Photo by Maggie Spooner
Normally I use the sauna in my gym. I mean, I pay enough for the privilege of free towels and the chance to catch something nasty in the jacuzzi (hot tub folliculitis – I kid you not) so why not make the most of it? But I think that maybe some vestige of the Prussian work ethic has got to me because I’m finding it hard to relax in the sauna unless I’ve previously subjected myself to a grueling work out. Cane/carrot, etc. etc.
Cycling down Nürnberger Straße towards Ku’Damm recently, I noticed a little sign saying Thermen and had a minor clean conscience epiphany. Here’s a chance – just to soak. Not a stepper far or wide, not a rowing machine in sight.
Last rainy Monday morning bright and early I paid up €17 (apparently the going rate for three hours of clean conscience), took the lift up to the third floor – and basically entered a whole old world. Built in the mid-1970s, even the changing rooms are caught in a time-warp of orange and brown that reminded me, a lot, of old school sports facilities. Only cleaner. And not as smelly. Go up the stairs to the fourth floor, squeeze past one of those yellow floor signs saying “Beware, slippery” and a few desultory boards with a very minimalist set of rules (a handful compared to the 13-and-counting commandments that rock my gym) – push open the double doors and hey – it really is the 1970s!
Faux colonnades, a shower room obviously designed for a public swimming pool, a couple of resolutely square plunging pools and a few steps that lead down to a decent sized kidney-ish shaped swimming pool with a dinky little mini-golf kind of bridge and bright blue loungers arranged along the sides. And a glass wall with a fine view onto the rear courtyards of concrete office buildings and hotels, the architectural marvel that is Europa Center and an impressive array of solar collectors. It doesn’t get much more West Berlin than this.
At this time on a Monday morning, that 1970s vibe extends to patrons as well as premises. But in a good way. Less Osmonds, more Mott the Hoople – All the Older Dudes. The hot sauna is full of some kind of elderly swinging meet with the usual preponderance of ladies over gents awaiting the first Aufguß. Etiquette is paramount: a couple are actually wearing jaunty felt sauna hats and when I delicately wiggle my way through the fleshpots to the second tier I’m told to take my flip flops off (only to be worn when sitting lowest level). They’re so engrossed in comparing the weekend’s mushroom harvest (we took the train to Stettin), musing on what the hell Boris Becker thinks he’s up to (d’you think he needs the money?) and discussing who met whom in the over-60s internet chat room that the Loch Ness Monster could have stuck its head in unnoticed.
And all in full monty. Decades of complete immersion in the East have turned a certain generation of West Berliners into fervent exhibitionists. Out they wander, buck-naked, onto the expansive terrace, into the bracing drizzle and in full view of the surrounding worker bees, casually dangling whatever’s available. Only the prudish under-40s wear a towel.
I myself, meanwhile, was down on a lounger, where I belong. Reading. And looking (sorry guys, size does matter, aesthetically only, versteht sich). The place was filling up with office workers, tourists, young couples. The guy next to me was firmly stuck into Hürriyet, a very pregnant woman was wading into the pool supported by her much daintier husband and a couple of viciously tattooed Asians were finding something very funny.
Instead of finding this all a bit incongruous, I found it rather appealing. So sod the Prussian work ethic. My I LOVE BERLIN towel is packed and ready for a return visit.