Monday, January 08, 2007

Naked Germans

All righty everyone, my long awaited Friedrichsbad epic. I warn you, it is long, but worth a read. It’s a sequel to my first post on Baden-Baden wherein I visited the Caracalla spa.

When Mark Twain visited Friedrichsbad in 1880 it was only about a decade old and a wonder of the time: “The new Friederichsbad is a very large and beautiful building, and in it one may have any sort of bath that has ever been invented, and with all the additions of herbs and drugs that his ailment may need or that the physician of the establishment may consider a useful thing to put into the water.” So effective were these herbs and medicaments that Twain claims to have left his rheumatism in Baden Baden, though he hated the town enough to have written “I would have preferred to leave something that was catching, but it was not in my power.”

One hundred and twenty years later, standing in line to buy our 29€ tickets (a 1000 percent mark-up from Twain’s day) I took heart from his experience, not the least that he didn’t leave anything catching. I was, after all, going to, if I may indulge in a literary metaphor, remove my bookjacket and set my two-volume softcover on the same shelf where Twain had rested his own sardonic cheek. As far as getting something catching, I wouldn’t mind picking up some of his talent, but thus far in Baden-Baden I can certainly do without his ill-will.

By the time Twain arrived to "take the waters" Baden-Baden had already been a spa town for centuries, the waters flowing from the Black Forest hills hot and rich in minerals reputed to cure what ails you. In the 19th century it was called the “summer capital of Europe” as the Continental aristocracy would flock to the town to soak away their aching polo injuries, gout, ennui and other maladies that afflicted the well born and idle of the Belle Epoch.

Over the years Baden-Baden had become a gambling mecca, as an aristocracy with nothing better to do with their unearned fortunes endeavoured to throw them away. Baden-Baden’s casino features a pure gold roulette table. The annual horse race is an “event” that still draws double-barrel-name-wielding members of the upper crust every summer. However, when gambling was temporarily outlawed by Kaiser Wilhelm I in the late 19th century, the spas had to do the economic heavy lifting for the region.

Friedrichsbad was the spa that was designed to keep the elites coming. We arrived on a Thursday, one of two days during the week when the sexes are (mostly) separated. Oddly, this was something of a relief for me – as the day for our visit here drew near, I discovered that I was getting unexpectedly nervous. I am not ashamed of nudity. In fact, I’ve always felt it was a crime against art to wear as much clothes as I do – like putting Michealangelo’s David under a shroud. But I was a little apprehensive as to what to do with my eyes – where does one look when around you is naked?

Amynah and I ascended the grand staircase and split up – Friedrichsbad’s in-house host of angels appeared in all their glory to escort Amynah through the golden doors of the Hefnerian-fantasy zone that is the women's section; I hived off to the sausage factory.

Along with a ticket that afforded me access to the baths, I had been given a plastic card. Given that the instructions on it were written in German I couldn’t guess what it was for – my locker? Some kind of souvenir? Free chips at the casino?

I entered the little change room. This was the moment – I knew that Friedrichsbad was a nude spa (a fact that Twain curiously omitted from his own account of the place) but my mind couldn’t believe it. I heard voices outside – I peeked out my door, but the men were leaving and therefore dressed.

“Guten tag! No sprechen zee deutch” I said, “Do I take off all my clothes?”

“Yep! Take them all off,” he replied in perfect American-accented English.

“No towel?”

“Nope,” he replied, adjusted his tie (perhaps he was a banker on his lunch break?) and stepped out.

Deshabillement, I wander into the next room, unsure what I will find. I was approached by an older gentleman dressed all in white, as were all the attendants I encountered – I think the theory being it’s somehow not as discomfiting to be naked in front of someone if they appear to be a medical professional. He pushed me under a shower, then handed me a giant sheet and indicated I should enter the room labeled “2.”

Friedrichsbad is not one of the namby-pamby “spas” where you can indulge in chocolate baths and hot-tub martinis. It is an old-school “wellness spa” and, as the German tourism authorities Teutonically assert, “Where it says wellness, there is wellness!” Unlike the gleaming Caracalla spa next door where patrons can flit from pool as if they were there to enjoy themselves, Friedrichsbad takes its health care roots very seriously. It is a “treatment,” not a party.

There are 13 rooms, each of which are to be visited in order and for the prescribed amount of time. Room 1 was the shower. Room 2 was an “Irish” spa that was simply a room heated to an extremely high temperature. That the Irish spa was the one with the hot air was an opportunity for a joke a more clothed man than I might have appreciated.

Towel held in a manner calculated to cover my luggage while not appearing to be deliberately doing so, I strode in to be confronted with the sight of a dozen naked sweaty men on deck chairs looking at me. Lacking any idea what I was supposed to do, I sauntered over to the nearest empty spot and – after discretely peeking at what everyone else had done – covering it with my towel. I then lay down.

Now, that last sentence – so short, to the point – may leave you the impression that this was an easy thing to do. Not at all. The chairs – and the Deutschweiners basting upon them – were in very close proximity, the youngish guy beside me warily examining me with half-open eyes as my made my preparations. This marked, to the best of my knowledge, the first time I had lain naked next to naked man.

I wasn’t sure what to do at this point – did some sort of Major-Domo march in and tell us when to go to the next room? I tried closing my eyes, but the idea of having my eyes closed while naked and surrounded by strangers ran against all of my instincts. I looked around and noted a clock and then (Gnade des Gottes!) a sign on the wall: room 2 was to get ten minutes of my time. I also took note of the details of the wall facing me – old style tiling, romantically decrepit looking, a greenish colour far removed from the ultra-sleek all-white modern baths sport. The colour probably provided an extra service of hiding whatever mold would brave the wrath of the attendants here.

