11:47am on a Wednesday, and I. Was. Naked. Steam hanging like a fog, ass planted on a bench, naked in a sea of naked strangers who were milling about with a calm indifference that I wanted to embody but could not because I. Was. Naked. I was at station one of the Friedrichbad spa in Baden Baden, seated in a steam room with my feet planted on a thermally heated floor, and my eyes fixed on my toes, wrestling with all my American sensibilities and western prudishness. A man shuffled past me holding hands with his wife, and I reflexively looked up from my toes to make sure that I wasn’t in their way. Who’s got two thumbs, no pants and would not be having a pale wiener with dinner that night? This guy. The clock on the wall ticked over to 11:50 and my fifteen minutes in station one were up. I shuffled off to station two.
The Friedrichsbad Irish/Roman bath house was opened in 1877. It sits atop the ruins of a Roman bath house and pulls most of its heat and water from thermal vents in the earth. The place is legendary for its rejuvenating and regenerative abilities. It’s also famous for making squeamish Americans cover their genitals in the presence of the opposite sex, which is exactly what I spent the first 3 stations doing. I sat in a hot room, covering my genitals. Then I sat in a hotter room, covering my genitals. Then I took a warm shower, covering my genitals. Finally, half way through a soap scrub, soft brush covered in milky soap grinding the exhaustion off my skin in the soupy heat from the center of the earth, I realized, nobody gives a shit about your genitals, dude. And I let go like a knot unraveling, fell into the place with abandon. I breathed mineral infused air and floated in a pool of thermal water. I slipped into room after room and let the air and the moisture and the heat and the silence take the stress that had grown like a cancer in me over the course of the first few days. I pulled deep breaths down into me and there was no room for spiraling into a pseudo-stroke on an airplane or standing in front of a foreign hospital with no shoes on. No room for May Day riots or panic attacks. Just warm thermal air and hot, still, waters. I mean, someone swaddled me in heated blankets for fuck’s sake. Try to keep worrying about a lady you don’t know seeing your beanbag while that’s happening. You can’t.
I walked out of that spa, into the light of midday and everything was different. Melissa, who had opted for the clothed spa next door (a royal fuck-up if you ask me), met me on the cobblestone street out front, apprehension in her eyes.
“How was it?” She asked.
And my face said it all.
On our way back to the hotel, we ran into Mom and Dad at a restaurant nearby. I sat and ate a bunch of their leftovers, like a cow grazing in someone else’s pasture. Docile and unashamed. When that was done, I floated back to the hotel along the Oos river, grass glowing in the sunlight, water gurgling over stones.
In the lobby of our hotel, a dessert buffet was laid out and the smell of it drew us on our tip toes like in a cartoon.
“Do you think that’s for hotel guests?” she asked.
“Sure.” I said.
“Really?” and there was skepticism in her voice, because we were both avoiding the obvious next step, which was to just go ask someone, because there was a pretty good chance it wasn’t for us in which case, someone would have told us not to take any, which would make it pretty egregious if we did.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s for us,” I said, still coasting on the high of total relaxation. We took cake and helped ourselves to coffee and we slunk off to a little corner of the lobby giggling at our mischief and elating in our stolen confection (which definitely wasn’t for us), because once you’re able to relax naked in a room full of total strangers, it’s hard to play by anyone’s rules but your own.
If you’re interested in seeing Rick Steves waaaaaay too naked: