Sauna Etiquette

Ron Karpinski  1994


Good news, it snowed today.  That means the long wait is over.  Winter is here, at last; and, with winter comes the Alpine ski season.

Next to soccer, skiing is the favorite sport in Europe.  Sitting in the hotel sauna afterward comes in third place.  It is a great way to relax and thaw out.

In the sauna, the heat sinks clear down to the bone.  The old muscles loosen up, you start to unwind and toss your troubles to the wind.  You feel like a kid again.

Before you try your hand at it, though, a word of caution.  Life in the sauna here is a far cry from the way they do things back in the states.  Some of you might have plans for that big ski trip to the Continent this year.  If so, listen up, now would be a good time to review a few basic rules of etiquette for the European sauna.

First, keep your voice down to a low roar.  To whisper would be most polite.  Unless you are alone with your best friend who is hard of hearing, don't shout.  The sauna is a place to reflect and ponder the true meaning of life.

Second, do not snap your towel at other guests.  Yes, we all learned to do that in high school gym class.  Back then, we thought it great shower room sport to see who could raise the biggest welt on his neighbor's hind end.

Here, people sit on their towels.  They drape them across the bench so their sweat does not drip onto the wood finish.  That keeps the smell down.  Oh, and while we're on the subject of towels, here is one more point.

Do not wrap up in your towel like a mummy.  For you modest types, this might be a hard habit of which to let go, but please do try to loosen up.  After all, the whole idea of the sauna is to absorb heat and perspire freely.

As a matter of fact, the entire sauna area is off limits to clothes of any type.  Yes, this includes swim suits.  The sauna, steam room, and the ice cold dipping pool are all reserved for nude people only.

Note the distinction between "nude" and "naked."  Here, you are expected to hang your swimsuit on a wall hook and saunter around "nude."  If you keep your swimsuit on or wear your towel like a skirt, you make others feel "naked."

All of which brings us to rule three.  Do not stare, gape, or gaze at the other patrons.  Oh, I know what you're thinking.  "I couldn't take my clothes off in front of strangers!"

Don't worry about it.  Europeans of all ages are quite relaxed about the practice of going nude.  They regard the unclothed body as a natural condition.

Let yourself go, throw your towel on a bench, and plop down.  People will hardly notice, and no one will giggle at you.  Use the sauna to flush out your system.  A good, hard sweat cleans out the skin pores.  Afterward, you feel cleansed and refreshed; and, to do it properly, you must be nude.

Once in a while, though, one of the so-called beautiful people will show up.  They are easy to spot, posing like fashion models.  "So," you ask, "is it okay to peek at them?"  Well, let me put it this way, no gawking.  Try to be discreet.

Sure, we all peek.  Some have even turned it into an art form.  It's like back in college when we learned to sleep in class with our eyes open.

Tuning out the speaker, we stared straight ahead, eyes wide open.  While the professor droned on in praise of the quadratic equation, our thoughts were far away.  If done right, not even the guy in the next seat knew.

The same thing happens in the sauna.  You gaze ahead at the wall and count the knot holes in the wood or hang your head and stare at the mosaic floor tiles.  All the while, of course, you concentrate like mad on your peripheral vision.

Peeking at other people's bodies is not what the sauna is all about, though, and that should not be your reason for using one.  The best thing about the sauna is the feeling of unbridled freedom it provides.

Now and then, we all feel pressure from this modern, complex world.  Don't you wish, sometimes, you could just chuck it all?  Wouldn't it be nice to leave the rat race behind, if only for a little while?

A few minutes in the sauna takes me back to simpler times.  It makes me feel four years old again.  On warm summer days, the kids used to play out on the front lawn, running in the grass back and forth through a water sprinkler.

Back then, I knew not the meaning of restraint.  Suddenly, and without warning, I might rip off my swimsuit and run free.  Playmates screamed as I streaked, nude, across the yard.

My mother, sitting on the front porch, screamed, too.  Then she bolted from her seat and chased me down.  Longer legs gave her an advantage in speed, and, three houses down the street, she dragged me to a halt.

That was back then.  Things are a lot different now.  Here, in the European sauna, she can't . . . quite . . . catch me.  Wheee!


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