Being naked in public in Germany

ct_logoModenus.com‘s Blogtour Cologne had me in Cologne and Amsterdam last week. Wow, what a week it was. I saw a ton of my friends from the US and the EU, wallowed in good design and I was in Northern Europe for a week. Trust me, nobody knows how to contend with winter like the Germans and the Dutch. I’m sure the Swedes, the Danes, the Finns, the Norwegians and everybody else above the 50th parallel would claim they do it better; but all I know for sure is what I’ve experienced first hand.

One of the highlights of last week was my visit to the Claudius Therme in Cologne. Germans love a good thermal spa and it seems to me that it has to from the time that Germany was a Roman colony the Romans called Germania. Germania existed in the space east of the Rhine and north of the Danube by the way.

This is what the outdoor pool area looks like in warmer months.

This is what the outdoor pool area looks like in warmer months.

That doesn’t matter so much as the legacy the Romans left behind. Roman street plans are as common as Roman ruins in Germany, and it’s always a pleasant surprise to stumble upon a Roman vestige.

Anyhow, my night at Claudius Therme was sponsored by Mr. Steam, a US-based steam shower manufacturer. Thank you Mr. Steam!

Here's what it looked like when I was there last week.

Here’s what it looked like when I was there last week.

I’d been at a trade show for three days and was still shaking off my jet lag when we arrived at the spa on Wednesday night. I changed into my bathing suit in the surprisingly co-ed dressing room and made a bee line for the pool. The water was around 35° C, salty and slightly effervescent. The main pool had a slight current and moving around in it was effortless. Provided I wanted to move in the direction of the current that is.

The pool extended through two small openings into the great outdoors. And I ventured outside almost immediately. It was around -5° C that night and it was snowing, a pretty brutal night under usual circumstances. However, I was in a 35° C pool and despite the fact that my hair froze within a couple of minutes, I was warm and comfortable.

The source of the current was pretty evident once I got outside. There was a circular section of the pool that surrounded a raised hot tub. The current whipping around that circle was pretty strong and the idea of it is to provide resistance for people who want to swim for exercise. I had other ideas.

I turned over onto my back and let the current lead me in a circle as I floated with my eyes closed. It’s the position I assume almost immediately when I’m in the Gulf of Mexico and I find it to be one of the ways to get me to relax completely. In the mineral-rich waters of the Claudius Therme, my face and chest were above the surface of the water and it was beyond incredible to be warm and to have snow falling on my face and chest at the same time. I floated like that for about an hour. It was the very definition of the term “bliss.”

Like most spas in Germany, the Claudius Therme has a no clothing policy when it comes to spending time in the saunas and steam baths. I’ve never thought of myself as a prude, but the idea of taking off my clothes in front of a room full of strangers was unsettling. My discomfort at the thought was all the cue I needed to know that I had to do it.

As I mentioned earlier, I never think of myself as a prude but my damn American comes out pretty regularly when I’m traveling. I went up to the sauna and steam area of the spa and my American assumption was that the clothing-free areas were segregated by sex. They weren’t.

But hey, I was in Germany and at a thermal bath for crying out loud. I’d probably never have the opportunity confronting me again, so I decided to just keep going with it.

When I let my bathrobe drop, something interesting happened inside my head. I wasn’t sure how I’d respond and after a moment of discomfort, I found that it was oddly empowering to be naked in public.

There were no gym bodies on display, let me tell you that. I was naked with a bunch of other middle-aged people and all of us had our best years behind us. It didn’t matter that none of us were perfect. All that mattered was that we were. As an American, I grew up with an inherent suspicion of nudity. In the American mind, nudity is always a prelude to sex. It’s a foolish and limiting way to see the world. To the Germans in whose midst I found my naked self, sexuality didn’t play into it at all.

Being naked in a spa is the absolute opposite of sexual. It’s deliberately anti-sexual and to my mind a bit of a paradox because it stood in such stark opposition to how I’d been raised and socialized. Yet there we were in all of our pot-bellied, sagging glory. The mood could be summed up as “this is what I look like, deal with it.”

It was a refreshing change from my native, appearances- and sex-obsessed culture. It seems to me to be a healthier way to approach life.

I noticed two men talking in the sauna, they were clearly friends and were catching up. Despite the healthier outlook I was forcing myself to adopt, I couldn’t imagine me sitting next to any of my friends while naked in a sauna. Some cultural baggage is just too ingrained.