The Germans take their spa culture pretty seriously. In fact, Germany has one of the largest spa cultures in all of Europe, with over 900 spas registered across the country. Since Roman times, when the spa culture first developed, spas have been recognised for their healing properties and contribution to mental and physical health, so much so that the German healthcare system regularly subsidises treatments as a preventative measure against illness. Yep, you read that correctly. Tell your doctor that you’ve been experiencing headaches and anxiety from stress and you may very well be handed a prescription for a three-week retreat at a German spa as a medical ‘cure’.
Throughout German history, thermal springs have been used amongst all classes of the population for medicinal purposes. Over the years, this spa culture increased in popularity, commonly seen as vital to maintaining health. The specific manner in which this was to be enjoyed also developed alongside it.
Having lived in Europe now for almost 18 months, I had definitely become aware of the Freikörperkultur (free body culture) naturalist philosophy so common amongst Europeans. Many Europeans, and particularly Germans, find it incredibly joyful to experience relaxing activities nude. Think nude Swiss alpine hikers or sunbathing beach-going Scandinavians. Germans too are famously relaxed about public nudity and don’t immediately associate the naked body with sexuality, unlike many other cultures around the world. So when a trip to the Bad Harzburg Sole-Therme was organised as part of our girls’ getaway a couple of weeks ago, I knew exactly what to expect. Nakedness. A whole lot of it.
To be perfectly honest, the prospect of being naked amongst a whole group of strangers (let alone my co-workers!) made me hugely uncomfortable. Having been brought up in a culture where nudity isn’t celebrated and the naked body is highly sexualised (which, actually, is far from a good thing) meant that I would feel exceedingly embarrassed being exposed to the world like that. I just didn’t have the confidence. So I packed my bathing suit. I was determined to enjoy the spa in my own conservative way.
Inside a German spa:
I do have to admire the Germans for their relaxed, business as usual ways, even when completely exposed. But having personally never been anywhere remotely like this before, I have to admit that it was overall quite a confronting experience, even when I did not fully participate in their strange, customary behaviour. Here’s why:
1. There were no separate male and female change rooms. Everyone was lumped in the one area together, undressing side by side.
2. Everyone (except my group of friends and I) was stark naked.
3. Swimsuit-clad, we become the oddity. If you think that Germans stare a lot anyway, just wait until you step inside a traditional German spa covered up. We were different and difference gets noticed.
4. I have never seen so many penises in my life, just swinging around nonchalantly. Everywhere I looked there was another one. Where to look? Nowhere, it seemed, was safe.
5. The sheer number of brazilians was unfathomable. Not in terms of women; there’s nothing really unusual about that. But men! And old men! In their 70s! And hairy Turkish men with backs full of hair and not a strand ‘down there’! My head was spinning. I tried not to look but how could I not?
6. The men proudly swaggered around the complex, chests puffed, wagging their willies around for the world to see. There was a lot of strutting. They were pretty impressed with their immaculately groomed nether-regions, that was clear.
7. Bathing suits were permitted in one section of the thermal pool area. A haven of clothed, protected people. Some of the women in my company chose not to venture out of this area for the remainder of the day. They had already seen too much.
8. Bathing suits are forbidden in the saunas. Of course, there is German logic behind this rule. It is natural for your body to sweat and bathing suits inhibit this to some extent. Towels are allowed, as long as one is nude underneath. We didn’t abide by this rule of course. Not because we thought we were any better than the other spa-goers, but because we weren’t hurting anyone by covering up and if we didn’t feel comfortable, that should be respected, right?. Wrong. The Germans were visibly offended by our clothed bodies.
9. There is a very strict sauna etiquette and we were chastised by a grumpy, old, naked man about our lack of adherence to it. You see, we had sat in the incorrect manner with skin touching the wooden benches. A big no-no apparently. Not only did he tell us off, but he got up off his bench and walked directly over to us to do so. Brazillian and all. Willy wagging. Afterwards, in German, he communicated his offense to the other sauna goers, shaking his head, labelling us as ‘not German’ and accusing us of being on a ‘school trip’! Mind your own business thank you very much.
10. At one point, due to the crowded state of the sauna, a man casually wandered in and sat down directly next to me. There was not even 30 cm of space between us. I intensely felt the proximity of his bits, right there, right next to me. I like my personal space on a normal day, let alone in a naked, sweaty, mixed-gender sauna. I awkwardly got up and exited, searching for an emptier space.
Of course, I have no right to be offended by any of this. I’m in their territory. This isn’t my turf. My ideas and inhibitions aren’t appropriate here and I knew very well what I was getting myself into when I entered this building. Nonetheless, I felt a curious mix of intense awkwardness and a very real fear of losing myself in a childish fit of giggles at this whole experience.
In the end, I was happy that I gave the German spa a go, even if I did stay within the vague proximity of my comfort zone in not stripping off. I don’t know if I’ll be back anytime soon though. I think I’ve seen enough to last me a good while.