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German sign depicting a naked man and woman with “FKK”

“Been there, done that!”

Berlin’s Naked Ambition

Our shy author forces himself to find out: What’s all this fuss about “textile-free” spas?

“Please leave clothing and electronics in your locker. We are a textile-free environment.”

I took my key and headed inside Vabali Spa, a peaceful oasis in the heart of Berlin. Moments earlier, I was munching on wurst and sipping lager at a beer garden. Now, I was wearing a towel around hundreds of people in various stages of undress—and I was about to lose the towel myself.

That’s a nerve-wracking experience for an American. One of our primary techniques to conquer our fears of, say, public speaking, is to imagine everyone in the room naked. Nobody ever says, “Hey, imagine yourself naked.” It’s against every impulse of our puritanical brains. Hell, I need a pocket to shove my hands into. What if someone can’t keep their eyes off a mole or ribs or chest or . . . anything else?

Europeans scoff at our squeamishness. Thermal baths have a long history across the continent, with visitors embracing the healing properties of water and nature. The Gesúndbrunnen (health spring) gained popularity in Germany in the late 18th century. Locals also frequented spas and baths for their social value, akin to a coffee shop or salon. One historical recounting notes spas were where “nobility and the bourgeoisie could interact on an equal footing.”

It turns out that three weeks of using Duolingo does not teach enough German to navigate a spa.

It turns out that three weeks of using Duolingo does not teach enough German to navigate a spa. In times of confusion, I often look at other people who seem to know what they’re doing. That’s harder to manage when those people are naked.

Still, my glances paid off. Remove your sandals and sit on your towel in the scented saunas. Did someone shudder when they entered a water basin? That’s an ice bath.

I saw a couple enjoying a heated foot massage, which sounded great after a long day of walking. I picked up the nozzle and aimed at the basin. Within seconds, the nozzle overpowered me, water spraying across the floor. I booked it out of there.

As I ventured between areas, I marveled at the variety of attendees. I swam laps in a pool next to a man in his sixties. A group of giggly twenty-somethings chatted beside me in a hot tub. I joined a parade of people moving between shallow pools of hot and cold water.

German sign depicting a naked woman leading the way to the nude swimming area (FKK area) at the beach of lake Bibi (Bibisee) in Bavaria, Germany
Europeans scoff at our squeamishness but it’s against every impulse of our puritanical brains. Photo by TeleMakro Fotografie (Ina Hensel) via Getty
Naked sunbathers in a park in Berlin, Germany in 1984
Getting naked in front of others can be a nerve-wracking experience for an American—for Germans, decidedly less so. Photo by Ullstein Bill / Getty images

Most saunas I entered had six or seven people in them, but the final room I visited was packed with about 50. A woman walked in and shut the sauna doors. She spoke rapidly in German, ending with, “Does anyone need English?”

My eyes darted around the room. Not a single hand rose. I contemplated my response. I could say, “Ja, Englisch, bitte” (thanks, Duolingo!) and have the entire room stare at me while I dripped in sweat.

I chose the opposite approach. My arm remained glued to my side.

The cool night air hit me as I headed to the locker area. I breathed it in and finally realized: nobody was paying attention to me. What a wonderful feeling.

The woman led a guided meditation, speaking soft German before walking around and waving incense. People began closing their eyes, so I followed suit. Periodically, I’d peek to check our eyes were still closed. Once, the instructor happened to be right in front of me. Hopefully, she thought I was reacting to the vibes.

Somewhere between 20 minutes and four hours later, the meditation ended. The cool night air hit me as I headed to the locker area. I breathed it in and finally realized: nobody was paying attention to me. What a wonderful feeling.

I pulled on my pants and bent over to tie my shoes. A dreadful rip sound ensued. After being stuffed in the locker, my clothes were rebelling.

Yet my rejuvenating experience inspired me to seize the day. I walked back home—massive hole in my pants—without a care in the world.

Hero photo: ET-ARTWORKS Getty

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