In any person’s life there will be incidents that occur where, after the fact, one wonders aloud;
Why did I do that? What the heck was I thinking?
Sometimes events are so surreal one might wonder if their recollections are accurate.
Did that really happen?
I call these McBeal moments in reference to the Fox television character Ali McBeal, who seemed, at least for the duration of the legal dramady- 1997 to 2002, to have these surreal incidents all the time, and oddly often in the unisex bathroom of the fictional law firm Cage and Fish.
There exists in my mind neither a logical reason nor rational excuse for my actions that day. I could say that my curiosity got the better of me. Or maybe it was a situational thing because of course I’d never find myself there were I at home on the west coast of Washington State.
No. Definitely not a logical progression, but as they say when in Rome, or in this case Germany. You do as the locals do. Right?
I could fault the Romans who created the bathhouse in Baden Baden which literally translates to bath! bath! (emphasis mine). The redundant name’s a handy reminder that there are two baths for the lucky local townsfolk to enjoy, Freidricksbad and Caracalla Therme.
The Freidricksbad spa building itself is modeled on a neoclassical palace complete with elaborate room sized frescoes marbled roman arches and luxuriant architectural flourishes designed and built at the behest of Grand Duke Freidrick von Baden in 1877.
Whether it was the Germans, or the more egalitarian European sensibility towards nudity that led the excavated ruins of the ancient Roman baths to be transformed into a coed bathing facility, I don’t know.
When given the choice of the two spa options Caracalla’s advertising brochures strongly resembled admittance to a Disneyland water theme park complete with water slides and rampant unsupervised children clogging up the wading pools; as opposed to the more stately communal Roman Irish baths complete with soap brush massage, and 16 treatment stations. Without hesitation I chose the more traditional, adult exclusive, non-touristy option.
Upon the suggestion of European travel guru, and Edmonds Washington resident, Rick Steves, I’d actually built part of my travel itinerary around a visit to the spa. That and Baden Baden, Germany was on my way through Bavaria on my way to my final destination, Paris, in the winter of 2006.
The spa experience at the Roman Irish bath, for it truly is billed or promoted as an experience, concluded with a sunny westerly facing atrium, chaise lawn chairs and warm fluffy bathrobes. After two weeks of frigid, drizzly, foggy weather, exposing my skin to the direct rays of the sun was my idea of paradise.
I cannot say whether the day after Christmas was a particularly busy spa day, but it appeared as such from the crowded state of the parking lot. After parking our 4 cylinder Renault roller skate rental car my partner and I silently approached the front entrance as though we dared to enter a holy sanctified cathedral dressed casually and without a formal engraved invitation. I fully expected to encounter a bit of saintly remains discretely buried with a prominent marker noting the spot, or publicly enshrined in a central location available to the groveling masses to bow and scrape and beg forgiveness for their transgressions.
The marble portico could have easily granted us entry into a museum housing the world’s most famous oil paintings, or been the summer home of an Austrian Arch Duke, or perhaps the final resting place for St Benedict’s earlobe. It certainly did not appear to be a place where normal plebeians cavorted around naked, dipping themselves into lukewarm mineral baths like little emperors out on a lark.
For three and a half hours one cold and windy December day I was one of those little naked emperors.
Once inside the customer is swept up with German efficiency. You are instructed to pay a small entry fee calculated in Euros and an attractive young woman gives you an overview of the spa procedure. It’s called a procedure or a treatment in 16 steps. Each step isn’t really a step per say it’s simply a part of the overall whole, and the Germans are fond of numbering systems, or organizational systems in general. I’m not sure which exactly, although I’m sure they would have explained it to me had I asked.
Step one is: Visitors stash their clothes in a locker, get bath sandals and a robe, and start off with a shower. From the shower the bather gradually increases their core body temperature by frequenting two steam rooms, and a series of thermal baths of varying temperatures. When your skin glows red like a partially steamed lobster, your name is given to one of a dozen soap brush massage therapists who must all be named variations of Helga, Brunhilda, or Olga.
I firmly believe that in order to apply for one of the soap brush massage positions the prospective job applicant must be built as solidly as a tree trunk, speak no written language other than German, lack any personality whatsoever, and answer to one of the above mentioned names.
The soap brush massage which lasts for exactly 8 foamy bristly minutes, and not one second more as indicated on a slippery yellow egg timer, is station 5. As a willing participant, or steamed and scoured guinea pig, you will be made aware that your time is up by receiving a firm slap on the buttocks as an indicator that it’s time to go.
Trust me on this.
Unless you have masochistic tendencies and an affinity for woman with forearms bigger than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, you do not stick around for a second reminder. It’s time to go.
A tepid 82 degree segregated wading pool filled with mineral water awaits you. As you dip yourself into the water with two or three dozen other women with red hand-prints on their backsides, you mentally congratulate yourself for successfully running the soap brush gauntlet and come out the other side. You feel an affinity with these other women who have shared this prideful rite of passage with you while discretely rubbing your smarting bum.
Here’s where my curiosity got the better of me.
There are two wading pools separated by a span of roughly three meters. Each pool is approximately one quarter the size of an Olympic sized swimming pool, under a giant domed roof the size of a typical American high school gymnasium.
In the other wading pool were more than two dozen men. Naked little emperors having their own spa day soak, presumably after successfully running the gauntlet and getting their own little smack from the Helga’s on their side of the facility.
I didn’t actually count the number of bodies in either of the pools or look for the telltale red marks. That might have been considered gauche, or demurely American to the Europeans and I was already having trouble fitting in. But whether it was 24 or 32 isn’t the point.
I was cold.
Having scalded myself in the sauna, and scrubbed off the outer layer of dermis with the Helga’s, once completely submerged the water in our little pool I was downright chilly. Goose-pimply. So I peeked over at the men’s pool and they seemed to be quite comfortable. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe the water in their pool was warmer.
It’s a co-ed facility, there are two pools. It’s possible. Right?
Thankfully there were no water slides, diving boards, or swim ladders, or I’d have looked even more ridiculous doing a cannonball or belly flop into the shallow four foot mineral bath. I exited the ladies pool traveling up a set of shallow stairs, traversing the short distance between and into the men’s pool with as much aplomb as I could manage, which given my absolute lack of clothing or facility with the German or French language was next to nil.
I applied the proven “Fake it til you make it.” tactic never letting on that by the time my toes touched the water I was feeling like a stupid moron.
Their pool was the same temperature as the one I’d just left. Damn.
To their credit the little emperors were a welcoming group of fellas, not overtly staring at the invasive species, me.
Once in, I felt it might be rude to leave immediately, so I settled in for a few minutes. As I sat there I wondered how I’d tell this story to my mom. Somehow “so I was skinny dipping with this bunch of fellas in Germany last Christmas, when…” didn’t quite work. Yeah that story won’t fly, that won’t even hover.
Looks like I figured it out.