From an Ex-Pat…with Love

ColumnStaving off depression during a dark Berlin winter sometimes means a communal sauna and a cold beer.

In the popular American imagination, Western Europe is still a bastion for in-the-buff recreation. The mere mention of the Mediterranean, for many of us, calls to mind glorified, sun soaked stretches of impossibly beautiful coastline crawling with tan-line-free bodies. Yes, Europeans exhibit a comparatively relaxed approach to sexuality, but for a current generation, nudism is on the downswing – a past time relegated to the territory of grandfathers influenced by hippie zeitgeist now past.

While the growing disinclination to disrobe in public holds true in many countries across the pond, the phenomenon hasn’t fallen out of favor in East Germany – especially not in Berlin. In this former Soviet stronghold, plenty of culturally-enshrined opportunities exist to enjoy oneself sans cumbersome clothing and, oddly enough, this is perhaps best evidenced during winter.

Here, the sauna – in import of the historic Finnish variety – reigns. Typically co-ed, these clothing non-optional environments help stave off the depression that attends not only the grisly German winters, but also dearth of daylight at such a northerly latitude. At the season’s height, daybreak doesn’t come until late morning, and the sun again sets before the end of the work day. With winter comes a world of bone chilling cold and a smothering cloak of darkness seeming without end. The antidote? Frequent trips to one’s neighborhood sauna, where a multi-hour visit costs mere euros – about the same price as a decent bottle of red wine.

In the U.S., saunas are usually a costly luxury and in same-sex company; in Germany, it’s not only a quotidian luxury that comes at little expense, but also one that proffers a mild, mixed gender thrill. Far from the terrain of socially inappropriate lechers, sauna culture is so commonplace that families come with their children, groups of university students gather and hang out, and even business people (although typically groups of men) converge to talk shop and sweat it out together.

And, of course, the body’s fluids must be replenished after subjection to such extreme heat. While an uptight doctor might classify a post-sauna beer as ill advised, rest assured the Germans aren’t wary of its indulgence and, in fact, consider it a tidy closure to the evening. In a land where the average life expectancy is long; the men, brave and strong; and all of the women beautiful – well, they might just be on to something. The sauna isn’t just a recipe for enduring the long slog of winter, but also the crux of enjoying a good life and aging well.


Berlin-based Abigail Wick is a contributor to The New York Times and National Public Radio. ‘From an Ex-Pat…with Love’ is her weekly EcoSalon column about cultural dislocation, romantic relationships and lifestyle choices – filtered through the lens of an American woman living and working abroad in Europe.

Bio Image: Alina Rudya, Article Image: thomaswanhoff