I’ve never been interested in seeing an old man naked. Crazy, I know – it’s just simply never appealed to me. But with travel comes unexpected and occasionally undesired happenings, and in my particular instance, it was male nudity.
In the fall of 2008, I spent three months living in Vienna, Austria – the same city I’m returning to in May. Our supervisors and students before us constantly encouraged us to go out and see all we could in Vienna, even when we didn’t feel like it. Living in another country makes you tired in ways you’ve never felt before, so it’s not really surprising to have days where you just feel like staying inside and stuffing yourself with tasty butter rolls (which may have just been my thing). Days like that didn’t roll around too often, but when they did, it was nearly impossible to convince yourself to go out and about, unless someone suggested going somewhere relaxing, like say, a spa.
A couple of my girl friends had been searching for something to do all morning when they stumbled upon what appeared to be a luxurious, high-class spa a little ways outside of Vienna. I happened upon their discovery, and together the three of us oo’ed and ah’ed at the descriptions of body wraps, massages, hot stones, and heated pools. It was particularly dreary and brisk that day, so a spa couldn’t have sounded more perfect. We extended the invitation to other classmates, recruiting another girl and one guy, unfortunately having no idea that mixing genders would later become a problem.
We traveled the somewhat lengthy trip outside of Vienna by train, finally arriving in a little town called Baden. The town was cute and filled with boutiques and restaurants way out of our price range. It didn’t matter though – we were there to enjoy ultimate relaxation for as long as possible and head right back home to Vienna. With pool bags in hand, we headed for the spa. The building looked like a peaceful hotel, complete with the sound of quiet music and tiny fountains. We went to the front desk, and in Germglish proceeded to list the services we wanted to partake in for the afternoon. The woman heard us out, then said all of that would be just fine as long as we each presented her with a doctor’s note. A doctor’s note? We were confused, but soon became less so as she pointed out that this spa was a rehabilitating spa, a massive detail we failed to read about on the website. The only thing she could do for us, she said, was to allow us 2 hours use of the pools and sauna, and we could come back later for 30 minute massages as long as appointments were made. All of us wanted to be able to say we had gotten a massage while in Vienna, so each of us signed up for a session for later on that afternoon. The woman showed us the way to the pools and that was that. Or so we assumed.
If you’ve never been to Europe before, one thing to know is that the human body is seen a little different there, in that the human body is seen. At beaches or pools, men wear tiny speedos and women may wear a top, depending on how they feel that day I guess, so for extremely private and somewhat prude US college students, this was nothing short of uncomfortable. It’s the culture though, we said. We can handle it. We’re adults. The five of us found the locker room where upon entering we learned that both men and women share the locker room and do not use private rooms to change out of or into their clothes. This presented a problem for us seeing as we had a boy in our group of girls. Not wanting to be separated but also not wanting to get to know each other more than we had to, we picked the farthest line of lockers away from everyone and each of us chose a locker. Since we had no other changing choices, each of us got inside our lockers and changed into our bathing suits despite the lack of room and light. We managed though, and finally made it to the pools. We tried out the outdoor heated pool as well as the indoor jacuzzi, ending with the largest indoor pool which was filled with rehabilitating jets and waterfalls. I think we piddled around for about an hour before we decided we were ready to sit awhile in the sauna.
