Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Sauna

I recently had the pleasure of visiting my partner's family in Germany for the New Year. While there, we had a brief holiday in a small town in the Austrian Alps. The scenery was lovely. The sledding was AWESOME! The food was delicious. Despite the minor language barrier, even for the Germans, Austria was a restful and relaxing mini-vacation. And what would a relaxing European vacation be without the sauna? Rhetorical.

For those of you who have never been to or seen a sauna, a sauna is a small, closed room, primarily made of wood, intended to be a hot, dry, restful space - a place to sweat, cleanse and meditate. Wooden benches line the walls of the sauna in stadium-seating form accomodating eight to ten people. The key to this whole event, however, is that everyone is naked - buck naked.

Now, I like to think of myself as a worldly, open-minded person, comfortable in my skin. I like to think that I am free and open, happy with my little temple - perhaps in a way not too common in the U.S. of A. But, in Austria, I realized I have been lying to myself all these years. While being naked is something I love in my own home, I really am not a fan of being naked in public. Much to the amusement of my former ultimate teammates, most of whom had no reservations at all about getting naked, I refused to get naked in front of them at parties or on the field. Could be that my aversion stems from my redheadedness, having had more than one stranger ask me if the carpet matches the curtains. Such invasions of privacy may have created my certain knowledge that all eyes will naturally drift downwards with the curiosity of "Is she a real redhead?" too powerful to ignore. Could be that nakedness seems like something private, not to be shared with anyone other than one's partner. Could be sheer fear. Whatever the reason, I will not get naked in a "public" space - making visits to European saunas rather... interesting.

Beyond being naked in public, being naked with one's own family as an adult, or the family of a partner seems even more invasive. Not for the Europeans. Mothers, fathers, daughters and sons enjoy saunas together with no evident discomfort. For this American, such behavior was eye opening on so many levels.

So here is the scenario: Nice relaxing space, wonderfully warm after being outside in 10 degree weather. Children scamper through on their way to the pool to shriek, dive and generally create waterlogged mayhem. I enter and feel immediately comfortable. I let out a deep sigh. Naked adults stroll about, comfortable - even relishing their freedom from clothing - and I am comfortable with their nakedness. There are no roving eyes or lascivious comments. All is well. Then my partner's sister takes off her clothes. Okay, I can handle this. Then my partner's brother-in-law takes off his clothes. Seriously, where do I look? I mean, if my eyes go down then it looks like I am checking out his goods or her hygiene choices. If my eyes stay chest level, then I look like I am checking out her goods. If I look down, then I look like I am ashamed or afraid of their nakedness. If I just close my eyes, I will wipe out and really look like an idiot. So, again, where do I look?

Now I am faced with a dilemma. Do I take off my swimsuit to fit in and seem more worldly than I feel? Do I leave it on, essentially wearing a sandwich board stating, "I am an American, incapable of getting naked even though I was born that way"? Suddenly, this relaxing space became a space of anxiety, fittingly causing me to break a sweat. Not only would I be naked in public, but I would also be naked in front of my partner's family - a serious double whammy. Surely they must be curious if my hair is natural. No, that's ridiculous. Surely they must be asking themselves why their brother (in-law) stays in the U.S. with this American woman. Quit it. Now you are just being paranoid.... Sigh.

I opt for the swimsuit (yeah, wimpy, I know) - and enter the sauna, trying to hold my head up high, but not high enough to see anything I shouldn't. I feel like an idiot. Who wears clothes in a sauna? My friends lie down on the top bench, very naked, and relax, legs bent, parts moving naturally. I, being the mature, capable person that I am, feel severely uncomfortable, wondering what proper eye protocol is and how long I would have to wait until my cultural discomfort eased. My cultural discomfort outlasts my ability to handle the warmth of the sauna and I leave the room redfaced from heat and embarrassment.

Later that evening, we ate dinner in the hotel dining room. As I looked around the room, I saw many faces from my earlier trip to the sauna. I felt oddly smug as I realized I had seen most of them naked earlier that day. Somehow I knew more than I should about each and every one of them. Later, I realized everyone saw everyone else naked that day, too. Took some wind from my smugly whipping sails. Boy, I am pathetic.

Listening to the dinner conversation, I learned that my partner's mother was planning to visit the sauna the following day. I decided I would skip the sauna. Baby steps.