Tuesday 07 July 2020

Sauna secrets

Ana McGinley has just had her first Dutch sauna and is not sure about some of the items on display.

Last week I spent a few hours at our local sauna with my husband. Unlike many people of Northern European origins, the idea of hanging out and sweating buckets in the company of nude strangers has low appeal to me. 

The double pass to the sauna (valued at €80) was a Christmas gift from my spouse and facing its expiry date. I hate waste, and the challenge of extending my comfort zone to a place of nervous laughing is something I find difficult to resist.


Anticipating that going to the sauna at the weekend may be equated to going to the market to choose meat that you plan to cook at home, I arranged childcare for a Thursday night.  

I was plucked like a hippy chicken, with bonus clean, cut toenails. In usual fashion, my husband had showered and shaved, that morning, before going to work.

We handed in the voucher at the reception desk, climbed the stairs, and discovered that there was only one unisex changing room.

Disrobing, we were stumped by not knowing the protocol for body coverage during the short journey down the stairs, through the restaurant into the sauna area. My husband was all for wearing flipflops.

I ignored his assertion that draping a towel around myself would cause the other customers to feel uncomfortable, and adorned myself in three items:  two flip flops and one towel. Soon I felt smug that I was not the one feeling stupid, or having to return to the changing room for a towel.

Eye contact

So fine, we make it to the sauna and issue salutations to the other patrons while maintaining eye contact. Ditching towels and shoes, we shower and head into the sauna box. About six dripping, naked people were sitting, lying, and conversing in this small ridiculously hot space. 

Although my eyes were mostly closed, I do know that I was surrounded by a mix of gender, age and tattoo coverage. An older, larger lady had taken over a whole bench by prostrating herself.

Two guys were having a heated conversation about which neighbourhoods were easier to demand higher fees as house painters (yes, it is true – non-Dutch people are worth more money).


An old bald gentleman joined the party, stopping to throw more wood onto the sauna, before squeezing onto a lower bench. As he sat down I noticed  he had a catheter (with plug, not bag) attached to his leg by an elastic band. My eyes popped open in disbelief and my stomach valves loosened.

To me, a catheter seems to be an accessory not really welcome in even a Dutch sauna or spa. Like a swimsuit. Or socks. Or a diaper. But this is the Netherlands – a land of tolerance. My reaction once again proves that I will never truly be integrated within the culture of my adopted homeland.

Giving ourselves a few long minutes to camoflauge any discomfort we may have felt, we left the sauna and headed to the showers to cool off and debrief, before tackling the remaining areas on offer. 

All told, we managed to stay involved in this relaxing and rejuvenating exercise for about one hour. I use italics because I never really made it into the relaxation zone. I was nauseous from the heat, in pain from the cold, and freaked out that I may end up with tinea on my private regions from the steam room. 

Roof top

Our neighborhood sauna is like most saunas, I guess. Hot wooden room; wet and steamy tiled room; ice-bath; warm bubbling spa; salt scrub area;  showers and large buckets of cold water; outside nude area; relaxation lounge; and small café with television. 

Except for the roof top butt naked zone, we partook of everything on offer.  The highlight for me was having a beer while wrapped in a towel, facing a room full of nude folk. That is an image that doesn’t come up too often in my average week.

Here is a confession. I am from a large island in the Southern Hemisphere.  I grew up near the beach. Just like all my female friends, I was mortified if my mother took off her swimsuit and was naked in a women’s only changing room at the beach or local pool. 

Like all Australian women of my age (younger than you think), I was highly skilled in switching an entire set of clothes while having a towel wrapped around myself. Nudity was for tourists and old nutters. 

A second confession is that I have been to other saunas around the world.  In New York, I had a limited membership at the Russian baths on 10th street in Manhattan. The weekend evening sessions were extremely popular, especially with singles and gays. 

At all times, patrons had to be clothed. Men wore shorts and women dressed in the green dressing gowns issued as you entered the reception area. Both sexes wore plastic flipflops. 

By comparison, during a stay at a Helsinki youth hostel, there was some obvious disgruntlement caused by me wearing a swim suit. Really, it was a hot cupboard filled with nude people – looking at me like I was the odd one.

So why is it that people who grow up in the colder areas of Europe are so keen to be naked – together? My uncle and aunt, both in their 80s, recently gave up membership to their much-loved naturalist club. For the uninitiated, this is a nudist, and not gardening, club. 

Is it an unquenched need for vitamin D? Is it a reaction to growing up in a Calvinistic society? Is it just seeking tactile freedom denied many months of the year due to the cold climate? Or is it plain exhibitionism? 

The flipside to these questions is why do Asians, Americans, Australians and possibly Africans all have issues with public nudity. Are we seriously prudish about our bodies and other people’s bodies? Have we separated the naked self from being part of our humanity?

Many questions and ideas to ponder alone in the bathtub, or with a group of naked people in a sauna. For me, the need to expose myself remains non-existant. It isn’t about being embarrassed about my own body. It is about an unspoken intimacy with stangers. More, it is about seeing the same face serving me at the bank, and feeling uncomfortable that I know a secret about them and vice versa.

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