The five of us made our way to the sauna where we were immediately told to halt at the turnstile. At first we thought the problem was with our flip-flops. We had noticed earlier that no one else was wearing any sort of pool sandal unless they were over the age of 65, so perhaps this was the problem. The guy in our group, John, and I attempted to communicate with the man who continued to politely refuse us. Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Nein, sprechen Sie Englisch? Nein. We then resorted to wild pointing and gestures as we didn’t know the first bit of German for articles of clothing, and the sauna man didn’t know articles of clothing in English. After a few minutes I noticed the sauna man had been continuously pointing at John’s legs, not his shoes. So, we can’t have hairy legs in the sauna? I was terribly confused. We all were. Eventually the exhausted sauna man called over his manager. We heard the sauna man explain to the manager that we spoke English, and that’s about all we got from that even though the conversation lasted a lot longer. The manager looked at us for a few seconds then looked as if he had a great idea. He ran over to a closet and grabbed a towel. He came back and held it up. Oooooh, we said to each other, we don’t have towels. We need towels to come in here. Got it. Somehow the manager knew we still didn’t get it even though we thought we did. He started pointing wildly at John’s legs, then drawing what appeared to be a square in the air with his fingers. John’s legs, air square. John’s legs, air square. Finally, when we thought all hope was lost and John’s legs were somehow related to a square which was preventing us from entering the sauna, the manager remembered a word he knew in English, I’m assuming from the last time he encountered this problem. OFF! OFF! OFF! We understood. The men hadn’t been pointing at John’s legs, they had been pointing at his swim shorts. The manager was drawing an air square to help us understand the need for the towel. John’s swim shorts, and also all of our bathing suits, had to come “OFF!” before entering the sauna, and we were only allowed one towel each.
At this point I don’t know why we didn’t nod and decide that we could just do a massage train back home in Vienna. It was as if we had been sucked into the cultural experience and were like, Oh right. We need to be naked for this. Yeah that’s totally fine – we’ll just run up and get some towels, and we’ll change out of these crazy swimsuit things and meet you back here! It was like, we were concerned…but there was no turning back now. Without really speaking to each other, or even looking at each other, we got our towels from the front desk and went back to our changing lockers. We came out of our lockers and faced each other, each of us clinging to our towels as if the possibility of them coming to life and leaving our bodies was a extremely high. I’d be lying if I said our faces weren’t a deep shade of red at that moment. We awkwardly shuffled to the entrance of the sauna where we were greeted with smiles and quiet cheers as if we were about to enter into a really great sauna party. We each went through the turnstile only to stop dead in the entryway. Before our eyes stood, crept, and inched along many, many, elderly naked men.
In this kind of a situation, there’s really not a whole lot you can do. As a guy I’d imagine you’re kinda like, whoa – there’s a’lotta super old naked guys in here. But as a girl my reaction was definitely more to the extent of… WHYYYYYY are there SO many naked men in here?! There’s even one with a WALKER. He’s naked and using a WALKER. Do I look at the floor or the ceiling? Is there a secret bookcase I can disappear behind? A trap door in the floor? Maybe Jesus will come back now – that would be AMAZING timing. Just clothe them with your mind. Clothe them!
After our group completely freaked out silently at the strange predicament we had gotten ourselves into, we realized we had officially passed the point of no return. The sauna man led us down a hall, pointing out all the sauna rooms we had to choose from. Some of the rooms were filled with just men, and some had men and women, the women being just as elderly as the men, so at least now John could officially feel just as uncomfortable as his lady companions. The sauna man finally stopped at the last room which happened to be empty. He opened the door and proceeded to show us the proper “sauna technique” – sit down on a burning hot wooden bench, put your legs up on a little prop bench in front of you, and your towel? Not needed. Scandalous titles for the next Talon (school newspaper) issue flashed through my mind – 5 Students Expelled Abroad for Spa Nudity… Students Kicked Off Fall Euro for Going Too Native… We were doomed. John tried once more to communicate with the sauna man, this time asking if there was a Women Only room and a Men Only room. John pointed to himself and to the sauna, then to us and the sauna room. The sauna man, again quite perplexed, pointed to all of us and then to the sauna room. People must have thought we were practicing for a miming show later. John, exhausted from his silent conversation with the sauna man, finally spoke up and said, “Boys, in here – girls, over there?” The sauna man seemed to understand but shook his head violently and corrected John, “No no no no.” Our eyes widened again. John looked back at us, then at the sauna room, then back at the man and for clarification asked, “…So… together?” The sauna man, beside himself with happiness that we finally understood, clapped his hands together loudly and shouted, “Ya! TOGETER!!” and ushered us into the sauna room, proudly closing the door behind him as if he had sold his first house to very difficult clients.
While it was pretty awkward baking together, we survived the Viennese sauna experience (with our towels on). We laughed the whole way back home, immediately told everyone our story, and got laughed at in return. Now four years later, I’m returning to Vienna – to live this time – but I can assure you, going to a sauna is not on my To-Do list.