How Do You Know When to Go Naked in Germany?
The sun was rising over Big Cabin, Okla., when I pulled up to the drive-through window at McDonald’s and said, “Howdy.” My wife and I were driving north from Texas, and she, a Texan born and raised, could not stop laughing. “ ‘Howdy’?” she said, incredulous. “I’m from Texas, and I’ve never said ‘howdy.’ I’ve never even heard it said. Where does that come from?”
I can tell you where it comes from, the howdys in Oklahoma and y’alls in Texas, the ahlas in Israel and dai bastas in Italy. It comes from growing up feeling like an outsider and from training yourself, always, to fit in.
Back in 2009, that same Texan wife and I went to live in Berlin, immediately immersing ourselves in the culture. We rode the S-Bahn, ate doner kebabs and learned to say “genau” at all the right moments. (Honestly, if you just nod and say, “Genau!” you can spend your whole life in Germany without anyone suspecting you don’t know another German word.)
There was one local custom that left us baffled. We couldn’t understand the rules of decorum around public nudity. Passing Berlin’s Tiergarten at lunchtime, you might see a businessman walk into the park, take off his jacket and tie . . . his shirt . . . his pants . . . his underwear and, buck naked, take the sun for an hour before heading back to work. It was the same at the lake where we lived. Let’s just say there were great swarms of people with no place to pin their locker keys.
With winter, that worry disappeared — along with the German sun. The cold, gray days that followed were really too much. But that’s when people started inviting us to the saunas. A German professor was the first to ask us to join him, but we demurred. It wasn’t the nudity exactly that bothered. It was the idea of being naked combined with the nakedness of my academic cohort.
I understand that claiming we aren’t prudish and actually not being prudish are two different things. Especially for me, who grew up religious, and still finds it racy to see a woman’s elbows, and defines “naked” as a man without a hat. So with something to prove, we decided to give it a try.
Liquidrom was the obvious choice. It has a Himalayan salt sauna, a Finnish sauna and an indoor pool where you can have some sort of womblike, thermal experience. One of my wife’s childhood friends was visiting, so we had an extra naked person to bring along for immoral support.
In the lobby, we agreed to meet after getting undressed in the locker rooms. They disappeared through the door marked women’s, and I went through the men’s. That’s when it became clear that both doors led to the same place. They were marked by sex, but the locker rooms were one.
Once in our towels, we headed for the pool. Taking the lead, I read the German sign on a door, translated it as “pool” and opened it. A naked man on a table glowered at me. Apparently, my translation of the German for “swimming pool” said something more like “Massage in progress.”
We soon found our way, dropped our towels and hopped into the water.
The first thing we noticed was that — as hip and stylish as everyone claimed it would be — the pool was filled with people of all ages, adults and children, having a grand family-friendly time. The second thing was that everyone else — every single person — was wearing a bathing suit. There was no nudity to be found, except for the three completely bare Americans that were we.
Somehow we misunderstood the simple Deutsch dictate, whereby it’s completely acceptable to swim naked outside, and saunas must only be visited nude, but when swimming at an indoor pool in a naked sauna, a bathing suit must always be worn.
I cannot recall pinching myself, but I do remember acknowledging that I was living out a classic anxiety dream. I, who always stand on ceremony, who can’t break a rule, was, very accidentally, flouting the original post-Garden of Eden societal pact.
I looked to my wife, and I looked, very carefully, at the eyes of her friend, and we did the last thing I would have expected. We didn’t run for our towels. We didn’t knock knees and engage in a harried sitcom placing of hands. What we did was laugh and decide that we’d come to take the waters, and we were going to. And naked as the day I was born, this never-more-overtly Jewish boy in Berlin closed his eyes, took a deep breath and floated.