It’s ladies day at the sauna in my local gym in East Berlin and I’m almost mesmerized by the amount of flesh on show. I’ve found myself sharing the small wooden enclosure with three elderly East German ladies, all of whom are blessed with ham-like thighs and the most impressively enormous, pendulous breasts.
The women are nattering away as I slink in and soon draw me into their conversation. They tell me about growing up in the area and how much it has changed. They all worked as nurses, and in their day they had no time for hanging out in cafes with their strollers like all the current trendy mums in the hood. I nod and smile and sweat, all the time slightly mortified because I am Irish and naked in front of strangers.
It’s something I’ve had to get used to in a city where people whip off their clothes willy-nilly. In saunas, at the gym, badminton courts, the parks — a friend even reported seeing someone wearing just a purse and flip-flops in a shop. The Germans are happy to let it all hang out, no matter what the size or shape. In the summer, you can barely go a week without encountering a bronzed-to-within-an-inch-of-leather figure coming at you.
Coming from a nation that should get a prize for the ability to put on swimsuits with one hand while clinging for dear life to the corners of a towel with the other, this can be a traumatic encounter. And eventually there is little choice but to join in. Never mind the bratwurst and the biergartens, the sign of true integration is being able to get naked with the Germans.
And far from being some kind of army of extras in a Leni Riefenstahl film, they are not really that dissimilar from us. A bit taller, a bit less pear-shaped, not quite so pasty, but they have scar tissue, purple veins, and knobbly knees too, and the weight of gravity works as much on their breasts and buttocks as on the rest of us.
It’s just something they have absolutely no self-consciousness about. Nudism has been something of a cause in Germany since the 19th century, and in the 20th became associated with all kinds of utopian ideals. Freikörperkultur (free body culture, or FKK), is as ingrained as having mayonnaise with your chips or a strange obsession with white asparagus. In the former East it was particularly popular, a sort of escape from the preponderance of uniforms, pins, and badges that declared one’s loyalty to the Communist regime. In nudity, everyone truly was equal.
Public disrobing has become easier over time. It is simply quicker and easier to perform a clean strip at the swimming pool or sauna than all that rigmarole of hiding the bits that everyone else is displaying so nonchalantly. And the city is also full of great Turkish baths where you hang about semi-naked for hours, popping in and out of the saunas and steam rooms and sipping mint tea. No one is batting an eyelid, so in the end you don’t too much yourself, at least not too much. Somewhere the Catholic schoolgirl within is still uncomfortable with so much brazenness.
My first real plunge was back in the mid-90s. I shared a ramshackle flat with two other Irish lasses in the former East. The toilet was out on the landing and there was no bath, but for a few blessed months the contraption of a shower that had been erected in our kitchen worked fine. It took half an hour to heat up the water in the tank per shower, and we often had another 3 or 4 people sleeping on our floor, but that was what mornings were for, to sit around drinking tea and coffee and talking about maybe looking for a job as a cleaner that afternoon…or tomorrow…or next week.
Then the shower broke and our neighbour downstairs came to the rescue. Martin, an East Berliner, had the luxury of a bachelor pad all to himself, though this consisted of one room, with open-plan kitchen and shower. I didn’t know Martin that well. I had arrived in the city later than the other two and had managed to avoid this exhibitionist cleansing ritual by having a boyfriend not too far away with a tremendously fabulous bathroom. Then me and the fella sort of split up and it was perhaps the white tiles, the gleaming taps, and the shower nozzle that I missed the most.
So off I trudged to Martin’s with my towel and shampoo and not a little trepidation. He flung back the door, wearing his tie-dyed t-shirt and a bleary-eyed look from too much of something, and pottered back to his armchair to listen to dub music; Martin only ever listened to dub music. Here goes, I thought. I quickly shed my clothes on the floor, hopped into the shower unit, and had the fastest soap and scrub known to womanhood, before shoving on my clothes again, grunting danke, and running back upstairs.
A few hours later my flatmate came back from her own shower hooting with laughter. “You stripped in front of bloody Martin!?” “Er, yes, isn’t that what you guys have been doing?” She snorted in disbelief. Oh no, like the demure well-brought up ladies they were, they always brought an extra towel to hang over the side of the shower, shielding them from their host’s gaze.
From then on Martin was a lot friendlier to me — not in a creepy way, just in a way that implied acceptance and respect. One that said: Hey, Mädel, you are one of us now.
This story was written by Siobhán Dowling and originally appeared at Slow Travel Berlin.