How a German sauna taught a prudish American to relax at the sight of naked flesh

When American writer Jessica Guzik arrived in Berlin, she wanted to rid herself of her American neuroses. But was the sight of people tarring themselves in salt a step too far?

How a German sauna taught a prudish American to relax at the sight of naked flesh
Photo: DPA

“I have an idea for your book,” my friend texted.

“Go on…”

“It involves naked people. Like properly.”

“I’m listening.”

“Have you been to a German sauna?”

I gulped. I had just moved to Berlin from the U.S., and I was still adjusting to Germany’s relaxed attitude towards public nudity.

In the U.S., our clothes, regulations, police, movies, and Netflix reinforce the idea that nudity is illicit. Getting naked is something you do behind closed doors or in front of a webcam for money. American nudity is inherently sexual; there is no interpretation of the unclothed human form but as an invitation for sex.

In Germany, the naked body in and of itself is inert. Nipples are mum, thighs are mute, and it’s all quiet on the buttocks front. This is true regardless of how small, big, wide, narrow, light, dark, or hairy one’s body. There’s no message to glean by the sight of flesh alone. To the extent that the naked body communicates anything, it depends entirely on circumstance.

SEE ALSO: The dos and don'ts of public nudity in Germany


If I wanted to blow past my American neuroses, I knew I had to go to a sauna. Still, I was nervous. I agreed to go, but I sought to learn everything about the situation I was walking into. I texted my friend: What should I pack? Who will be there? How much natural light will there be? When, exactly, do I get naked? Will there be a cue, like a whistle?

My friend did his best to calm me down and we eventually met up at Liquidrom, a Berlin spa with several saunas and a dark saltwater pool.

For all my anxiety, I blushed to learn just how chill Liquidrom was. People of all shapes and sizes ambled down the Liquidrom’s long hallways, nonplussed by their state of undress. When I saw a man eating couscous in his bathrobe – which sounds like the beginning of a Dr. Seuss book – I knew everything was going to be okay.

We headed towards the saunas for something called an Aufguss. My friend then signalled that it was time to get naked, so I took off my bikini bottom in one swift motion, like a Bandaid. I did the same with my top. Then I pretended I wasn’t naked. Have you ever played hide-and-seek with a toddler? They cover their eyes and think they’re hiding. After all, if they can’t see you, why should you be able to see them? Using that same reasoning – which is to say, no reasoning – I averted my eyes from the naked bodies around me. If I didn’t look at them, some part of me believed they wouldn’t look at me.

Photo: DPA


The sauna was small, dark, and hot, like a cross between a ski cabin, a romantic restaurant, and an oven. In the middle of the sauna a boxy radiator topped with hot stones clicked and cracked. I sat against the wall, thigh-by-sweaty-thigh with the other Aufguss participants.

The Aufguss began when the guide – let’s call him Saunameister – closed the door and said something I didn’t understand in a calm and soothing voice. My friend filled me in: We were to sit in the sauna for five minutes, go outside for a salt rub, return to the sauna for another five minutes, and then rinse off.

From a bamboo bucket, Saunameister ladled water onto the stones on the radiator. They hissed and steamed. Then he took a damp towel and, holding it by two corners, fanned literal heat waves into our faces. The best part was the soundtrack of grumbles and groans as the men in the sauna vocalized their suffering.

Saunameister then opened the door and picked up another bamboo bucket. We followed. Outside, we cupped our hands to receive ladlefuls of snowy salt. I salted up my naked body like an oversized entrecôte. In a few minutes, we all looked like we had been rolling around on white sand beaches.

Saunameister then guided us back into the sauna, where we resumed our positions, and he closed the door. Again came the bamboo bucket of water, the ladle, the hissing rocks, the groaning. Again the flapping towel. As I shut my eyes against the bursts of heat, I monitored my own body. I felt condensation form on my skin; I tasted the salt of sweat when I licked my lips; I felt my insides warm and cool in alternating waves as my body self-regulated its temperature. My body, the one I was so anxious about a few minutes ago, became an object of meditation, even an object of appreciation. It was doing everything it could to keep me alive in the extreme environment I had subjected it to.

