An expat survival guide to German saunas
Picture this: you’re in the middle of a room that’s only slightly bigger than the spare room in the average suburban, semi-detached house.
Now, imagine that it’s filled with people who are completely naked. Panting and sweating, they are sitting on neatly folded towels to make sure that no part of their body touches the wooden bench. Surprisingly enough, they don’t attempt to use any part of their towel to cover their private parts (which, surely, is one's natural instinct).
Welcome, my friend, to a German sauna.
The Saunameister & The Aufguss
The temperature on the thermometer shows 90 degrees. The place is packed. The clock strikes seven and, without delay, a man in his twenties enters the room wearing a sleek towel wrapped around his waist, holding a wooden jug filled with what appears to be water.
Politely, he greets everyone in the room in exactly the same fashion as countless times before. He doesn’t add any extra words; he doesn’t joke or smile. He simply says:
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this “Aufguss”. This infusion contains essences of lemongrass and pine needles. We will have three rounds in total. You can leave the room at any moment of your choosing.”
His voice and actions seem so banal (considering the setting) that you might think he’s a train station manager announcing the next arrival at Euston Station. He then carefully pours the contents of the jug onto the open stove and slowly works the room, waving a towel above his head at even intervals to spread the ensuing heat wave.
This has an astonishing effect on the people in the room. Without warning, some begin to pant, exalt loudly with an ecstatic “Ja!”, rub their sweaty bodies all over, and make other strange, orgasmic noises.
The sauna ritual
Despite the surreal setting I’ve just described to you, this “ritual” has a strict order to which everyone adheres. The procedure lasts approximately 10 minutes, after which the man politely thanks everyone and exits the sauna. Once he leaves, other people start exiting the room for a cool-off session. They leave in an orderly fashion – it goes without saying.
For any foreigner experiencing this for the first time, it’s a massive shock to the system that could (if you’re not careful) cause a mild cardiac arrest. But for any citizen of the federal republic, this event is as normal as peeling potatoes, and is an intrinsic part of German sauna etiquette that has been around for as long as anyone remembers.
The 7 rules of German sauna etiquette
So, if you want to fit in with the Germans, then it’s essential to get to know the following sauna-going rules.
1. Towel up
Always bring two large towels – one to sit on, and one to use after showering (or to put your feet on, in case your other towel isn’t large enough). If you’re really aiming to impress your German colleagues, then wear a white robe.
2. No naked feet
Make sure you bring a pair of flip flops or another kind of suitable footwear, as walking barefoot is frowned upon.
3. But keep those genitals free
Do not try to cover your genitals whilst walking around the sauna premises. Your towels should either be slung over your shoulder or be carried in your hand.
4. Read the rules
Before entering the sauna, make sure you read the “Sauna Regeln”, which are usually posted just outside the entrance. Ask a friend to translate if you’re unsure of anything – you don’t want to commit an accidental faux pax!
5. No noseying
Do not strike up conversations with strangers. Mind your own business.
6. Don’t look down – or up
Keep your gaze firmly at an eye level. I don’t need to explain why.
Bonus - Spot the East Germans
For a bit of fun, if you want to identify people from East Germany, look at the size of their towels and the type of swimwear they have. The smaller the towel, the greater the likelihood of them being from the East. The same goes for the swimming trunks. So, somebody wearing leopard skin speedos and carrying a tiny towel – unmistakably from the East.
Embrace the madness
Having lived in Germany for over 15 years, I still haven’t been able to fully grasp this superimposed normality. It is the only place in the world that I can think of where you get looks of disapproval if you commit the capital sin of wearing a bathing suit.
That’s not it – those feeling particularly concerned might even take it upon themselves to tell you off, only stopping short of ripping your trunks right off. At the very least, you’ll feel completely ostracized and “naked”, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Leave those trunks behind, and you’ll be fine. Happy sauna-ing!