The trauma of a sauna

“Do you want to try the sauna?” asked Carmen, one of the teachers at my Swiss Catholic school. We were at a new private gym and as I am always up for something new I said “sure!”

Great,” she replied and stripped naked.

Ah. Err.

I’m a Lutheran from Ohio. Stripping naked in public is not something we casually do. After gym class, we would change quickly while staring straight ahead at the lockers. And here I had a teacher strip nonchalantly while talking and maintaining eye contact!

Let’s just say that was a bit much for 17 year old me.

I didn’t sauna again until college and I went to Czechoslovakia in ’92. We had gone on a university goodwill trip which included two weeks of backpacking with Czech students. We ended up at one point at a summer cottage in the countryside. The settings was beautiful… a lush field with a small mountain stream running through the back lot, a wooden sauna set back in the trees.

While two girls built the fire, the others set about damning the stream to create a clear pool of icy water.

And the Czech girls started to strip. So, looking in opposite directions, so did the Americans. The strangest thing, sitting there sweating in that small wooden hut until it was almost unbearable and then rushing out to plunge into icy water, naked, seemed almost natural.

Until a neighbor boy started cutting the grass with a scythe, like a teenage grim reaper, coming closer to us with every swipe…did I realize 5 girls frolicking naked outdoors was a bit much.

And I quickly reached for my towel.

After moving to the Czech Republic in 93, I started teaching English in the local schools. I became friendly with one of the other teachers and for the class trip she asked if I would like to join them. Sure! I said. It would be a week hiking in the Jeseniky mountain in northern Moravia.

But they never mentioned the sauna.

Yes, one evening’s activities was the girls and boys going alternatively to the sauna.

Accompanied by their teachers.

I have had many akward moments in my life, but that one has to rank pretty much at the top.

Until I moved to France.

After working out in the corporate gym in Paris, I went into the sauna in the female locker room.


In my defense, in my experience, European saunas equaled nakedness.

It wasn’t until a French colleague opened the sauna door, saw me, screamed, and slammed it shut that I realized I committed a major faux pas.

The anthopologist in me thought. “Hmm. That’s interesting. The French don’t go naked into saunas.”

The Midwestern in me started to get up to run after her to apologize and to explain.

I stopped short realizing I probably shouldn’t be chasing after my colleague, naked.

Six feet of nakedness is a lot of nakedness. So I sat there and sweated it out, until she had had enough time to get dressed but not enough to contact HR.

20 years down the road, I traveled to Sweden.

Now, I know for a fact the Swedes like to sauna in the buff. I had a dear friend who got a Swedish family in Geneva for her year abroad. Giant house overlooking lac Léman, gold railing staircase leading down to the pool… and the sauna. The day they said to her, hey, let’s go sauna! She ran and put on her swimsuit. When she opened the sauna door, there sat her host mother, father, two teenage brothers and sister. Naked.

Yeah, that was a long whispered conversation over the phone about cultural differences in our respective host families with the word “naked” being repeated more than it should have been.

So I knew on my trip to Stockholm there would not only be nakedness, but male/female nakedness. OK, Swedes are 98% Lutheran. So it would be just like coffee after church back in Ohio, me in a big room with a bunch of Lutherans..

But without the coffee, or the doughnuts, or clothes.

….sweating together in an extremely hot room.

No, sorry, I was wrong. This would be the equivalent of Ohio Lutheran hell.

Be it what it may, I could not leave Stockholm without at least trying. I could handle it, right?

I went down to the hotel sauna at precisely 7am when it opened. As I had hoped, I was alone. So there I sat, naked, and sweating, and staring at the door, willing that no one joined me in today’s fellowship.

I could say that a very large Swede walked in but luckily for me, but unluckily for my story, I sat and sweated blissfully alone.

Someone once said to me that you either have a good trip or a good story..

… Let’s just say I had a very nice trip to Stockholm. 🙂

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