The downtown YMCA reminds me of a European sauna

An Odessa beach on the Black Sea

I love the downtown YMCA in Lincoln.  It’s unpretentious and full of colorful people. It has good equipment and the staff are always friendly.

But man, those old naked women standing around in the locker rooms.

They just kill me.  I’ve gone to a variety of gyms in Lincoln over the years, The Racquet Club, Sports Courts, 5 Willows (for a month or something, while they were briefly operating,) Jazzercise facilities, and my other favorite, The Goodyear Gym in Havelock.

None of them even remotely compare to the total disregard of modesty that I see on a daily basis in the locker rooms at the downtown YMCA.  People at the Y love standing around naked while talking to their friends, doing their hair, texting someone or re-arranging their lockers.

Though I would welcome seeing fewer naked old women on a daily basis, it’s also pretty hilarious, and really reminds me of saunas, gyms, bath houses, and beaches in Europe.

Russian sunbathers on the beach at Jurmala, Latvia

I’ve been to saunas in Germany, Poland, Hungary and Ukraine, and been swimming on beaches, rivers and in lakes in several more European countries.

Dresden, Germany’s coed naked sauna was the wildest. I was so surprised when I first walked into the sauna room I turned around and walked back to the women’s locker room—I thought I’d just walked into the men’s changing area.  A guy who worked there pointed me back into the sauna, where my friend’s friends I was staying with were already waiting.  I donned a towel basically the whole time, but I was one of the few.

The friends I was with acted totally normal about the whole thing but I had a hard time even making a conversation, I was so distracted and giggly.  Not only were people lounging around totally naked in a public place, they were also drinking.  The sauna in Dresden included a bar!  As if a “European sauna” could get more cliche.

I was chatting about this to a German girl in Omaha a few weeks ago, asking if all saunas in Germany were like that.

“Yes, it’s the proper way to do it!” She said.  “You know, Europeans see sexuality the way you see violence in society.  It’s just normal and accepted.”

That is a broad statement of “Europe” in general, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard a European comment on prudish American attitudes, compared to the prevalence of violence.  It’s a strange comparison, but is not unwarranted.

Outside the Turkish baths in Budapest

Europe is just more chill.  The first experience I had in a sauna-like setting was in Budapest, Hungary in 2007.  It was the first time I’d been abroad, and my cousin Rachael and her friend Stephanie invited me on their Thanksgiving-European adventure. Budapest was our first stop, along with their famous Turkish baths, filled with natural hot spring water.

It was a time when I was still reading guide books for basic information, and Rick Steves had given us a very detailed list of how to get from the entrance of the bath to the changing room, into the sauna.  It turned out to be a complicated process, as using basic services in post-communist countries often are, and I remember getting yelled at multiple times by large Hungarian men for wandering around the men’s changing room, and walking somewhere with shoes on.

We went to the bath at Gellert Hotel, and opted for the coed swimsuit area, which was absolutely packed with old Hungarian men in speedos.  It was prime people-watching.

Saunas and Swimming in your undies

This is also pretty normal in Europe.  On one of my trips to L’viv, Ukraine last fall I ended up having to go the undie route because I didn’t bring a swimsuit, and nobody batted an eye.

Probably this is because I was still one of the more conservatively-dressed patrons of the sauna, which was inside a modern gym in L’viv.  The sauna itself was really nice, and had several different rooms depending on your taste, including Finnish and the classic Russian banya, where you lie down and get lightly beaten with birch leaves.

And it is totally normal for woman of every age in many parts of Europe to assume that a bra is the same thing as a swimsuit top.  If you don’t believe me just take a walk around the Vistula River in central Krakow in good weather and take a look at the lounging masses of half-clothed people soaking up the sun.

I remember seeing this along the Vistula out in Piekary, the village where I taught English at several summer camps.  After class I’d take a walk or a run out through the fields along the river and see old Polish men in really short shorts, sitting with a fishing pole and a beer.

Vistula river from the monastery at Tyniec

Whenever I’m outside around water and people in bathing-wear in Europe I feel like I’ve been transported back to the 60s, because of what people are wearing.  It’s the coolest feeling.  People are oblivious and unpretentious.

My last trip to a European beach was in Sopot, Poland, on the Baltic Sea.  I went with my American friends Christi Anne and Justin, after Christi Anne and I had taught a week-long summer camp in Ukraine, then an exhausting 2-week long summer camp in Poland.

Even though it was almost too cold to lay out on the beach, I went for undie sun-bathing. It wasn’t the first time though–that was in Trakai, Lithuania, with our hippy CouchSurfing hosts who didn’t have a shower.  But we did have a lake! Now that’s freedom.

Balkan beats

Dancing at Zinger with Marcin's Polish parents

One of the great cultural experiences I had while living in Central/Eastern Europe, time and time again, were the candle-lit bars turned clubs around 1am when the Balkan, Klezmer and Gypsy music turns the place into an alternate universe.

I’ve yet to find any place in the States that compare to the dimly-lit meccas of friends, booze and wild table-dancing.  Often, I’d go home when the sun was rising, from Zinger, Blind Eye [in Prague,] Piękny Pies, and other wonderfully hedonistic spots.

I loved these places, particularly Zinger, because I became entirely entrenched in another world.  The bohemian decor, candle-lit wooden tables, surly bartenders, and the piano that I once played very late on a Wednesday night, makes you forget that you actually do have a normal life, that you haven’t always been there and that the sun will, eventually come up.

Zinger in the morning, a quiet cafe with my friend Paul

So many times I remember thinking, while dancing shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the crowd, as the sun peeked through the windows,

“This must be the end of the world.”

So I invite you to hear some of the following sounds of Eastern Europe, even if you can’t dance to them in the old Jewish district until the wee hours of the morning (click on link to play.)

Boban I Marko Markovic Cinnamon Girl [Super fun mix of genres, with a great Balkan beat, would be typical of Zinger and Blind Eye]

Goran Bregovic Mesecina [Zinger played a lot of Goran Bregovic, his stuff was great to dance to]

Czeslaw Spiwa Maszynka do Swierkania [The video to this song is a pretty decent example of the type of insane bars there are to party in, in Krakow]

Ukranian Gypsy band, Burdon [I saw this band play in L’viv last Spring and was nearly weeping they were so fantastic live.  After seeing them, I often heard their songs played in bars around Central and Eastern Europe.  This is a beautiful example of Gypsy music]