I remember first hearing about the sauna and thinking how luxurious and amazing it sounded. I couldn’t wait to try it. My colleagues recounted the many health benefits, and then came the “sauna stories.” They laughed reminiscently over the previous American girl and her shy modesty, sporting clothes or a towel while the rest of the staff went naked.
I outwardly laughed and did my best to mask my inner horror. After that, I was conveniently tired, busy or slightly ill on all the following staff sauna nights.
Being raised by an Asian mother meant that, even at 25-years old, if my mom saw me in shorts that were an indecent length (anywhere above the ankles) or shirts with too low a neckline (anywhere below the chin) I would receive endless disapproving looks and urges to change into decent apparel. “Hoochie mama” became a household phrase during my teenage years, and even my more daring outfits are still somewhat conservative. Thus, I was not about to flaunt the goods for the whole staff to see.
Noticing my absence at every staff sauna, Yvette gently asked me one night if, perhaps, I was more than strategically ill on these bonding nights, and furthered inquired if I, perhaps, had other reservations. I remember shyly whispering, “I don’t want everyone to see me naked. That’s weird.”
She smiled because she knew, only phrasing it as a question out of politeness.
But it was entirely a cultural perception. In Europe, saunas are common social interactions, much like meeting up for a coffee. No one turns an eye to the fact that it’s an occasion where everyone goes unclothed.
And nearing the end of my three month stint in Switzerland, I can honestly say that this experience has taught me to be naked. Totally stark naked in the company of others.
But get your mind out of the gutter because I’m not talking in a physical sense, of course. Although I did try it once.
After constant reassurance from my peers that no one would judge if I stayed wrapped in a towel, they persuaded me into at least giving the sauna gathering a chance. So I did. While the overall experience of attending a sauna was wonderful, the nakedness of the situation remained awkward and uncomfortable, mostly by my own inability to relax. Despite my covered body, I tried too hard not to acknowledge the nakedness of my coworkers. I kept my eyes conspicuously glued to the ceiling, every so often making split second eye contact to acknowledge that I was listening and engaged in conversation.
I became self-conscious in an adolescent kind of way, over-exerting myself in a show of faux comfort. I attempted to mimic everyone’s veteran nonchalance, but I gave myself away in a panic every time my towel slipped slightly. And every time, with it sank my false bravado, as I immediately jolted into a fumble to fix the fabric.
So now I can confidently say that naked hang outs are not my thing.
However, in the final weeks of my stay, I discomfortingly found myself naked in a different way- completely emotionally unrobed, naked in a form that can only sprout from extreme silence. The kind of silence that met me in these mountains.
Back home, I realized that it was easy to mask the silence with busyness. There was time for work, time for the things on my to-do list, and time to complain about how I never had time to be anything but busy. And the only silence fell with sleep. However, here in the Alps, silence is all there is. The snow muffles what little noise threatens to disturb the peace, and because the walls of the institute are paper thin, all of the guests mute themselves out of respect. Whether its respect for the neighboring room or respect for the mountains, I’m not quite sure.
And in the silence I found strength, growing in me a confidence to cross borders sans companions and to sit comfortably at public tables by myself. It was a gift of time, allowing me to finish novels and write endlessly, pieces that I shared and ones that I kept undisclosed for myself. At times, I passed entire days enjoying the moments in a lethargic fashion, but never minding because my schedule no longer made but simple demands.
Conversely, the silence broke me, haunted me, taking thoughts that may have briefly plagued me amidst my formerly busy life, now amplifying them to monumental degrees until they resounded throughout the valley and echoed into the deepest hours of my trip. You can’t run from a silence like that.
What first started as an epic adventure stilled to quite moments, and in those quiets moments crept thoughts that my pride had previously held at bay. It was subtle at first. You must remember, I arrived here as the only American, the only native English speaker. It was wonderful and eye opening…until it was lonely.
There were nights when I stayed up talking with my newfound friends, conversations breaching into meaningful depths, only to abruptly be detained by the barricade of language. Translators were out, and we tried to simplify complex thoughts, often times unsure whether the intended meaning of a message fell in its true essence upon the recipient. Other times, we were tired from long days. We made tried attempts at conversation, but the effort was sometimes too exhausting. “I’m sorry. My English isn’t good tonight,” they would say regretfully. And we would continue the evening in simple phrases.
Other times, I was the one who reached walls of exhaustion. I fell into bouts of homesickness, finding that I wasn’t sick for the physical place but for the cultural camaraderie. I, at times, found it overwhelmingly difficult to be alone in my nationality. But these feelings were entirely my own, never invoked by any ill actions from the people here.
