photo: essers, flickr, CC BY 2.0 license

Dampfbad Europa

BY James Hopkin

Dampfbad Europa: a few barely-dressed thoughts from the steam-room

1 minute reading left

“The English streak, the Poles flash, and the Germans, well, the Germans reveal all!” reckoned a friend of mine as we sat in a steam-room in the big-brands and serious-spectacles Mitte district of Berlin (“Sorry, we don’t do special rates for travellers,” a receptionist once told me, while looking me up and down). In the dampfbad, we were surrounded by boys of the tiny-but-shiny biceps brigade. Wet towels were stretched tight across the buttocks, or there were no towels at all. Women were topless, or nude, all tuft and cleft and curvature, laid out on the glistening tiles as if on a mortuary slab.

But no, there was life in these bodies exposed! A twitch of finger or toe, a disembodied nipple, the stretching of a limb through the steam. Some chose to do a few sweaty aerobic movements, or assume Buddha-like poses, while the boys fidgeted or swapped eyeballs for a better look (at themselves). At some stage, an elderly but still muscular man stood, like a deposed emperor, to hose himself down with cold water. Then he did a little dance in his flip-flops. And I mean, only his flip-flops.

“Yes,” continued my friend, in a whisper fizzing in the mist, “in terms of public nudity, the stereotypically reserved Brits keep themselves to themselves until they burst out and have to get their kit off all in one go, on a big occasion, in front of as many people as possible. A streaker at a sporting event! Whereas the Poles like to do it one-to-one – it’s the confessional imperative – in a park, in secret: take a look at this! And the Germans, well, the Germans, as you can see: it’s all about communal nudity!”

Later, in the changing rooms, while sitting to put on my shoes, I was assailed by a naked German standing over me, talking, his frankfurter perilously close to my face. Now, I have nothing against having a conversation with a naked man, but I would rather talk to the right end.

And as for nudity in the UK? In my less-than-luxurious health-club in Manchester (“no probs, mate, we can do you a temporary membership”), the pool is full of billyoddbodies, strange, bulky shapes that even a fervent creationist would struggle to trace back to God. And, as we’re living in tattooed times, often you can’t see the skin for the ink. In the steam-room, meanwhile, implausibly fat lads (whose swimming trunks constitute a precarious zone beneath their volcanic bellies) and housewives (with jewellery still attached) read wet tabloids or stretch out on the tiles like meat before the butcher’s knife. In other words: please, no nudity!

Compare this to Poland (“One price, one queue”), where the men nip into cubicles at the side of the changing-rooms to swap boxers for swimming trunks. Full exposure may suggest unwelcome homo-gay inclinations. Just as an outsider’s tattoos (there’s no escaping them!) are scrutinised for signs of subversion or unacceptable religious allegiances. Meanwhile, eyeballs are to be met by other eyeballs, without recourse to the glistening forms of each other’s body.

And as for the steam-rooms! Mine at the AGH pool in Kraków is barely bigger than a telephone box. Yet the swim-suited souls keep piling in as if it’s a competition to see how many of them can fit inside. Relaxation here is not the aim. No, the aim is to fully exploit the facility. “We want some of this! It’s included in the price!” If the six seats are occupied, then four more, usually slender (at least by UK standards) people will squeeze in to stand, in a permanent shoulder-shrug for lack of space, but still somehow rubbing up against each other without complaining or even noticing their perspiring proximity, to do their time, before walking out backwards via a door which, for some bizarre reason, has a bullet-sized hole in it.

Whereas mixed showers and nudity prevail in Berlin, and occasional nudity (heaven forfend!) haunts the single-sex showers in the UK, I’ve seen very few naked bodies in the men’s showers in Poland. Yet there are frequently female cleaners (with incurious mops) in the men’s dressing-room who take it in turns to pay scant regard to the delights on (or not on) display.

So perhaps it can be said that if the Germans are aware of their bodies, then their nudity is not about exhibitionism (except for cruisers and voyeurs, those sordid silhouettes the other side of the glass), for nudity in itself is not erotic. It lacks the gaping garment, the seductive hint, Roland Barthes’s jouissance, to pique your desire. Whereas the Poles, it might be argued, exhibit their bodies without an awareness that they’re doing so. No, they don’t take off their clothes in public spaces (excepting occasional breasts in the long grass on Blonia, or the nudist section at Kryspinow) but they are frequently unaware of the proximity or power of their bodies. This invokes a kind of inadvertent exhibitionism, a lack of awareness about personal/body space which can indeed create the friction, the jouissance of which Barthes speaks. Yet if these bodies act without awareness, the power, the control is the observer’s, not theirs.

In any case, there’s a danger in having too much flesh on view, as Gombrowicz, that great poet of intimacy and absence, observed. “The body kills the body,” he wrote in his diary after a stroll on the beach. “The body takes power away from the body… nakedness stops being a phenomenon.”

So perhaps a quick flash is best, after all.