MY JOURNEY: CO-ED NAKED SAUNAS AND MASSAGES IN THE EU
The Back Story: In my mid-twenties, I was living in Dallas and dating an Italian guy from Torino. He had just completed his PhD in Quantum Physics and was looking for a job. He was relatively smart (haha), qualified, and desperate to stay in the US – namely Texas, where he had spent the last several years of his life and had fallen in love with the people, beer, and relentless heat. His student visa was due to expire, and unfortunately, his last effort to obtain a work permit in order to begin employment at a major high tech company had failed. It was right after 9/11, and the country was not accommodating to foreigners seeking to stay in the States.
Long story short, he was forced to move back to Europe and ended up settling in Munich, where the job prospects in his field were most promising. After several months, several visits, and several pleas to join him, I quit my job in Dallas, put all of my worldly belongings into a five by seven storage unit, and bought a one-way ticket to Germany. I was twenty-five, no kids, and renting. It was an easy decision, except for leaving my dog behind in the custody of my parents. But I was young and eager for a new adventure.
I was in love with the Munich. Everything about it was beautiful – the cafes, buildings, and parks were all so perfect and I couldn’t wait to make it my home for the foreseeable future. I had arrived in May, and the Italian decided to take the summer off before finding work and show me his home country. So, we spent the entire summer traveling through Italy, from the north to the south, visiting his family and friends, and taking in the sites.
(Before you get too dreamy-eyed over what should have been the dolce vita to end all vitas, it’s probably worth mentioning that the majority of the trip was in fact, a complete disaster. Looking back, I still harbour suspicions that it was all a part of his dubious plot to make me as miserable as possible and drive me back to the States, where he would show up on my doorstep one sub-zero night in Chicago with a suitcase in hand, begging me to take him in, only to seduce me into marrying him in order to achieve his final goal: a US Greencard….but all of that will be covered in greater detail in Volume II, Part IV, Section VIII of my memoir entitled, Entitled.)
Before all of that, we somehow made it back to Germany in the autumn, fractured but not yet broken….yet. He settled into a job working for some top-secret space and defence agency, where he had to sign legal disclosures vowing never to reveal the nature of his work…which sounded a bit to me like he was trying to build up an aura of mystery and intrigue to peak my curiosity. He obviously knew me well. I stayed with him for another four years.
Anyway, there I was in Munich. The Italian was working long hours and I was busy settling into my new life. I was fortunate to be doing contract work for my old firm, which gave me something to do; but other than that, I didn’t really have a plan. With no friends and no real schedule, I had an abundance of time on my hands, so I would set out in the morning and spend all day wandering aimlessly through the streets, exploring neighbourhoods, checking out local markets, sipping cappuccinos in majestic cafes, and reading books. I loved the freedom and the fact that I could explore the city on my own without an Italian complaining how I can’t read a map.
But eventually, I finished War and Peace and realized I needed more structure in my life. I wanted an outlet that would allow me to feel both inspired and disciplined. With no work permit and zero command over the German language, I decided to do the next logical thing and join a gym. The Italian suggested the Olympic Stadium near our apartment. They had nice workout facilities, an Olympic size swimming pool (obviously), and it was inexpensive.
Excited, I arrived at the stadium with my gym bag in hand, checked in, and headed to the dressing room to change into my workout clothes. I walked into the expansive dressing room with its rows of lockers and benches and stood there completely perplexed. Confused and slightly embarrassed, I walked to the next row of lockers and saw the same thing: naked man after naked man undressing next to naked woman after naked woman.
I had been somewhat initiated into the naked culture of Germans. On my first visit to Munich, the Italian walked me through the city park one afternoon, and with no prior warning, we entered the “Nude Zone”. There, in the middle of city, in the middle of the park, was an entire community of people sunbathing completely naked. Men, women, and even entire families with children lounged freely and openly on blankets taking in the midday sun. At first, I was rather shocked, but I have to say, it is interesting how quickly one becomes accustomed to seeing strangers naked. By the time I made it through that section of the park, I barely noticed the bare bottoms and exposed man parts of its inhabitants. Ok, I may still have noticed the man parts.
Sure, the park was one thing, but the locker room was a different story. I am not overly modest or shy when it comes to nudity, but this would mean that I would have to fully undress next to strange men. I don’t even enjoy undressing in front of strange women in a locker room. A bit hesitant, but not wanting to be squeamish, I selected a spot in the very far back corner of an unoccupied aisle, where I could change as stealthily as possible.
