It is passably ironic that as the temperatures sink to levels most often associated with Cold War films set in Central Europe (it was never spring in those movies) some people I know get excited about taking off their clothes and sitting in a sweat chamber with a few dozen other people. Yes, sauna season is upon us. And in Vienna Land this means no pants allowed. Even in front of your in-laws (some of you let out a little screech at that thought, I know).
With this in mind, it seems appropriate to discuss social fears. Many people have a pathological aversion to speaking in front of a large group of people (I just have an aversion to people). Or perhaps a social event – sober – where all that is required of you is to sit at a long table making small talk with the barely known parents of children from your son’s school class. Or perhaps when one is tasked with making a scene in a restaurant. (Note to anyone who thinks customer service in the gastronomic industry in Vienna is sometimes crap: apparently cultures which pertain to the most sophisticated levels of servant-customer relations also experience the highest levels of service staff abuse.)
Anyway, public speaking used to scare the bejesus out of me but working in several bars and subsequently fifteen or more years of teaching have generally banished any angst. I have learned that although practise does not always make perfect, preparation is indispensable. And if I am fully prepared I have nothing to fear. But there is one social function here that still gives me the willies, an event where my innate British stiffness will always pose a hazard, an occasion that I know I could never perform even with mild narcotics. And no amount of preparation, mental or physical would come even close to diminishing my palpable fear. I speak of the Aufguss!
The Aufguss is the serious part of the ceremony of the sauna. Once you have de-robed, found a spot to place your towel in the rest areas outside and stopped looking at other people’s genitalia, it is time to enter the sauna proper. Every hour or so is when the action really hots up and one person amongst the many crammed onto wooden benches (towels are mandatory otherwise you will feel the real meaning of humiliation sitting there as you are with your tackle out) is elected, or perhaps volunteers, to perform the intricate moves of the Aufguss.
Invariably this is a man, quite often middle aged, with a tan that can only be described as all-over. He will have more jewelry than Junebug in blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and is not afraid of showing off his rhythmic and gyratory skills. This member is then charged with stoking the hot stones with scented water and then stand there (this bit is quite hard to visualise for the dilettante, so stay with me) and distribute the now scorching air around the sauna as a collection of faces and flesh casually avert their gaze.
If you know anything about physics (probably the only thing you will know apart from an apple falling from a tree) you will know that hot air rises. This means the Aufguss facilitator will take a towel and like a manservant in the Raj, fan the heat over the bodies squeezed onto the benches in front. Part of this ritual involves swinging the towel high above to circulate the air and whenever this happens all I can think about is the Swedish chef in the Muppet Show making sausages.
After about ten minutes of this frenetic activity everyone relaxes for a bit before charging out into one of freezing plunge pools or a cold shower. But be warned; if you try and leave before the green light comes on (the signal that you can open the door) you will experience the second real meaning of humiliation, but this time dripping in sweat.
While you wait for the next Aufguss you relax, partake in a swim, have a chat with your hands on your hips (great for eye contact training), sit in the jacuzzi or if you are really hardcore, pop into the bar and drink a few beers. I have done all of these although on one of my first trips to the sauna I had to remain in the jacuzzi and miss the Aufguss as I had a sudden rush of blood which rendered me incapacitated until the room had cleared.
As much as anything else, getting your kit off with a bunch of other, mostly, strangers is as good a way as any to evoke the spirit of being Austrian. You might think, however, that in a conservative, catholic minded country – when it wants to be – which can be resistant to change and reorganisation (see on-going dispute with the teachers, unions and government) that public nudity would be a social misdemeanor. But this is very far from the truth and like their cousins to the north (the Germans) my Austrian counterparts seemingly have a much more mature and titter-free attitude to matters of the flesh (which I have done much to dissipate) than my more flaccid homeland.
In Vienna, along parts of the Danube, there are nudist beaches, although I wouldn’t want to swim for too long in the river in the nod as I have seen the size of some of those catfish. Also most spa complexes or hotels will have a dedicated FKK (Freikörperkultur) area. I know this because we once stayed in such a “wellness” hotel in Burgenland and our family room overlooked the naked part of the outdoor pool. This is no half-arsed boast. I have the pictures to prove it. Come to think of it, in the Reiter’s Allegria Resort in Stegersbach, the upstairs “ying and yan” pool area (over 16s only) is devoted to the bare, the naked, the unclothed, the unfettered, the stripped and the nude. And this is a specialist family and kids’ hotel (or so they think).
Anyway, if you are waiting for my all-inclusive essay about public nakedness and the removing of clothes with other adults all in the name of working up a sweat and thus cleansing my soul and liberating me from the manacled reservation of my British heritage, then I am here to disappoint. (Contractually my publisher has obliged me to save any treatise for my forthcoming 6-volume autobiography). Instead, some essential rules and etiquette – you have been warned:
- Take a lot of towels. Reserving a seat or bench outside in the relaxation areas is part of the game unfortunately, but always use one in the sauna proper. There is something insanitary about sitting on the same bench as another naked bum – apparently.
- Use those plastic shower shoes beloved of highly tanned, slightly podgy Euro playboys. Known locally as Baderschlappen (the shoes).
- Shower before you go in. Shower when you leave. In fact, just keep showering.
- Don’t stare, unless you can’t help it.
- Never leave in the middle of the Aufguss. It is not only your recently unshackled self-consciousness that will instantaneously shrink.
- Take a dip in the cold pools afterwards and then relax for a bit. Otherwise you will faint.
- Have a beer at half-time with all the professional sauna goers. It is good for the circulation apparently.
- And no, you can’t sit there with a towel round you or keep your underthings on. People really will stare.
© RJ Barratt 2013