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Naked Is Not Nude: Going Native in Germany

Ah, Germany! Beer and bratwurst. Light and fruity Rieslings. Floating down the Rhine past castles. Quaint villages. Cosmopolitan cities with fabulous museums. Trains that run on time.
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Ah, Germany! Beer and bratwurst. Light and fruity Rieslings. Floating down the Rhine past castles. Quaint villages. Cosmopolitan cities with fabulous museums. Trains that run on time.

Yet what is it that I most miss about Germany? Any of the above?

No, it is the 'bads,' the thermes, the hot minerals springs, the saunas.

The infusions.

Picture about 35 naked men and women, all shapes and sizes, from their '30's to '80s. Everyone is very circumspect, every tushie neatly settled on its own individual towel. They are not quite thigh-to-thigh, but definitely packed in a little tighter than usual, even for a big sauna. Usually you can lie down, have a whole wooden shelf all to yourself as you feel molecules of worry and anxiety dissipate in the dry heat. But saunas tend to fill up when an infusion is scheduled. Because a sauna by itself is a cleansing experience ... but an infusion?

An infusion takes you over the edge.

Before I continue, I need to clarify a distinction that Americans sometimes fail to grasp: naked is not nude. Sure, you can look at Webster's for the fine points (and there are several) but the big picture here is that naked is nothing special. For the saunas and mineral springs, naked is normal. And, because everyone is naked, and because they are all real people with real bodies (not photo-shopped, just ordinary) nobody cares what you look like. Taking the baths, having a sauna day, is all about health and well-being. Everyone is entitled, no one judged. It has nothing whatsoever to do with sex. And, when everyone is in their birthday suit, you become, in a weird way, invisible.

But back to the infusions.

An infusion is, for most, a heat-induced adrenalin rush. They last about 7-9 minutes. Most infusions take place in Finnish style saunas (85-95 degrees centigrade, very low humidity). Water infused with essential oils (eucalyptus, mint, raspberry, lemongrass, pine, ginger, etc.) is ladled over the hot rocks of the sauna, instantly raising the temperature and changing the humidity level. The saunameister (sauna assistant) who pours the water is also trained to do some fancy towel action, first twirling a towel gently above his/her head to spread the heat, then, after the second round of water-pouring (because this is a three-part pouring process, each cycle more intense), more vigorous twirling, and, finally, a series of matador-style towel-snaps in every direction, producing furnace-waves that come at you, encompass you, and then ricochet off the sauna walls and onto your back. At this point every pore in your body is wide open and sweating. Your very eyeballs are sweating. When the saunameister indicates that the infusion is complete, everyone politely applauds ... followed by a race to the door.

I have a brain that will not quit. It is always churning, neurotically second-guessing or anxiously anticipating --- an obsessive ADD-mush of a brain. And rarely have I found anything that can totally shut it down, that elicits the relief of forgetting past and future and allows me to just be in-the-moment.

Until infusions.

An infusion stops worry at the first blast. There is only room for "Will I survive the next five minutes?" And, when the infusion is over, the brain is pure and momentarily blank.

There are other varieties of infusions, forms of cleansing and purification that are more sedate. Like a sea-salt scrub in the 'dampfed' (tiled steam room). First you sit in the heat until your body is coated in sweat. Then the saunameister comes in and ladles out handfuls of sea salt. Then everyone starts to rub the salt all over themselves - legs and arms and bellies and under breasts and balls - all over. The naked grandma sitting next to you may make a gesture of "I'll salt your back if you'll salt mine." And, then, after a bit of time to let the heat and salt mingle, everyone takes turns at the cold-water hose, or showers. After which you feel as if your skin is a novelty that you can't stop touching.

Every culture that has access to hot mineral springs has developed rituals and protocols for soaking. Some of these cultures, where it also gets quite cold, have combined rituals and protocols for saunas as well. In Germany, where every other town has the word "bad" in its name, there are a lot of springs and a lot of "bads."

There is research that saunas and 'bads' build one's immune system, increase longevity, diminish stress responses and lower blood pressure. In Europe, sauna-days are often prescribed by doctors if one appears susceptible to illness, overworked or stressed out. (Yes, the doctor tells you to go sweat, soak and nap... and you get medical leave off work to do it.) Most people, however, simply regard their sauna-days as essential for maintaining balance in their lives.

Therme and sauna protocol:

Most thermes have large indoor/outdoor, resort-style, family-friendly pools (bathing suits required) with massage-jets, lazy rivers and lots of special effects. The pools are ringed with loungers, as people often come for entire days, read their books, take naps. The 'sauna parks' are separate, adult sections with their own soaking pools and protocol. A full day at a sauna park averages 15-18 euro. Combo tickets for both areas about 22-28 euro.

My last trip I went to thermes in Wiesbaden, Bad Kissingen, Baden-Baden, Bad Homburg, Cologne and Aachen. To locate a therme, google "Therme in _______" with whatever city or region you choose. Some are more 'modern' while others have traditional outdoor wooden saunas in different styles. (Do be aware that any marketing photos are all of models... not the usual clientele.)

Here is what you need for a "sauna-day": a long towel, a terry-cloth robe, flip-flops. The robe is optional. (You can rent robes and towels if you haven't packed them.) When you check in you'll get a wristband with a chip for your locker that also allows you to pay for drinks and food at the café, or extra services like a massage. Leave clothes and purse in your locker. Bring a bag with a water bottle, a book, whatever. You can (or not) wear your robe or towel except when actually in a sauna or pool. You must sit on your towel in any sauna. Most sauna parks have 5-10 different types of indoor and outdoor saunas, landscaped grounds, pools, plus tiled steam rooms, relaxing rooms, even darkened sleeping rooms.

Start with ten minutes in a sauna, then a quick shower and a slow soak in a pool. Choose a warm mineral pool or a cooler pool, depending on the weather. Then lie down to rest on one of the very comfortable loungers. Sunbathe if the sun is shining. Then do another round of sauna-soak-rest. Add a dunk in a freezing plunge pool or give your body a rub-down with ice (they have ice-stations) when hot from the sauna. Drink water to stay hydrated. Sauna-soak-rest. Have a bite to eat at the café. (Yes, there may be naked people sipping espresso and eating cake or drinking beer, but this is Germany after all where beer, wine, coffee and cake are essential to any communal experience. Most will be wearing their robes or towels.) After the snack, guess what? It's time for more sauna-soak-rest.

Soon, you will find yourself drifting off into a state of relaxed bliss, napping like a young child naps, drooling, oblivious to appearance. Throw in a couple of infusions (space them out) and your day is complete.

So, when in Germany, do what the Germans do. Go native. Having a sauna day, taking the baths, is a more memorable cultural experience than any museum could ever be. And when your friends ask, "How was Europe? What did you enjoy the most?" you can grace them with a smile as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa herself while you decide whether to tell the truth --- or keep your secret and reply, "Oh, Paris was quite beautiful."

Susan Kraus is a therapist, mediator, novelist and travel writer. Her latest novel, "All God's Children" centers on a custody battle over a child in the gay-bashing, funeral-picketing Westboro Baptist Church... a different world from the sauna parks of Germany.