Just as I had stripped down to nothingness, as if on cue, a giant German man with bulging biceps and chiseled thighs (if memory serves me) walked down the aisle and selected a locker adjacent to mine. Completely frazzled, I pulled my yoga pants up over my legs – which every woman knows is never easy (or attractive) to do, squeezed my breasts into my sports bra (equally as awkward), threw on a shirt, and shoes, and scampered away to the gym.
As I was doing my bicep curls, which for some odd reason, I felt inspired to work on, I couldn’t help but think of that giant German who, not even once, snuck a glance at me while I was changing. I hadn’t even detected a sneak peak from his peripheral; and to be honest, I was feeling rather offended.
Could it be that Germans were really that cool and nonchalant when it came to co-ed nudity? Like it was natural or something? Impossible. I concluded he must be gay and went about my workout.
Having grown accustomed to the co-ed locker room scenario, my next gym encounter would force me to yet again assert my (lack of) confidence and European nudity in a new way. I noticed that the gym had several saunas. The days were growing shorter and colder and the thought of a nice hot sauna sounded incredibly appealing. So one day, I wrapped myself in a giant towel and headed to the dry sauna, only to find it completely occupied with naked men and women – again. I guess I should have known.
As I stood at the door, everyone turned to look at me…I can only assume because I was standing there, frozen in fear and letting the cold air in. Not wanting to retreat, or risk getting yelled at by those rule-following Germans who never shy from telling you what to do, I closed the door behind me and quickly took a seat with the towel wrapped tightly around me, looking like a roll of toilet paper. I sat the entire time, sweating and staring at the floor, feeling like a total prude. But that’s what I did, too shy to drop my towel, which was actually quite ridiculous considering at the time, I was super young, had a well-defined six pack, and breasts that pointed to the heavens.
Later that night, we had dinner with the Italian’s sister, who was also living in Munich, and I told them about the co-ed naked saunas. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. To me, saunas were sacred spaces of peace and isolation, and I didn’t think I could fully relax in such a liberal environment.
It was then his sister told me nonchalantly about the first time she had gone to Finland to meet her Finnish boyfriend’s family. It was her first night at his dad’s house and they had just eaten a home cooked dinner, when his dad announced it was time for the sauna. The boyfriend, his dad, and his sister, all got up and headed out to their sauna in the backyard. They all stripped down, butt naked, and the four of them spent the remainder of the evening lounging together in a swath of sweat.
I was completely mystified. The very first time she had met her boyfriend’s dad and sister, they ended up totally naked in a sauna, sweating out the reindeer they had probably just eaten, and chatting about…honestly, I have no idea what one could possibly be chatting about in that situation. The thought of seeing my boyfriend’s dad naked, or worse, having him see me naked was all a little much for my feeble American mind.
But there you have it. Totally natural. No big deal.
And it was then I came to the crushing realization that the giant German was probably not gay after all. He just wasn’t that into me.
Now, years later, I find myself back in Europe; only this time, instead of living in Germany with an Italian, I am living in Italy with a German (covered in Volume IV, Part I, Section VII of my memoir).
So, have I become accustomed to all the nakedness? Well, yes and no.
The sight of saunas filled with naked men and women doesn’t phase me anymore. (Although I still do not understand how giant fat men can possibly think it is ok to sit directly in front of me, legs spread wide, when there are like ten other vacant seats from which to choose…but oh, well.) Luckily it’s not always like that. Occasionally, you experience the flip side too.
I was in Berlin for a few days, and was spending some time at the hotel spa. It was a tiny sauna, maybe eight feet across, like a walk-in closet really. I was sitting there with my husband, completely naked, (I have finally gotten up the courage to drop my towel) when a smoking hot man walked in. At first, I thought he would think it was too crowded, and wait for us to finish, but Europeans never mind being packed in like sardines – unlike me, who spent the majority of my life in Texas, where generous social distances are strictly abided by.
So, the man proceeded to enter the sauna, and I sat there with honestly nowhere else to look except his beautifully sculpted buttocks beneath his towel, which he proceeded to take off and hang on the wall hook. I then braced myself for what I knew was coming. Sure enough, he turned around, and there I was, confronted with his schlingle, about eighteen inches from my face. He then exchanged pleasantries in German with my husband, and causally took a seat next to me. And there I was, naked as a jaybird, sandwiched between two naked German men in a tiny hot sweaty sauna….