As time went by, unwilling to look at the clock for ten minutes straight and unable to look anywhere else, I closed my eyes. Remarkably, I began to relax as the heat began to sink in. Men wandered in and out of the room and soon I was able to pay them no mind at all. Nude became normal.

The next room was only a hotter version of the first, in which I sat for ten minutes. Several of the other men there were evidently doing the spa in pairs. Not making any assumptions about their sexual preferences, I thought about this: would I be able to “hang out” (ha!) here with Tim or Jon? Perhaps, but I’m pretty sure we’d pick lounge chairs at opposite ends of the room.

After the second hot room I proceeded into what was evidently the massage room, where white-suited Teutons were scrubbing down prone customers, all of whom were covered in some sort of brown soap. I handed over my towel to one of the attendants. He barked something at me in German. I did the “No sprechen zee…” routine, at which point he booted me out.

Confused, I wandered around the shower room again, before steeling myself to attempt the massage room. The German barked at me again. This time I just grinned idiotically and he booted me out again, but this time through a different door that led to a sauna. As I left the massage room I caught, out of the corner of my eye, a row of plastic cards hanging on the wall, just like the one I had received at the front desk and left in my wallet. I surmised that one was supposed to redeem it in order to suffer the ministrations of Herr Massagemeister.

“Experience” or no, I wasn’t that anxious to be encased in unknown chemicals and then scoured to a shiny pink finish so I proceeded to the sauna. Taking my place with a dozen other men arrayed on the stepped benches like a horde of fleshy gargoyles I pondered the mysteries of life, like “I didn’t see anyone else carrying their cards. Where were they hiding them?” and “Geez, I didn’t know you could go bald there.”

There was no sign here indicating how long I was supposed to wait and so I gave it about ten minutes before wandering off, like a bewildered lamb after being released from the shearing barn.

The next room – I’d lost count as to which number it was supposed to be – held the first proper bath of the spa. It too was supposed to be a ten-minute experience but I figured I had time to make up after skipping the massage, so I lounged around for 15. The pool was pleasant – heated to about 30 degrees, about belly deep, it allowed for a small degree of privacy while still being able – should one desire – to socialize.

Up until this pool I had been feeling somewhat like the proverbial backwoods colonial. If the other men dangling about the place were the least bit uncomfortable with all the exposed piping in the spa they were hiding it well. Was I just a prude?

Not really. I quickly noted that now that there was room available the men sharing this bath were – unless they were there together – religiously observing the “Rule of the Urinal.” Each occupant was leaving his neighbour a generous bubble of personal space, though not so much as to appear neurotic. As men entered and left the pool, the space between bathers expanded or contracted accordingly, maintaining equilibrium with an almost mathematical precision.

Newly confident, I ventured forth again. Walking into the next room I noted a sign on the dividing wall in German, English and French: “No women beyond this point.” It didn’t really register what that meant until I walked to the next bath.

Since all of its occupants were submerged and I was not wearing my glasses it took me a second to realize that I had inadvertently entered the “unsegregated” portion of Friedrichsbad and the pool I was about to enter was full of naked women. When I was seventeen this no doubt would have been a vision of heaven, but now, in a saddening jolt of maturity, I realized it was just more stress. I was getting a little bored of memorizing the topography of my big toe.

I paused at the edge of the pool, ostensibly looking for a place to sit, but really trying to make out if I could in fact see anything and therefore have to spend the next ten minutes thinking hard about Queen Victoria (also a patron of these baths in her time). Thankfully, I could not.

It wasn’t until I sank into the shallow pool that I realized that I had been standing flagrante delicto in front of a pair of twenty-something British girls. And while I was intensely conscious of other people’s nudity, I had completely forgotten my own. And if I didn’t care, why would they?

Thusly resolved to pretend I was in a National Geographic special, I sat back and admired the view – of the bath. The small bath I was in was a sideshow to the “Grand Bath” a circular, stepped pool in the centre of the room, pictured above. The builders had aimed to capture the spirit of the ancient baths, with a columns lining the walls interspersed with Romanesque statues of the body beautiful (like me, these too appeared to be studiously examining the floor) all under a domed ceiling far above in the heavens.

Once Amynah caught up to me, we went into the larger pool, which was surprisingly cool. A couple of the men in the pool were taking advantage of its size to dive under the surface, their fundaments cresting the surface like breaching humpback whales. Amynah was appalled but I barely even noticed, as I was too distracted by my efforts to ignore the circa- “Dr No” Ursula Andress look-alike (with less of a costume budget) emerging from the patch of water directly next to me.

Thinking hard about Queen Victoria, I made my way back to the men’s section and the final bath, located back in the shower room. I looked at the sign “Bad 13 – 2 minutes.” Ok. Then I noticed that the pool’s temperature was only 18 degrees. That would explain why it was completely empty.

Risking the wrath of whoever enforces the strict protocols of Friedrichsbad I elected to skip this one and head to the rest area. Once more a white suited weiner-wrangler provided me with a towel and I retired to a rest area. Taking my cue from the inmates, I wrapped it around me toga style (why hide it now?) and grabbed a three-month-old Newsweek magazine and reclined on another deck chair.

I returned to the locker area, giving the attendant a wave and a waggle farewell. I got dressed and made my way out, departing just in time to here an American-accented voice query uncertainly: “So we take all of it off?”

1 comment:

Jul said...

So that's what we missed when we decided to skip the baths on our recent trip to Baden-Baden. Thanks for the recap.

And yeah, naked Germans take a little time to get used to. The park in the German town where I used to live was always full of them (and they were never the ones you'd want to see naked).