Germany, I always thought, is a land that upholds traditionalist attitudes, reveres conservative thought and possesses a somewhat restrained attitude towards the 21st Century (just try paying for anything here with a Visa card and you’ll know what I mean.) As an English person whose upper lip is definitely on the stiffer side, I felt like the Germans and I were a match made in a reticent Heaven; calm, introverted, private – all adjectives I felt summed up me and my adopted homeland, and made us the perfect partners.
So imagine my horror yesterday when I was casually strolling through the famed Englischer Garten in Munich, enjoying some bank holiday sunshine, and I saw a middle-aged man sunbathing on the grass, COMPLETELY NAKED. I averted my eyes in alarm, but not before I accidentally got a good look at his Prince Albert piercing (two words, ouch, and wtf?) I hadn’t taken more than five steps in the other direction, rubbing my wounded eyes, when I almost tripped over a second naked man, lying as inconspicuously as a completely naked person can be, doing a crossword in the buff. Where does one look when there’s a penis unexpectedly sunning itself a few metres away? And more to the point; was it wearing sunscreen? Further along was a third offender, and this guy was a real show-off – he was standing in all his fleshy glory in the middle of the busy pathway, accessorising nicely with an iPod and some headphones, tapping his unshod foot to the music, and letting everything else sway to the beat. Before anyone gets over-excited, I should add that he was around fifty and George Clooney wouldn’t be worried. As I looked about me, confused, I saw more and more wrinkly old bums, some of them contained within groups of perfectly normal, fully dressed people. Did I miss something? Was this a charity thing like the naked bike ride in London, or had I consumed too much beer in the Brauhaus earlier? Who says to his mates, let’s go and play badminton in the park and just to warn you, I’ve forgotten to put my clothes on this morning?
This, apparently, is what the Germans affectionately call ‘FKK’, or Freikörperkultur – free body culture. It’s all about being at one with nature, at one with your nude self, and enjoying the freedom of being without your clothes in a public place. The first FKK club was founded in 1898, and the movement has been taking people’s clothes (and arguably, their dignities) ever since. I’ve never thought of myself as a puritan – I’ve always been an advocate for topless sunbathing on the beach (nobody needs diagonal tan lines after all!) But I could never understand why people felt the need to tan their private bits – or worse, to burn them. And the thing that I find really hard to fathom – coming, after all, from a country with quite strict laws around nudity in public places – is that it is not only perfectly acceptable but also completely legal to be butt arse naked in the middle of a city park where people are playing football and kids are feeding the ducks. Or to go on a nice long ramble in the Alps wearing just your hiking boots. Because apparently, they do that, too.
It’s not only the FKK that embraces the naked form in Deutschland, either. Saunas here operate on a strict nude-only policy. Now I’m not shy in the women’s changing rooms and I don’t really care about being naked (within reason), but I don’t need to sit in a mixed-sex sauna in my birthday suit with a bunch of sweaty strangers who are in their birthday suits as well. I mean – where do you look? Do you all sit there staring at the floor, or at that sand timer on the wall, counting down the grains of sand until you can escape and put your pants back on? There’s something about being in a confined dimly-lit space with lots of hot naked people that makes this reserved British girl feel uncomfortable (and I don’t mean hot like Brad Pitt, which would potentially change my view). And then imagine the horror of bumping into someone you know – like your bank manager or your dentist. That awkward moment where your eyes meet and you have to acknowledge one another and then your naked dentist asks your naked self if you’re still having trouble with that upper molar. I don’t need to see that much of any of those people, thank you very much. I wouldn’t be able to have a serious conversation about my mortgage ever again!
I appreciate that FKK and saunas were around before I was around and who am I to criticise, anyway. Nobody is forcing me to be naked in the Englischer Garten, after all, and I’m sure most nudists would agree that I’m the one with the issue. I’m at ease with that. One year of embracing German culture isn’t going to balance out more than thirty of being an English prude. But as far as culture shocks go, the old man with his Prince Albert piercing is way up there at number one, and I wish that my eyes had a delete button for the things I’d like to ‘unsee’!