I've been in Holland for three years now and I am still getting used to many aspects of life here. The main one being the complete disregard by the Dutch for proper bathroom facilities.
This is the tallest race in Europe, yet they have the tiniest bathrooms you have ever seen. In fact bathroom is a bit of a misnomer: you get a toilet, a shower and if you're lucky a sink squeezed into the kind of space you'd normally store your vacuum cleaner in.
Anyway, last week I was feeling the onset of a cold and the aftermath of one whisky too many, so I decided a trip to one of Amsterdam's famous saunas was in order. I wasn't daunted; I mean I had been to a sauna before, at my local swimming pool. I checked my guidebook carefully to make sure I didn't end up in one of those saunas, you know where nice young men go to ...er... meet other nice young men?
But I soon found what I was looking for. "One of the oldest and most beautiful saunas in Amsterdam", the book said, " stunning art deco design and a relaxing atmosphere, catering for both men and women". Without further ado, I packed my swimming costume and towel and headed off into the wind and rain.
And the place was exactly as promised - tasteful, decadent even, with ornate windows and statues, leafy plants and gentle music wafting through the mirrored corridors. I was given a locker key, directed to the changing room, and promptly walked headlong into a six-foot-something, entirely naked man. "Oops! Sorry" I giggled and bundled out, looking for the ladies. But there was no ladies. Nope, just the one changing room. So I endeavoured to look cool and collected as I went back in, averted my gaze from the now-laughing naked man, took a deep breath and took off my clothes. It was apparently not the sort of place that bothered with swimming costumes.
There is obviously a kind of unwritten rule, to show that it's not that sort of sauna, that no-one looks you in the eye, smiles at you, talks to you, or heaven forbid looks at your bits. How they do it, I'll never know. All I could do was stare. Not in a lascivious way, you understand, but just out of curiosity. Never before had I seen so many different shapes and sizes of naked bodies all ignoring each other. Particularly interesting were the older men, the more rotund of form, who reclined artfully in the sauna, legs akimbo, arms behind the head, as if to say "Look at me, I'm not bad for my age am I?" Too much information. I mentally crossed sausages off the list for tea.
Yet more bizarre was the relaxation area, lined with beds in case the sight of all that naked flesh proved too exhausting, and peopled with customers reading papers and enjoying coffee and a toasted sandwich. Surprisingly, there was no sign anywhere saying "Caution, fillings may be hot!" Which I thought was a bit remiss.
Once I had steamed every ounce of badness from my pores, I got dressed - a little regretfully I have to say. I felt like a different person naked - devil-may care, inhibition-less, carefree. It was back to the cold, clothed world. The view is not quite as interesting, but at least you're less likely to be put off your dinner.
copyright Kathy Clugston 2005