Being British Part II

Naked truth in Austrian saunas haunts and taunts the English

On The Town | Ben Maddox | April 2009

I’m not a regular at my local sauna; I don’t have my own peg and I’m not on a first-name basis with the attendant, although it’s probably Martin.  Still, I have from time to time ventured through the steamed glass door to the horrors that lie beyond.

In an Austrian sauna there are pine benches arranged in terraces, the hottest bench closest to the ceiling and the coolest (relatively speaking) at the bottom.

There is a brazier filled with hot coals that produce heat and a wooden bucket filled with water and a wooden ladle to pour the water onto the coals which, in turn, produces more heat.  The walls are also made of pine.  The interior of a sauna is not the place for the lover of aluminium and glass minimalism. People sit on the pine benches and broil in the heat coming from the brazier. All of this is fairly familiar for one accustomed to British saunas.

But this is where the similarities stop. Austrians always giggle incredulously when I explain to them that, in Britain, a sauna is a place of quiet reflection, a place to catch up on reading or do the crossword. A sanctuary of dignified modesty and delicacy. A place where you are able to show off your new swimming trunks. They laugh uproariously to hear that a naked person in a British sauna would be escorted out and quietly placed on the sex offenders register.

"But isn’t it uncomfortable?" they ask. "What being dressed?"  No more uncomfortable than displaying your goods for all to see. Anyway, I remind them life isn’t about comfort; the purpose of life is to hide one’s private parts at all times even, if possible, in the bath. The continental sauna is like a haunted house to the average British person. It’s not just the nudity, but nudity in a confined space, surrounded by other naked people, topped off with pinch of sweaty fear.

Here there is a whole new etiquette to learn; it’s as if there’s an Austrian Republic of Saunia where social conventions are completely different from the outside world and any break from these conventions will turn you into a pariah, if not for life, at least for the afternoon that you’re at the thermal baths.  There are rules on where to sit, on what to sit, when and when not to enter.

The only rule that that’s lacking is, in my opinion, the most important one: where to look.  My wedding tackle seems to be up for a free, frank and sometimes lengthy appraisal. Also the "junk" of anyone I’m with.  I was once unfortunate enough to enter an Austrian sauna with a girlfriend (don’t worry girls, I’m single again) and it was very disconcerting to me to have a room full of sweaty men having the opportunity to view what had taken courage, guile and two bottles of Chilean red wine for me to see. Their faces are burned into my mind, and if I ever see them on the street...

What I’m trying to say is that eyes are apt to wonder south.

The most bizarre ceremony in an Austrian sauna, though, is something called Aufguß.  For those of you unfamiliar with this concept, it is a strange voodoo ceremony akin to human sacrifice.  A priest in Adidas jogging bottoms and a polo shirt celebrates to his congregation; his censer is a sweaty towel and his incense, mentholated steam.  He pours eucalyptus water onto the hot coals and steam rises, which he then wafts to the four poles with his towel. As the temperature climbs, so does the frenzy of the crowd, and as the ritual reaches a humid, sinus-clearing crescendo the people explode with a vigorous, euphoric round of applause.

All of this, of course, is hearsay. I have never witnessed this event myself; I have only heard the applause and wondered.  I hope one day to be admitted into the inner circle of the Austrian Republic of Saunia and all of its tenets.

But let’s not run before we can walk.

Other articles from this issue