July 17, 2019

Me, naked at a Berlin spa

When I was in Berlin last year, I decided to go to a spa.

My entire life, I’d read how famous Europeans “took the waters” to restore their health and psyches. Kafka recuperated at Marienbad, Goethe at Franzensbad, Dickens at Harrogate. Herzl summered at Altaussee, as did many Jewish families — until Goebbels did.

I had a free afternoon in Berlin, so I did what Kafka would do if he were alive. I Yelped “spas Berlin.”

That led me to the Thermen am Europa-Center, off a busy street near the massive KaDeWe department store.

Inside, I paid the modest entrance fee to a man at a desk, then guessed at his instructions. If you’ve been to City Spa on Pico, the original L.A. shvitz, or any of the Korean saunas, you already know the routine. Pay, get a locker key, shower, sauna, plunge, repeat. Signs in German and English read, “No Bathing Suits Allowed,” which are also forbidden in K-town.

The door from the locker room opened onto a huge indoor-outdoor spa area, and immediately I noticed that a man who turned to watch me enter — was not a man.

It turns out Thermen am Europa, like many European spas, is coed. I had heard such things exist, but, even so, I wasn’t quite prepared for the shock — picture my face as a bad outtake from “Porky’s,” when the hapless teen opens the door to the wrong locker room.

But, there I was — and I resolved at that moment that I, too, would be a Berliner.

To my right were the showers. I soaped up next to, basically, my bubbe. The elderly, zaftig woman seemed completely unfazed by the tall naked man beside her — in fact, over the next three hours, the only person who ever lost his composure was me.

The spa occupies an entire floor of a building, as well as an outdoor area. It has a massive, warm pool that circulates inside and out. It has two very hot whirlpool plunges and two icy cold plunges. Outside, along with the extended pool, there are small steam rooms that look like Bavarian cottages. There is a women’s-only area that was small and, from what I could tell, unused, as well as a large cafe overlooking the pool.

The dozens of men and women dipping and shmoozing their way around the spotlessly clean facilities ranged from young adult to where-were-you-during-the-war. Wearing just my locker key on a small chain around my wrist, I eventually lost my self-consciousness. A room full of 100 or so nude people of different ages, shapes and sizes is a great equalizer. With nothing to hide, and nothing to hold, I soon felt fully at ease among my fellow homo sapiens

The highlights of Thermen am Europa are two wood-lined saunas, each the size of a small living room. Inside, men and women sit on tiered benches. An attendant occasionally comes in and throws water, scented with some fragrant herbs, over the hot stones. Hot steam billows up, giving everyone a nice, soft-focus sheen.

I sat back and inhaled — taking the mist deep into my lungs. The sauna filled with people. Being Germans, they were hearty and happy — chatting, joking. At one point, a middle-aged couple entered and a group of bathers cheered and rose to greet them, like old friends. They hugged and gave one another two-cheek kisses — and only then it dawned on me — they are all butt-naked. 

More people entered. More happy greetings. It was like an all-nude episode of “Cheers.” Not an inch of space separated our bodies. I closed my eyes and listened to the Germans laugh and talk. Maybe it was the heat, but it all felt otherworldly, dreamy. Strange, inevitable thoughts swirled in my mind: How could these people have been thosepeople? Seventy years ago, who could have imagined this moment? Human beings, for good or ill, are unfathomable to we mere mortals. But naked among Germans, I felt deep in my bones the way things are is never the way they have to be.

Back outside, I showered and walked to my locker. That’s when I reached down and realized — no key.

My hands ran over my nonexistent pockets. My mind reeled at what I had left in my locker: cash, credit cards, cellphone, passport.

Without thinking, I rushed back to the last place I’d been, that sauna. I pushed open the door, and said, loudly, “Has anyone seen a key? Key? KEY!”

And that’s when 40 nude Germans stopped talking, stopped laughing and looked up at me. I was framed in the doorway, naked as the day I was born, staring right back at them. And, yes, it occurred to me in that instant, circumcised.

Now the dream felt like a nightmare. Me. Naked. Yelling at dozens of Germans. Them staring at me.

Finally, thankfully, I heard a heavily accented female voice. “Lost and found,” she said. “In the cafe.” 

Panic trumped modesty — I turned and strode into the cafe. I asked the woman behind the counter if someone had found a key.

Only then did I realize the waitress was fully clothed, and all the cafe patrons were wearing thick white robes. I was basically streaking through their teatime.

The waitress scowled, but she gave me my key. I didn’t care. We are all just human, right? At least, until we're not. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.