Getting Naked With Strangers: The Baths of Baden-Baden

I realized that somewhere between pool #7 and pool #10 I'd forgotten I was naked. I was just a body among bodies. Big bodies, trim bodies, 30-something to 70-something bodies. Nothing special. No shame, no glory. No big deal.
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It's tough for many women to go naked in our 60s. The once perky parts slope downwards. There are stretch marks and cesarean scars, droopy tummies and thighs that move at their own pace. In U.S. society, while the young and firm can parade in thongs, there is no place for real bodies. Maybe it's because our society equates nakedness with sex, with sex reserved as the playground of the young and fit. Older, chubby or saggy bodies are, well, unseemly. Pass a certain age marker and, unless you're a media-star, keep it covered.

And then I went to Germany.

One of the long-standing traditions of German culture is to 'take the baths.' (And the saunas, but that's another article.) Many cities have their own 'baths' and there are towns everywhere with the prefix "bad," meaning bath. These are generally natural mineral baths, alleged to have curative powers, or at least health-enhancing properties. It is also tradition to take the baths naked. While some days or times may be set aside for one gender, as in Asian cultures, the majority of the time is co-ed.

I've always enjoyed the 'baths' in the U.S., from Colorado's Pagosa Springs to Ojo Caliente, near Taos. When younger, my husband and I hiked the backwoods of New Mexico to find steaming mineral soaking pits tucked in among the rocks, where we would strip and dunk, a secret slice of heaven. But the last time I'd done anything naked and public was decades ago.

In Germany, however, I was anonymous, which equated, in a twisted way, to invisible. What would feel totally weird to do with friends seemed less weird with total strangers. In fact, it was their total stranger-ness that made it do-able. Once decided, it made sense to head for the city that epitomizes spas and baths --- Baden-Baden.

Baden-Baden is a ritzy enclave of chi-chi shops, cobblestone pedestrian streets, quaint cafes, and an upscale casino. Think of the elegant casinos of the Bond movies, people in formal attire, sporting diamonds, playing cards and roulette, not casinos with glassy-eyed people in jeans and t-shirts pumping nickels into slot machines. It's a beautiful city, with a profusion of flowers, from window-boxes to splendid gardens and parks. But, most of all, Baden-Baden is known historically for its baths.

There are contemporary options, but I wanted a traditional Germanic experience. The Friedrichsbad was described as Roman-Irish (I could see the Roman but the Irish escaped me). When the Friedrichsbad opened in 1877, it was regarded as the most elegant bathing house in Europe. (Although I doubt they did co-ed back then.) It was magical, a mandatory stop on the European tour. I found magnificent architecture, arching ceilings, frescoes, pillars... and a prescribed ritual of 16 steps (Not 14, not 17, but 16.) There is one fee for the use of the baths, an additional fee for the "massage." I wanted the full Monty.

I checked in, paid my fees, and headed up the massive staircase to the locker rooms. Facing my locker, it hit me: I had to leave everything, down to my socks. I'd imagined myself in steam-filled pools, with bodies emerging like fuzzy out-of-focus camera shots... but not walking around, not getting to-and-from the steaming baths.

I'd also visualized a kind attendant handing out fluffy robes, or at least a big fluffy towel. But no luck. Fluffy, I realized, is not German.

Once stripped, I started walking, delicately, towards the far end of the room, past rows of lockers, seeking the elusive attendant, the one with the imaginary robes. As I came around a corner, I almost smacked into a man. He was, oh-my-Gawd, naked. "Eeehhh," I squeaked, my hands instinctively moving to cover more body parts than two hands could manage. The gentleman also startled, then looked a bit baffled. He asked, in a very formal tome. "Is there a problem?" (At least I think that's what he said. It might have been "Are you a total nutcase?" My spa German could use some work. I'm better with beer and schnitzel.)

Now, I'd known the baths would be co-ed. It was a part of the cultural experience. But for some illogical reason, I'd never thought the locker rooms would be co-ed, even though it makes logical sense. If you're naked in the baths, why not the dressing rooms?

"Because..." I thought. "Because..."

Just at the moment when I was backing up into a cold, steel locker and reconsidering the whole baths thing, I spotted an attendant. She was blonde, tall, fully clothed... and standing next to what looked like a pile of linen. They were sheets, thin, almost transparent, but enough to envelope my quivering frame. I did an artful wrap, with a twisty-tie above the breasts. Picture Roman Goddess at Halloween. I asked for directions. She pointed at signs that outlined the steps, #1 to #16. She said something like, "Just follow the numbered signs" (or maybe, "Don't you know anything?")

I followed the signs. Each spelled out the exact amount of time you were to spend in that particular space. Every space had a clock. One does not just, willy-nilly, lounge around. One certainly does not play, or speak, above a whisper. For the Germans, taking these baths is all about the ritual. Quiet. Medicinal. Cleansing. Curative.

There was a warm bath (not too hot, not too cold, just right.) Then a warm-air room with chaise lounges. Then a warmer pool. By pool #4 it became clear that since I was the only one with a sheet, I was just calling attention to myself ("Hey, look at the freaked-out American tourist") which was so not my goal. I dropped it in a corner. And then, remarkably, I became invisible.

Opening a door, I found a row of massage tables. The women masseuses were dressed in circa 1950s nursing outfits, white and prim. "Take a number," one said, like at the deli. (Or maybe she said, "What are you staring at?") When one gestured at me, I followed. "A massage," I thought. " This will feel good." She motioned to lie face up on a table, then dumped a pail of soapy water over my body. Then she began to scrub me with a brush. Not long, languid massaging strokes, but more how I scrub out the bathtub. Determined and earnest. She flipped me over like a side of pork (OK, I exaggerate. I just felt like a side of pork. She was respectful and efficient.) She dumped more soapy water, started scrubbing my back. Just as I'd adapted to losing my epidermis, was actually getting into the scrub-a-dub-dub-rhythm, she stopped, with a quick smack to the rear. Really... she smacked my tushie. It was neither mean nor affectionate. All business. "Achtung," she said. (Not really, but she might as well have.)

I had more soaks, hot and warm, with a frigid dip for contrast. Then the finale... a rotunda lined with high beds... whispery quiet... where I lay down as an attendant with strong hands and gentle eyes wrapped me in blankets. I felt my eyes closing, drifting off. I was in a cocoon. There was no tension remaining in my body. My skin felt pink and new. Every muscle was at rest. The air was soft to breathe. I could have stayed there for hours... and would have if my stomach hadn't started rumbling. Loudly.

Strolling back to the locker room, I felt content. No, more than that, I felt delicious. I realized that somewhere between pool #7 and pool #10 I'd forgotten I was naked. I was just a body among bodies. Big bodies, trim bodies, 30-something to 70-something bodies. Nothing special. No shame, no glory. No big deal.

It was a healthy reminder. We should all get naked with a bunch of strangers sometimes to see who we really are, to curb our self-preoccupation, to get over ourselves. This, of course, is best done in a place where we won't run into anyone we know or will ever see again for the rest of our lives.

Susan Kraus brought this column back because she is returning to Germany in a few weeks and plans to go to the baths in every city she visits.

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