Shock. Horror. The sign on the hotel spa door reads FKK Bereich, next to a picture of a swimsuit with a big red cross through it. That can’t be right – something must have got lost in translation. Perhaps special sauna suits will be provided inside the changing room? No such luck.
Later in the steam room, I find myself sitting opposite a rather large, mature gentleman – naked, manhood fully exposed. Then comes another one. Apparently the towel-wrap isn’t highly thought of in Germany. After the initial shock, I find myself uncomfortable for other reasons. Are they giving me dirty looks because I’m wearing a swimming costume? Yes. It turns out in the German sauna penises are polite and swimming costumes are rude. Freikörperkultur (FKK) is a German movement which translates as Free Body Culture. It is based on a naturist approach to sports and community living and the joy of being nude without any relationship to sexuality.
The astounding thing is that in the sauna and steam room I did not once observe the male occupants looking twice at the naked women; all male gazes stayed above the neckline. Conversation was minimal and polite and the atmosphere was refined and relaxed. Sauna etiquette in London gyms leaves more than a little to be desired. I cannot even imagine the reaction of the blokes down at my gym if a family of females [mum and two sisters] sat in a row [again no towel-wrapping present], casually discussing the days occurrences. Mixed London saunas are bad enough as it is wearing a PE-style swimming costume.
Spa etiquette can vary drastically depending upon country and mixed naked sauna sessions are not the only thing surprising when it comes to global sauna practices.
- Finland is the leader of the pack when it comes to saunas. With a population of 5.4 million, the country is also home to over half that number in saunas. So ingrained in Finnish lifestyle is the sauna that pre-public healthcare, the sauna was the standard place for Finnish women to give birth. Old Finnish legends tell tales of the saunatonttu, an elf that lives in the sauna and protects against evil.
- In Korea the sauna at the jjimjilbang [public bath house] is a trendy first date location. Baked eggs are a popular snack to enjoy here and are conveniently slow-cooked in the hottest sauna.
- In Russian steam rooms, banya, it is not unusual to drink vodka and massage is carried out using branches of oak or birch leaves, parenie. For those who want to experience sauna Ruski style for themselves without the airfare, a Russian style banya, Banya No 1, has just opened in London.
- In a Turkish hamman, dress code is more modest, saunas are single sex and men wear a Turkish bath towel, a pestemal, and swimwear is worn by both sexes in mixed company. Expect to be scrubbed down vigorously by the tellak, a macho masseuse who will give you a thorough all-over wash.