Bicultural Urbanite Brianna Beware Of The Saunameister

Blokes in a sauna, Freiburg 1980.
Blokes in a sauna, Freiburg 1980. | © Wikimedia Commons

Exercising outdoors becomes quite unappetising in winter, so my Danish friend and I meet regularly to play badminton at a local sports centre. It’s a welcome relief to be able to peel off those heavy layers of clothing, regain full mobility of our limbs and run around for an hour chasing a small feathered ball. After we have “done sport”, as the Germans say, we sometimes head to the sauna…

In the changing rooms my friend and I strip down to towels and flip-flops as per the Textilverbot that forbids bathers, yet confusingly mandates the use of towels. We make our way past the indoor soccer pitch and people shooting hoops, all the way to the Saunalandschaft (literally sauna landscape). The global “wellness” phenomenon has meant that German sauna areas are often referred to using this lavish term, which conjures imagery of a vast oasis of relaxation. While the sports centre has made an effort to create a kind of tropical jungle atmosphere, its sauna facilities unfortunately resemble a poorly lit greenhouse with rules and directions printed on A4 laminated signs.

I’ve long since overcome my Australian prudishness and embraced sauna culture and all its nudiness – largely because my husband is Finnish. But as much as I enjoy sitting naked in a hot dark room in Helsinki, I’m not quite as keen on the German version of this sweaty pastime. Unlike the Finns, German sauna goers are not permitted to throw water onto the hot stones when they want another rush of steam. They must wait for the Saunameister (sauna master) to come and do it for them at specially appointed times. In Germany, this simple act has become a ritual known as the Aufguss. The Aufguss schedule is clearly marked, so that people can plan their sauna visit around the Saunameister’s performance.

Backyard sauna in Finland. Backyard sauna in Finland. | © Brianna Summers After our most recent badminton session we headed straight to the smaller sauna, knowing that the Saunameister was about to perform the Aufguss in the main sauna. We were keen to avoid the Aufguss, because after splashing water on the stones, the Saunameister swings a towel around his or her head to distribute the steam in thick bursts of punishing heat. The procedure is repeated several times with a variety of towel flapping and spinning techniques that seem designed to maximise the burning sensation on your skin and eyeballs. Although having hot steam whipped into their faces is the highlight of many German sauna goers’ wellness experience, to me it feels like a cardiovascular endurance test where only the strong survive.

The dry heat of the smaller sauna was reminiscent of a furnace-like north wind on a 40-degree day in Melbourne. Once that thought had occurred to me, the experience no longer seemed particularly “rejuvenating for body and soul”, as wellness gurus might suggest. It was time for a cold shower. Shivering and wet, we quickly made our way to the main sauna, where a group of naked men with beer guts of varying sizes were tumbling outside into the icy air, steam rising off their bodies in great clouds. They had just enjoyed (or endured) the Aufguss and were now cracking open beers. For us, the timing couldn’t have been better. We had the entire sauna to ourselves and there was still plenty of moisture in the air.

Until 2006, Berlin’s Badeschiff was regularly converted into an indoor pool and sauna during the winter months. Until 2006, Berlin’s Badeschiff was regularly converted into an indoor pool and sauna during the winter months. | © Wikimedia Commons All this is a world away from my (very limited) experience of saunas in Australia, where bikinis and board shorts abound and I’ve even seen people scrolling through iPhones while trying to break a sweat. Once when we were huddled inside a sauna on the Mornington Peninsula, my husband groaned when he noticed a sign forbidding people from putting water on the hot stones – but luckily there was also no Aufguss schedule in sight.