The Perils of Public Nudity: European Edition

Spas/saunas are popular here in the Netherlands but they’re quite a bit different than the ones you’ll find in the states. First off, men actually frequent them and they’re not a haven exclusively for women in search of a few hours of peace, quiet and primping. Secondly, they include large soaking pools along the lines of those favored by Romans back in the day. Oh, and thirdly? Bathing suits and undergarments are verboten.

If you were raised as an American protestant like me, you’re probably thinking, “Oh, those sex-crazed Europeans. They probably flock to these places for crazy orgies because that’s what sex-crazed Europeans do, right? When they’re not sipping wine at a sidewalk cafe while chain-smoking and sneering at everything, they’re at an orgy.” Nope, sorry, you won’t find any Dionysian frenzies here. While spa goers have no problem with public nudity, anything beyond a peck on the cheek is considered incredibly bad form. Think of them as a nudist beach but with more massage tables and fruit smoothies.

During my time over here, I’ve heard tales of Dutch guys going to spas with their mothers and other family members. Can you imagine? Getting naked, in public, with your own mom? Ewww.. Still, this sort of thing is considered “no big deal” here and nakedness does not automatically equate sex like it does in 99.44% of the US. It’s definitely not for everyone, obviously, and I’m sure plenty of locals won’t go near ’em. A colleague of mine from America allowed her Dutch boyfriend to talk her into visiting a sauna a few months back. She lasted all of fifteen minutes after becoming convinced that all of the other customers were staring at her breasts. After grabbing the nearest robe, she spent the rest of the afternoon warily eyeing everyone who stepped into the juice bar.

Having already briefly dipped into the world of public nudity at the hippie-centric Oregon Country Fair, I figured I could handle the European equivalent.  My girlfriend, a proponent of the “Dutch saunas are in no way weird or kinky” ideology, recently made a reservation for the two of us at the Sauna Van Egmond in Haarlem, a city west of Amsterdam.

The Van Egmond looks like a large house on the outside, an abode much like those you’d see in any upscale neighborhood in the Netherlands. Past the front door though, there’s a tiny lobby with a desk. When we visited, we were met by an attendant who bore an expression that seemed to say “I’ve seen more bare flesh than Hugh Hefner and I’ve only been working here for two weeks.” After being handed a robe, we were told the rules (1. No displays of public affection. 2. Shower before you head into the pool or the saunas 3. Robes are optional everywhere but the bar, the theater upstairs and the dining area. 4. No cell phones. 5. No diving in the pool) and were directed to an adjacent, co-ed locker room.  I’ve had an innate fear of them since high school but, fortunately, we had the place to ourselves. There was nary a towel-snapping jock in sight.

Down the hall, we found a bar area that looked like the interior of a medieval castle, except lined with couches and tables filled with customers in robes snoozing, drinking wine or reading books. So far, so good. Around the corner, however, is where things got interesting. The sauna’s ornate showers were filled with people of all ages scrubbing themselves with florescent bathing salts from three small cauldrons. Mothers showered alongside daughters. Couples ranging in age from 20 to 70 casually chatted about everything from the weather to the temperature of the water while they washed their hair. You know those hefty, middle-aged guys who hang around beaches in Speedos, flaunting their girth, guts and gold chains? There were three of them in there all soaped up, sans Speedos.

As I’d been told, the “no big deal” vibe was in full effect. Everyone was acting like all of this was perfectly natural, normal and not the slightest bit awkward. It’s amazing how quickly nakedness can become blase in a Dutch sauna. It’s like getting tossed into the deep end of the culture shock pool. If you can survive five minutes in the communal showers without fleeing towards the nearest exit, and if you’re not terribly self-conscious, the rest of the trip is mild by comparison.

Everyone at the Van Egmond seemed far more interested in relaxing, zoning out and ignoring the real world outside than anything else; too wrapped up in letting their cares wash away to scope out all the bare flesh on display. In here, everyone’s brains were switched to “off.” Stepping into the soaking pool earned us, at most, a quick glance before our fellow spa-goers went back to starring into space or floating around like content fetuses. It’s easy to adopt that same attitude. After we spent ten minutes soaking up the heat and listening to ambient jungle sounds in one of the saunas, my brain took on the cranial wave patterns of the average babe in a mother’s belly. My thoughts became about as verbose as the Incredible Hulk’s after a huge bong rip. “Duh….duh….Brandon smash? No, Brandon want lay about in daze for next three to five hours.”

It’s no wonder that, after trying out the Van Egmond’s various saunas and trotting across its heated floors, that many of its clients opt to find a comfy couch and take a nap. A fire pit near the bar is Relaxation Central. I returned to the locker room for my copy of Infinite Jest, found a fireside spot and managed to read all of two pages before slipping into oblivious slumber. Meanwhile, my girlfriend managed to work up the energy and motivation to head all the way upstairs for a hot stone massage.

After an afternoon here, it’s easy to understand why babies scream their heads off after being born. A trip to the Sauna Van Egmond is probably the closest I’ll ever get to returning to the womb and a state of blissful unawareness. By comparison, the outside world is a hectic, noisy place filled with perpetual annoyances like “having to walk more than ten paces” and “no immediate access to smoothies and cheese plates.”

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