The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Baring All for Berlin

Lindsay Walter

After two weeks in Berlin, I had finally adjusted to life in the city: the nine-hour time
difference, the weather that required five layers of clothing to stay warm, the Turkish
döner kebabs and curry-wursts, the cigarette smell that permeated the streets and one’s
clothes, the hour-long commute to school on the U-Bahn. Then, my host mother invited
me to go with my host family to the Kristall-Saunatherme Ludwigsfelde – a clothes-
discouraged, sauna-version of an American water park – and I learned that adjusting to
a new culture is not the same as integrating into it. I was told that we would
enjoy the various attractions of the sauna from 9 am – 5 pm on a Sunday, the only
day during which visitors were allowed to wear bathing suits. Before accepting the
invitation, I assessed my comfort level, assuming that at least a few people would not be
wearing suits. After considerable self-reflection, I determined that even though I would
never go nude in public, it would not bother me if others chose to do so.

Upon arrival at the sauna, my nine-year-old host sister’s reaction to the Kristall-
Saunatherme mirrored that of all the Europeans around me: awed by the three pools,
the waterfalls, the glamorous restaurant, the sweet-smelling saunas, the fog rooms
– invigorated by the prospect of spending an entire day taking part in activities like
Ganzkörpergymnastic/Beingymnatsik im Wasser (Full Body Fitness / Leg Exercises
in Water). My reaction was contrastingly and painfully American – I stood paralyzed,
gaping at the extreme nudity surrounding me. I had wrongly assumed that only some
people would forgo their suits. To add to my initial dismay, the language barrier
between my host mother and me prevented my understanding that bathing suits were
only an option in select parts of the Kristall-Saunatherme. When I walked into the
Kristall-Arena (Crystal Arena) at 12 pm for the Salz-Aufguss (Salt Infusion), the stares
of fifty people accused me of not reading the sign, that I could not, in fact, understand:

It was because of this peer-pressured nudity that I left and re-entered the sauna,
extremely self-conscious and aware of the fact that I was now one of those fifty naked
people. This particular sauna was a popular program, and sitting room was scarce. I
ended up settling next to, and grazing knees with, a thirty-year-old, cross-legged man
who sat humming to himself, lost in a personal world of harmony, and determinedly
avoided eye contact with my host parents, both of whom were trying to gauge my
reaction from across the room. Two attendants entered and poured water over rocks,
increasing the room temperature from warm to suffocatingly hot. After they walked
around the room waving towels over their heads, ensuring that everyone received a gust
of scorching air, we all left the sauna to grab a handful of bath salt. As if my personal
space had not been violated enough, I learned that it was common practice to rub salt
over one’s neighbor’s body: the man who had been sitting next to me shamelessly began
rubbing salt down my back, and culture demanded that I return the favor. We then went
back to the heater for another ten minutes, by which time I had sweated so profusely
that the salt had completely melted off my body.

After that day at the sauna, Berlin became my home. Although I had acclimated to the
city – the weather, the food, the language – Berlin had not yet accepted me. The stares
of a hundred disapproving eyes made me realize that as long as I retained my values at
the expense of defying theirs, I would never be more than a visitor. But after removing
my inhibitions, formed by my American identity and threaded into my bathing suit
material, I was viewed as a fellow human: bare and pure and full of potential to become
whomever I wanted to be.

Lindsay Walter is a fourth-year at the University of California, Berkeley, pursuing
a Political Economy and Society and Environment simultaneous degree. Her semester
spent in Berlin, Germany provided the time and place in which to exercise her love of
travel and adventure.

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