The Europe Game


Sing it, brother

Sing it, brother

One night a week, Lee and I get our Europe on. We go to a local swimming pool, and have a swim, steam, sauna, and cold dip. Then we go drink wine like we’re bringing Caligula on his bachelor party and think in metric terms.

If you’ve never done this steam and sauna deal, it goes like this: You sit in a room that as steamy as the Congo in August, then you sit in a room (on purpose) that someone set to 96 degrees (Fahrenheit), then, after showering briefly, you step into the coldest pool of water you have ever been in. Again, on purpose. Oh, and you’re naked.

Ah, Monday.

How did this warrant the term ‘getting my Europe on’  you ask? You might sneer. You might go on to mention that you have done a sauna and steam room dozens of times on the Upper West Side or on your holiday in Santa Barbara. Well, that might be true, but since I never once even understood the concept of these things while living in the U.S., I completely attribute them to Europe. Also, while the history of the sauna is not relegated simply to Scandinavia and the Baltic area, it is a deeply rooted tradition in Europe.

But more importantly, calling things “European” is a dual purpose term. First, it’s a way to explain things so that people leave me alone. I have used the “Europe card” to explain my man purse, an inappropriately small bathing suit, three beers at lunch, and the age discrepancy between myself and a girlfriend. It’s also how I can trick my mind into being comfortable with things that are outside of my comfort zone. This includes eating pig brains in scrambled eggs and peeing in public.

Today I am using the “Europe” card to deal with several things I don’t love. Sitting on wood in the heat, sweating profusely in front of others, and being naked with other men.

I know. I know.

I am no prude and I have been in locker room showers before. Fine. But saunas involve hanging out with other naked men and breathing deeply in quiet. So it is, in essence, a very hot room filled with brooding naked guys. There are only two sauna options available – all women and mixed – so the mixed is usually about 98% men.

Today, we leave the pool and step into the sauna area. I am immediately uncomfortable since I am dizzy from holding in my belly in for thirty minutes after noticing a student in the pool. We step into the steam and we are the only two in the steam room. We relax. I will admit that I always feel better after the steam and sauna. It is as though your body is being rinsed of toxins.

The sauna is crawling with naked men. As we look through the window on the door and search for a spot to wedge in, two of the men leave. We take a seat on the plank of wood and sweat. While I do know this will pay off afterwards, I am amazed that I am actively paying (1 kc per minute) to sweat like an extra in Cool Hand Luke in a room with a bunch of other guys who look like extras in Cool Hand Luke. I breathe it in and become one with my discomfort. I keep my eye on the prize: wine.

Upon reflection, I think that the nudity aspect is not what bothers me so much. It’s more the controlled breathing and otherwise eerie quiet. It seems unnatural to be in a room with a bunch of people who are actively reflecting in quiet. It’s as though we are all at a doctor’s office awaiting either very good or very bad news.

In fact, in the sauna I am happy that it’s almost always just men. There are no worries and very little self-consciousness. I have the same thing every one else in there has, and we are all familiar with its woes, quirks, and tendencies. There is no need for any explanation or conversation regarding it, it is just there.

When Lee mentions that it’s time for the cold pool, I am relieved. First, there is no better relief from the extreme heat than submerging yourself into a pool of ice-cold water. Second, I am closer to wine.

There is a gang of people hanging out in the cold pool. Three men and a woman. They aren’t in the pool, but sit on the low ridge along the back wall of the pool. The men are naked, the woman is wearing a bathing suit. I step into the (required) shower, rinse off and then I step into the coldest water on the continent of Europe naked.

Stepping into freezing cold water naked in front of a female stranger is a recurring nightmare for many men. They wake up in a freezing cold sweat and make a mental note to buy swim trunks. Me, I just can’t believe it’s happening, at no time in my life have I ever thought to prepare for this moment.

I step in the water. Submerge. Physiology takes over and I become several hundred one line jokes at once. I sit for a while. A line of naked men come in, shower, and then step into the freezing water. The woman is not gawking openly, but she is certainly watching. What we gents would give to be in this position across the pool in the women’s sauna. But we’re not, so we just step into bitter cold water in front of a female stranger.

Lee and I do another round and when we come back, she is still there and has been joined by another female. I drop my sheet and shower, then saunter down the pool’s steps into the arctic-like water. As I do, feeling slightly uncomfortable, I just tell myself:

Forget it, buddy, it’s Europe.

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