inside the small sauna, 3 enormous naked men are talking boisterously. Two are shaven-headed and heavily tattooed all over: the one, dark, swarthy and Hispanic looking is covered in a jumbled cacophony of designs, the other is ginger-bearded and menacingly illustrated with a huge leering skull on one shoulder. The third man is blonde with a Wagnerian Norse look to him – he’s clearly built to take medieval armour – and has only one tattoo on his chest in the form of a gigantic lock over his heart. He also has two large solid black stretcher flesh plugs in his earlobes and a flaming gothic dragon winging its way down one thigh. It feels as if I’ve stumbled into the Götterdammerung version of a Druglord’s den and much as I remind myself I’m in a fake Baltic timber-cabin called Bakoven with breadrolls in the oven for godssake, the cognitive dissonance continues to jangle.
The thing is, I’m standing in the doorway and can’t back out now without feeling ridiculous. So assuming an air of worldly assuredness and with all of my naked middle-aged years cringing, I step inside. The Druglords register my entrance with barely a flick of a sideways glance and continue their conversation. I try to arrange myself as far away as possible and settle down to eavesdrop since I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter. Thor the Norseman is speaking and Swarthy Dark and Ginger-beard listen intently.
“So there was this time where I took a really big tough guy into the sauna and he was like hey, I’m so tough, I can take this heat, this is easy. But you see, he hadn’t drunk enough water beforehand during the day and there he was showing off how tough he is. Then he refused to leave when it was getting too hot for him and eventually he gets up, goes out the door and the next thing, I hear this big crash, and boom – he’s down, fainted from overheating!” Thor sniggers and slaps his great gothic thigh. “Hope you guys have drunk enough water today!” The other men laugh uneasily.
“Man, I am so hot” mutters Swarthy Dark under his breath shaking his head as sweat streams down his face. He’s the man closest to me and his tattoos gleam in a sheen of sweat, shining with iridescence as he shifts uncomfortably on his towel. “This is my first time in a sauna and man…I don’t think I’ve drunk enough water… man it is hot!” He casts a queasy smile in my direction. I return the smile, uncertainly. Am I being invited into the conversation? I’m unsure of sauna etiquette with Druglords.
A trim good-looking man enters and Swarthy Dark darts a longing look at the door feeling the brief drop in temperature but then visibly checks himself. Nah. He’s tough.
“It’s the weirdest thing,” says Ginger-beard “but every one of my girlfriends loved saunas and was also a vegan.” At which point all 3 Druglords begin discussing favourite vegan restaurants they have been to. Some ironic grinning thing prods at me inside as I listen. Vegan? It’s painfully obvious my assumptions about heavily tattooed men are flummoxed by such placid dining preferences.
“Man! It’s too hot! I just gotta get outta here!” blurts Swarthy Dark suddenly and bolts out the door. The other two smirk at each other.
“Well I haven’t heard a crash yet, so I guess he must be ok,” says Thor after a moment’s silence. Ginger-beard mops sweat from his face. “You think maybe we should go check up on him?” There’s a note of hopefulness in his voice.
“Yeah, sure!” says Thor knowingly. And both Druglords depart, leaving me alone with Handsome Forty-something. The oven clicks with heat and I think with pleasure of the rolls baking inside. An electric mechanism now hums softly, activating a copper bowl which has been collecting drops of water, moves it slowly along a copper rod, tilts the bowl so the water gets poured onto the sauna hot stones, raising the heat. A brief hissing and then silence.
“So,” says Handsome Forty-Something who is sitting on the level above where I’m lying. “You must be Nina from Cape Town.”
I think if I can survive being naked in the presence of Druglords, I can survive being stunned by this new turn of events. I turn my head towards him.
“How,” I say very carefully “do you know this?” He laughs.
“Ah, they announced it in today’s Aachen newspapers!” I lie there bemused.
“No, really.” I say. “How the hell do you know who I am?” He chuckles again.
“Actually, I bumped into my friend Gabriele outside on my way in and she told me I’d find you in here.”
Hah! I smile. Wicked Gabriele.
Feeling at a disadvantage, I sit up. “Then since you already know who I am, perhaps you’d like to introduce yourself?” He grins.
“I’m Georg.” And we shake hands. Do I need to say that this is the first time I’ve ever met someone socially stark naked?
I notice I’m holding my towel in front of me, suddenly shy. Absurdly, it seems I can manage being naked in front of strangers, but the moment we’ve introduced ourselves I have to cover up. Are my breasts suddenly more modest now they’re attached to Nina from Cape Town? Am I sexualising nudity and would I feel the same meeting another woman?
As Georg and I chat, a Spa staff member is taking hot steaming bread rolls out of the oven and putting them into a basket. He offers them to us. They are perfectly formed, darling little rolls sprinkled with some salt and look adorable nestled in their basket.
Georg and I exchange the usual social histories – our respective professions, our travels, our shared acquaintances and once again, I’m struck by the quick intimacy that being naked encourages. The social cues of clothing are absent and there’s no image to uphold. Together, we nibble on delicious Brödchen and laugh, bantering pleasantries back and forth for all the world as if we’re at some cocktail party.
“It’s too hot. I need to get out of here.” I say after a while. I’ve finally reached my own limit for absorbing heat.
Once outside, I stand in the cool refreshing air and catch sight of the Druglords disporting themselves in the outdoor pool. Even at their most playful splashing about in the water, their tattoos writhe and twist, projecting an aggressive rippling confidence, an unmistakeable aura of sleek, dangerous masculine power.
Georg emerges from the sauna and casts an appraising eye over the Druglords.
“At least one of them is gay,” he observes and laughs merrily at my doubt when he tells me which one, for secretly I believe I know better.
I end my day at the Odorium, a fragrant dimly lit sanctuary where herbal and floral scents are released into the warm air as you relax on comfortable reclining chairs.
And I contemplate all the different ways we undress ourselves, what we allow others to see and what we keep covered up. I see how people wear even their nudity as they might their clothing; it can be just as much of a disguise. Naked, we may feel exposed or empowered, but we can just as easily hide in our nakedness. And while the naked body shows something of our inner being, I think we say more in how and when we choose to cover ourselves, hide what we don’t want to be seen. Wrapping my turquoise oriental flower print bathrobe around me, I wonder what I reveal to perfect strangers when I write about how I got undressed in Aachen.
I suspect it may be more than I imagine. And perhaps mean a lot less than I think.