Here, it was always an amicable environment, and I found that people met me with open inquiry. They asked many questions about how my life compared to various Hollywood films, and I know I will look back fondly on the nights when they reiterated my words, placing careful emphasis on how some sounded longer than others. We laughed endlessly in their attempts to recreate my subtle Southern drawl, using my token American slang.
Those nights of longing for the familiar came only a few weeks before my departure date, and I met them with frustration. Why then? Why at all? It felt wrong to waste my dream-come-true by feeling anything but appreciative. And I began to retreat within myself, my loneliness encompassing me and driving me to the conveniences of technology, frequently Skyping my family, at times shedding tears over the distance between us.
And thus, I became acquainted with the “naked phrases.” It was a process of acknowledging them in earnest to myself, and then showing up in front of my peers, naked.
I learned to admit that I felt lonely, that I felt out of place. I learned that, as embarrassing as this honesty was, the silence was too vast for me to hide from them. These were my naked feelings, the honest feelings harbored deep beneath the garnishes, and no matter how I tried to mask them, they were still there.
The first time I freely admitted my homesickness, I showed up at my friend’s door with baking materials. Unbeknownst to me, another friend of ours shared similar sentiments to my own. She admitted it to me the next day, and said that, although she didn’t tell me at the time, it was comforting to know that she wasn’t alone with those feelings. She had phoned home while I was over, sharing her sadness with her father like I had been sharing with my own family back in the States. And we talked further, discovering that when you arrive to a place open and vulnerable, you may find that you aren’t alone. It invited conversation of past occurrences, lingering feelings, and unanswered questions. It introduced coping methods and told of lessons learned. And I found that this is one of the most beautiful ways to connect with people, a very intimate way to learn about another person. It starts with being naked.
But with other people, maybe those sentiments aren’t shared, they are merely heard. “I’ve felt kind of lonely, a little out of place lately,” I remember saying. And instead of words, I received a silent embrace. It was firm and steady, and instead of telling tales of empathy, it said in its action, “You may feel lonely, but in this moment, you are not alone. I am here.” And I remember how comforting that contact was, knowing that those feelings were unwarranted by all. And I felt better.
And then it got better. It was a trip marked by very deep valleys but also immeasurably high mountains, and I
can say that this experience sparked an incredible confidence that grew within me, forcing itself out. I learned to embrace silence, relishing the time I spent hiking alone and the solo nights spent in different hotel rooms.
It was a trip marked by frequent early morning meditations, a practice which I’m unsure I will ever master. But morning has always been “my time,” and I think I’m a morning person because I intrinsically believe in new beginnings- fresh starts. I also believe in a sort of destiny, a will that finds you when you’re out hard working and points you in the direction of where you are meant to go. It was a blind-hunch before I left, but after months of listening and relistening to the stories of people here, reading letters from people who wrote me, I now know it to be true. I never found Switzerland; Switzerland found me. And this is my new morning sunrise, a time that begins in darkness, in the naked early hours and grows lighter in time.
I’ve come to realize that growing up dresses you in a certain fashion, and as a result you begin to believe that you need certain things and people- certain ideas. But imagine you are whisked off to a faraway place where the sounds of nature can be as silent as they are deafening. It seeps in and challenges who you are down to the core of your being, and it causes a great loneliness, a loneliness that is only birthed from that kind of foreign isolation. But in those moments when everything is challenged, you are faced with a choice: You let it consume you or you conquer it.
In my experience, conquering the loneliness was a process of reassembling my wardrobe. Uncloaked in the depths of a Swiss winter, I let my guard down and awoke in a new morning. Perhaps in such situations you put on the same garments you brought with you, or perhaps you choose to alter them. But when you’re naked and looking at the contents you packed, all those little things laying plainly in front of you, your perspective begins to change. Perhaps you don’t need those things, people and ideas like you thought you did. But perhaps you want them anyway. Many of the things I carried with me I’ve decided to keep. But in those naked moments you learn to hold near and dear to you those comforts and those garments that make you “you.” You learn to discard all of the rest.
Because sometimes while you’re growing up, things get in the way; things slip into your pockets and bags that you didn’t intend to carry with you. Learning to be naked means stripping yourself of the excess weight. It’s choosing an environment that encourages you to disrobe and leave your baggage outside the door- even if you need time to dismantle them slowly. It means learning to trust your judgment and surround yourself with those who won’t judge your scars and blemishes. It’s learning to forgive and move on from those who do.
And while I’m sad to be leaving Switzerland, I know that this place for me was only temporary. I was never meant to be but a visitor, but I also know that this is not good-bye. This is not an ending, but the start of a new journey.
And because Camus has beautifully captured this feeling, I will leave you with this:
In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
I realized, through it all, that…
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.
To read about my Switzerland travels, click here.