With or Without

By Tara Yarrow-Gulatee

“With or without, we’ll have a good time anyway.” With that my German friend hung up the phone and cast the first clouds on my planned afternoon. He was not asking whether I was taking my tea with or without milk–but about visiting the sauna with or without a swim suit. I was planning my first visit to a sauna in my new home country–France.

To back track a little, I first got to know the sauna in Finland when I worked there as a summer intern. It was a little strange sitting starkers in a wooden cabin, perspiring like mad and discussing all the things girls discuss together when they are just girls. But we were just that–absolutely not mixed company. The girls came out and then the boys went in, then we all partied together (with our clothes on I hasten to add.) It was a great summer, I was 19, my first experience of being abroad, being alone. Everything was new, exciting and wonderful and I fell in love with every experience made there, including the sauna.

A few years later I moved to Germany. I met a nice young man at a party and he invited me to Munich for a weekend to show me the sights. It was a hot day and he suggested the English Garden. I thought he was such a nice young German man, when in fact I was rather a naïve young English girl. I had not read my guide book to Munich–in the English Garden one picnics and sun bathes in the altogether. Trying to keep my cool and not think about what mother would say, I disrobed, politely accepted the towel he offered me to lie on, and concentrated hard on cloud formation in the sky. Well what else should one do with a few hundred naked people stretched out all around. Slowly I got used to life in Germany. Wholemeal bread, trains that run on time, and the ease with which so many people seemed to “get their kit off.” The local indoor swimming pool had nudist evenings, and the ladies were all topless in the park. It was only logical that a visit to the sauna would be “without.” However, unlike Finland, they were mixed. It is amazing what one accepts as normal if everyone else is doing it. We lived near Frankfurt where there are lots of thermal baths, wonderful saunas with pine-paneled relaxation rooms, roaring log fires, heated pools outside where you can swim when snow is on the ground, and freezing Kneip pools that you can dive in to after the sauna. It is exhilarating and you feel good to be alive. Everyone is naked and you don’t know anyone, so who cares?

Quite how German I had become didn’t hit me until I was back in England, staying in a luxury country hotel on one of those team building courses that American corporations love so much. My manager was there along with several colleagues from around the world. We decided to try out the sauna. With my good German training I went for a swim first (work before pleasure.) I was the last to arrive for the sauna. I carefully stripped off the swim suit and took a nice clean towel to sit on in the sauna. In I went and as my eyes accustomed to the gloom in the sauna I realised–yes, they all had swim suits on. Even now I break out into a sweat thinking about it.

I didn’t leave my room for the rest of the course, could never look those colleagues in the eye–or anywhere else for that matter–after that. So much for team building.

Later, after 14 years of Germany, I moved to France and was about to make my first visit to a French sauna in the small town we live in. I had packed my swimsuit, but only for the work party first. It never occurred to me to wear it in the sauna. One doesn’t. We are on The Continent after all. It’s only the English who are so prudish. But my friend had sowed the seeds of doubt. It was a cold, grey February day and as I ploughed my lengths I looked forward to relaxing in the warmth and peace of a 90C sauna, retiring to a softly lit tranquil corner and contemplating my new life. I looked with anticipation at the frosted glass doors with “SAUNA” stuck to them and wondered what would be more embarrassing. To enter “with” and find everyone “without” or to enter “without” and find everyone “with.” I thought of the team building–no question about it. Especially in our town where I often met people I know at the pool, in the sauna there may be a mother of my daughter’s school friends, or even worse, a father.

Finally, work over and ready for pleasure, I pushed open the frosted doors to paradise and entered what looked like the white, tiled changing room of the municipal baths that my school used to take us to for swimming classes 30 years ago. Where was the softly lit pine relaxation room?

There was a wooden sauna cabin however, so with swimsuit on and towel around me I went in.

Phew, got it right this time, they all had swim suits on. However they didn’t have towels, they dripped onto the wooden benches. Yuck–a cardinal offense in Germany. It didn’t feel good with a swimsuit on either. Nor was it very peaceful, everyone was chatting. I guess with your clothes on people feel less inhibited and chat away as if they were in the bar around the corner. Feeling more and more stressed, I came out, showered (with swimsuit still on) in the municipal shower room, sat on a while plastic chair and felt very let down.

That was my first and last trip to a French sauna. Friends tell me that here one should try a haman or Turkish bath, together with a “gommage,” which is like being sandpapered by a female Turkish wrestler wearing a rough glove. That’s definitely something where you want to keep your swimsuit on.

I told my friend that it was “with” and we agreed that it was truly awful. The next time I am in Germany we will make a nostalgic visit to our favourite thermal bath.