I’m sorry, I lost my train of thought there for a moment. Right. So, I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to men lying around saunas with their members proudly on display, but one new experience I had yet to come to terms with was the Italian massage – which I would discover always involves an inordinate amount of exposure and breast manipulation.
My first massage in Italy was a couples massage near Lake Garda. It was one of those thermal aquatic spas with sulphur water bubbling from hot springs. We were on the tables, eyes closed and ready for an hour of relaxation. Little did I know it would be anything but relaxing. First of all, I like my massages really deep and hard. Like almost painful. I want every pressure point triggered to bring me to the verge of tears. What can I say, I want to feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.
Well, this particular massage was anything but. It was so light, it was actually irritating. All she was doing was basically rubbing oil on my skin and I was getting annoyed. Just when I was about to say something, my husband chimed in and asked his masseuse if she could apply more pressure. Apparently, he was not happy with it either.
But the lady replied that we had paid for the “Relaxation Massage” and she could not apply more pressure because that was another type. I have grown used to things in Europe being non-negotiable, and as infuriating as it can be, I’ve learned to just go with the flow.
So, I tried to just focus on “relaxing”, when she pulled back the towel and began massaging my exposed bottom. I am used to massages in the States that keep you wrapped up like a mummy, careful to never reveal certain parts of the body. This was a new experience, but I was ok with it. Then she instructed me turn over. I flipped over, expecting her to cover me with the sheet, but that apparently wasn’t going to happen.
Instead she poured a ton, and I mean a ton of oil all over me and began massaging my breasts. I was a little surprised, but mostly just thinking WTF, is this going to turn into some Happy Ending I had always heard about? And then I started giggling to myself. I couldn’t help but think how my husband was totally missing out seeing me being felt up by some random Russian girl. His loss.
Later that week, I discussed the Italian breast massage with one of my students, and indeed, it is quite common here in Italy. Apparently you just have to request for them to skip that part, if it’s not your thing. It’s not my thing.
The next time I booked my massage, I was determined to have some muscle behind it. So I requested a man and a deep tissue treatment. I entered the treatment room, feeling a bit more prepared and self-assured, knowing that, like the last massage, it would properly involve a certain level of exposure. I just wasn’t prepared for how much.
He started in the usual way, working his way down my back, did the butt thing, which I’m slowly getting used to, finished with my legs, and then told me to flip over. I did as I was told, and he quickly removed the sheet and exchanged it with a towel across my bikini area, and laid a small towel across my breasts. Then he covered my eyes with a mask and went to work, making his way down my leg. That is when things got a bit awkward.
He took my thigh in both hands and starting jiggling it back and forth really fast and hard, shaking my entire body. I thought it was a bit odd. I have received countless types of massages in my life, and have never come across this specific technique before. But I have never been one to tell people how to do their job, so I kept quiet and let him proceed.
He then worked his way over to the other leg, where he did the exact same jiggling maneuver. This time, I was shaking so fast and furiously, both towels slipped off and fell to the floor in unison, leaving me on full display. Violà. It was like the magician who pulls the tablecloth out in one quick, orchestrated movement.
Ahh, so that’s what this was about…
So, there I lay, blindfolded and feeling rather exposed, waiting for him to replace the towels (which I might add, he took his sweet time putting back on), and the only thought that kept running through my mind was: Damn it, the light is really bright in here.
I was hyperaware that the bright light was probably highlighting each and every one of my flaws, and I really wished he had at least dimmed it down a bit…but he probably wasn’t concerned with the Kelvin levels in the room as much as I was.
He finished the session, sans breast massage, per my request; and when it was over, you can bet I put on my robe, went straight to the lobby, and told the receptionist to book me a standing appointment every three weeks.
I guess there is such a thing as Italian privilege. I’m sure he had mastered this little trick countless times with countless women, and yet, he was still in business. Had that occurred in the States, I would have stormed out of the treatment room and written a scathing Yelp review. But here in Italy, right or wrong, I put it into a more cultural context. I decided the entire episode had an air of elegance about it; after all, he was attractive, polite, and smelled good, so I guess I was willing to let it slide….all the way to the floor.