Have you ever had one of those dreams where you show up at work naked? The one where you can’t remember where you left your clothes and you are trying to act normal in front of your boss and coworkers? This nightmare became my reality several summers ago, and I can now write about it.
I was living in Utrecht, Netherlands, telecommuting part-time for a university in the US. My boss (female) was in Finland for a conference, and invited me to join her for vacation since she would be the first person from home to be anywhere near Holland.
Our vacation, she said, must include a visit to a traditional Finnish sauna. Traditional in the sense that a person is naked (fortunately, men and women were separated in this one), and that it is done in a group. There is just not much in the US to prepare a person for this, especially people like me who never played a team sport where there was perhaps nakedness in the locker room. Even so, you know the other people who share a common goal of either dressing for a game, or dressing to go home and people tend not to dilly-dally.
Upon entering the locker room, I encountered my preview of the horrors to come. Naked women were casually reading magazines, drinking beer, and chatting with their friends. Having grown up Presbyterian and in a family that valued modesty, I was not sure where to look. I was also terrified to bare all in front of everyone, especially my boss. But when in Finland, do as the Finns do, right? I leisurely unhooked my watch, carefully removed my earrings, and rearranged my purse and coat in my locker several times. With a sigh and a brave flourish, I yanked off my clothes and proudly walked into the shower room to rinse off before entering the sauna. Everyone briefly turned and smiled at me when I entered and continued their showers, uninspired.
After the rinse-off, I walked with my boss (yes, we are still naked), into the sauna. I didn’t even notice the heat. Again, chatting stopped as everyone turned to see who had walked in the door. I don’t like this phenomenon when I walk into a professional meeting wearing a suit, so I certainly didn’t like it in a sauna only wearing a smile. I recalled the Jerry Seinfeld episode where he said he didn’t know what to do with his hands when naked and thought that perhaps a belt with pockets would be the answer. I nonchalantly walked up the steps toward the only free space on the top row and banged my head HARD on the low wooden ceiling. Evidently I had not attracted enough attention yet.
I was concentrating on arranging my limbs and staring at the floor when the birch-branch beatings began. Each of us had brought in a small bunch of young birch branches immersed in a bucket of water, and my underdressed neighbors were aggressively smacking themselves with the branches. I had assumed the limbs were for aromatherapy. My boss explained to me that this practice is good for circulation. It is also a perfect time to observe techniques and to give constructive criticism. The practical Finn next to me noticed how gently I was beating myself; she suggested loudly that perhaps my friend would be willing to beat me since I was not an effective self-flagellator. Minutes later as I sat naked, my naked boss beating me with birch branches, I was fighting back laughter. No one could possibly dream up a worse nightmare.
After several rounds of sauna-shower-sauna-shower, we completed the ritual with the traditional beer out on the sidewalk. Yes, in a European capital city, I watched businesspeople hustle past as I sipped my ale in an oversized hand towel. I might as well have been wearing a wool turtleneck, as my perspective had shifted in the past hour. Besides, everyone walking by was probably planning the next naked sweat ceremony with friends and relatives.
I realized this ritual is probably a relaxing diversion for people who are socialized to love their own bodies. Although my previous definition of modesty had been beaten out of me, I knew I would continue hosting dinner parties and hiking trips with friends where I can happily put my hands in my pockets.