Photo by Janina Gallert
Thirty-two adults form a co-ed heap on 10 twin mattresses. A man, his voice muffled by an arm lying slack across his face, sighs: “Mein Gott, is this the right temperature! Mhmmm!” A middle-aged spooner is beset by a giggle attack and sits up to take in some fresh air.
Rosi circles the pile repeating in a soft voice, “Ganz zärtlich, ganz achtsam!” (tenderly, attentively) and, “Remember: you may get up or change your position at any moment.” Of average height and thin-framed, the biologist-turned-cuddle instructor exudes the confident authority of a bouncer.
January cold may raise the number, but Rosi Doebner’s bi-monthly “Feel Good Cuddle Evenings” – now in their fifth year – are never short on participants. This is partly thanks to the Kuschelkreis that has developed in Berlin and typically accounts for two thirds of the party’s guests on any given Friday night.
On most occasions, Anton is among that number – you can recognize the 50-something by his round specs and perpetual eager-kid grin, ‘dorky’ one might say. A friend of Rosi’s, he was present at the very first of Berlin’s cuddle evenings in 2005 and has hardly missed one since. These days, the balding mathematician even hosts private cuddle events in the living room of his Wilmersdorf apartment. His reason for cuddling? “I love that I can make others feel so good.”
As they arrive in the candlelit salon of Mehringdamm 33’s studio, Rosi ensures that every guest receives a small white name tag with a heart and their first name written on it. One can easily tell the newbies from the Stammgäste. While the former mill around the bar looking skeptical or help themselves to a drink, the latter greet one another forwardly with bear hugs and squeezes.
Among this group is Leonid, a diminutive, white-haired Russian man who holds his own monthly ‘Russian’ Kuschel gathering. Leonid greets a tall, heavy-browed man, in a midriff-baring polo shirt and baggy track pants.
This is Daniel Planets – another cuddle regular. Three years back, Daniel found himself at an emotional low point before discovering Rosi’s pamphlet at his yoga class. He began frequenting Rosi’s, as well as the various other Berlin gatherings, cuddling as often as possible – up to three times a week. “For me, it’s psychotherapy,” he explains. With prices between €10-16 per session, a snuggle buddy is a pretty cheap shrink.
The desire for physical human contact is what attracts most of them here – even Kira, a young, rather attractive… masseuse. Though her teenage kid tells her it’s a bit komisch, the 30-something single mother says she enjoys the party’s safe, non-sexual environment. Talking about the success of the cuddle party concept – from New York to Melbourne, and in cities all across Germany – she says, “It reflects a somewhat sick failure of today’s society to meet people’s basic need for closeness.”
Rosi rings a chime, calling the participants into the Kuschelraum. The session kicks off at 8pm. Uniformly sized and neatly outfitted with yellow sheets, the 10 twin mattresses are spread out in a wide circle and the attendees are sitting up on them instead of lying down. A stuffed mouse puppet by the name of Kuschelmaus passes from hand to hand, giving each participant the opportunity for an introduction.
A young man from D.C. nervously tugs at his wool turtleneck. When the mouse reaches him, he quietly identifies himself as a first-timer and passes it on. A petite lady who wishes for the night to be full of warmth and “touching energy” appears to have enough to go around; she’s already beaming, giggling and tickling her neighbors. Next, a stocky man slips his hand into the puppet without hesitation and proclaims his love for cuddling (“so long as there’s enough of it”). As the man speaks, Kuschelmaus rubs his plush paws together.
But, like any sport, cuddling requires some warm up. And, of course, it has its rules – the most important being that a Cuddle Party should remain strictly non-sexual. (On that note, an important point for Anglos: when you hear someone ask for a Kissen during the cuddle puddle – stay cool; it means pillow. Kissin’ is taboo at Rosi’s).
The next activities, which encourage anonymous – that is, blind – contact, are reminiscent of grade-school games, like Thumbs Up, Seven Up, where you try to link unidentified hands to faces simply by touch. One becomes attuned to textures, as well as smells (whether pleasant, like clementine, hairspray, or mentholated cough drop – or unfortunate, like excessive cologne or dirty gym shorts). With free range to explore, hands discover Playdoh-like elbows or remark the smoothness of a woman’s plump upper arm. Whether you’re 25 or 65, it’s surprisingly simple – and not at all unpleasant – to pop that personal bubble.
For beginners, Rosi’s Kuschelabend is ideal. But for a more intimate, less pedagogical experience, you may want to check out a few of the other gatherings, like Irma Dilba-Burnautzki’s weekly cuddle party in the Möckernkiez. If you don’t lose your nerve on the march into the dimly-lit Hinterhaus or up the dizzying checkerboard tiled stairwell to floor five, you’ll find yourself in a Buddha-bedecked oasis.
Irma typically has between six and 16 guests, which means it certainly is cozier. On the flipside, the element of anonymity is gone and your selection of cuddle partners limited. Make yourself comfortable on the corduroy modular with a cup of berry tee and a handful of hard candies and don’t expect the party to start (or end) on time.
The small, animated blonde is a lax instructor who tends to participate more than she supervises. She lets her guests pick the tunes and – like an indulgent mother – even lets them snooze past the alarm signaling the night’s end.
When asked about her background, the Lithuanian-born Irma smirks perceptibly: “Oh, I have no… particular training as a cuddle instructor.” She completed her doctorate at Holland’s Humaniversity and is a practiced hypno- and psycho-therapist. Of cuddling, Irma says, “it’s simply a good way to bring people together”.
Thanks to a dress code of fleece, flannel and socks, as well as the bra-free breasts and mussed ‘dos – not to mention a kooky music selection, including Wham!, Jackson 5 and that song “Aisha,” the atmosphere at a cuddle party is refreshingly unlike that of a bar or club.
Still, when you discern the clear pattern: man, woman, man, woman, in the jumbled bodies of the final dog pile, you might wonder if the cuddle party really isn’t a Treffpunkt of another sort. While Rosi claims this isn’t the intention, she also admits: “It happens.” To illustrate, she points to a married couple that met at one of her parties and now regularly attend together.
If you try forming a mono-gendered sandwich, you’re likely to hear instant, albeit only partly serious, calls of: “We’re all women over here!” and “Hey – where’d all the women go?” In fact, in order to ensure equal numbers, some of the instructors require pre-registration and several even charge less for women (at Leonid’s Russian Kuschelparty, every night is ‘ladies night’).
Unlike the original New York version of the cuddle party – on which Rosi modeled hers – the Berliners cuddle only after sundown. All of this brings a certain level of ambiguity into the evening, and it is not impossible that you’ll meet someone there who doesn’t draw a line between cuddle mate and future dinner date.
Whether or not you’re looking to pick up a permanent cuddle buddy, don’t forget a pre-party shower/shave. And, if you’re hoping for a foot massage, a fresh pair of socks wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
A full listing of Berlin’s Kuschelpartys can be found at berliner.kuschelkalender.de
The next cuddle party is Kuscheln bei Irma, Friday, January 7, 20:00