Thursday, 18 September 2014

Nudity at the spa

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
30 April 2010

Recently Radek and I enjoyed our first childless-getaway in over a year by spending two-nights at an Austrian lázně (spa), just across the border from the Czech Republic. Although we'd originally contemplated taking the children with us, in the end, I vetoed the idea. Honestly, the kids would have loved the outdoor mineral pool and the special children's area with slides and water toys, but I knew that Radek would be keen to try the different saunas and steam rooms, where children under 14 weren't allowed, and I wanted to relax and enjoy myself too. Also, although I'm comfortable walking around naked at home before and after showering, I wasn't sure if I was ready for a full-on Austrian family adventure in the nude.

While the pools at most European spas are bathing-suit friendly, the actual spa facilities: sauna, steam room and relaxation areas are often nude-encouraged, and particularly for the sauna, nude-required, although you should always have your own towel to sit on. This is partly due to culture and tradition, and partly for hygienic reasons. Of course, even when nudity is the standard, there is usually a large towel or sheet you can wrap up in when going from sauna to sauna. At this particular resort, we were also given big cushy bathrobes to wear during the duration of our stay.

Visiting a spa is a regular relaxation and health ritual practiced by both tourists and locals in many European countries. The Czech Republic is known for several spa resort towns, the most well-known being Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary, whose healing waters and centuries-long reputation attract tourists from around the world. Neighboring countries, like Slovakia, Austria and Germany, also boost a considerable number of spas, and it seems quite popular for Czechs to travel over the border to sample the spa culture in a different nation.

Growing up in an environment where visiting a spa is not only a viewed as a legitimate form of relaxation, but is also an important rehabilitative treatment prescribed after a serious illness, such as pneumonia, or a chronic ailment such as arthritis, Radek can never understand my squeamishness about spas, never knowing for sure when it is appropriate or not appropriate to be naked. To Radek, spas are a natural and very pleasurable form of relaxation. His relaxed attitude about spas is shared by all of the Czechs I know, who often talk of visiting a spa with friends over the weekend or even as a yearly team-building event. While I can't imagine being naked in front of my work colleagues, the Czechs I know assure me that they've never felt weird about it.

Apart from the fact that I have to shed my bathing suit and be naked in front of strangers, my insecurity around spas runs a layer deeper. Once I'm naked, I'm always worried that I'll inadvertently commit a cultural gaffe, like using the wrong showers for rinsing or laying my towel on the moist seats of the herbal steam room but forgetting to put a towel down to protect the dry, wooden seats of a Finnish sauna. Worse than committing the blunder, would be the attention I might attract by being reprimanded by a spa employee, particularly if they spoke a language like German, Slovak or Hungarian that I'm not familiar with.

In reality, I think I've only forgotten to put a towel down once in a Slovakian sauna and the only person who issued a reprimand was my dear husband, who explained the rules of towels so I wouldn't get confused again. On the other hand, I've watched Radek get shooed out of an Austrian sauna to a chorus of loud boos after he mistakenly entered the sauna during a "red" light period when the doors weren't supposed to be opened. Although I was mortified, he laughingly shook off his expulsion and went straight back into the sauna once the "green" light was issued. I pretended I didn't know him until we got safely out of the spa.

Yet in our most recent spa experience, neither of us committed any striking blunders although afterward Radek confessed that he tried to manually operate the steam device in the Finnish sauna only to discover, belatedly, that it was on a timer. Luckily, he was in the sauna by himself, so he didn't have to explain his mistake. Still, even though I've come a long way from the first time I visited a steam room with my mother-in-law, only to have her promptly take her top down and encourage me to do the same, I felt more insecure on this particular trip than I had in recent years.

Up to this point, although we've visited spas, they've always been a side attraction to a different type of sporting trip, usually a few hours diversion after a day of skiing, hiking or biking. Although I've been on a yoga wellness retreat with some girlfriends which involved a visit to the resort's spa, Radek and I have never booked a weekend stay at a spa resort where our primary responsibility was to relax and enjoy the spa. Adding a twist to my comfort level on this particular trip was the fact that I'm currently seven months pregnant.

Navigating spa culture while pregnant seemed an entirely different ballgame than working my way through a spa visit not pregnant. Although I knew I'd be limited by the activities that I could safely participate in (i.e. no steam baths and no hot saunas), I didn't know if there were any special regulations for a pregnant woman about bathing, and I didn't really want to have to ask to find out. I wasn't too wild about showing my naked belly, particularly with its large scar from my appendectomy while pregnant with Oliver, but I resolved to be brave.

In preparation for the trip I'd purchased a two-piece pregnancy bathing suit, called a "tankini" on the American website where I ordered it. The bathing suit was a two-piece, but the top had a large tent-like flap that hangs down over my pregnant stomach. When I modeled the swimsuit for my mom and Radek in Prague, my mom admired the pattern and the modest way it fit, while Radek offered no comment. My mom had critiqued my bikini-wearing at a spa over New Year's in the Czech Republic, so I knew she was happy to see my belly nicely covered. Pleased about having something new to wear, I didn't pay much attention to Radek's silence at the time.

However, later when I told a few girlfriends in Prague that I had a special bathing suit for pregnancy, they laughed. Isn't that what a bikini is good for, they chided me, why would you need to cover up your belly? I had a sneaking suspicion that Radek would agree with them, and when retold the story just before putting on the suit at the resort, he laughed and said, "See, I told you. You should just wear a bikini. You look like you're 50 years old." Having not thought to bring my old bikini, I was stuck wearing the tankini, feeling self-conscious to the point that I actually was looking forward to taking off my clothes and being naked. To that end, I managed to roll the tent part of the suit up into the top, creating a make-shift bikini that immediately met my husband's approval and gave my self-confidence a boost.

Apart from feeling awkward that I was the only big-bellied person at the resort, I actually enjoyed the experience of going without clothes while being pregnant. Wearing the robe through the hotel to the afternoon snack, I felt remarkably free without my shirt stretched tight over my elastic-banded pregnancy pants. Although I skipped all the treatments except for the mineral pools, which were cool enough to be pregnancy friendly, I thoroughly enjoyed relaxing without clothes in the relaxation room while Radek tried various saunas, so much so that I actually fell asleep.

I still wasn't quite sure where to train my eyes when nude bodies walked past, but just as on other spa trips, I realized that all the people around me were more concerned with relaxing or rehabilitating their bodies than they were with checking out anyone else's. I did notice a few people glancing at my belly when I had on the bathrobe, but Radek assured me it was because it looked like I'd smuggled a basketball into the resort rather than because there was anything amiss with seeing a pregnant woman at the spa.

Since returning to Prague, I've had several nostalgic thoughts about our spa weekend. Once the new baby arrives this June, I'm not sure when we'll next be able to escape for another weekend on our own without out the three kids. I'm glad that I had the chance to enjoy some relaxation and even more, that I pushed myself to be comfortable in yet another new situation. Modesty aside, the experience certainly made me excited for my next non-pregnant spa trip.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.