If I was going to be naked in public, I was going to be naked in public on my terms.
Today, you can find FKK clubs from the Alps to the Baltic and everywhere in between. The Internet is awash in FKK fan sites (NSFW, again) and forums, and it’s not difficult to find extensive maps (yep, NSFW) of places in the country where showing a little skin is the norm. Even some of Germany’s most prominent tourist locations, like Munich’s English Gardens, have been taken over by nudists.
THE FIRST STEP IN the Friedrichsbad bathhouse experience is to shower (stage 1). Then you put on some sandals and head into the saunas (stages 2 and 3), where the floors are too hot for bare feet. From there, you can follow signs directing you toward each subsequent stage, or you can just wander around the steam rooms, pools, and saunas because you’re naked and no one is going to tell you what to do.
Tom and I spent about 15 minutes in each of the two sauna rooms—one 54 degrees Celsius (129 degrees Fahrenheit), the other 68 degrees Celsius (154 degrees Fahrenheit)—sipping water from a nearby fountain when dehydration loomed. Both rooms were tiled from floor to ceiling and smelled of chamomile, which I later found in a small metal box hanging from the ceiling. The box looked like a tiny, silver birdhouse, which I thought at first was an ornamental pull-chain for the lights. Only half of the 15-odd cruise ship-style recliners and chairs were occupied in the 54-degree room, and I lay down near a sprawled, middle-age woman who looked up at us with the one-eyed glance of a dozing cat.
We sat and sweat. Bathers came and went.
I didn’t have a notepad, on account of the moisture and nowhere to, uh, put it. After sitting for a while, looking around, I realized my intense interest in my surroundings—my mental note-taking—might be freaking people out. It’s not that I spent three-and-a-half hours ogling the other customers. (Although you should know, reader, that I felt ogled at times.) But as I looked around, my gaze would inevitably fall upon the naked bodies of the other bathers—and, well, it got me thinking.
Throughout our lives, how often are we actually naked? Excluding showering and (for some) sleeping, it happens pretty seldom, right? I mean, the only other time we shed clothing is when we’re getting intimate. Try as we might, it becomes difficult to divorce intimacy from the act of being nude, and this coupling casts a certain strange, erotic shadow over the proceedings at a place like Friedrichsbad. Don’t get me wrong, there was no hanky-panky going on (and frankly, there’s not a place in Friedrichsbad where it could). I only mean that it creates a social situation that’s ripe for misinterpretation. Turning to look at a person when he or she enters a room becomes complicated because anything anybody does—those perfectly normal, friendly signals we give to one another all the time without even thinking—is re-routed through this erotic zone in our brain that has been activated by the absence of clothes and which we can’t really turn off. So a casual glance becomes a potential check-out. A friendly smile is now a creepy wink. That’s what it seemed like at first, anyway.
AS I WORKED MY way through the idea that the inside of the bathhouse came with a different social contract, it came time for my brush massage (stage 5). When my number was called, a middle-aged, bald masseur led me to his massage table and said something in German that I didn’t understand. I asked if he spoke English, and his response was “Face up, please.” For the next 10 minutes or so, he scrubbed my every pore, save the obvious. The guy was thorough. After he was done, I was finally able to fully relax. Nothing’s weird after you’ve been cleaned like a farm animal by someone who speaks another language.
Next, Tom and I hit the steam rooms, the first of which was near capacity. People shuffled around, stretched, and hosed themselves down with the cool water that was piped in along the walls of the two rooms. The seats in the steam rooms were like step pyramids, and at one point the couple seated on the step above me stood and began cupping the higher, warmer air in their hands and scooping it down onto one another. When they left, I stood up and tried it myself. It was like reaching up and grabbing handfuls of Mississippi summer.