Growing up as an American you hear a few generalizations about Europeans and some of those generalizations are true. They don’t tip, they’re more open sexually, and they are generally comfortable with nudity — whether watching it on TV and movies, or simply taking it all off when things get too warm.
Regarding the latter, I saw it when I came to Oslo during a chilly summer and noticed ass cheeks flapping and side boob swaying in the breeze on the first day of sunshine.
I knew moving to Norway would mean I’d have to cozy up to the idea of splaying my American-grade naked body for all to see at some point. In the future. The far future. But my big reveal came way earlier than I could have mentally prepared for. Not that mentally preparing would have helped.
On a weekend wedding layover in Germany, Matias and I strolled the bone-chilling streets of Berlin and spotted a Finnish sauna. It was so cold outside and a sauna sounded so warm, plus we couldn’t argue with the cost of 10 euros each for two and a half hours.We were sold.
Once inside, the woman at the front desk was not actually at the front desk. In fact, we waited almost ten minutes for the sweaty, spritely, toweled receptionist to receive us from her own break in the sauna. She was cheery but not chatty, and when I asked her where the women’s locker room was she giggled and pointed to a very well-lit completely open coed hallway.
This is serious, I thought, and then she casually adjusted her towel revealing her whole naked body. Breathe, I told myself and cringe-smiled. As a courtesy or an afterthought, she offered the bathroom for me to change in but I could tell she was laughing about that just as she cracked open a bottle of beer — for herself. Europe!
I clenched my teeth and whispered to Matias that I wasn’t sure I could do it. Of course I knew I would have to do it, but I secretly needed to hear his support and encouragement and the words “You can always keep your towel on.”
“Ha! Yea? Well I’ll show you…” I shot back, already having gone a little bit insane by the first two unexpected surprises. And to think, it hadn’t even started yet. I shyly bent down to take my socks off and made the mistake of looking up, only to peer face to face with two giant German cocks wagging past me.
And so it began. I tightly wrapped the 1-euro dishcloth around me and hopped across the wet floor a la Ashlee Simpson’s lip-synching incident, afraid of standing still for a second perhaps because I thought they couldn’t see me, and managed to make my way over to the communal shower. Where I had to take the towel off.
I threw it across the room like a pro football player and it landed safely on the rack. I stood nude, with four shower heads down the line, and attempted to wash away at least 12 years of Catholic school’s Biblical influence on me. It worked a little…
In the sauna people splayed themselves out, sweating, breathing hard, and soaking up the firey air. Old, young, men, women, fit, saggy, sexy, ugly — all these descriptions only lasted so long in the heat of the moment. Was I getting more comfortable? It probably helped that the lights were so low. I still hadn’t gone full commando in there yet.
Our first stint was short; I didn’t want to risk passing out naked before I was comfortable being carried out naked. Outside in the wet-floored area there was an older woman taking a breather and stayed just as relaxed when a totally naked old man (her partner) bent down and kissed her! “Aww,” I thought, “Old people being affectionate, it’s just so cute, and ….so foreign.” Europe!
Then we thought we ought to try the ice bath. It does something special for your skin and body and everyone was doing it so we gathered up some more strength and went for it. Thing is, it’s a very small square pool filled with ultra-cold water and only fits one person. The key is to walk up the three steps dunk yourself in and crawl out in a flash.
I asked Matias to hold my towel next to the pool and, completely absolutely naked, dunked myself in. It was like being shot; It felt like pins and needles inside and out. I was gasping for air. I popped up in an instant and crawled out like a frenzied drunk person.
Yet, just as I started to feel victorious, which means I wasn’t one hundred percent uncomfortable with the idea of strangers seeing me naked, I peered down and to my horror, remembered last night’s EPIC mistake.
The night before we were enjoying Berlin like any other tourists which means we drank delicious German beer. It also means that one pint of this luscious brew is enough to make me feel tipsy. Tipsy enough to commit the crime that I would later regret the next day.
Upon returning to the hotel that night I jumped in the powerfully pressured shower (a novelty after Lebanon) and started to shave for the first time since I had been back in Beirut which was about a month.
Shaving was a breeze; I had a ball with my razor, slicing away armpit hairs, leg hairs, and then…my bikini line. At first I just wanted to clean things up, I swear. But with all the resources like endless water, time, a warm bathroom floor, and my uninhibited alcohol-assisted state, I didn’t stop and took off way too much hair down there.
Like way too much.
So when I emerged from that icy public bath the next day feeling cold and confident I saw my 12-year-old-like-manicure and froze.
I nearly fell over like those fainting goats to hide my lady bits and keep some sort of personal privacy. Everything I had been working toward was slipping through my fingers and I frantically scanned the room to confirm healthy pubic hairstyles on everyone.
I was an outcast. Although I didn’t collapse and curl in a ball like I wanted to, I slapped my hand over my crotch which unfortunately created a really loud skin on skin sound that echoed through stone walled room. I was desperate. I felt like I was giving away too much of my physical form and a clear indication that I was American or Brazilian or something.
“Pull yourself together Adrian! Act your age not your pubic hairstyle! Woman up!” I told myself. So we charged back into the sauna and I let go of everything: my towel, my humiliation, my fear. Things move quickly in the sauna and I started to like being naked. It really seemed like no one cared at all.
So we sauntered over to the ice bath again. Why not right? Wrong! My trauma re-triggered when this time there were three fully grown men nonchalantly sitting on a bench facing the bath. The distance between me and these wurst-wielding dudes was less than 2 meters. I almost panicked and shelved the ice bath altogether.
But, if this were my Euro-training, my final Level I exam, I couldn’t just skip it! I clenched my fists and dunked my body, climbed out so that one leg, regrettably, went much higher than the other basically revealing my insides and skitted over to the showers. Success! I almost wept with relief. “I (sob) did (sob) it,” I drooled and hugged Matias’ arm for fear of getting too close, you know…
But I’m no expert yet, although I came a very long way that day. At least my adrenaline glands got a workout. More importantly, I came away with a realization. I was the only person focused on my body. In fact I never even caught a stare. People of all ages, shapes, sizes, problem areas or perfections anonymously went about their bathing without so much as a second look or sexualized leer.
It was important to see all these different naked bodies in a normal and non-cinemized or photoshopped way because it reminded me that people have the right to look however they want, that we shouldn’t be forced to accept only the perfect plasticized people bodies. Like whoa, that’s what different kinds of women look like. And whoa, men have quite diverse body types.
For once, human bodies were human bodies and nothing about it mattered.
In the end, I have to say I am a fan of European nudity. It’s real and it’s shameless and it promotes a healthy mentality about body acceptance without there being anything about sex or perfection woven in. Don’t expect me to whip my clothes off at the drop of a hat. I’m not there yet. But I might be, or I just might appreciate the freedom that comes with a culture where doing so is normal.
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