Finally Saunameister opened the door and gave a sing-song-y “Alsooooo!” Everyone headed to the shower. When I dried off, my skin smelled like eucalyptus and baby oil. In my blissed out, post-Aufguss state, my hang-ups about nudity seemed overblown.

Nobody at Liquidrom was there to judge me, nor was I at Liquidrom to judge anyone else. Everyone was there for the same reason: to relax. And, in the end, I was able to relax too.

This piece was excerpted and edited from Let’s Take Berlin, a book about expat life in Berlin by Jessica Guzik


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Living in Germany: Battles over Bürgergeld, rolling the ‘die’ and carnival lingo

From the push to reform long-term unemployment benefits to the lingo you need to know as Carnival season kicks off, we look at the highlights of life in Germany.

Living in Germany: Battles over Bürgergeld, rolling the 'die' and carnival lingo

Deadlock looms as debates over Bürgergeld heat up 

Following a vote in the Bundestag on Thursday, the government’s planned reforms to long-term unemployment benefits are one step closer to becoming reality. Replacing the controversial Hartz IV system, Bürgergeld (or Citizens’ Allowance) is intended to be a fair bit easier on claimants.

Not only will the monthly payment be raised from €449 to €502, but jobseekers will also be given a grace period of two years before checks are carried out on the size of their apartment or savings of up to €60,000. The system will also move away from sanctions with a so-called “trust period” of six months, during which benefits won’t be docked at all – except in very extreme circumstances. 

Speaking in parliament, Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) said the spirit of the new system was “solidarity, trust and encouragement” and praised the fact that Bürgergeld would help people get back into the job market with funding for training and education. But not everyone is happy about the changes. In particular, politicians from the opposition CDU/CSU parties have responded with outrage at the move away from sanctions.

CDU leader Friedrich Merz has even branded the system a step towards “unconditional Basic Income” and argued that nobody will be incentivised to return to work. 

The CDU and CSU are now threatening to block the Bürgergeld legislation when it’s put to a vote in the Bundesrat on Monday. With the conservatives controlling most of the federal states – and thus most of the seats in the upper house – things could get interesting. Be sure to keep an eye out for our coverage in the coming weeks to see how the saga unfolds. 

Tweet of the week

When you first start learning German, picking the right article to use can truly be a roll of the “die” – so we’re entirely on board with this slightly unconventional way to decide whether you’re in a “der”, “die”, or “das” situation. (Warning: this may not improve your German.) 

Where is this?

Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

Residents of Frankfurt am Main and the surrounding area will no doubt recognise this as the charming town of Kronberg, which is nestled at the foot of the Taunus mountains.

This atmospheric scene was snapped on Friday morning, when a drop in temperatures saw Kronberg and surrounding forests shrouded in autumnal fog.

After a decidedly warm start to November, the mercury is expected to drop into single digits over the weekend. 

Did you know?

November 11th marked the start of carnival season in Germany. But did you know that there’s a whole set of lingo to go along with the tradition? And it all depends on where you are. First of all, the celebration isn’t called the same thing everywhere. In the Rhineland, it’s usually called Karneval, while people in Bavaria or Saxony tend to call it Fasching. Those in Hesse and Saarland usually call it Fastnacht. 

And depending on where you are, there are different things to shout. The ‘fools call’ you’ll hear in Cologne is “Alaaf!” If you move away from Cologne, you’ll hear “Helau!” This is the traditional cry in the carnival strongholds of Düsseldorf and Mainz, as well as in some other German cities.

In the Swabian-Alemannic language region in the southwest of the country, people yell “Narri-Narro”, which means “I’m a fool, you’re a fool”. In Saarland at the French border, they shout “Alleh hopp!”, which is said to originate from the French language. 

Lastly, if someone offers you a Fastnachtskrapfe, say yes because it’s a jelly-filled carnival donut. And if you’re offered a Bützchen? It’s your call, but know that it’s a little kiss given to strangers!